Liam Neeson in a scene from “The Marksman.” Chris Charles, who grew up in Kennebunk, co-wrote the script. Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment

When Chris Charles pitched the idea for a movie set on the southern U.S. border with Mexico, amid the violence of drug cartels, his writing partner didn’t think much of it.

“He hated it. It was violent and dark and much different than the other story we had been talking about writing,” said Charles, 37, who grew up in Kennebunk. “But we found the right characters, and the story evolved over time.”

The script ended up focusing on an ex-Marine rancher in Arizona who becomes an unlikely friend and protector to a Mexican boy fleeing violent drug gangs. It became the basis of current Hollywood action thriller “The Marksman,” starring Liam Neeson. The movie opened nationwide Jan. 15 and quickly passed “Wonder Woman 1984” as the top box office draw, making an estimated $3.7 million in its first four days.

Charles has been writing scripts for more than a decade, while also working on the production and distribution side of the business as a partner in Throughline Films. But “The Marksman” is the first time his writing has become the basis of a movie. While many theaters across the country are closed or have limits on audience size, the film did open in several Maine theaters, including Cinemagic’s. In the spring, the film will be available for streaming and on demand cable systems.

“It’s a nice compromise. I’ve been able to make a living producing films and selling films, but I’ve also been exploring my creativity as a writer,” said Charles, from his home in Madison, Wisconsin. “To be No. 1 at the box office is pretty special.”

Writer Chris Charles on the set of “The Marksman” in Ohio. Photo courtesy of Chris Charles

Charles originally wrote the story of “The Marksman” with his longtime writing partner, Danny Kravitz. The pair met more than 15 years ago at Columbia College Chicago, where Charles was a student and Kravitz was teaching a film-writing course. Kravitz had been writing screenplays already and had a manager, who helped get the story for “The Marksman” in the hands of producers and production companies. Oscar-nominated producer and director Robert Lorenz was brought in to direct and helped write the script. Lorenz is best known for producing such films as “Million Dollar Baby,” “Mystic River,” “Jersey Boys” and “American Sniper.”

The movie was shot in New Mexico and Ohio during the fall of 2019, Charles said. Charles and Kravitz got to be on set for some of the filming, and got to talk to Neeson, whose 40-year film career includes starring roles in “Schindler’s List,” “Love Actually” and “Taken,” among others.

Charles said Neeson was on a short list of “dream options” for stars who might play the lead role. He said he was thrilled to hear Neeson talk about how much the film’s story appealed to him and to see how friendly Neeson was.

In the movie, Neeson plays a Vietnam veteran and a cattle rancher who recently lost his wife to cancer, is facing a mountain of medical debt and is on the verge of losing his business. He happens upon a boy and his mother entering the U.S. through a border fence. In the trailer for the film, the mother is shot and Neeson is seen trying to take the young man to family in the northern U.S., facing various dangers along the way.

“When you grow up watching somebody like him in iconic films, you think you know them, but you don’t. So I was really pleased to find how incredibly kind and respectful he was,” Charles said of Neeson. “He talked about how the script personally moved him and how he wanted to help bring the story to life.”

Liam Neeson stars in “The Marksman,” co-written by Chris Charles, who grew up in Kennebunk. Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment

SCHOOL-AGE START

Growing up in Kennebunk, Charles said he “did a little bit of everything” when it came to extra-curricular activities. In grammar school and middle school he played basketball, soccer and baseball. His father, a salesman for the Hormel meat company, often coached him.

But in middle school, he and his best friend, Luke Sholl, started making movies with a digital video recorder for fun. Often they were short comedy skits. They did a series of skits where they dressed up as typical Maine outdoorsmen, with flannel coats and shirts, and talked in over-the-top Maine accents.

Then, at Kennebunk High School, Charles and Sholl got involved in the school’s theater productions, playing lead roles in “The Crucible” and “South Pacific,” among others. For a school project, they did a filmed interview of Sholl’s grandfather, a World War II veteran.

“The teachers at Kennebunk High School were really supportive and helped me do so many things,” said Charles. “I think I knew from a young age that I wanted to tell stories and be an artist, but it took some time to figure out how I’d do that.”

“The Marksman” is the story of a rancher – played by Liam Neeson – protecting a boy trying to escape Mexican drug lords. Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment

Charles graduated from Kennebunk High School in 2002 and then went off to Columbia College Chicago, where he became involved in producing a live comedy sketch TV show and decided he enjoyed working behind the camera more than in front of it.

In college he took a writing class with Kravitz who was impressed with a short piece Charles had written, based on time he spent one summer working as the driver to an older relative of President George H.W. Bush, while the Bush family spent time at their Walker Point home in Kennebunkport. Kravitz loved the story and told Charles he’d like to write a film script with him. They wrote a script of that story, though it never got made.

“Chris’ strong suit is that he is able be both emotional and creative in his writing,” said Kravitz. “But he’s also pragmatic because he’s worked on other parts of films.”

Since college, Charles has worked as a casting director and producer for dozens of small films. Much of his work has been as a partner in Throughline Films with John Bosher, whom he met while in college. His company “helps bridge the gap between arts and business” by helping filmmakers finish projects and get distribution, Charles said. Among their dozens of projects was producing the 2018 documentary “We Are Columbine,” focusing on survivors of the deadly shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado some 20 years later.

Charles is excited about another Throughline film he helped produce, a crime drama called “The Cleaner,” starring King Orba, Shelley Long, Luke Wilson and Lynda Carter. He expects it to be released sometime this year.

Charles and his wife, Pamela Austria – whom he met while watching “Schindler’s List,” starring Neeson, with Charles’ roommate – come to Maine as often as possible to visit relatives and friends. They are expecting their first child this summer.

Charles said he has another script in the works that he’s writing with Kravitz, a father-and-son story set in the Southwest.

“It’s tough to beat writing, it’s so fun creatively,” said Charles. “But both writing and producing bring me joy. I feel lucky to be doing both.”


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