Bill Ewing is a film producer and author of End of the Spear. He is a former Senior Vice President of Production Administration for Columbia Pictures and has 30 years of experience working on over 100 studio productions including Awakenings, A League of Their Own, Men in Black and Men in Black II. His last project with Sony Pictures was Spiderman.
When Magazine: Did you start your career in the film industry as an actor?
Bill Ewing: I did for a few years. Then, I went into screenwriting after I worked on a movie with Dalton Trumbo.
WM: Did you take classes in screenwriting?
Ewing: I took classes, and you know Dalton Trumbo wrote Exodus and Spartacus, and he was one of The Hollywood Ten. He won the Academy Award in 1956 under the pseudonym of Robert Rick for Home of the Brave. He was one of the top screenwriters in the 50’s and 60’s in Hollywood.
WM: How fun to be connected to him.
Ewing: Yeah. I went to college and studied theater at the L.A.C.C., Cal State L.A. and U.C.L.A.
WM: Did you get a degree?
Ewing: No, I never got a degree, a couple of hundred hours or something. I always took what I wanted to take.
WM: You were learning because you wanted to learn something.
Ewing: That was pretty much what I did because I was very fortunate as an actor. I did a couple of series as an actor and then I started writing. And then, I was very fortunate that I got hired to rewrite, ghost write and polish.
WM: What series were you in? I’m certain I would have seen it.
Ewing: Oh no, you didn’t. You’re way too young.
WM: No I’m not.
Ewing: I did a series in 1972 for ABC; it was a Saturday morning kid’s show called Korg 70,000 B.C. Burgess Meredith narrated it and I played a Neanderthal man. I was also on a series called The Young Rebel in the late 60’s. Then, I did lots of episodic T.V.
WM: As a young elementary child, were you into fantasy, acting and writing?
Ewing: I wasn’t so much into writing until I went through the process in a feature called Johnny Got His Gun, with Dalton who wrote and also directed the movie. It was based on his 1939 novel. It was a fairly famous novel because it was probably one of the most fundamental elements that the house of un-American activities called him in on. It was a very strong anti-war statement. The story takes place in World War I. It’s very interesting if you get a chance to read it. It is written without punctuation. It is written as a stream of consciousness. What Dalton would have us do is write every night about the life of our character between scenes, so we would all know what the character experienced. He would have us write it and then we would come in the next morning and read it. It was just an incredible exercise. That is kind of what sparked my interest in writing.
WM: Were your parents supportive of your journey?
Ewing: Yes. They really were, and they had no prior knowledge or experience with show business ever.
WM: Were you raised Episcopalian?
Ewing: Yes, I was.
WM: You have been on so many films, when I look at the list, boy you covered just about everything, huh?
Ewing: Well it was pretty interesting, yes; it was kind of an interesting detour. I never imagined that I would become a production executive at a studio; it was just never, you know, it never crossed my mind. I just thought I would write, produce and make movies. Then this opportunity arose after I had co-written and produced two independent features. This opportunity came about when David Puttnam came over as chairman of Columbia Pictures and had produced Chariots of Fire, The Mission, and The Killing Fields. I really, really, really looked up to David as a producer. He was just incredible.
WM: Was that great work?
Ewing: It was great work. He talked a lot about the moral responsibility we have as filmmakers influencing culture around the world by the stories we tell.
WM: That is so true.
Ewing: Yes, so true and interesting. I had produced two movies, had a decently successful career as an actor and a screenwriter. I had also produced two independent films and then in 1985 I was painting houses for six dollars and fifty cents an hour.
WM: You give me hope.
Ewing: Well there you go. This business is crazy. Here I am painting houses and I was like, if I’m going to be painting houses I don’t want to do it in L.A. I want to move to a smaller town and have a better quality of life. I had two projects that were in development at Columbia and my wife and I talked about it and I said, “If I have the opportunity to work at a studio where David Puttnam is chairman that would be just beyond belief for me. So if that happens in the next six months, great if it doesn’t, than I think we should think about selling the house and moving north to central California.” Real close friends of ours had moved up to San Luis Obispo. We had been up several times to visit them and we just fell in love with the area. I thought if I am going to paint houses I’ll paint houses up here. As it turned out, I got a call from a close friend of mine who was Vice President of Production at Columbia and he said they wanted to start a kind of low budget independent division. Since I had already done two independent movies and they didn’t know a whole lot about the independent world, would I be willing to come on board and start consulting for them, so I did. That was June of 1986 and then in November my friend was promoted to Head of Production, which left his position open. He asked if I would be willing to come on board with a two-year commitment and work on all of the Columbia movies including the independents.
WM: That’s just like the key to the golden city.
Ewing: It was just unbelievable, so I said “yeah, I’ll do that for a couple of years,” and two years turned into fifteen. I was at the studio from 1986 to the end of 2001. Then, I came out not quite knowing exactly what I was going to do. I was approached by a friend who bought a Max Lucado book called, “A Christmas Cross” and wanted to develop it into a T.V. Christmas movie. He asked if I’d be interested in directing it. I was like, “Tom, you mean produce it, I’m a Producer.” And he responded by saying he thought I should direct it. “But I haven’t directed a movie,” I said. And he responded by saying, “I know, but I think this is God’s plan.” I thought it was crazy, but I decided to go along with it until we found a real director. As it turned out, I ended up directing the movie that now plays on Lifetime at Christmas called the Christmas Child.
WM: Can you tell me the difference between a Producer and a Director?
Ewing: It’s very interesting that you are asking me this question at this time, because I thought I understood the difference between a Producer and a Director. As a studio executive I was in charge of lots of first time Director Movies such as Boys in the Hood by John Singleton. So I kept asking God, “What is this? This is kind of silly that I’m directing this movie at fifty-five years old and I have never directed anything before.” So this is kind of what God showed me in the process. Being the Director of a movie is like being the Mother of a child and being the Producer of the movie is like being the Father of a child. Now the father of the child has to take into account the health and welfare of the mother and the child where as the mother is solely interested in the child because the child is growing inside her. And you can’t have a child without a mother and a father, right? It takes a male and a female, that’s the way God set it up. In that same respect, the movie grows inside the Director and I truly did not understand that until I sat in the Director’s chair, and I went “Oh, this is what it is like to direct.” Now, no man will ever understand what it feels like to have a child inside them kicking and moving, but at the same time the father has to be concerned when all the mother’s emotions are going crazy and she needs that four pound box of candy, right now. The father has to say “No, I’m sorry; it’s not going to be good for you or the baby. So you can have a piece of that chocolate and that’s it.” And that is basically what God showed me. So the Producer has to be concerned with the fiscal responsibility, not that the Director isn’t as well, but that is not his primary concern. His primary focus is making sure how that film comes out creatively and that everything is running on all cylinders. The Director is the one that the department heads are interacting with, so that was the metaphor that God gave me when I directed that movie. Really it wasn’t about me directing the movie; it was about me directing the movie so I would be a better Producer for End of the Spears and understand what Jim was going through as a first time Director on this movie emotionally, because I had already birthed a child.
WM: When you walked away from Columbia you walked away fearless, not knowing you were walking to Every Tribe Entertainment?
Ewing: No I didn’t, nope.
WM: I figured you were walking away, but you were still kind of wondering what you were doing. Ewing: Nope, No, No. It was really God’s…. it was… (chuckles)
WM: God has a funny sense of humor.
Ewing: Oh He does. When God calls you it is always unconventional and it is always controversial. People would come to me and ask now that I had turned down a three year contract with a studio that wanted me, what was I going to do now, and I would simply say, “I don’t know. God hasn’t made it clear.” The interesting thing is I was getting offers and I would pray about them. They were really good offers with people and companies I liked. I would say, “This is it, Thank You Lord.” I would pray about it and receive no peace about accepting the offer. I couldn’t understand how these offers weren’t right yet. And then people would ask me again what I was going to do and I would say, “I don’t know. This guy in Tulsa was talking to me about directing this T.V. movie that he wanted to develop.” Their response was always “How many movies have you directed?” And I said “none.” It’s crazy. Then, I was helping these guys with a documentary they were doing based on a true story. They asked me how many documentaries I had worked on. None. I don’t particularly care for documentaries. I’m just trying to lend what I could to the process. They wanted to do a feature picture based on the documentary that they had raised ten million dollars in donations for. They asked me how many movies I had produced with ten million dollars worth of donations. None. It’s crazy! It’s all crazy. I’m not stupid, but these are the only things I’m working on and I’m not getting paid on any of them. There is no guarantee. There’s no money up for the Christmas movie, there’s no money to pay me for the documentary and there is nothing up yet for the feature film.
WM: Was your wife supportive of you? She didn’t think you were nuts for leaving Columbia?
Ewing: No, no, she was supportive. A year before my contract expired, the Lord put it in my heart that he was getting ready to move me. So this was not me, if you want to know the truth I wanted to stay at least another year because I wanted the Spider Man bonus. That’s the truth. I just wanted the bonus check because I knew it was going to be big, but it wasn’t God’s plan. I had read that scripture, “I will give you my peace that passes all understanding.” That’s great, but I never understood it, until I had it, if that makes sense. I had peace about a situation that I should have been freaking out about. I had peace and I didn’t understand why. It wasn’t like I didn’t need a job. My mother-in-law had been diagnosed with Alzheimer disease and my son was getting ready to go to college. It wasn’t like I didn’t have a mortgage and bills. No, I needed a job. So it was pretty interesting, but one of my accountability partners said “Here’s what you have to keep in mind, God is your provider. He will always provide for you. He may not provide everything you want, but he will provide everything you need. That’s his promise. He is your employer.” So I had this peace, which I had never had before and that was really interesting. I’m dependent on him. I’m not dependent on anyone else to provide for me. God is the one.
WM: Then you co-wrote, End of the Spear or did someone come to Every Tribe with the idea?
Ewing: No, no. Mark Green, my partner, is the one that God called to make this story a movie. When God called him he was a retailer from Oklahoma City. He was a man who had never seen a movie in a theater. He had seen movies before, but he was raised not to go in movie theaters. That’s a pretty radical kind of calling.
WM: Are you guys picking or having people submit things to you? I love this idea of the documentary and the movie together. It’s amazing!
Ewing: We separated because it was getting really confusing, so now we have a documentary division and that is Bearing Fruit Communications which is an ethical graphic media division. They do documentaries. Every Tribe Entertainment just does feature films.
WM: Are you going to connect the two, because my understanding was that for First the Spear there was a documentary and a movie on the subject?
Ewing: Right. Now what we do is we both develop projects related to four major global issues, those are Aids in Africa, Persecution in China, Violence in America, and the Muslim Issue. Those are the four issues that we have prayed about and that God has revealed. Now we need to find the stories within this frame work that we can build on to explore these issues.
WM: Where can I get this movie, End of the Spear? Is it in Blockbuster?
Ewing: Oh, yeah. Its in Blockbuster, Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com.
WM: You met the people that were involved in the controversy as far as the native people and you met the ancestor’s of the people that were killed. When you filmed in Panama, what did you walk away with? What did you walk away with after interacting with them?
Ewing: Here’s what’s amazing, God writes incredible and amazing stories through the lives of people who are willing to allow God to write the stories of their lives. What was so amazing was it was just as amazing on the South American side of the story as it was on the North American side. We relate to the five missionaries, the five heroes, or five men who were willing to lay down their lives and not shoot the natives that were spearing them. It was that act of sacrifice that lead to the transformation in the Waodani tribe that started them on the path to lay down their spears and choose not to spear tribes around them. Laying your spear down to a Waodani living in the Amazon jungle in Ecuador is equal to laying down your life. When you choose to do that you know that any moment some other tribe could come in and spear you to death, so that is an enormous thing to take away. Its one thing to experience forgiveness when something has happened and you fall victim to the cruelty of another human being and you say, “Okay, I’m going to forgive you.” Of course you never forget, it’s more like a you go your way and I’ll go mine type situation. It is another thing to reconcile to the point of becoming family and that is what has happened to the families of the missionaries and the Waodani. Those that committed the killings back in 1956 are now family. They have not just forgiven and gone on. We don’t have the capacity as human beings to do that. So when you’re able to be in that mix and experience that kind of reconciliation on that level, man it’s powerful.
WM: It had to be life changing on some level.
Ewing: Oh yeah. They are such amazing people. Those five women were incredible human beings.
WM: When you won the award, it must have felt pretty good knowing you were doing the work God set out for you to accomplish, and reaching people enough to be honored? It is really about the story getting honor, I know.
Ewing: That’s what it’s all about. It’s a movie. It’s a dim reflection of an amazing story that God wrote. So it is the story that is really important. It’s when you meet the real people who live it that you go, “Oh my Gosh, this is amazing! God has such perfect, perfect, perfect timing!”
INTERESTING ADD-ON FROM The 700 Club
Bill says that the amazing thing about filming in the jungle is that God is still the same. “You can be in the middle of 6,600 acres of rainforest, but God is still trying to reach each one of us.” He says that the movie is designed so that everyone can “dare to make contact” and bring their friends who are non-believers to the movie. For outreach information, please visit www.daretomakecontact.com.