A Conversation with “For Greater Glory” Director Dean Wright
“Who are you if you don’t stand up for what you believe? There is no greater glory than to give your life for Christ.”
That line, spoken by Peter O’Toole as Father Christopher, sums up the film, “For Greater Glory,” which releases June 1 by Arc Entertainment. The film is based on the true story of the 1920’s Cristero War in Mexico that erupted after President Plutarco Calles outlawed religion. Across the country, men and women made the decision to risk it all for family, faith and the very future of their country. The three year war left 90,000 dead; many people were martyred for their faith, including a young boy, Jose Luis Sanches del Rio.
Dean Wright, who previously worked as Special Effects Supervisor on such blockbusters as “Titanic,” “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Chronicles of Narnia,” steps into the Director’s position with “For Greater Glory.” Paula K. Parker recently attended a press junket, where Wright spoke about the challenges of filming several of the film’s more intense scenes.
Q: The scene of the martyrdom of Jose was reminiscent of Christ’s death. Was that intentional?
Dean Wright: Movies are a great tool for not just communicating stories – which in this case we had an incredible story – but for inspiring people with individual feats of courage or sacrifice. They’re also a great way to visually move an audience.
We tried it a number of ways. One was where we shot the film, in a number of the most spectacular places, most of which were where the conflicts were based.
It’s a great way to reinforce the overall theme of the film; in this case, it was faith and sacrifice. You’ll see this in several ways. There’s visual imagery; if you go back and watch the film, you’ll see visual motifs that are repeated over and over again for specific reasons at specific times.
Camera work is done that way too; it’s symbolic. When we’re on the Federales or President Calles, it’s solid, it’s firm. We don’t move; we’re very slow. It’s like a rock that’s hard to push against. When we’re with the Cristeros, it’s free-flowing; it’s pulling you into the war. You feel the kinetic energy that’s happening there.
Specifically to your question, the real Jose was brutalized in a way that we only hint at in the film. In fact, even from an early cut, we trimmed it back even more. He did what happened on the screen. Shooting it the way we did was absolutely showing his step of following the path that Christ took, because that is what he knew he needed to do.
It certainly was deliberate; hopefully not overly obvious. It’s what he did and it’s also a metaphor for what inspired him to do what he did.
Q: When Jose is killed, the camera angle is from above and it’s the same with Father Christopher. Was this an intentional God’s eye-view?
Dean Wright: Perhaps; it serves a dual purpose. Both [camera angles] are straight up, looking straight down. With Father Christopher it’s solid, unmoving. With Jose, it slowly moves in with the boy, as he is kicked like an animal into the grave; to help communicate that feeling of sorrow.
I’ve got to tell you that it was the most brutal day of the shoot for me. Michael Love did an incredible job writing the screenplay. I did a little polishing, trying to make it a little more cinematic. [Laughs] I’m allowed to say that, I’m the director.
To take the stories of these people; I saw them as fictional, but then I met them. I met Gorostieta’s daughter. I met relatives of Anacleto. I traveled the country and saw – in the middle of nowhere – a church with a shrine, with a little picture and some flowers in remembrance of the priest who wouldn’t leave and was shot.
You go from that and understanding the responsibility you have of telling the story – to tell it truthfully – to having the cast come on and they start creating these characters and they [the characters] come alive. After six weeks of shooting, I’m on the set and it’s not Andy (Garcia), it’s Gorostieta, Jose, and Father Vega. [Laughs] Even off set, we’d go to dinner and Andy would be the general and everyone would be listening to him.
Then we got to a point where we had to start killing them. I call myself a Method Director, which I know is weird. When I was watching, I had to make sure that what they were feeling, I felt was real, I had to believe it. I also had to make sure the audience would feel what I wanted them to feel.
At this point, I’m trying to compose these shots and communicate these moments in a way that has the most effective impact of that moment, of whoever is in trouble or caught or dying. To shoot that over and over again is oh my gosh. First, I’d kill one character and then another and then another. For Jose, everyday we’d do the scene where I’d have him marching through the streets.
It was a hard shoot; we had no cover sets, which meant we were exposed to the weather. Someone followed us the whole way, I’m telling you. We finished on schedule, to the day. We left this incredible place where the camp was; the next day, the hurricane went through. We were in Cuetzalan for two and one half weeks; the day after we left, the road collapsed and there was no way in or out. [Laughs] Protection; let’s just say that.
When we were in Cuetzalan – it’s a beautiful little mountain town – and the fog just rolled in out of nowhere. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face for an hour and then it’d be gone. The rain would come in torrents and flood. Saturday came and it started as a light rain. It’s risky; if we start shooting in the rain and then it stops, what do we do? We had talked about it the night before that a light rain would be great because of the whole imagery we were trying to do. But it started lightly raining and stayed that way the whole day. It was very somber. That last shot, I had to make it feel like I got kicked in the stomach.
This was the last shoot of the day. When you do a shoot in Mexico, you shoot five and a half days. On the half day, you shoot in the morning and then there’s a barbeque and partying. But after this shoot, it was very quiet. Everyone went back to the catering tents and sat, eating quietly. We all felt it.
I went back to my hotel room and slept for two hours. When I woke up, I went out and sat on my balcony and just stared. Later I went down and sat with Peter O’Toole. I recounted this and didn’t understand why I was feeling this.
He told me the story of Alexander Dumas. One day, while writing “The Three Musketeers” Dumas came down the stairs, crying, with black all over his face – during this time they wore wigs and makeup – and somebody asked, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?”
“I just killed Aramis.”
“That’s what it is,” O’Toole said. “These characters were alive in your heart and you just killed them.”
That’s why you need people like Peter O’Toole.”