Documentary filmmakers have to make people feel comfortable enough to really open up on camera, and then they've got to tell interesting stories with what they get from that interview. —Brad Barber, a BYU film professor
Greg Whiteley's life changed the day he took his video camera to a seedy Los Angeles pawnshop.
Whiteley is now an up-and-coming documentary director, but eight years ago he was just another young graduate student living in the L.A. area. The only reason he knew Arthur Kane is because both men attended the same Mormon congregation.
Kane, who appeared to be a middle-age burnout, survived on government disability, and those dire straits likely fueled an insatiable desire to regale friends with stories about his glory days as a rock star. Whiteley initially doubted the veracity of Kane's tales, but the aspiring filmmaker eventually confirmed enough details to know that his goofy buddy was in fact one and the same with the "Killer" Kane who played bass for the New York Dolls — an edgy and influential rock band in the early 1970s that Rolling Stone magazine included in its list of Greatest Albums of All Time.
The car-less Kane called Whiteley out of the blue one day in 2004 asking for a ride to the pawnshop so he could retrieve his bass guitar out of consignment. Whiteley quickly consented, but he had a request of his own.
"Do you mind if I film you getting it?" he asked.
The footage Whiteley shot that day of Kane retrieving a 4-string electric bass with sparkling-gold paint and white plastic pick-guard would become the seed for "New York Doll," Whiteley's directorial debut and a heartwarming documentary that played at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and quickly won widespread critical praise.
For all the places Whiteley could've caught his big break, it was at the L.A. pawnshop with two pink neon signs — "Cash" and "Loans" — hanging in the display window and ugly metal bars reinforcing the front door that his career truly started taking off.
Today Whiteley retains that same knack for storytelling that allowed him to parlay a pawnshop trip into acclaim. His career sits at a dramatic and exciting crossroads, because he's on the cusp of breaking through into scripted filmmaking. Above all else, Whiteley is the rare Hollywood insider who makes no bones about prioritizing faith and family over career concerns.
"You really can't have a better friend than this kid," said Walden Media co-founder and president Micheal Flaherty, the values-based media mogul whose company's films have grossed more than $2 billion in worldwide box office sales over the past decade thanks to such successes as "Charlotte's Web" and three "Chronicles of Narnia" installments. "He's entertaining, he's funny, he's always there and he's reliable.
"In life you occasionally meet people that make you say, 'Man, I wish I could see that person every day.' That's Greg."
Telling the story
Because they don't work from a prepared script, documentarians employ a specialized skill-set that is unique even within the broader medium of moviemaking.
"Documentary filmmakers have to make people feel comfortable enough to really open up on camera, and then they've got to tell interesting stories with what they get from that interview," explained Brad Barber, a BYU film professor who specializes in documentaries.
Barber knows Whiteley well from their time together working on "Resolved," the 2009 documentary about high school debate teams that netted both men an Emmy nomination. Whiteley wrote, directed and produced "Resolved," his first major project after "New York Doll." When he needed to bring somebody aboard to assist with editing and cinematography, he connected with Barber — then a graduate student at USC — through a mutual acquaintance.
Even though they had both completed undergraduate degrees at BYU and subsequently entered the specialized ranks of documentary filmmakers — "a small community in any town, even in Los Angeles," Barber noted — Whiteley and Barber did not know each other prior to that time. Nonetheless, the pair quickly bonded.
"From the first time we talked it seems like we had a lot of similar influences and really hit it off from day one," Barber said. "We found we had a lot of things in common and similar sensibilities."
Barber believes the defining characteristic of Whiteley's professional palette is his knack for telling stories.
"Because Greg's such a good storyteller," Barber said, "he's usually the guy everybody in the room wants to talk to."
In terms of high-visibility documentary projects, Whiteley has been in production for several years on a documentary about Mitt Romney's 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. However, Whiteley refused to comment on the progress of the movie or any aspect of its production.
Making the leap
Documentary filmmakers can walk the line and stick with low-cost documentaries, or branch out to the higher-stakes realm of scripted feature films. To hear Whiteley talk about that decision as it relates to his career, his intention to take the plunge into scripted features quickly becomes apparent.
"There are plenty of examples of people who've shown their chops in the documentary film world and then transitioned to the scripted world later on," he said. "I think my real skill lies in just being able to tell stories, and that translates into a lot of different mediums — and I certainly think it translates from the documentary world into the scripted world."
As a friend and mentor to Whiteley, Flaherty is very familiar with the director's capabilities. And as the president of Walden Media, it's no stretch to say the man knows a thing or two about spotting directorial talent that can transition to feature films.
"I think (feature films) will be a natural transition for Greg," said Flaherty, who is also a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board. "In my perspective it's all storytelling. With documentaries it's a much more difficult challenge to hold an audience's attention, and so I think that for Greg to have a chance to really shape and mold a script and be involved in developing a story, in my mind there's no question that he's going to be a great feature-film director."
Several times in recent years Whiteley has read through scripts of feature films for which he was under consideration to be the director. But to date, nothing has generated the kind of mutual interest such that Whiteley wanted to work on a project that also wanted him as its director.
"Ultimately Greg and I both want to do narrative filmmaking together," said Rod Santiano, who has been the cinematographer on several projects helmed by Whiteley. "I was under the impression that he just doesn't have the opportunities, but he gets scripts frequently and is always turning them down because they just don't live up to his standards of good storytelling."
Whiteley and Santiano are both working on an ongoing documentary project that delves into the late Catholic priest Henri Nouwen's powerful, faith-promoting book "The Return of the Prodigal Son," that meditates about the famous Biblical story.
Faith and family
As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who lives outside of Utah, Whiteley knows from firsthand experience that a lot of people have misconceptions about Mormons simply because they don't now anybody who is Mormon. By the same token, though, he revels in vanquishing anti-Mormon biases by simply allowing his ebullient personality to shine through.
"People have these perceptions about the Mormon church, and oftentimes they are a negative perception," Whiteley said. "If you go anywhere where people just don't know a lot of Mormons, they're going to attempt to put you in a box.
"But if it's a negative box, or there are negative connotations that go along with that, they quickly melt away as soon as they get to know you. … All you have to do is hang out with any member of the LDS church for five or 10 minutes and there will be probably a number of Mormon stereotypes that will be questioned."
Whiteley lives in the Sacramento area with his wife, Erin, and their two children, ages 11 and 9. Years before the couple started dating, Greg caught Erin's attention with a speech he delivered at church.
"I was in the foyer and he was giving a talk (in the chapel)," Erin said. "I heard him over the loudspeaker, and I thought it was the best talk I'd ever heard someone give at any church. He's an amazing public speaker."
Whiteley and Flaherty speak frequently, and while the conversations usually commence on a professional bent it's not long before the topic turns to family.
"He's an awesome husband and an awesome father," Flaherty said. "When so many people in Hollywood love to talk about their latest projects, what they're working on, what they're hoping to get — that stuff is probably 50th on Greg's list, because Greg always likes to talk about his wife and his children."