At the lowest of lows, writer Randall Wallace '71 didn't know if he could survive much longer, financially or emotionally. "I always believed, and had been taught to believe, that I could do anything I wanted to if I tried hard enough," he says. "And I was trying very, very hard and I wasn't getting anywhere."

      But his perseverance finally paid off. His script about a heroic Scottish patriot who was executed in 1305 became the movie Braveheart, directed by and starring Mel Gibson. Now a prominent screenwriter in Hollywood--he's won a Golden Globe and earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay--Wallace no longer has to worry about making the mortgage payments or providing for his family. But the phenomenal success of Braveheart, and the attendant limelight it brought, hasn't altered his outlook on life and work.

      "When I was writing for television in the late Seventies, I made a lot of money but I hated what I was doing," he says. "I quit to write novels...and went through some hard times. I got so worried that it was difficult to sit down and write. Now, with the success of Braveheart, people ask me why I don't just cash out and buy a house in Montana or something. But my attitude is that if I won the lottery tomorrow, I would keep doing what I'm doing today. Because I love this."

      Even at Duke, where he was a religion major, Wallace knew he wanted to be a writer. His adviser at the time, divinity school professor Thomas Langford '54, Ph.D. '58, gave him some advice that rang true. "He said that for most professions, there are clearly defined pathways," says Wallace. "If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, you go to medical or law school. But people who become writers always do it in their own unique fashion. It's a matter of walking into the deep woods, and there are no maps. But you will find when you are in the woods long enough that you start to see the paths for yourself. And that was wonderful advice."

      After graduation, Wallace dabbled in song writing before landing writing jobs in television. Among his credits are the series Broken Badges, JJ Starbuck, and Sonny Spoon. Although these jobs brought financial reward, he says they left him feeling unfulfilled. He recalls sitting in conference rooms with producers and network development executives, who would scream at one another about story progression without consulting Wallace, the writer.

      During a self-imposed sabbatical, he wrote novels and eventually segued into writing screenplays. At an auction for his first screenplay, an adaptation of one of his novels, Wallace had several bidders. One company that had been outbid approached him, offering to buy his next two scripts sight unseen. His first effort for them was Braveheart, inspired by the story of Scotland's greatest hero, whose death galvanized the country's rebellion against England. (Wallace, who comes from Scottish background, had learned of the inspiring episode during a trip to Scotland in 1983.) Months after it had been completed and sent out, he got a call from his agent, who told him that Mel Gibson loved the script and wanted to discuss the project over breakfast.

      "The night before we met," says Wallace, "I walked around the neighborhood and prayed that I wouldn't make a god out of him. A movie star has the ability to raise tens of millions of dollars [by committing to a movie]. And they are treated literally as idols. It's an atmosphere dangerous to integrity, and getting caught up in it can make you willing--almost anxious--to sell your soul. So I prayed: Only God is God and no actor, executive, or anyone else holds the power of life and death--especially my life and death."

      At that meeting, Wallace told Gibson that every movie has a message, and that usually the message is "that the guy with the biggest biceps or the prettiest face or the greenest money is going to prevail. My movie says, if you're faithful to your heart, even if they cut it out of you, you will prevail, not just in this life, but in the next one. And that's the movie I want to make, and it's the movie I want my children to see. And I hope you want to make that, and if you do, great, and if you don't, then please say no."

      As we all know, Gibson said yes, and Braveheart garnered widespread popular and critical praise. Wallace has a number of other projects in various stages of development, and is looking forward to directing a movie of his own in the near future. But he still rises at 5:30 in the morning to write, a habit honed by years and years of practice.

      "Writing is an exercise of faith and of exploration," he says. "When I try to control the process, I don't write well, but when I say, it will be what it will be, that's when it works. I have to listen to hear the voices within me, and maybe even hear the whispers of angels.

      "When I was in school, I felt guilty because my classmates were going to live their lives for others. They were going to be missionaries and pastors, and hold the hands of the dying and preach sermons at country churches. And I was going to Hollywood. It seemed so incredibly selfish. My classmates told me I had talent and that I had to do it, but I still felt guilty. When Braveheart came out, I felt as though it was the purest sermon I could ever have preached, and people around the world have had a chance to see it."

--by Bridget Booher
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