While writing about “I’ll Fly Away’s” role in Greaterthemovie, I wondered if I might also be able to interview David Hunt, its Director and Co-Writer. Since we are both homeschooling families, we had something in common, and that gave me the courage to contact him. Even though Mr. Hunt had a hectic schedule, he made some time for me to interview him by phone. I truly appreciate the opportunity to write about him and more of the story behind Greater.
I started by asking David how he came to be involved with Greater. He recounted how Brian Reindl, the Producer, had approached the Burlsworth family eleven years ago about writing Brandon’s story, and with their permission he wrote the first script. In the beginning he looked towards Hollywood for financing and screenwriting, but they wanted to strip Brandon’s faith from the story. Deciding that it would be better if he financed it himself, he began to hunt for someone who could help him tackle this giant story. David Hunt had made a low-budget movie that was shown in some film festivals. Mr. Reindl happened to see it, and contacted him to talk about working on Greater.
David grew up in Northwest Arkansas and had some first-hand experiences with Brandon Burlsworth. As a youth, David’s All-Star Baseball team played against Brandon’s, and his last high school football game was against Brandon’s Harrison team. They attended the University of Arkansas at the same time and had friends in common. He remembered the excitement of the 1998 season, and the shock that radiated through the region as news spread of Brandon’s tragic death. Those first-hand memories gave David a unique advantage as a writer in retelling Brandon’s story. Brian Reindl took David Hunt on as co-writer about 4 1/2 years ago, and together they rewrote the script.
According to David, Brian was warned that actors wouldn’t want to be involved with the movie because the project didn’t have a major producer or director. In spite of that, Brian defended his selection of David. “We proved them wrong,” David said. “The actors responded to the story.”
David had a certain type of actor in mind for the role of Marty. He remembered that Neal McDonough had famously lost a television role because, in honoring his marriage, he refused to do an intimate scene with an actress. David wrote a personal letter to Neal, enclosing the script. While stuck in a traffic jam, Neal’s wife began reading the script to him and he became emotional. Neal responded to David’s personal contact and committed to Greater. Later he told David that he knew whoever wrote that script had to know what they were doing.
In speaking of Leslie Easterbrook, who plays the role of Barbara Burlsworth, David had worked with her back in 2004. He remembered her and contacted her directly as well. She loved the script and was instantly on board. David said he knew the role would bring out something he had seen in her. Although she didn’t have children of her own, she was maternal, and the role offered her a chance to play a supportive mother which was something she had not done recently.
There were some surprise cameos in the movie:
Houston Nutt appears early, unassumingly, as the custodian.
Frank Broyles recreates the announcement of hiring Houston Nutt as Head Coach.
Quinton Aaron, who played the lead in The Blind Side, appears briefly in the role of Coach Aaron.
The real Marty Burlsworth appears as a photographer and advises the character Marty to put his lens on.
I asked David if he felt inspired, or led by God, to make Greater. He decisively responded, “Yes.” He went on to explain that in the year prior to being contacted by Brian Reindl that he had undergone a process of studying philosophical issues of Christianity – the biggest of those was of evil and suffering. He felt like he had been divinely prepared for the core of Brandon’s story: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
David also said that the budget for Greater was about 1/5 of competing movies, very small for telling this story. There were many times that he felt like they were “bailed out from above.”
In talking about the casting, I wondered if God’s hand might have also been in that. Some scripts were sent out but never responded to. Later, when Neal McDonough came aboard, he told David that he thought many of the actors might not have ever seen the scripts. It had been during “pilot season” and their agents didn’t pass them on to them. Could God have been closing doors and opening windows?
We’re Just Too Small
Throughout our conversation, David spoke of his theological beliefs, and often as he spoke I remembered a scene from the movie where one of the characters said the same thing. So, for example, as he spoke of one of the themes, “we’re too limited to see day-to-day, how can we see the eternal picture?” I saw Barbara saying those things to Marty.
That theme is carried out in the movie when, during a game, Brandon refers to the coach in the press box where he can see the whole field. And again in the graduation scene where Brandon is able to see his father in the back because he is looking down, but from his position, Marty can’t see him. There are other references as well, but we’ll leave some surprises for you to discover. Brandon believed that there was a game plan.
I was eager to ask about “the farmer.” His craftsman explained that “he represents the inner dialogue of doubt that people have in hard times. The questions he raises are not easily dismissed, and they aren’t answered in the movie.” David warned that they were questions that Christians need to be able to answer before they are in a period of pain or trouble. He also disclosed that there were Christians who were uncomfortable with the farmer and advised them to cut him out.
Why did he choose a farmer? Like a farmer, the Devil plants and harvests, too. He takes his time tending to people before he finally reaps them. Notice that he whistles “Bringing in the Sheaves” as he whittles away at Marty.
I’ll Fly Away
Since I recently wrote about “I’ll Fly Away’s” role in Greater, I asked David if he could tell me about why it was chosen. He said that it was in Brian Reindl’s original script. Brian had heard it sung during the Bikes, Blues, and BBQ Rally, and thought it was appropriate. David agreed, so when they rewrote the script they expanded it’s role. It occurs many times in the film and toward the end there is a scene of Brandon driving home and listening to the radio. For this version they asked Bob Brumley to sing “I’ll Fly Away” while accompanying himself on a guitar. They wanted the recording to sound old-style, like an AM radio.
When asked about working with Bob Brumley in recording “I’ll Fly Away,” David said, “He was great to work with, down-to-earth and willing to do anything. We couldn’t ask for a better working experience.” Originally, Brandon sang along with the radio and that had already been filmed, so Bob was asked to play along with, and match, what was already on screen.
The scene of Brandon singing along ended up being cut. David explained the best he could that the cut just happened, because of what the film was. The decision was made to respect the story’s momentum, the way it came together.
Brandon Burlsworth Foundation
While researching for this post, I discovered that Brandon Burlsworth was born on September 20, 1976. He would have just turned forty years old. Through the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation his family is able to honor his memory by helping underprivileged kids through a variety of programs. “Do it the Burls Way,” was a saying coined by former Razorback coach, Houston Nutt, which meant to do it the right way, even when no one was looking. That saying became the foundation’s motto. For more information about the programs, scholarships, and awards offered, please visit the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation.
I always enjoy seeing God at work, and I’m struck by two things. The first is the timing of this article – the day after, what would have been, Brandon’s 40th birthday. The second is that the Bikes, Blues & BBQ Motorcycle Rally is this weekend in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Take the First Step
In talking about being chosen to work on Greater, David referred to Brandon’s belief that if he took the first step that other things would happen. I was really impressed with that in Brandon’s story, how he persisted despite setback after setback. It sounds like David Hunt and Brian Reindl had to have a similar determination in producing their wonderful movie. I couldn’t help but think about myself, too. If I hadn’t taken the step of contacting Mr. Hunt, I wouldn’t have had this amazing opportunity. Greater was an inspiration to me, and I feel sure it will inspire you as well. If you haven’t already seen it, please do.