Library Films’ Chris Smith, the filmmaker behind projects such as “Bad Vegan” and “100 Foot Wave,” is directing the documentary about the star of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and “Young Frankenstein,” which will be told through the perspective of Jordan Walker-Pearlman, the late actor’s nephew and a filmmaker in his own right.
The documentary is produced in association with Sobey Road Entertainment, Harlem Hollywood and Mojo Global Arts. White Horse president and partner Nicholas Ferrall and partner Cassidy Hartmann will produce alongside Smith and Sobey Road’s Andrew Trapani. White Horse partners Nigel Sinclair and Jeanne Elfant Festa serve as executive producers alongside Mojo Global Arts’ Morris Ruskin and Joseph Mellicker. Joey Scoma will serve as editor and John Keller as co-executive producer.
“Wilder” came to White Horse via Trapani who knew Walker-Pearlman. The latter visited his uncle, married to “SNL” star Gilda Radner from 1984 until her 1989 death, at every film set until his 2016 death and had previously turned down several offers to participate in documentaries about him. The documentary follows Wilder’s journey from neurotic outsider, to leading man, to an artist searching for meaning on and off screen.
“To trust other filmmakers with something as sacred to me as my relationship with Gene was not easy, but working with Chris Smith, White Horse Pictures and Andy Trapani has been an incredibly organic experience,” says Walker-Pearlman. “I look forward to seeing Gene’s inner spirit shine on screen for what I hope will be his final great performance.”
For White Horse, “Wilder” is the latest step in a journey that began in 2014 when producers Nigel Sinclair and Guy East, whose credits included Martin Scorsese’s “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” and “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan,” stepped away from their co-chair positions at Exclusive Media to form the company.
At White Horse, the approach is what they describe as “collegial,” a horizontal relationship where all four of the Los Angeles-based partners — Sinclair, Ferrall, Elfant Festa and Hartmann — are involved in all the projects, with one person in the lead. “We all get involved, led by the director, and we all give our thoughts and basically the film becomes like a statue that you’ve got the rough outline of, and now you’re chiseling away, making it perfect.” Sinclair told Variety. “Our system allows us each to bring our individual strengths to every project, and every project is able to benefit from that,” adds Hartmann.
This approach has led to resounding successes including Ron Howard’s “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years” (2016) and “Pavarotti” (2019), Roger Ross Williams’s “The Apollo” (2019), Frank Marshall’s “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” (2020) and Amy Poehler’s “Lucy and Desi,” which bowed at Sundance earlier this year.
“Our team building skills enable us to build a family of partners in each respective film, which then serves the director, and the director’s vision of the film,” says Elfant Festa. The directors are in agreement. For example, Elfant Festa made a discovery that transformed “Lucy and Desi.” “Directing ‘Lucy and Desi’ has been an incredibly fulfilling journey for me, and White Horse Pictures brought their expertise into every situation on the project,” says Poehler. “In particular, the discovery of Lucille Ball’s personal audiotapes by Jeanne helped define the narrative approach and allowed Lucy to tell her own story.”
The White Horse team’s “single-minded commitment to story and excellent creative instincts,” as Marshall describes it, brings filmmakers back for more. “When Nigel brought ‘The Beatles: Eight Days A Week’ concept for me to direct, it was an opportunity to tell a new kind of story around a group of artists I absolutely loved and revered,” says Howard, who also served as an executive producer on “Lucy and Desi.” “We had an incredible partnership and creative collaboration on that film and then again on our follow up doc ‘Pavarotti.’”
White Horse has an as-yet-untitled Billy Preston documentary in the works alongside “Shari and Lamb Chop,” about beloved ventriloquist Shari Lewis and her popular sock puppet Lamb Chop. The company is also moving into narrative features with “The Queen Mary,” the first in a trilogy of horror films inspired by the hauntings on-board the infamous ocean liner, which is in post.
“We need to take the viewer on a journey of discovery. And it’s really about us discovering what the project is about and what matters and not coming in with preconceived notions,” says Ferrall.
CAA Media Finance and White Horse are repping the rights for distribution.