Moral wave cinema: Director Sean McNamara
by Brian Gillogy
Director Sean McNamara has two feature films scheduled for release this year. So last August, he took advantage of a break in his schedule to leave his Manhattan Beach Studios office for a trip with his family to Kauai, where they attended the wedding of pro surfer Bethany Hamilton to youth minister Adam Dirks. McNamara told Hamilton’s inspirational story in his 2011 breakout movie “Soul Surfer.”
In 2007, McNamara was an in-demand director at Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, working on the “tween” series “That’s So Raven” and “Even Stevens,” and helping launch the careers of rising stars Shia LaBeouf and Jessica Alba. He was also beginning production on “Soul Surfer” and getting advanced press due to the compelling, real-life story of the surfer girl who had returned to the pro circuit after losing an arm to a tiger shark in Hawaii.
Hamilton entrusted him with her story in part because he surfs.
The movie went on to do respectable box office ($44 million on a budget of $18 million), but was criticized by some for its Christian themes and overt appeal to “Faith-based” groups. McNamara regards that criticism as unwarranted, noting that the movie found a crossover audience.
“I think it had only eight ideas about God in there, and she happens to be a Christian girl. It’s really a good story for everybody,” he said.
He describes his latest film “Hoovey” as “‘Soul Surfer’ on a basketball court.” It’s the true story of Eric “Hoovey” Elliott, a high school hoops prodigy from Normal, Illinois, who overcomes a brain tumor and returns to the game and wins a championship. Like “Soul Surfer,” the central character draws on his Christian religion for comfort and strength. McNamara’s co-producer on the movie, Dutch Hoffsetter, was also instrumental in bringing “Soul Surfer” to the screen.
“I think with the success of `Soul Surfer’ and other recent Faith-based movies, Hollywood has identified a market for Christians who want to see films about their faith. I’m Catholic. I went to 16 years of Catholic school, so I kind of know that audience,” McNamara said.
McNamara’s other, recently completed film is “Field of Lost Shoes.” It is the story of a group of young cadets from Virginia Military Institute who help delay the advance of the Northern troops during the Civil War.
“I cannot imagine ever sending my sons to war, that these sweet souls could ever be in the line of fire. So I thought I’d better explore this subject. It’s basically a war movie from the point of view of these young Southerners. Brothers fought against brothers. Students argued with students about slavery and secession. The sides weren’t well defined geographically. But it didn’t matter what side you were on. Each side thought they were right.”
Ten of the 257 cadets, under the command of former U.S. Vice President John Breckenridge, lost their lives at the Battle of New Market Virginia. The movie honors their passion rather than their politics, McNamara said.
His enthusiasm for the story is matched by his admiration for the movie’s cast of newcomers.
“This new group of kids is going to be the Shawn Penns and the Tom Cruises of tomorrow. They are so talented and so good looking and it’s just great to be around that. And yet they have fears and they’re not sure how they’re performing, if it’s good or not. They don’t even know what they have, they’re so good. I just get to be there to adjust their performance.”
While some directors can be annoyed by junior thespians just getting their bearings, McNamara, after all these years, still finds the work invigorating.
“They definitely keep me young. I experience their music, their conversation, and I almost forget that I’m older than them. At heart, I’m 18 again.”
“What I love is they have pure hope that things will happen. It’s a gift…that by just believing something can happen you can help make it happen. They may have doubts, but failing is not an option. `I’m going to do this, I’m going to be a rock star, I’m going to be an actor.’ That sort of thinking is infectious, that anything’s possible.”
McNamara’s own optimism extends beyond the personal to what he sees as the inevitable growth of Faith-based genre.
“When I joined Disney in 1999 kids shows were okay. By 2005 they, had become a billion dollar industry. The sitcom writers of ‘90s came over, so the writing improved. They got better directors and actors, so the quality of the shows went up. I think that can happen with the Christian market. You start with a strong story, attract better writers and directors, and the films will get better.”
McNamara’s next project is “La Vida Robot.” While not a Faith-based movie, it also has a strong moral undercurrent. Based on an article in Wired Magazine, it’s the true story of four undocumented Hispanic boys from Carl Hayden High School in Arizona who beat a team from MIT to win a major underwater robotics competition. When one of them tries to enlist in the Army he is threatened with deportation.
“No matter what you think of the Dream Act or immigration reform, this story will get people talking,” McNamara said.
Despite his focus on message and story, McNamara does not dismiss the high-octane summer blockbuster as fodder for the masses.
“I saw “2 Guns,” where Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg shoot `em up and rob banks. It’s hip. It’s hot. It’s great moviemaking. But I feel my job is to provide some opposite (themes) that are inspiring. I’m not saying that they should stop producing the big-budget action movies. We just need to make sure there are other directors out there making films that showcase the human spirit, so that we have a choice.”
That ambition has set him on the path of bringing the epic Irish historical novel “Trinity” by Leon Uris to the big screen.
“I just got my Irish passport, because all my grandparents are from Ireland. Being Sean Patrick McNamara, I just love Irish history.”
And what about his salt water roots?
“Surfing clears my head and is a huge metaphor for life. Life keeps bringing these big, crashing problems. You go over them, you go under them, or do you just turn around and ride with them. And if you can, you stand up and have a little fun while you’re going. `Soul Surfer’ was one of the best rides in the world. Right now I’m paddling back out to get the next wave.”