Dean Wright, director of the 2012
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
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
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.
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
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
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 reelwhich is a tiny movie itselfso 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
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.
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
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
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.