Bestselling author Robert Whitlow and filmmaker Gary Wheeler discussing bringing Whitlow’s The Trial to the screen
By C.J. Darlington

When attorney Robert Whitlow was growing up, he had no ambition to be a novelist. He only realized he wanted to be a lawyer in college. But almost fifteen years ago an idea for a story came to him while driving—it became his novel The List, the first of his books to be made into a movie by North Carolina producer/director Gary Wheeler of Level Path Productions.

Now Team Whitlow/Wheeler have come together again to make a movie based on Whitlow’s second novel, The Trial (Thomas Nelson). But how do you distill a 400-page novel into a 90 page script without losing the story’s essence? “We asked ourselves, What’s the story we want to tell?” Wheeler shares. “Robert wrote the novel years ago, and the element of dealing with grief was just a portion of the novel. But we realized that was what the theme of the movie was going to be.”

There’s a reason they chose that theme. “Two-and-a-half years ago our daughter-inlaw died of leukemia,” Whitlow says. “She was pregnant with our first grandson, and we lost both of them.”

Add Wheeler: “What Robert thought he knew about the grief process, he basically had to walk through with this. What he learned was that grief is like a river. Those lines from the movie that really aren’t in the book, that’s what he learned about grief through this tragedy.”

“It’s a collaborative effort,” Whitlow says. “The rule we try to apply is if we come up with an idea or a little nuance, that I wish I’d put in the novel, it goes in the movie.”

Wheeler agrees. “Robert doesn’t hold his books precious. He believes in the power of film to transform. I’d say 80-percent of the movie is from the book, but that only represents about 20-percent of the novel.” A courtroom drama in the vein of Wheeler’s favorite film, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Trial is based on experiences Whitlow had early in his career. “There’s nothing like going into a courtroom when someone’s life has been taken, and somebody’s life is on the line,” Whitlow says solemnly. “It’s just inherently dramatic.”

In the case of The Trial, a young woman has been murdered and the accused—the last person to see her alive—has no memory of what happened. It’s up to attorney Mac Maclain to fight for the life of his client. He’s also fighting for his own will to live in the face of losing his wife and son in a car accident that happened while he was behind the wheel.

A fight was in store for the filmmakers, too. Wheeler’s first choice for the actor to play Mac—Matthew Modine—wasn’t available during the casting process because he was doing a play. Then, two weeks before they were supposed to begin shooting the movie, the financing fell through.

It took six months to re-raise it. Eight days before filming was to start again, the part of Mac still wasn’t cast—but God provided in the eleventh hour: “The next morning I woke up and we got a call from Matthew Modine’s agent saying he’d finished his play and was going to read the script,” Wheeler says. “Because of the delay when we lost our financing, Matthew was now available. He wrapped his play on a Sunday and was on a plane Monday to shoot on Tuesday.”

Overall, the goal of Wheeler and Whitlow is to make movies that are artistically excellent and spiritually powerful. “With The Trial we wanted to make a movie that ninety-nine percent of the audience would say was a great movie,” Wheeler says. “And then I hope the one percent of people who need help moving on from a place of pain and grief, who need a touch, will get it.” FF

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About The Author

Robert Whitlow is the best-selling author of legal novels set in the South and winner of the prestigious Christy Award for Contemporary Fiction. A Furman University graduate, Whitlow received his J.D. with honors from the University of Georgia School of Law where he served on the staff of the Georgia Law Review. A practicing attorney, Whitlow and his wife, Kathy, have four children. They make their home in North Carolina.