This last weekend with "Furious Seven" shattering box office records, a few new films may have gotten overshadowed. Out new was the tenth romantic drama to be adapted from a Nicholas Sparks novel. This film, titled "The Longest Ride," is directed by George Tillman Jr. ("Men of Honor" and "Notorious"). In this exclusive interview with this incredible story teller, Tillman talks about making this film, his very special cast and the work he will be doing in the future.
"The Longest Ride," took third place at the box office, which is very good for its genre. Tillman commented on the news, "I've been in the game for about 20 years and I am always in second or third place. I am really happy people came out. It makes me feel that they respect my work, and I think, 'Cool, I make another movie again.'"
"The Longest Ride" has been compared to "The Notebook" (the first Nicholas Sparks adaptation and the most successful as well) and strangely the opening numbers for "The Notebook" were almost identical. Both films garnered a little over $13 million each in domestic receipts in their first week in theaters. Tillman was surprised by that fact, "well that's a good omen, I feel very happy about that."
With so many Nicolas Sparks adaptations out there Tillman spoke of the importance of keeping this film fresh, "I try to ignore what has happened in the past. As a filmmaker, I really like to make it my own. I want it to feel very natural and I know that audiences expect the chemistry between the actors to be good. I try to bring life itself, beyond the romance, to a place that feels organic and authentic."
Author Nicholas Sparks did visit the set of the from time to time, but he was very hands off when it came to the Tillman's work, "He came by a couple of times. He never asked any questions while I was directing. He gets more involved with the script and when the film is being edited.
"When he saw the film for the first time, he was really happy. I came in after the screening and he only had a few notes and I was expecting a lot."
"The Longest Ride" is a very different kind of film for Tillman and he's the first to admit it, "I just finished an independent film, 'The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete,' which I got to take to the Sundance Film Festival. Then I directed two episodes of the television series 'Power.' And after that I was called in from Fox 2000 and Marty Bowen (the producer) and I was surprised that they would even think of me for a romance. After reading the script I realized that even though the external parts are different from my other work, the internal parts of the film are really the same. I knew that shooting the bull riding aspects of the film would need to be done very creatively and that this would also help to stretch myself as a director."
Being from Milwaukee, Tillman commented that he had not seen rodeos or bull riding while growing up. To get ready for the bull riding sequences in "The Longest Ride," Tillman headed for Las Vegas and the 2014 Professional Bull Riding Competition, "I was able to walk around behind the scenes, see the shoot where the bull riders come out into the ring, hang out in the locker room and meet some bull riders. Then I met with Ty Murray, the hero of bull riding. I interviewed him and he gave me some really good advice and pointers.
"I really had a good time doing the bull riding sequences, but could never had done it without the bull riders we had on set. And ultimately, all this added to another layer to the romance."
"The Longest Ride," has a diverse cast. Along with the son of Clint Eastwood - Scott Eastwood (which has gotten the film a lot of attention), the film features the young and beautiful Britt Robertson. According to Tillman she was the first actor to be hired, "She was in a television series called "Swingtown" and I remember her from that. During her audition I was amazed at her abilities."
"Then we cast Scott Eastwood, we really wanted to make sure they had the right chemistry together."
Many have commented that Scott Eastwood looks a lot like his father, and it can be a little eerie sometimes. Tillman was able to see past how much he looks like Clint Eastwood, "I noticed it more during his audition, but after a while you forget about it. Sometimes, when he would say a line it was similar to his father. But Scott brought something to his performance that I have never seen from his father's earlier career - which is an incredible sense of vulnerability."
Having Alan Alda, an accomplished actor and director in his own right, was just the actor Tillman was looking for, "Alan Alda is awesome because he not only acts, but he directs. He was just the right guy to be a leader. It was awesome to work with him."
The beautiful and charming Oona Chaplin is the daughter of Geraldine Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin and great granddaughter of Eugene O'Neill, but it wasn't her heritage that got her a part in the film, "She has a different, yet striking beauty. I like her dark skin complexion. She has the right look for portraying a character in the past. I had no time to chat with her about her family history. Now that the film is over, I would love the chance."
Much like "The Notebook," this film weaves two separate stories into one. Tillman explained how this is done, "You have to pay attention to both stories as if they are one. What is different in this situation is that you cannot stay on one story too long. This is when editing because an integral part of the process. And no matter how good one story is, it can never let take over the main story. In the third act both stories need to merge seamlessly into one."
Tillman hired an incredible editor to work on his film. Jason Ballantine is from Australia and has cut two "Star Wars" movies and "The Great Gatsby."
"I like to ask the editor to have the story working in a three act structure and then I will sit down for the rest of the editing process," commented Tillman. "I wanted to work with Jason because he is young, determined and a fast learner. Especially for the bull riding scenes, I wanted someone that had a modern take, his style is what I really wanted to bring to the table."
So, what's next for this accomplished filmmaker? Tillman is completing a pilot for television called, "Love is a Four-Letter Word" and he will start work on a new film towards the end of the summer.
When asked what story he would tell if he had no restrictions, Tillman didn't go far from his own personal history for such a story. His father and his father's six brothers were all from the south. When they were young they all picked cotton for work. But each brother took to migrating north and Tillman would love to tell this rich story of change, reinvention and migration of his own family.
He giggled a little and said, "I hope Hollywood let's me make it happen someday."
"The Longest Ride" is rated PG-13 for some sexuality, partial nudity, and some war and sports action and has a run-time of two hours and 19 minutes.