The Faith to Move Mountains—And to Make Movies About Faith

“At the end of the day,” says Eduardo Verástegui of Metanoia Films, which produced "Bella" and "Little Boy", “if you take faith out of the equation, you collapse.”

Eduardo Verastegui is a man of many talents: singer, model, actor, producer, pro-life speaker. After a successful career in music as a young man, he began acting in Mexican telenovelas, earning the nickname “the Brad Pitt of Mexico”. After moving to Hollywood to pursue a career in films he returned to the Catholic faith of his youth. Verastegui then co-founded Metanoia Films with Alejandro Gomez Monteverde and Leo Severino. In 2006, the company released its first film, “Bella,” which was directed by Monteverde and starred VerÁstegui; it won the “People’s Choice Award” at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival. 

Metanoia Films’ second film, “Little Boy”, opens tomorrow in theaters nationwide. It stars Jakob Salvati, David Henrie, Kevin James, Emily Watson, Ted Levine, Michael Rapaport, Ali Landry and Ben Chaplin, and is distributed by Open Road Films. (You can read Catholic World Report‘s review of the movie on the CWR blog.)

Verastegui spoke with Catholic World Report this week about his career, working in Hollywood, the success of “Bella”, the making of “Little Boy”, and the necessity of faith in every aspect of life.

CWR: When “Bella” was released in 2006, you said, “Hollywood doesn’t belong to the studios. Hollywood belongs to God.” How would you describe “Hollywood”? And what have you learned about it over the years?

Verastegui: Hollywood is a great platform that gives you an opportunity to send a message through art to the whole world; it’s like a megaphone—when you speak through a megaphone, like the megaphone of Hollywood, the whole world listens to you. But at the same time that can be very dangerous because anyone can go there and say whatever they want, but it does not mean that any message that comes forward is truth.

In my opinion, a high percentage of what is coming out of Hollywood is very disconnected from the reality of who we are in this country and what families are—and that can poison the minds of the youth. At the same time Hollywood can be a great platform to do something good, and that’s what I am trying to do—to be involved in projects that are rich. My goal is to produce movies that have potential to make a difference in society. My hope as a filmmaker is that as people leave the theater they will be moved, touched, and inspired to do the right thing.

In particular, with “Little Boy”, I hope that people will leave theaters full of hope, faith, and love. I believe art has the power to heal and bring people together. All of that exists in “Little Boy”. It surpasses those elements that are important for me to share with the audience. I am doing this not just to make movies, but to spark a movement of love, a movement of hope through the expression of art. Through art we can elevate the intellect toward what is good, beautiful, and true.

CWR: You’ve also indicated that “Bella” wasn’t meant to be a “religious film” but a film with universal themes appealing to a wide range of people. Did the success of “Bella” confirm the need for such an approach? And was the same approach taken with “Little Boy”?

Verastegui: Yes, Metanoia Films produces films for everyone, not just one group. “Bella” welcomes everyone. “Little Boy” welcomes everyone who has a heart that is sensitive, everyone who is open to explore ideas, and anyone who wants to use their talents to make a difference. That is the right audience … my hope is when audiences see our movies—when they see “Little Boy”—they will leave with a change of heart.

CWR: What projects have you been involved in since the making of “Bella”? When and how did “Little Boy” start to come together?

Verastegui: After “Bella”, I worked on “For Greater Glory”, which was produced by a company in Mexico owned by friends of mine who are in line with my own intentions to inspire people. Recently I was involved in “Mall Cop 2”, which is in theaters now. “Mall Cop 2” is a comedy written by my friend Kevin James and is a movie for the whole family, a clean movie that will make you laugh very hard. It provides a subtle and beautiful message about what it means to be a father who is willing to do anything to protect his daughter, and what everyday heroism can be in a person who is always helping someone else.

Before “Mall Cop 2” I called Kevin and asked him if he would like to be involved in my film “Little Boy”. I told him we wrote a role for him, a smaller role, and that it would be filmed in Mexico and made by Mexicans with an international cast. He agreed. He didn’t charge a penny because he wanted to help us. He loved the script. A little later he told me he wrote a role for me in “Mall Cop 2”. I am grateful for his trust. 

My company Metanoia has also completed few short films, some I produced, one I acted in, “The Butterfly Circus”, which has almost 40 million views on YouTube. This film is about hope and vocation, and invites the audience to explore vocation, their calling in life. I produced another film called “Crescendo”, which is also available on YouTube. 

CWR: What is the basic story of “Little Boy” and what sort of themes does it present and explore? 

Verastegui: “Little Boy” is a fairytale for adults through the mind of a 7-year-old boy; it is the ultimate underdog story. The child and central character is Pepper. He is very short and special; he has no friends, he is bullied, and people make his life miserable. But he has one friend—his best friend—his father. This movie takes places in a very small town in California in the 1940s.

A member of the family is required to go to war, but the older son is rejected as 4-F because of flat feet. Instead, Pepper’s father volunteers to go to war. This film is about what this boy needs to do—what he’s willing to do to achieve the impossible and save his father and bring him back home alive. It’s about the indescribable love the son has for his father and the father has for his son.

“Little Boy” has a great cast: Emily Watson, Kevin James, David Henrie, and the child is acted by Jakob Salvati. One of the hardest things we had to do was to find a child like Jakob to play Pepper. He was at the audition to be with his older brother and we invited him to audition; we saw him nine times and we were convinced he should have the role. He was a gift to us because he carries the entire movie. If you cast the wrong child actor, the movie will collapse, so it was so very important to find the right child for this role.

This movie is a sign to “wake-up” the “Little Boy” we all have in our hearts—the innocence and the purity and the capacity to love, dream, forgive, and serve big. In the world of children there is no war. Something happens with war; violence and other things in the world that seduce us. That is what is happening today in modern times. Even though this movie takes place in the 40s, we can relate to war, prejudice, discrimination, and bullying. We have the same problems now and the same answers too, but we keep repeating history. This film teaches that the answers to our problems are found in humility, hope, love, respect. “Little Boy” shows that we need to become children again so we can start seeing heaven on earth. 

CWR: You play a priest in the movie; how else were you involved in the production of the film? What are some of the biggest challenges in making films? 

Verastegui: My main role was to produce the movie. I had a cameo which Alejandro [Monteverde] wrote for me, and he told me it would require an external transformation. I shaved my head, put on some glasses and I gave life to Fr. Crispin. I have a small cameo, but my main scene is an important one because it sends a message to Pepper. Fr. Crispin instills the message that if Pepper has faith the size of a mustard seed, he can move a mountain! The entire movie is about living this message; this story is about helping to believe in the impossible.

The biggest challenge? Everything was a challenge. I am facing challenges every day, just like the “Little Boy”, Pepper, wants to move a mountain. I have conflicts, problems, and even dreams that have not come true yet. We had to move many mountains to make this film—from the fundraising, to the casting, and production. We moved to Mexico for filming where we built an entire town. Working with a child actor is always a challenge because he can only work six hours a day. … These were big challenges, but thank God we made the movie on budget and on time, and everyone was perfect.

New challenges emerged in post production; you have to trust the decision of the director on the scenes in the movie in the final editing process. Then, in the end, the distribution was a big challenge because we got rejected by many studios. Everyone said, “Why do you want to make a movie that expensive?”, “Why with a kid?”, “Why this?” We kept hearing “No you can’t,” but when when someone rejects me or my project, I love it. Instead of being discouraged, it’s the opposite. It brings me life. We experienced rejection. Lots of knocking on doors, but we are making a movie about believing in the impossible!

We kept working and persevering and we ended up with a great studio who gave us an amazing deal, with more than a thousand screens for the theatrical release. It was such an honor to work with very experienced people. Finally we are about to see the light on April 24th when “Little Boy” is released nationwide. Those who say “No” to you, in the end, they end up helping you. Their doubt helped my belief.

CWR: What future projects are you and Metanoia Films involved in? 

Verastegui: Right now we are in development of other projects, but they are not fully cooked yet. At this moment, we are making sure “Little Boy” learns how to walk. The film will be released in Europe this summer. 

CWR: Some people have criticized the film for being too saccharine. What is your response?

Verastegui: It’s a fairy tale. It’s a simple story that is designed help your imagination go to a new world. There is nothing saccharine about having your father go to war, and there is nothing saccharine about the atomic bomb. The acts of kindness and hope that Pepper is involved in are the actions he believes will bring his father back home alive. While he is living the “list” of good works, miracles happen and the town is changing. It’s a very complex and sad world at times. The tone of the film has to be translated into a fairy tale that is watchable, healthy, and full of inspiration.

CWR: Is there a particular reason for the vintage setting of the film during World War II, as opposed to tackling the subject of faith in a more contemporary setting? 

Verastegui: This is the imagination of the writers. Alejandro is one of the most talented filmmakers I know and he came to me with the story finished. After “Bella”, I was convinced this would be my second production; I was in tears and connected with the story. I knew it would be a big challenge, but I wanted to take that risk. The writers wanted to do a movie about the ultimate underdog; they were watching a World War II documentary by accident, and from there they said the story they would write would be about a child living in the 40s during World War II, and they added the vintage look to capture the soul of America.

CWR: It goes without saying that this film seems to appeal primarily to people of faith. But how did you take into account a secular audience as you were making it? What were you hoping would be the secular society’s response to a film primarily about faith? 

Verastegui: Everyone has faith in something—in yourself, in God. Faith is very universal. This movie is about hope; it is about a love story, in particular, the love between a son and father and father and son. That is universal; this movie is for everyone. It is for the whole family, or for anyone who wants to experience an emotional piece with artistic elements.

CWR: Racial discrimination plays a key role in the film. What was the motivation for introducing it into a story told through a child’s eyes? 

Verastegui: I consider “Little Boy” an adult fairy tale and in some ways it is able to address deep and dark issues because it is a kind of fairy tale that feels safe. When we are children our defenses are down and we are open and honest with each other. In the same way, because this is a beautiful story about the love of a child, we are able to tackle difficult topics, such as racism, and a time in our history that we are deeply ashamed of.

At the same time, I think viewers understand that we are coming from a place of loving and admiring America, and not attacking her. We are first-generation immigrants who love this country. Of course, we know it is not a perfect country, but it is closer to being perfect than any other country in the world and over time it corrects its own wrongs, and that is what we love about America. So even though we raise difficult issues, I don’t believe the viewer will feel offended or be put on the defensive. Our motivation in raising those issues is love for our adopted country and to show that we have made tremendous gains since the 40s in the way we treat other races in this country.

CWR: What inspired you to create a story that is specifically about the issue of faith? 

Verastegui: Because at the end of the day, if you take faith out of the equation, you collapse. Everyone has faith during moments of pain, sadness, and joy; in moments when you have to bury someone you love, or when when your best friend betrays you. We cannot avoid pain. When that happens, faith is what saves you. At the moment you lose faith, you collapse.

You also have to have faith to finish a movie! Faith leads to hope and love. Those are the three most important things in the movie and we wanted to explore them through the eyes of a little child. Faith is the most important thing in my life; it is why we do what we do as artists and filmmakers. Faith is a gift. Pepper asks, “How can I get bigger faith?” He needs to have faith that his father will come back, and if his father doesn’t return, he still needs to have faith that everything happens for a reason.

Faith is a gift from God—a grace and the most wonderful gift. It helps us have a clearer vision of everything that is happening in our lives. Does it give you all the answers? It tells you everything happens for a reason and everything is going to be okay.

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