Wish Man – an interview with Frank Shankwitz

So, Frank, you just finished a movie.
Yeah, we completed filming “Wish Man” in October of last year. [It was] quite the production. We started the whole thing in 2014 and it took that long. It’s a feature motion picture, and the average movie is seven years from inception to release. We’re doing it a little earlier just because of the cooperation with the community and other people.

Let’s back up a bit. Some people may not know who you are. Frank, you started Make-A-Wish.
I was the creator and co-founder of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. My wife and I started that back in 1980. Through the grace of God and modern medicine, and so many volunteers and people, it has grown from 1980, now to 63 chapters in the United States, 36 international chapters on five continents, and we’ve granted now, over 415,000 wishes worldwide.

And that started with you and one little boy?
Exactly, a little boy. Some [people] may remember “CHiPs,” the television show. I was introduced [to a] little boy, seven years old. Unfortunately, he had terminal leukemia. His mother told us that his heroes were Ponch and Jon from the TV show, “ChiPs,” and when he grew up; he wished he could be a highway patrol motorcycle officer. So, the family contacted our department. The [Arizona] Highway Patrol did everything they could for this little boy. [They] made him the first and only honorary highway patrol officer in the history of the [Arizona] Highway Patrol. The biggest thing was to make him a motorcycle officer- which I did. Unfortunately, he died a couple days later. He’s buried in a little town called Kewanee, Illinois, and my commanders asked if I would go back with another motorcycle officer to give him a full police funeral- which we did. We were joined by Illinois state police, city police, county police. [It was] just this most amazing thing to bury this little boy. He was buried in uniform. He has a grave marker that reads, “Chris Greicius – Arizona Trooper.” Coming home, I just started thinking about how this little boy had a wish, and we made it happen. Why can’t we do that for other children? That’s when the idea was born.

So, a couple of books are out. In fact, last time I had you on, you brought a book that’s called, “Once Upon a Wish.” It was written by Rachelle Sparks.
She was a local newspaper reporter up here for the [Daily] Courier. [She] contacted me one day, and we did an interview. She said, “Let’s write a book about this. About the Wish children and some of their wishes.” So we did that. [We] called it, “Once Upon a Wish.” A few years ago, I released my own book called, “Wish Man.”

And it was “Wish Man” that they contacted you and said, “Let’s do a movie.”?
Yeah. Again, it was in 2014. The publisher had given a rough draft [to] 333 Studios out of San Diego. [They’re] an independent film company, and they had read [Wish Man] and said, “We’re gonna fly over to San Diego.” I said, “Okay, who doesn’t like San Diego?” That went through the owner and also a director and screen writer. They said, “We want to do a movie about your life.”

It’s a period [piece,] from age ten, to when I started the Make-A-Wish Foundation in 1980. I thought they were talking a documentary, and I said, “Well, that’s okay,” and they said, “No, a full feature motion picture.” I [was] just kind of hesitant on that, but they talked me into it.

[Laughs] I just find it amazing where these companies go and find stories. I mean, there [are] thousands of them out there, and here you are, still in Arizona; here you are, retired, you know, still part of everything you do. They find [Wish Man] and I think you said that after they read it, it wasn’t too long at all [that] they got a hold of you, and off you went.
I’ve learned a lot in the last five years about Hollywood. [Laughs] I learned that this movie is “based on a true story.” Whenever you go to the movie theatres and you see “based on a true story,” they’ve exaggerated quite a bit.

Well… [Laughs] Sometimes a true story can, you know, be a little boring.
Exactly, it would be a documentary, so that’s why it’s “based on a true story.”

The one thing that they did get wrong is that Andrew Steel is not nearly as handsome as Frank Shankwitz.
You’re right. That was a big issue with me. [Laughs] Andrew Steel plays my character in my late thirties, and he’s an Australian actor, and this is his first big role in a major motion picture in the United States, but this young man worked for two years. I worked with him first of all to get rid of the Australian accent – we would dialog constantly. And then also, we had to teach him motorcycle training, weapons training, police tactics, because he’s playing a motorcycle officer with the Arizona Highway Patrol.

Tell us about Danny Trejo’s character, Jose.
Oh my God, that was the most fun. […] This guy looks so, so mean. […] His part, we filmed up in Seligman, Arizona. He [plays] a restaurant owner, and is supposed to be from 1953. [I] walk on the set, and I first meet him, and this guy is all smiles. He’s joking; he’s playing with the kids. They say, “Okay, let’s set up here. Okay. Ready; action.” Then, all of a sudden, all these facial expressions from this fun guy go to that mean look of his, and then they take a break, and then all of a sudden he’s just that happy guy again. [He] was so much fun to talk to.

All right, so we’ve got “Wish Man,” and that was your story, and they’ve come to you and said, “Frank, we’re gonna make a movie, and I’m sure you and Kitty said, “Of course you are.”
[Laughs] Not quite. Not quite. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. When I lobbied for Prescott. The film was supposed to be made in New Mexico, because Arizona does not give tax credits, and New Mexico does.

Arizona is losing a lot of revenue. The state itself, because of these tax credits – they’re in New Mexico; they’re in Utah; they’re everywhere around us.
Yeah, in fact, local TV stations and the Arizona Republic did a feature story [that] we were the first major film in ten years to be filmed in Arizona. Now the Arizona [Film Commission] is being somewhat reestablished. It’s trying to get the legislature- they can’t do anything without legislature approval. Local [resident], Steve Pierce, former [state] senate president, is also lobbying to get that done, so hopefully…

They said, “We’re going to Arizona, and we’re gonna film it where you grew up.”
It took a lot of lobbying to do that. Only because of the cooperation of so many business owners that I know, [and] that would normally charge- They just said, “Frank, tell us when you want this place and it’s gratis; it’s free.”

Do you believe that the production company sort of let you loose to see what you could do for [them]?
[Laughs] Oh, exactly. Exactly. Yeah, that’s why my initial title was “location scout.” And I spent two years driving all around this place, trying to find every location we needed, and then going to the friends, and [ask], “How can you help me out here?”

So folks do that don’t they in Prescott? All right, so we’ve got you out, and you lived here, so you had an idea of where you wanted to be, right?
Well, it was “find the spots first,” and then they came out, and I had to show them all the locations. The director doesn’t feel the scene that I want, and that’s why we had several different locations. Finally, a year and a half ago, they said, “This is perfect. Everything is perfect. That’s why we wanted to film here.” And then we started working on permits and everything else.

That had to go through the city [of Prescott]?
Oh, yes, the city, the county. Wendy Bridges from the city film commission- what a charming lady to work with. She helped. Everything we needed, she helped. She was right there. […] And then, Rowle Simmons, from the [Yavapai County] Board of Supervisors, [we went] to him and asked [about] certain locations, if we could get permission. [He] brought us in to several meeting with the [full] board, and got approval for everything we wanted. In fact, they went overboard [granting] some of the requests we were making.

I think that the cooperation from the community really shows who we are, and what we are. What were some of the locations that you had to work on? Maybe twist an arm or two.
[Laughs] The Palace. [Laughs] Not because Dave Michelson [wasn’t] a good friend for years, but because he does not want a film company disrupting his business.

We can understand that.
Well, he finally agreed. […] We went in there at midnight, and filmed until eight in the morning. Boy that was a rough two nights. […] The man was just so generous [to] let the set design people set it up to look like 1979, 1980. And at eight in the morning, the set design people are putting it back. […] Just such a gentleman, helping us out there. Oh, and Butch Hampton. That wasn’t a hard thing, at Hampton Funeral Home. We had to film the funeral scene that was supposed to be in Illinois, and his facility there looks like something right out of the Midwest. Butch just said, “Tell me what days you want. I’ll hope we don’t have someone in there.” [laughs] [He] allowed us two days and one night to be there.

I think some of these businesses were proud that they could volunteer. That was an easy sell for you.
We’re going to make sure [that] their signs are featured obviously in the movie, and we’ll make sure in the closing credits [have] the “thank you’s” that goes to these people.

You’ve covered a little bit about some of the locals. On location, you’ve got to be careful that a modern car doesn’t drive by, or that the actors are dressed appropriately for this period piece.
Yes, and my position- out of the numerous hats I wore, was first to scout locations, then I was brought on as a technical advisor, consulting producer, what [else]? I can’t even remember the other hats! The crew would start at 4:30 in the morning, and then I’d have to be there at 5:30 in the morning, and I would work with the script supervisor, and director, every day to going over what the scenes were going to be filmed that day; if the proper uniforms for the highway patrol were done [correctly]. I would assist in the setup for the design- if it looked like either 1950 or 1980. [They] were a fantastic set design crew. What they did was unbelievable. Then every scene would have a little monitor that we would watch […] to make sure, again, that it looked authentic for police officers. A day [would] usually quit around 8:30, but the crew was there until 10:30 because they were setting up for the next day. So, in the movie industry, when they say, “long days,” they’re not kidding.

We watch a movie that’s an hour and a half, but we forget that it takes five years to get there. All the food has to be there for the actors, production crew, and everyone associated with the film.
Oh, yeah. They used First Catering Services out of Phoenix, but they finally used catering service here in Prescott, but I don’t recall the name, but [they provided] fantastic meals. There’s a local resident named Greg Keydo, and he was the craftsman on the show, and his job every day was to [have] coffee, water, and snacks all through the whole day, and this man became a good friend. This man worked. I can’t believe the hours he put in. I think I asked him how many cases of water we did during the six weeks, and he said 300-some cases of water. That he had to haul personally! Especially when we were up in Seligman- there’s no grocery stores up in Seligman, so he had to put that stuff in a van, and haul everything up there.

Did the people that were in that movie fly home for the weekend, or did they stay here?
Well, the crew stayed here, because it’s a six-day work week. Sunday they have to be off. The actors would fly in and out depending on their scenes, and that’s the only hiccup we had: Because I had contacted Great Lakes Airline- I’ve used them when I have to go to L.A. quite a bit, and when they work, they work, but they have a little plane, and sometimes they don’t fly. They assured us that they were going to have their big plane; there were not going to be any delays, and that didn’t happen. Our actors are supposed to be flying- all of a sudden, “we’re just not going to fly today.” They’ve got to run them from L. A. down to Burbank to catch a plane to Phoenix, and then have somebody pick them up in Phoenix and drive them here. So that was our biggest hiccup of all things.

Did you use locals for extras?
We did. We used several locals, and I don’t recall their names. […] For an extra, it’s just a long, long day waiting for their scene; waiting to be shot again; lunch break, but we fed them very well. I like the one gentleman that’s playing a highway patrol officer. He came in and he had the long hair, the beard, long sideburns, beard, moustache, and so on, and I said to him, “If you want to play a highway patrol officer, we’re going to have to send you into makeup and get you cleaned up.” He did not like that, but he liked what we were paying him, so all of a sudden he comes out with a fresh haircut and everything, and he’s kind of grumpy, and he comes in the next day, just shaking my hand. I said, “What’s that all about?” And he says, “My girlfriend loves it.” [laughs] My wife, Kitty, she got to be in a scene. The camera liked her. And then my manager lives in Iowa, and she came out to assist, and the camera really liked her, so she got in several scenes.

You’ve got a full cast and crew in this movie. Frank, did you get a chance to see who was auditioning?
Yeah, I did. I worked directly with the casting agent along with the producers and the director [on] the majority of the people on the set. Like I said, Andrew Steel, who plays me, I worked with him for over a year and a half, but Kirby Bliss Blanton, [who] plays Kitty Carlisle, now Kitty Shankwitz, [and] we needed that personality, because she was going to be playing Kitty in her young twenties, and she just rocked it. The fun part was, because this is highway patrol, this was the era of CHiPs, and the person that played my motorcycle sergeant at the time, I suggested Robert Pine, who was Sergeant Getrae in the show CHiPs. We reached out to him, and he [said], “Of course, I’ll do it.” And then I said, “It’d be fun if we could get Larry Wilcox.” I’ve known Larry for several years, and I contacted him personally, and he said, “Of course.” It was so much fun when the two of them were on the set. Just cracking up on having so much fun together, but when they said, “action,” they were true professionals. In fact, Robert Pine, with all his acting credits over the years, he was probably the most senior actor, and set the bar for the other actors. We’ve become good friends- he calls me, I call him about once a week.

This movie was filmed here in Prescott, and in Seligman, it takes you back to your days of glory. They say, “You can never go back,” well… not necessarily- you can if they’re making a movie about you.
[Laughs] Well, it was surreal. [We] had an actor named Chris Day- he’s twelve years old, and he plays me at age ten, and this young man, he was just fantastic- probably the only one who came to work every day that knew his lines; never blew a line; and very physical on his part because he’s doing a lot of running [when] the bullies are chasing him. To see them set up Seligman to look- Of course, you don’t have to do a lot to Seligman to make it look like 1950. [Laughs] Juan Delgadillo, who was my mentor, and unfortunately he passed away several years ago, and I still very close to the family. His son, John, is running the Snow Cap now. I got permission from the family to use Juan’s real name.

So, when’s this movie going to come out?
They’re hoping for a September release at the Toronto Film Festival. It’s in post-production now, and then of course they have to find a distributor. I learned this over the last five years; the distributor may want to also do some editing to fit their market. And the biggest thing with the distributor that I learned too is that they need someone with a worldwide market, not just the U.S. [The] majority of the revenue for any film is from the worldwide market, not the U.S. market.

You [told me] you’re flying out tomorrow [March 3rd], and you’re going to do what?
That’s kind of an exciting thing. […] I got invited- it’s Academy Award night, and there’s this big gala at Universal Studios, at what they call the Globe Theatre. The Globe Theatre on the outside looks like [Prescott’s] Elks [Theatre], but you walk in there and it’s this massive, massive ballroom, and we’re going to be doing the first screening of the trailer for the Wish Man movie, and then also raising a lot of money for other charities, and I get to share the stage with Matthew McConaughey. I asked [Kitty] to go with me and she doesn’t like to travel, and she just found out yesterday that Matthew was going to be there. [Laughs] All of a sudden, she wants to go.

Will there be an advance screening here in Prescott?
I’m working on that. [Yavapai] College has offered [the Performing Arts Center] to show that- even a rough cut. We’re hoping to do that, and also we’re hoping for a premiere at Elk’s Theatre.

Frank, you had some health issues while filming Wish Man.
We were doing a lot of the set designs [in] early March of last year, and we had a little bit of ice out on the road here. I got out of my truck and slipped on the ice, and my foot got caught underneath the tire. [I] dislocated my ankle and did a compound fracture on my leg. I was laid up in the hospital for nine days, and then couldn’t move around for another six weeks at home- it was so severe. During that time, they found that I had a little heart defibrillation going on. It got worse and worse. In fact, during the filming, there were a couple of days where I had to leave the set and go to the emergency room. They finally figured out the problem. They corrected it; they put in a pacemaker this past December, and everything is great.

The books are done, the movie is almost done, what’s in the future for Frank Shankwitz? Maybe you’ll become a character actor.
Not at all! They wanted me to do a cameo, and I said, “No, let’s let the real [actors] do that.” I am in a closing shot [of Wish Man], and it’s a typical Hollywood thing: you see this guy on a motorcycle riding into the sunset. Well, that’s my butt on the motorcycle. That’s the only thing you see. This whole thing has led to a speaking career which I started doing about five years ago. Now [I’m] a keynote speaker all over the nation and I’m going to boast a little bit: I got, a couple years ago, the Forbes [Magazine] number one keynote speaker. I enjoy meeting people and going out. I had been involved with a couple of TV productions. One was called, “Wish Riders.” We filmed the pilot for ABC. So I got to be the location manager on that, and was actually a cast member, but unfortunately that never got on the air. [I] had so much fun on that. [I] got my feet wet a little bit with the Hollywood people.

[Laughs] Well, don’t get too shiny on us. Don’t start partying late. Don’t get a sports car.
[Laughs] I’ll be 75, so it’s about 8 o’clock to go to bed. [Laughs] And I can’t fit in a sports car.

Frank, I want to congratulate you on everything you’ve done. I just think that it’s amazing, and that you’re still one of ours.
Thank you.

Wish Man is available online?
[The paperback] is available on Amazon. They ran out- it’s about the third printing now.

Frank, thank you so much for being here. We wish you the best with this. I want to try to get you back after the movie is out so we can discuss it again.
I’d love that. […] Thank you for the invite.

Wish Man on IMDB
Wish Man website
Wish Man book on Amazon
Arizona Make A Wish

About Mark Gardner

Mark Gardner lives in northern Arizona with his wife, three children and a pair of spoiled dogs. Mark holds a degrees in Computer Systems and Applications and Applied Human Behavior. View all posts by Mark Gardner

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