Dean Wright, director of the 2012 film For Greater Glory, made his first movie as a boy attending grammar school in Scottsdale, Arizona. He did it for a school project, and received an “A” for his efforts. He was immediately drawn to the process of telling stories on film, and knew that moviemaking would be his life’s work.
He attended film school at the University of Arizona and began his career making movies in the Tucson desert, typically Westerns. He re-located to southern California, and has since worked in visual effects on big budget Hollywood films such as Titanic, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. He was also an executive in charge of special effects for Disney. While working on the third Lord of the Rings film, The Return of the King, he had the opportunity to do second unit directing (without principal actors). For Greater Glory, which told the story of Mexico’s Cristero War in the 1920s, was Wright’s debut as director.
In a recent interview with CWR, Wright reflected on the success of For Greater Glory, working as a Christian in Hollywood, and plans for Kingdom Come, a special effects film telling the story of the public ministry of Jesus Christ.
CWR: What is life like in the film industry? Is it stressful? Demanding?
Wright: Yes, it’s both on multiple levels. You have to find work and feed your family; sometimes you have jobs that take you away from home for a long time. And, there are many pressures when you’re working on projects. [Laughing] I think you have to be crazy to do it.
Most people can make a decent salary as a member of a film crew, but no one gets rich doing it. You also risk being out of work for two or three months at a time. People working in television, for example, have periods of down time and there is no guarantee that they’ll get work again. You get used to saving as much money as you can when you’re working to cover your expenses when you’re not. You may read stories about this or that Hollywood celebrity making lavish amounts of money and buying expensive homes and cars, but that’s not most of us. We’re hard-working people raising families.
CWR: How did you get the opportunity to direct For Greater Glory?
Wright: I was doing visual effects for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the films’ director, Peter Jackson, needed some additional photography work done that he was unable to do himself. He asked my business partner and I to serve as proxy directors, which we spent two months doing. That got the directing bug in me and I wanted to do more and more.
I was developing a new project, Kingdom Come, about Jesus Christ and his three-year public ministry, through an independent film company based in Japan. It was going to be a big-budget epic, with a production cost of $100 million or more. The plan was to be sort of a Ben-Hur meets Lord of the Rings; we’d use special effects to show Jesus walking on water or meeting angels and demons or to recreate Jerusalem and the Holy Land in the first century. We wanted to make it all look real, as if you were a disciple and there yourself.
Everyone loved the idea. Both Paramount and Warner Brothers were interested. We were eight weeks away from shooting, then the economic crisis hit. This was in 2008, when Lehman Brothers and others were going bankrupt, the stock market crashed and the people financing the film lost half their net worth overnight. Film financing dried up. People were risk-averse and the project shut down.
I literally went on a world tour to raise money to revive the project. I met with a group of Mexican businessmen in search of funding, and they told me about their own desire to make a movie about the Cristeros. It was a dark period in the history of their country, they said. And, although it happened only 80 years before, few people knew about. They heard I was a Christian, and that I had had some experience directing, and they offered me the opportunity to direct. I jumped at the chance.
CWR: When filming For Greater Glory, you had the chance to work with some experienced actors, such as Andy Garcia and Peter O’Toole, as well as those new to acting, such as Mauricio Kuri. How was it working with these talents?
Wright: It was phenomenal. I’ve been blessed in my career to work with some great filmmakers, but to work one-on-one with such esteemed actors was both unexpected and remarkable. Peter O’Toole, for example, is a legend. And, as it turned out, it was his last acting performance. He retired after making this film.
Andy Garcia is such an artist, and I think this is one of his greatest performances. He takes you through the character’s spiritual, psychological and emotional journey.
Oscar Issac was great, Bruce Greenwood, Ruben Blades…actor after actor was such a blessing to have work on it. People who work both in front of and behind the camera loved this project and wanted to tell this story.
CWR: Was the film a success?
Wright: It was for an independent film. By Hollywood standards, it was a modest success, but at least it made its $12 million budget back. It broke into the Top 10 when it was released, and it was a top film in Mexico. The important thing was that we made it outside the system, against all odds.
Critically, we received some good reviews. A lot of mainstream media people reacted in a way one would expect to films of a religious nature. They were predisposed as to whether or not they’d like it. They’re not used to having the main characters fight and die based on their religious beliefs.
Film reviewer Roger Ebert, for example, thought the movie was too Catholic. He thought it should have included a focus on other religions being persecuted by the Mexican government. But Mexico in the 1920s was 99 percent Catholic; this persecution wasn’t against Protestants or Jews, but an attack on the Catholic Church. The film reflected that.
CWR: What’s the best way to make a film like For Greater Glory a commercial success?
Wright: It comes down to word-of-mouth. You target certain audiences and reach out to them. Marketing through the television and radio is also important.
CWR: Is it difficult today to get funding for films today?
Wright: Yes. We were in a unique situation with For Greater Glory. It was financed by four wealthy and prominent businessmen who had the means to fund the movie themselves and wanted to share the story of the Cristeros.
Funding for films is starting to open up, but it’s still difficult. Studios are risk-averse. They’re run by marketing and distribution people, who keep a close eye on the bottom line, not showmen. And, having big budget films like the 2012 film John Carter lose a lot of money scares studios.
What’s frustrating for creative people today is that no one is spending money on development and that original ideas are considered risky. It seems like Hollywood today is only making sequels, doing film versions of books or comic strips, or doing remakes or reboots. To get funding for an original idea you have to create artwork and make a pitch reel—which is a tiny movie itself—so that funders can understand what to expect when they see the movie. Then, maybe they’ll take a chance. You have to put hundreds of thousands of dollars into your presentations beforehand, however.
CWR: What did you learn from directing For Greater Glory that you can bring to your future projects?
Wright: I learned the value of collaboration and listening to others. I learned that a director needs to be humble. When a director starts thinking he doesn’t need anyone’s help, he becomes a tyrant.
I learned the importance of having faith. In fact, it was my faith that got me through the toughest times of making For Greater Glory.
CWR: How is it being a Christian working in Hollywood?
Wright: There are more Christians and other people of faith in Hollywood than you’d think. Why don’t we show faith in a more positive light? I suppose there is a hesitancy to reveal that side of ourselves, perhaps because we’ll be attacked in the media.
Look at Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ. He was attacked for making that movie. People in the industry are afraid that if they promote such projects they’ll lose work or they’ll be rejected by their peers. There’s a bit of bullying going on. It’s not PC to create a pro-Christian film. And, at the end of the day, it’s a battle to get it to an audience.
CWR: Is there an audience for pro-faith movies?
Wright: Yes, but it can be a challenge to connect with them.
I was watching the 1948 film Joan of Arc starring Ingrid Bergman with my kids. I was amazed that this was a film about faith, with a reverence for belief in God. It’s amazing how far we’ve come in such a short period of time. Films about faith seem so foreign to audiences. It’s a challenge of Christian filmmakers to share a deep and meaningful message of faith with audiences who aren’t used to such films.
The studios aren’t particularly supportive. In fact, Mel Gibson had to make The Passion of the Christ with his own money because the studios wouldn’t make it. But, in the end, everyone was shocked that it did as well as it did. More recently, The Bible miniseries produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett had phenomenal ratings.
CWR: Tell me about your efforts to fund Kingdom Come.
Wright: Studios used to do three-year development deals with directors. They would fund someone while they developed their ideas. There are few such deals left. Projects still need to be developed, but the studios don’t want to pay for it. That leaves producers and directors on their own, having to live off their savings.
It is particularly difficult to get funding for family and faith-based projects. I believe that the audience, rather than the studios, are my bosses, however. My goal is to make films that don’t ridicule my audience’s faith, but embrace it and present it in the light it should be presented in. I want to make movies to which you can bring the whole family, without bad language or sex thrown in to appeal to a particular demographic. So many movies today you watch with your kids, but you have to have the remote in hand ready to fast-forward through a scene if something bad comes up. We’re a devout nation, but our entertainment doesn’t reflect that.
I’m asking help from like-minded Christians to help me in my efforts to create these kinds of projects.
CWR: And it is important that when making movies about Jesus Christ, like Kingdom Come, that the filmmaker is a believer.
Wright: Yes. If you put years of your life into developing something, you have to believe in it. If you’re not a Christian and you make a movie about Jesus, it won’t be successful.
And, while any project is hard to get made today, it is doubly true with a pro-Christian film. You have to have the internal strength to see it through. I’m confident we will be a success, though, as we’ve demonstrated that there is an audience there who wants to see these films.
To watch a 9-minute presentation reel on Kingdom Come and to offer donations to help the project become a reality, visit Dean Wright’s page at GoFundMe.com.