San Diego filmmaker’s new movie focuses on the man behind the Make-A-Wish Foundation


Theo Davies’ new movie, “Wish Man,” is set in Arizona, has been screened in France, stars an Australian and will premiere in Los Angeles this week. The British writer-director will bring his film home when its public screenings start Thursday, June 6 (runs through June 12), at La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas.

Born and bred in in England, Davies, 40, moved to San Diego in 2009 with his wife, Marcela, who is from here. They live in North Park with their two sons, ages 3 and 9.

Despite San Diego’s lively film industry, Los Angeles is still the moviemaking capital. For Davies, that meant a lot of commuting.

“If you have to be there for a day for meetings, it’s easy,” he said. “It was difficult during post-production, which I did every day for four months. I was in L.A. four to five days a week. I have friends there, but it was hard.

“We stay here because we love San Diego.”

“Wish Man” is a biopic about Frank Shankwitz, who in 1980 became the driving spirit behind the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Now a national volunteer-powered nonprofit with international reach, Make-A-Wish fulfills specific dreams of children with critical illnesses.

In 2013, Davies filmed a motivational talk by Shankwitz. The event was held at Secret Knock, a local invitation-only event for accomplished business entrepreneurs. Davies filmed the presentation for his friend, San Diego-based Secret Knock creator Greg S. Reid, author of several books, including “Stickability: The Power of Perseverance (Think and Grow Rich).”

Shankwitz described his own difficult childhood and the remarkable circumstances that led him to help establish the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Afterward, Davies and Reid discussed making a movie together, hopefully with Shankwitz as the subject.

“We had just seen 300 people moved to tears by Frank’s speech,” recalled Davies, who shot his 2013 film “5 Hour Friends” in San Diego.

“Greg spoke to Frank right after that and asked him: ‘What is your wish?’ Frank replied that no one had ever asked him that. ‘I want my story to be told,’ he said, ‘so my children and grandchildren will know about the contributions I’ve made to the world.’ ”

Life journey

Shankwitz was an Arizona Highway Patrol officer who, in 1980, helped fulfill the wish of Chris, a 7-year old boy with leukemia. Fascinated by the TV show “CHiPs,” Chris wanted to be a motorcycle patrol officer. Shankwitz and his colleagues were able to present Chris with a customized uniform, a badge and even his own motorcycle-officer wings.

A few days later, Chris died, with the knowledge that he was an honorary Arizona Highway Patrol officer.

On the plane home from Chris’ funeral, Shankwitz realized wishes could come true for other critically ill children. With the help of other Arizonans, he founded the Make-A-Wish Foundation, becoming its first president.

“Wish Man” is co-produced by writer-director Davies, Reid and Marc Gold. Shankwitz acted as a consultant for the film, helping scout Arizona locations in Prescott and Seligman.

Davies emphasizes that the film is not the history of the foundation, but the patrol officer’s personal life journey. It covers Shankwitz’s turbulent childhood and the traumatic things he saw as a motorcycle cop.

Picked up by NAGRA myCinema, an indie distributor of inspirational films, “Wish Man” was screened twice in France, at the Marche du Cannes, the Cannes Film Festival’s business counterpart. Andrew Steel, the Australian who portrays Shankwitz, witnessed a standing ovation for “Wish Man” the second night.

“The film definitely tugs at the heartstrings,” said Steel, speaking from Cannes in late May. “Theo brilliantly crafted the movie. In the cinema, the lights come on and people are wiping tears away and hugging each other.”

Steel attended that fateful 2013 San Diego Secret Knock meeting. There, he met Shankwitz, who suggested Steel audition to play him.

“Andrew read exceptionally well,” Davies noted. “He had Frank’s physical attributes – they are big guys, very similar in stature, build and height. We knew immediately he was the front-runner.”

The rest of the cast will please any indie-film aficionado. The familiar faces include Danny Trejo (“Machete”) and Dale Dickey (“Leave No Trace,” “Claws”), as well as perennial TV-film actors Bruce Davison and Frank Whaley.

Steel’s own nonprofit, Flicks4Change, promotes socially conscious short films. He felt an immediate connection with Shankwitz.

“Frank and I are aligned in our values of giving back and helping others,” the actor explained. “Frank has had a life of service. The film highlights that a simple act of kindness can cause a ripple effect.

“The Highway Patrol is on service 24/7. I wanted to do justice to Frank and his story. It’s a challenge, but when you get the opportunity of a lifetime, you gotta grab it by the horn.”

The lure of San Diego

“Wish Man” is expected to be shown at theaters nationally and, in the fall, be available on DVD, Blu-ray and video on demand. Davies’ wife and manager, Marcela, is helping promote “Wish Man.” Additional screenings will be held in mid-July at the Manchester Grand Hyatt’s Rooftop Cinema Club.

Meanwhile, Theo Davies is writing the script for his next film. Titled “Framed,” it chronicles the rise and fall of Tod Volpe, once known as “art dealer of the stars.” Several high-profile Hollywood veterans have committed as producers.

Does this mean America’s Finest City may lose a promising movie director to Tinseltown?

“San Diego is everything SoCal, without the problems of L.A.,” Davies replied. “It’s nice to have that detachment from L.A. I have to admit, though, that I’ve been so busy, we have talked about moving there. Three producers of ‘Framed’ will be in L.A., so it makes sense to be based where the work is.

“But we always come up with an excuse not to move to L.A. We put it off as long as we can, because we love San Diego.”

 San Diego premiere of “Wish Man”: 6 p.m. Thursday through June 12. La Paloma Theatre, 471 S. Coast Highway 101, Encinitas. Tickets: $10. (760) 436-7469.

— Beth Wood is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune