Dean Wright is the latest VFXer to cross over into directing with "For Greater Glory" (opening Friday in limited release), following in the footsteps of James Cameron, Peter Jackson, and Andrew Adamson. Indeed, working with these three celebrated directors on "Titanic," the last two "Lord of the Rings" epics, and the first two "Chronicles of Narnia" ventures was like a Master's class. Wright even got to direct second unit for Jackson and Adamson.
However, "For Greater Glory" is anything but a VFX movie in chronicling Mexico's darkest hour of the modern era: the government-sanctioned persecution and slaughter of Catholics in the 1920s, which turned into the infamous Cristero War. First the clerics were deported or murdered and then anyone else that resisted the draconian law. The stirring drama was therefore more "Braveheart" than "Lord of the Rings," which is why Wright attracted such prestigious actors as Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria, Peter O'Toole, Oscar Isaac, Ruben Blades, Bruce Greenwood, and Catalina Sandino Moreno.
Good thing Wright had a wealth of experience to draw on as both a craftsperson and problem solver (including stints as Digital Domain's VFX production manager and head of production for Disney's former Dream Quest Images digital facility) because he was under the gun with this indie. He only had 12 weeks to shoot in six states throughout Mexico, which had never been done before on this scale. Wright had to contend with animals, stunt people, and extras, while also choreographing battle sequences. Since this was a home grown production, he also trained the local production team. Wright even insisted shooting on film, despite his digital experience, and nearly ran out of film stock, because he believes it is still superior. It was the model of guerilla filmmaking, spearheaded by producer Pablo Barroso, who longed to bring this secret atrocity to the big screen.
And when they got into post, the producers were so encouraged by the footage that they bumped up the budget to around $15 million, allowing Wright to hire composer James Horner, among others.
"When I read the script by Michael Love it reminded me of the American Founding Fathers even though it was Mexico of the 1920s," Wright recalls. "They were all fascinating, conflicted characters." They include retired General Gorostieta (played by Garcia), an agnostic that leads the freedom fighters; Father Reyes Vega (Santiago Cabrera), who joins the fight seeking vengeance; and Victoriano Ramirez (Isaac), a free-spirited insurgent.
"They all make mistakes and screw up," Wright adds. "To a person, they all did the right thing, I think. We needed to do what Peter did with 'Lord of the Rings': show Mexico to a world that's never seen this: the triumphant heroism of Mexican historical figures. The immigration of Mexicans into this country really started during this period. People fled across the border for safety because they were being persecuted and killed. Millions left to build communities and never went back."
For a WASP from Michigan, this inspirational story resonated deeply. Wright says everyone involved personalized it: Garcia saw it as a Cuban; O'Toole as a European; all the Latinos saw it from their individual perspectives. As part of a grass roots promotional campaign a la "The Passion of the Christ," distributor Arc Entertainment has hosted a series of screenings for Hispanic cultural and political organizations. From Wright's perspective, the response has been encouraging
Meanwhile, "For Greater Glory" opened a month ago in Mexico, and while it's done well, this long suppressed atrocity has also opened old wounds. Theater owners, for example, told patrons that screenings were sold out during the second week even though there were seats available.
"At some point, individuals can only be oppressed so long," Wright continues. "And the atrocities were far worse than we showed. But it has international appeal. Look at what happened when that fruit vendor set himself on fire in Tunisia and toppled governments."
Ironically, Wright only gravitated toward "For Greater Glory" after his pet project, the biblical "Kingdom Come," was aborted weeks before production when the economic crisis hit in 2008. Wright would still like to resurrect "Kingdom Come." It's big and bold: "Ben-Hur" meets "Lord of the Rings."
"I enjoy VFX and popcorn movies as much as anyone, but it's such a pleasure discovering scenes on location with actors and blocking them out," Wright enthuses.