THE ULTIMATE LIFE
Jason and Alexia
The Ultimate Life marks the reunion of author Jim Stovall and Reelworks' producer Rick Eldridge who were previously paired in the 2006 drama, The Ultimate Gift. "This film is unique," says Eldridge, "because it starts as a sequel, picking up a few years later, after Jason Stevens has taken over his grandfather's foundation. Through the course of things that happen to him, he becomes distraught. He is on the verge of losing his girl, the foundation, and the challenges that are facing him seem insurmountable. With the introduction of Red Stevens' journal, the film becomes a prequel and we learn about Red and his journey.
"The idea of Red's journal and the prequel came from a book by Jim Stovall called The Ultimate Journey, which is the third book in his The Ultimate series," explains Eldridge. "As we looked at The Ultimate Life, we saw that Jason was in a courtroom battle with his greedy family, and he's going to have to relive all the things that he learned in The Ultimate Gift. I thought it would be a great idea to tell that story a bit differently and see how Red learned the gifts. And as I read The Ultimate Journey, which centers around Red's journal, director Michael Landon, Jr. and I both liked the idea of using the journal to tell the history of who Red Stevens was and how he became what he was. As he writes in the journal throughout his life, we hear his thoughts. We hear his evaluation of life and where he's coming from. The journal is such a part of the story that it acts as another character in the movie.
"The journal begins in the '40s when a young Red Stevens is 16 years old. It traces his life, his journey, where he came from and many of the gifts that he learned through his mentors and the people who came his way as he grew and made his fortune."
"What they have done," says Stovall, "is taken two of my books, The Ultimate Life and The Ultimate Journey and put them together into one movie. Actually, after I wrote The Ultimate Gift, I didn't think there would be another book. The story ended and they lived happily ever after. It was done. But then I started realizing how much I loved these characters and missed having them around, so I started playing with it, and lo and behold, there are other books -- and now other movies."
When Stovall decided to write The Ultimate Journey, he realized that he felt a deep need to know where his characters came from. "Where did Red Stevens, Gus Caldwell and Hamilton -- all characters in the first two books -- come from," he asked himself. "I had to go back and find a historical back story that fit the characters I'd built in the books and the movies," he explains, "and we were able to do that. Some of the stories came out of my own family history and old diaries.
"When I invented the characters of Jason Stevens and Red Stevens," he continues, "I wanted to deal with problems that everybody in the world deals with, and the only reason I made Red Stevens a billionaire was to dispel the big lie we have in our society which tells us if we just had enough money, all our problems would go away. And that is not the case. Obviously, the more money you have, you take care of some problems, but you create new ones and those are the things that Jason and Red have to deal with.
"Red Stevens was a great man and through the Great Depression and World War II, and all the business and finance, he became a great human being, a great role model and example, but like anyone else, the lessons he taught Jason were black and white and very simple, but you go back and realize Red Stevens learned his lessons the hard way, through the school of hard knocks. Red had to go out and learn those lessons that he passed on to Jason in a few words, but in The Ultimate Life Jason has to live them himself."
"We always talked about The Ultimate Life being a sequel," says Eldridge. "We felt like The Ultimate Gift was really special, and I think that proved to be true as millions of people have been touched and inspired and motivated by the book and the movie. So when it came down to The Ultimate Life, it was just a matter of when and a matter of getting all the pieces into place. Jim's been a great friend and a great partner, and I loved the opportunity to work with him again."
"All I can say about a sequel," says Stovall, "is the fact that the fourth book in the series, called The Gift of the Legacy, will be coming out soon and every time I think I'm done with these characters, more facets of them seem to pop up, so I hope to have Jason, Red Stevens and Alexia around for a long time."
And as long as they are around, Stovall will be involved with the movies. "I had a lot of access to the scriptwriting as it was going on," he continues. "I don't know that there's ever been an author out there that had more access to the producer, director and scriptwriter than I've had. They've been very careful with my characters and very respectful and for that I am eternally grateful."
Finding the perfect director for The Ultimate Life was the easy part for Eldridge. "Michael Landon actually met with me before The Ultimate Gift," he says, "but it turned out that he was already scheduled so was not able to direct it. He expressed to me at that point that when we got ready to do The Ultimate Life that he would certainly like to be considered, so he was always in my mind.
"I've had a chance to work with Michael on a couple of other films," continues Eldridge, "and see his work in those films, so it was a natural thing for us to be able to talk about it and I'm glad we did. I think he's done a great job and am very pleased with how he's been able to grasp the story and bring it to life."
"I am so grateful to have Michael Landon, Jr. take on this project," adds Stovall, "and steer it further. I think it's probably harder to make a sequel than to start out with a fresh movie because the canvas you have to paint on is already filled in. Michael Landon, Jr. has tremendous talent, tremendous energy and just a real feel for this project. And his name as well as his body of work, and certainly that of his father, speak for themselves. It's just a privilege to have him see what we see in The Ultimate Life."
"The thing I like about how Michael works," explains Eldridge, "is he's not overspoken, he doesn't get very emotional. I think he's very driven to make the story and there's certainly no lack of energy there. But when he needs to talk to an actor about a part, or deal with an issue that's happening on set, he's very calm and very direct.
"I've talked to quite a few of the actors that have been on set," he continues. "Just yesterday, one of our principal actors said, 'You know, Michael just came up and touched me on the shoulder and whispered in my ear that little something that would give my part the direction it needed to take. Nobody's ever done that to me before and I knew right away that this guy's an actor's director.' The actors love him, and they love working with him, because of those things."
Jason and Alexia
The story of Jason and Alexia begins in The Ultimate Gift in which Jason completes the lessons that his grandfather has set out for him to learn and he has inherited a two billion-dollar trust. "Red built that trust and taught Jason a lot of good lessons," says Stovall, "but Red was a complex guy -- a lot of good and a lot of bad. Jason learned the good lessons, but now, in The Ultimate Life, he has to overcome some of the bad influences that are creeping into his life, and find some balance."
"In The Ultimate Gift," explains Eldridge, "Jason went through a major arc in his character and changed from this playboy kid to someone who really begins to respect his grandfather's values, and the ultimate gift of managing the foundation. Now, a few years later, we find a flaw -- he's become the same workaholic that Red was. So he's taken on the good and a bit of the bad of Red Stevens, but he's so engulfed in trying to do everything he can to please his grandfather, and do the things that his grandfather would have done, that he's neglecting Alexia, his love interest, and he's left himself open to an attack from his greedy and selfish family as they try to take over the foundation.
"When Red's lawyer, and his mentor, Hamilton, gives Jason Red's journal," continues Eldridge, "he realizes there's yet another lesson from Red to learn, and that's the value of family, of a relationship, and that lesson, in the end, helps him restore his relationship and begin to make amends as he moves forward with his life."
"The Ultimate Life shows us the difference between knowledge and wisdom," explains Stovall. "Knowledge is the process of knowing a fact, grasping a fact and mastering it. Wisdom is the process of mastering ourselves and our lives. So in The Ultimate Gift, Jason was given the gift of some knowledge, some very powerful lessons, but in The Ultimate Life, we have to find out if he can apply those in the real world and thereby live the ultimate life."
Logan Bartholomew was cast as The Ultimate Life's Jason Stevens. "Logan has done a phenomenal job," says Eldridge. "He's worked with Michael a couple of times on other films, so Michael knew him. We found Logan to be compassionate. He just engulfed the role."
"It was interesting to have Logan Bartholomew play Jason," says Stovall. "That's such an important character in this film. He's like the bookends. He's there at the beginning and learns this lesson, but then we go back through the diary, through the flashback, and find out where it came from. But then at the end, we see Jason through Logan, really live it out and embrace it and begin to make it a part of his life."
Bartholomew had a difficult role to play as he was the only member of the original cast who was not introduced in The Ultimate Gift. "He had to come in as a new face," says Eldridge, "and it's amazing how well he's done in the role. He picked up where our former actor, Drew Fuller, left off. He took over and became who Jason was those few years later. I think Logan's compassionate heart, his desire to really make that happen, and the work that he put into it...well, he hasn't missed a beat."
It wasn't difficult for Bartholomew to steep himself in the character and the script. "There is something to be said about family movies and about the connection of money being passed on and making sure that it's passed on in the right way," he says. "And I believed that it was really important to show a young guy who, like a lot of young people these days, has a lot of money and is faced with the opportunity to do the right thing."
Bartholomew had worked with Michael Landon, Jr. on several other films and spoke of his great admiration for the director. "Michael knows how to talk to me as an actor," he says, "and he knows how to bring the best out in me.
"Jason definitely feels a lot of responsibility to make sure that what Red has left him is moving forward and he ends up putting that ahead of himself and Alexia and what they created in The Ultimate Gift. He definitely struggles with responsibility on both sides. In the same way, if I was struggling with a scene, I'd always look to Michael to have the one thing that I needed to get me there. He's a very giving director."
Recreating the role of Alexia is Ali Hillis. This was the first time that she and Bartholomew had worked together. As the newcomer to the cast, Bartholomew felt that without her guidance he "wouldn't have made it through the movie. Ali is great," he says. "She knows exactly what to give you in a scene so you can get to your character."
"I've thoroughly enjoyed working with Logan," says Hillis. "He was such a great surprise. In the last movie, we saw Jason as a spoiled rich kid who goes through his process and is enlightened, and at the end of the movie, he starts a foundation. And I feel that Logan brings exactly the right feel to Jason in this movie. He brings a lot of heart to the role. We really feel Jason's pain. Alexia brings some heart to The Ultimate Life, but I've got lots of competition on this one. Jason is all heart. Distracted, sometimes confused, but he's present and he knows what he wants in the end, and he follows his heart. I think Logan just brings a sincerity and groundedness to that character in a whole different way. It's nice."
"Ali Hillis is a joy," says Stovall. "I remember the first time I met her when we were working on The Ultimate Gift and I thought 'That's who Jason would pick to spend the rest of his life with."
Hillis was really looking forward to reprieving the role of Alexia because "I love her for her sincerity," she explains. "There are so many parts of me in this character. She is grounded. She is soulful. She has lost a lot and she knows what it feels like to have to learn to walk all over again. Her life is completely different and she has an inner strength that I really admire. I'm not sure that came from me," she laughs, "but she's not afraid to learn, but she does need to be needed. Maybe the one thing she needs to learn in this movie is where her place is in this world, without her daughter, and I think she finds that in her new career.
"Emily, her daughter, needed her. Emily was her life. She needed her more than she'd ever been needed, and when Emily passed, Alexia was left with an emptiness that she wasn't sure how to fill, and Jason's this busy guy. He's an entrepreneur. He's now funding a foundation that he created for her and Emily, and she's very touched by that, but at the same time, trying to figure out where she belongs in his life and does he need her? There's a point in the story where Jason almost makes it down on one knee, and he gets a phone call and he has to make the choice of whether to take the business call or focus on the task at hand, which is following his heart, and he chooses the business. That was a lesson he had to learn."
"Ali really gets that role," says Eldridge. "She really gave us a lot of insight into her character and how she felt her character would react and work within the film. We've enjoyed working with her. She's a great actress and has totally embraced the role of Alexia."
The Ultimate Life is the first time that Ali has worked with Michael Landon, Jr. "What I liked most about the way he worked," she says, "is that he is really specific and he knows what he wants. That's my favorite because I'm just clay and I have ideas about my character and I know Alexia from the previous movie, but he knows the whole story and the big picture. He knows all the bumps and the swells and those are things I need to be guided through. I've trusted him completely."
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