Values-based filmmaker Micheal Flaherty takes the road less traveled

Published: Saturday, Nov. 19 2011 1:00 p.m. MST

In a 2010 interview with The Integrated Catholic Life magazine, for example, Flaherty didn't correct the journalist talking to him when she assumed he's still a practicing Catholic. Instead, he spoke candidly and enthusiastically about the roles the saints and the Holy Mother have played in his life — the kinds of topics that would be anathema to most Evangelicals.

"We need a motley crew to change the world," Flaherty says of his belief in uniting believers of different faiths. This idea is an overarching theme gleaned from "Amazing Grace," a 2007 biopic film about the 18th century evangelical Christian and abolitionist William Wilberforce.

Flaherty says "Amazing Grace" is his favorite Walden project to date.

"Wilberforce partnered with all kinds of people, from what we would call the far left and the far right," Flaherty says. "He partnered with believers and non believers. He had companions for the common good (whom) he liked to call co-belligerents. If people could get together to be for something, or to fight against something, there was no end to what they could succeed in."

Reading matters most

While Flaherty is mostly known today for his movies, he's never stopped feeling the pull to help children who come from poverty. After college he worked in education public policy, and immediately prior to Walden he worked for the education-minded non-profit Steppingstone Foundation. He believes literacy is an integral component for properly educating America's youth, and that belief has even extended to affect the evolution of Walden Media — a company that first launched to produce feature films, but that now has its own imprint, Walden Pond Books, to publish approximately 10 fiction books per year aimed at readers ages 8-12. One of Walden Pond's first books, "Savvy" by Ingrid Law, received the coveted Newbery Honor.

Debbie Kovacs is Walden's vice president of publishing, and Chip serves as the publisher of Walden Pond Books. In 2006, both Flaherty brothers and Kovacs threw their weight behind an endearingly delirious idea: use a 150-word passage from "Charlotte's Web" to set a world record for most people reading aloud simultaneously. They set the date for the world-record attempt as Dec. 13 — two days before the theatrical release of the Walden film based on E.B. White's book.

To spur competition among children and schools in different regions, Micheal had Walden set up a website that displayed in real time how many people had signed up to participate by state, city or ZIP code. For the passage, he chose the scene where Wilbur the pig first meets spider Charlotte.

More than 600,000 people signed up for the event and attempted to participate at the same time on the specified day, but because of the high bar Guinness on-site for monitoring and verification of how many people had actually participated, less than half of the readers ultimately counted toward the final figure Guinness would recognize.

Ultimately, Guinness counted 223,363 readers at 909 venues simultaneously reading the "Charlotte's Web" passage — a record that still stands to this day.

Flaherty's passion for education reform in some ways eclipses his love for making movies. In fact, he considers fixing America's public education system to be his divinely appointed mission in life.

"In our Bible study, we're trying to figure out what is our true purpose," he said. "It's something that we've been talking about a lot. For me, in terms of the connecting of the dots … it's the idea that we still have two school systems out there — there's one for people who can afford it, and there's one for people who can't afford it. And the folks that can't afford it are largely poor and minority. To draw more attention to that inequality so that all kids can have more access to a fair and equal education, that's the thing that really drives me and where I see my purpose."

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