Producer Rick Eldridge revisits The Ultimate Life in upcoming sequel

by Mark Burger

Producer Rick Eldridge was satisfied with The Ultimate Gift, the award-winning 2006 screen adaptation of Jim Stovall’s bestseller, which starred James Garner, Brian Dennehy, Abigail Breslin (who earned an Oscar nomination for Little Miss Sunshine the same year) and even Pat McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte and 2008 North Carolina gubernatorial candidate.

He gave no thought to a sequel. Yet The Ultimate Gift has had a life beyond its original release. It’s still perennially popular on cable and home video, and Eldridge estimates that the film has raised $20 million for charity since its release.

Author Stovall obviously felt there was more to tell, and with the success of his follow-up novel The Ultimate Life, so did Eldridge. The screen version of The Ultimate Life, directed by Michael Landon Jr., will open next Friday (Sept 6.) in selected theaters.

The Ultimate Gift was shot in South and North Carolina, mostly near Charlotte, and the sequel mostly in the Piedmont Triad region, thus retaining the Carolina connection.

“It felt like we needed to do it here,” he says.

At a special screening of the film held last month in Greensboro, Eldridge discussed his feelings about revisiting the characters and themes that made The Ultimate Gift so popular and about returning to North Carolina to make The Ultimate Life.

The state’s financial incentives notwithstanding, Eldridge believes that the region’s filmmaking talent is just as important an incentive. He’s happy to see “the amount of business and the amount of jobs created in the industry. These are great people to work with here and it’s a great place to work… [which is] very valuable in growing business.

“I can’t do every movie here,” he smiles, “but I come back as much as I can.”

According to the Internet Movie Database, the budget for The Ultimate Life was $3.1 million, certainly a low budget considering that much of the film is a period piece and that North Carolina doubled not only for rural Texas but also war-torn Europe. “We worked a lot of miracles,” he says.

As the CEO of the Charlotte-based ReelWorks Studios, Eldridge has produced feature films, animated shorts and features for family television, and even documentaries throughout his career. His credits include Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius (2004) starring Jim Caviezel

as the real-life golfer; Dog Days of Summer (2007), a drama directed by Mark Freiberger and written by Freiberger and fellow UNCSA School of Filmmaking graduate Travis Beacham (who recently penned Guillermo del Toro’s summer extravaganza Pacific Rim); The Perfect Game (2009) starring Clifton Collins Jr. and Cheech Marin; the awardwinning Trinity Goodheart (2011); and the documentary Running the Sahara (2007), narrated by Matt Damon and detailing Greensboro endurance runner Charlie Engle’s titular feat.

In 2010, however, Engle was sentenced to prison after being convicted of mortgage fraud. He was released in June 2012.

Now 50 and divorced, Engle has continued his career as a motivational speaker and, yes, he continues to run.

“Charlie went through some things,” Eldridge laments, but emphasizes that Engle’s legal and personal problems cannot diminish the remarkable, even inspirational, accomplishment of crossing the Sahara Desert.

Eldridge has long been drawn to stories of hope and inspiration, and The Ultimate Life is no exception. Both a prequel and a sequel to The Ultimate Gift, it continues the story of Jason Stevens (played this time by Logan Bartholomew), the grandson of oil tycoon Red Stevens (Garner’s character), as he manages his grandfather’s billion-dollar trust — which is being contested in court by his own relatives.

As Jason delves into Red’s past to learn what circumstances made him the man he was, he comes to a conclusion about his own present and future.

The Ultimate Gift remains Garner’s last film to date (he said it would be his last ever and has since been retired), yet he makes a reappearance in The Ultimate Life thanks to footage from the earlier film, thereby lending it a direct connection to the first film.

Lee Meriwether, Ali Hills and Bill Cobbs also reprise their roles in the new film, the latter again playing the sage small-town attorney Theophilus “Ted” Hamilton. Eldridge’s affection for the veteran actor for the obvious, as he notes that Cobbs can convey as much with a tilt of his head or a sidelong gaze as with his unmistakable voice.

When it comes to his future as a filmmaker, Eldridge’s ambition is simple: “I make the kinds of movies I want to make.”