Smith County native Gary Granstaff makes movie deals from the family farm
STORY by KEN BECK
PHOTOS by KINDRED MOMENTS PHOTOGRAPHY
Plenty of folks, after they flee their small neck of the woods in rural America to seek their fortune in the big cities, never look back.
For Smith County native son Gary Granstaff, who grew up on a small tobacco farm in Defeated Creek, to deny his birthright and get above his raisin’ proved an impossibility.
After leaving Defeated at 17, he was pretty much gone for 35 years, but he never forgot where he came from or those who shaped his character. About 12 years ago he built a new house half way up a hill on the old family farm, and today spends the majority of his time here managing one of the largest retirement consulting firms within Voya Financial Corporation and evaluating and negotiating movie deals with son Brett, his partner in Ridgerock Entertainment Group.
“I’m kind of a rarity for Smith County. There are not many movie producers here,” says Granstaff, 66, who served as an executive producer on the $65 million film Black Mass, starring Johnny Depp, which hit theaters in September.
“Inasmuch as a majority of our work is in development and then production, with most being done outside of L.A. and Las Vegas, it really is not critical to be located in a specific area, and since I prefer to be in my home area, it was a logical move. Also, there are a very few independent film companies in the Nashville area, and we feel it has a great opportunity long term to develop the market in Tennessee.”
Ridgerock, where Granstaff handles development and finance and acquires intellectual properties, unveils The Masked Saint, a $3.5 million faith-based movie, in January. It stars his son as professional wrestler who decides to become a Southern Baptist pastor.
“My son is actually the boss. He got me into the film end of the business about 10 years ago,” said Granstaff, who over the last decade has rubbed shoulders with the likes of Bruce Willis, Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Meg Ryan, William H. Macy, and most recently with Black Mass stars Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kevin Bacon.
Ridgerock has several projects that the father and son duo are scrutinizing, including a Steve McQueen documentary and two boxing-related films, Francois and Shadow Boxing the Mob: The Carmen Basilio Story. Meanwhile, Karaoke Kings, a comedy, is in the development stage, and Gary has definite plans to make a film in Carthage in two years.
“I have a passion project called Class Favorites that is set in the ’60s around the week of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and when I shoot that I will shoot it here locally and shoot all of it in Tennessee,” he said.
Gary and wife Wanda built a home in Las Vegas in 1994. Because of his marketing company, he could operate from anywhere in the U.S., so they settled in Chattanooga in the mid-1990s where Brett received a solid education at Baylor, a private prep school.
After Brett graduated from high school and enrolled at New York University (NYU) Film School, Gary and Wanda returned to Vegas. In more recent years they have divided their time between the farm and the city famed for showgirls, games of chance and glittering neon lights.
“I try to be here at least seven or eight months a year. We’ve opened an office in Nashville so I’m trying to spend more time here if I can. It kind of depends where we are with production and business. I don’t want to be in Los Angeles,” Granstaff said.
As for his business partner and star of the upcoming Masked Saint, he says, “Brett’s a very creative person. He rewrote the script. He plays the lead… he did probably two-thirds of the casting, so that’s all from the creative side.
“He really didn’t have the interest or the inclination for the financial side, and that kind of fit my strength. I’ve been involved with some Hollywood productions, and when you see the waste of the money that goes on, surely just throwing money away, we felt like we could build a better business model.
“So Brett appealed to me to start taking control of financial opportunities that we could see within the film industry. There were several of his contacts that wanted us to invest and co-produce, and he didn’t have the confidence at that time, so we formed Ridgerock Entertainment in 2005.
“Then starting in 2007 we partnered with Emmett Furla Films on a couple of projects that I did the financing part for. In 2008 we co-oped with Meg Ryan and William H. Macy on a romantic comedy, The Deal. So as time went on we became more entrenched in acquiring properties and development, and then Brett brought me Black Mass, so we started working on Black Mass, and it just kind of snowballed.”
As things slowed down in 2012, Brett accepted a media scholarship to Cambridge University in England and earned an MBA in Media and Entertainment Management.
“It’s really given him more confidence in the financial side. He’s not only equal but taken the lead in some of the financial side. So we kind of partner in that. So that’s how I kind of got involved in the film business, through his encouragement to help him on the financial end of the film business,” Granstaff said.
Brett Granstaff, who currently hangs his hat in Franklin, Tenn., describes their roles by saying, “I say yes or no and do everything from business finance to creative. Dad specializes in the financial side and the fund management. I go to him and ask, ‘Is this a good deal? What do you think?’ I bounce ideas off of him. He’s amazing in what he’s done in his business. He handles all the finances: I do all the creative.
“He’s really good with the finances, good with negotiations, and he’s really a good people person, what you need to get along with everyone and problem solve.”
Black Mass came to Ridgerock in 2008 when Brian Oliver, now president of Cross Creek Pictures, told Brett he needed help in development. Brett, in turn, told his father about the book based on the life of Boston mobster Whitey Bulger.
“I did the research,” said Gary, “and in 2010 said, ‘Yeah, let’s pull the trigger on this and get involved because this is a very compelling story, a story that needs to be told to people.’ At that time this fellow was No. 2 in line behind Osama bin Laden on the FBI’s most wanted list.”
The rigors of plowing a ton of dough into a big-budget flick and watching the box-office reports come in, he describes as “a roller-coaster ride,” certainly a more exhilarating experience than riding behind a tractor, setting tobacco plants.
He notes that the biggest lesson he learned from helping guide the major film “is the ability to have control of a project, so that at the end of the day what’s on the screen turns out to be what you want.”
Thus, Ridgerock has complete control over the faith-based movie, The Masked Saint, based on the true tale of Chris Whaley, pastor of Longwood Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla.
“It’s the story of a Southern Baptist pastor who was a professional wrestler who is trying to make the transition from that world into being a pastor, and the trials and tribulations and struggles that he has of going from someone who is a very physical take-charge person and becoming a pastor of a church,” Granstaff said.
Brett, 35, who plays the lead, shares more about the wrestling preacher, saying, “He doesn’t always turn the other cheek all the time. He solves a couple of robberies, helps people and always has the knack of being where he can make a difference.”
As Gary tries to be objective about how son Brett’s comes off in his first starring role, he says, “His wrestling performance… when you have people like Jeff Jarrett and Jimmy Noonan, those kind of people who’ve been around pro wrestling all their life, tell you that he maintained the integrity of the physicality of the sport to a T, and that’s the only reason they endorsed our movie… then I think he did a good job.”
The Masked Saint, which opens nationwide January 8, gets its world premiere January 7 at Regal Cinemas Green Hills in Nashville. The film co-stars Diahann Carroll as a church parishioner who provides the pastor with direction, and the late professional wrestler Roddy Piper plays a promoter and announcer.
Gary leads Ridgerock’s faith division as he seeks to make more faith-based films.
“I used to work 100 hours a week, and in 2003 I had a major heart attack. I had just moved here in April, had a major heart attack in November and nearly died. I had quadruple bypass,” he recalls.
“I go see my mom some years after that and tell her about going into the film business, and she pretty much said, ‘You know, Gary, you’ve made a lot of money. You’ve done very well, but anybody can make money, but not everybody is gonna make a difference. You have the talent to make a difference.’
“After nearly falling out of my chair, I really walked away saying, ‘I do have an opportunity here to do something positive.’ That’s what really transitioned me into saying to my son Brett that I want to set up this faith division and make faith-based films side by side with secular films, so that we can take a message and hopefully be entertaining and expand the tent to bring people into see a faith-based movie that might not go see a movie otherwise.
“Our movie has a great positive message, but it also has a lot of action. So we want to embrace people who normally won’t go see that movie to say, ‘Hey, I’d like to go see this wrestling film.’”
While Gary gives his son Brett the credit for being the creative force of the team, he’s proven to be quite the dreamer himself and confesses that his imaginative powers were a gift passed down from his maternal grandfather, Newton Burford (N.B.) Kemp, who was his first babysitter.
“He had imagination that he really transferred to me, translated all of his dreams,” Granstaff reminisced. “He never really got to travel and explore and do a lot of things. I can remember sitting on that front porch in the swing with him, and him taking me on trips in his mind and really kind of cultivating all of his adventurous spirit that I kind of wound up with.”
Born the son of Don and Hazel Granstaff, Gary spent his first eight years of school at Defeated Creek Elementary where his mother was his first and second-grade teacher. He grew up on the family farm with siblings Virginia, LaDon and Bill, where they grew tobacco and corn and “all the trappings that go with being in farm life.”
His mother, who spent 36 years in the Smith County school system later served as librarian at the high school. His father operated Granstaff TV and Appliance Service Center in Carthage for about 25 years.
As a youth he helped in the tobacco patch every year where he learned the lesson of hard labor.
“It started early from the plant bed and ended up taking the tobacco to sell, and we had cattle and raised corn and had a huge garden. We did canning and freezing and all those things. It was like every time you get up there was something to do.
“My mom was a big positive influence. As an educator, she encouraged me. I was in public speaking. I did a lot of work in 4-H, and I think in terms of those kinds of things that help you with self-confidence, my mom was a huge influence. I look back now, and it was nearly a borderline between pushing me and encouraging me kind of thing, but she knew I had some talent in leadership skills and she tried to cultivate that in me. I wasn’t the best student but I did always accomplish what I set out to accomplish,” said Granstaff.
As a child of the ’50s, he whetted his appetite for movies going to Saturday afternoon matinees at The Princess Theater in Carthage.
“I think the cost was either 25 cents or 50 cents,” he said. “The most memorable movies that I can remember seeing as a child were Peter Pan, Old Yeller and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.”
The country boy also found another way to get to town during those long, hot summers. His excuse to flee the farm and carve out a little income for himself came via a job at a new hamburger joint in Carthage.
“They were opening up a little hamburger place called G&R, which is now Brenda’s [Restaurant]. Me and my buddy Tom McCall were the first two employees. I made 40 cents an hour, and it was a good experience. It was pretty much the only place to go and hang out,” he says. “It gave me a time not only to work but to socialize and to see people.”
After graduating Smith County High, the 17-year-old talked his way into a job at Ross-Gear in Lebanon, saved his money and entered Middle Tennessee State University that fall.
“It set a foundation. I became self-reliant and learned the value of money,” said Gary, who graduated in 1970 with a degree in business.
He and his buddy C.K. Smith of Hartsville, with whom he played a lot of games of hearts, planned to enter the University of Tennessee Law School together. Then his uncle referred him to a TBI (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation) officer.
Their conversation led Granstaff into almost becoming a member of the first class of ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives). To get the job he had to agree to go undercover for six to nine months in the Florida Everglades and cut himself completely off from family and friends.
However, he and girlfriend Wanda Key were on the edge of matrimony, so he turned down the job in law enforcement, got married and wound up teaching and coaching junior high basketball for a year in a small town in South Carolina.
Returning to the Volunteer State, he accepted a job with the Tennessee Department of Corrections at Spencer Youth Center. He resigned two years later and became an insurance salesman.
“In 1984 I converted into pension planning. Later I got into retirement planning and took over the marketing department of a small company in Seattle and helped grow it from $30 million a year to $300 million a year,” he said.
Today he oversees a marketing organization of 250 sales representatives nationwide who handle retirement planning for educators, teachers, nonprofits, colleges and universities.
And he produces movies.
His favorite film of all time? That would be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Favorite actor? Paul Newman.
Hard-driven at business, for relaxation or short getaways Granstaff drives a small fleet of antique vehicles that includes a ’56 Chevy Bel Air, a ’69 Camaro and ’91 Mercedes. He also plays the piano and guitar and enjoys a game of tennis now and then.
“Probably right now I’m spending three-fourths of my time in the film business. The other fourth is spent overseeing about 20 commercial and residential properties I own here in Smith County,” he said of his work regimen.
“As a youth growing up at Defeated, I always had an adventuresome spirit and wanted to travel and see the world. Since my love of my life, Wanda, had the same spirit, we were able to share the adventures that gave us the opportunity to not only live in many places such as Colorado, Washington, Nevada, California and South Carolina but also travel over the globe and have experiences that my grandfather and I dreamed, and I imagined as a child when I spent so much of my time with him.
“He enriched my imagination as a child, and then I was able to live out many of those dreams and then return to enjoy the beauty and people of my home where I grew up,” said the moviemaker, a man whose Smith County roots run as deep as his imagination.
Smith County filmmaker
For more details about Gary Granstaff’s Ridgerock Entertainment Group, go online to ridgerockentertainment.com. The film production company behind Johnny Depp’s Black Mass has several projects in development and debuts The Masked Saint in 600 theaters nationwide January 8.