We recently spoke with film composer Robert Folk about his tenure on the re-edited version of Roland Joffe’s epic, There Be Dragons. As a follow-up to that interview, film director / producer / wiz-kid James Ordonez provides us with the inner workings of the film’s progress from religious biopic to ambitious drama.
Ordonez has taken the time to give WhatCulture an exclusive journey into the re-invention of Joffe’s project. The film bombed on release, and despite some positive reviews, it sank into the abyss of nothingness. Despite this firm rejection, Ordonez was unwilling to let the film die, and took this opportunity to help revive it. Join us now as Ordonez tells us about controversial beliefs, onset spats and the millions spent to redeem a potential modern classic.
“There Be Dragons was originally conceived before Roland [Joffe] was involved, as a biopic for one of the main characters Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei.1”
“After The Da Vinci Code, Opus Dei found themselves on the side of a lot of controversy. The Da Vinci Code portrayed Opus Dei as a really dark Christian sect that hide behind a lot of plots and there was a real question about the truth of what their beliefs are. Opus Dei has always been very worried about their portrayal.2 They wanted to delete that image from the world, they wanted to show that; ‘Hey, we are not the bad guys, we are just a religious group.’ So they wanted to make a movie that would counter The Da Vinci Code, maybe almost like a prequel to The Da Vinci Code that explores the origin of Opus Dei.”
“When The Da Vinci Code came out, Time Magazine dedicated an entire issue to just analyzing the good and bad of Opus Dei, and again there has been a lot of bad publicity since that came out. All of this is before Roland Joffe, myself or Tayrona [Production Company] were attached to the project, it all originated with Opus Dei. But Opus Dei are not film makers; they raised the money to finance the film, but they approached Roland to get the film made.”
1Opus Dei is a Catholic Group that was established by Josemaria Escriva during the Spanish Civil War. They preach the religious significance of everyday life.
2James is of course referring to the source material’s suggestion that Jesus Christ has a lineage and that the Opus Dei are seeking to cover it up. Not, as some may have thought, that Tom Hanks is a part-time cryptologist…although he might be.
Roland Joffe and Tayrona
“At this moment it was a preliminary script, an idea to make this film about the Opus Dei founder. At first Roland actually rejected the project because he is not a Catholic person, he is not a religious person; in fact he defines himself as agnostic. When Roland was finally convinced to make the film, one of his conditions was that he would write the script, and then things started to move forward.”
“At this point, Opus Dei went through different investors with no tax credits, with no traditional pre-sales and no traditional film financing; the original production was entirely green lit by Opus Dei. At some point around this stage myself and Tayrona got involved to be one of the investors and distributors of the film. I had a lot of history with Roland; we met each other for the very first time on The Mission. At that time I was just a little kid, and the reason I got to be his assistant was because the company I worked for got involved with the production. We were soft-equity financers for The Mission, and it was a condition of the financing that I would be involved with him, but to be honest I was just a water boy. But, that is how my relationship with him began, and it has been going for almost 25 years.”
“So when the script for There Be Dragons came to my desk, I said ‘We’re in. I don’t care what you need. I just want to be involved for personal reasons and I would love to be helping with whatever is needed to help Roland.’ So we made some financing commitments to the film; we made up a very small portion of the financing, but that was the moment we became involved with the film.”
“Roland had some conflicts particularly because the Opus Dei producers were not really filmmakers, and the only interest they had was to expose in the maximum way possible, the origins of Opus Dei. But the film Roland wanted was not that film, the film he wanted was a love story of forgiveness and redemption in the middle of the Spanish Civil War; where Josemaria was one of the characters, one of the instrumental tools for the forgiveness and redemption of the main story. Opus Dei wanted to make a biopic about the priest, whereas Roland wanted to tell a story where the priest was just one of the characters. Because Opus Dei were financing the film, every single scene (particularly from the priest’s childhood) was shot.”
“The film was eventually put together, and over 20 versions of the film were edited. To be honest, none of them were working. As distributors of the film, we [Tayrona] took a look at all versions of the film and also we then started to have some early disagreements with Opus Dei, because the film was boring; it was not the epic we had signed off on. We were very unhappy with the early cuts; we began to have huge concerns because by this point we had committed over $10 million to the project. Everyone started to look at it as an art house film, so we had some discussions because our biggest fear was that no theatre had committed to show the film yet. The response was, ‘That’s Roland Joffe’s version, and so we will protect that and sign off on it.’ At this point we were not having any direct dialogue with Roland, our discussions were with Opus Dei and we were respecting that.”
“Then we said, ‘Ok, lets do the following. Finish the film, lets see how it does in Spain3. Maybe it will rock there, and then when it comes to America we can persuade more theatres to show it there.’ Personally, I was not convinced at all; I saw the film and thought that the first 50 minutes in particular, was a pure mess. The first 50 minutes was a biopic and the second hour was a love story, but it was a total disconnection; it was like two films in one.”
3The film was intended to open in Spain on March 25th 2011 and then a few months later in the United States on May 6th 2011.
A New Vision
“The film totally under performed on its Spanish release. It was totally killed, massacred by critics and reviews, and financially the film totally under performed; to the point that only a few people actually noticed it ever existed. At this moment our financial exposure is so big, and we are not prepared to lose over $10 million, so I had the following conversation with Opus Dei; ‘We know how to fix the film, we know how to make it work.’ They said, ‘This is Roland Joffe’s vision. What you see is what you get.’ So I made a very personal proposal, I asked them to let me remake the entire film and if they didn’t like what they saw, it wouldn’t matter because it was our financial exposure and they wouldn’t have anything to lose. I asked them to give me entire access to all the hard drives with the film on, and I would totally re-edit it in accordance with a new vision. They said that if Roland agreed to it, then they would say ok.”
“So I had a conversation with Roland, I told him that I respect him and honor him, but that the film was a total disaster. I asked Roland to trust me and outlined what I intended to do. I told him all the changes I wanted to make, and said how I was going to cut large portions of the Josemaria story; but it is not only a re-edit, I am going to remake the film, I am going to change the storyline. I wanted to change many things, I even wanted to change the color of the film because it was in sepia tones and I felt that was too boring. I was going to change the music of the film4, I said: ‘If you don’t like it, you can say James you are a total piece of s–t.’ Then he ensured me that the film was entirely in my hands, entirely on my shoulders. Of course, I was consulting with Roland on a daily basis, but in the end it would be my vision of the film.”
“The following 6 months after this, it was me in the editing room. I got to work with Rob [Folk] on instructing him with the music that I wanted to have for the film. One of my main roles for the music was to have a follow on from The Mission and try to have music that was going to be as close as possible to The Mission, because in many ways I saw that these two films were very similar. So I began this process of re-inventing the film. The conclusion was that we cut over 50 minutes of the film, we brought back 20 minutes of deleted scenes, and we changed the storyline. Our priest became a supporting character, we brought in brand new sound effects and re-edited the sound, we re-colored the film frame by frame, we essentially made a completely new film with the same characters.”
4The new score was to be provided by Robert Folk, who discussed his experiences of the film in a previous exclusive interview.
The Final Cut
“By this point, Roland had not seen the new film. Obviously we were speaking daily and discussing things and I was sending him DVDs on how we were progressing, but not the final film. Before we showed the film to Roland, we showed the film to Opus Dei and the Opus Dei heads. At first they rejected the film, because it was completely different to what they had intended, and totally different from what they wanted to have made; they didn’t like the film. By this moment our financial exposure had grown to $23 million, we had screened the film in a lot of Catholic communities and the reaction had been great, people had shown major support, so we came back to Opus Dei and said; ‘We disagree with your opinion because everybody else is giving the film acclaim.’”
“Eventually we arranged to show the film to members of Opus Dei in Mexico City, and they loved it. We agreed that the new version, although different from what was intended, still had merit for Opus Dei, and was actually portraying a very positive image of them. So once this had been agreed, I invited Roland to L.A because I wanted him to see it on a big screen, so we prepared a screening room for him. Of course I was very nervous because the film had his name on it and I really wanted him to like it, and he loved it. He said that the film was better than he ever intended, so I could breathe at that moment.”
“By now it was considered a locked film, so we began our worldwide press junket to promote the film. We went to over ten countries, particularly Latin American locations, and we screened the film to over 5000 people. At this point I can safely say everyone loves the film, we have yet to receive a single word of negative feedback, so I am very proud of that, as is Roland. Now we are prepping a major release for the film because it deserves it. I would say this has been a very unique journey, because I don’t think many people can say a film was totally re-made to give it a totally new life. I consider the film to be my baby, because it has become my vision. But this is still Roland Joffe’s film; he made it on set, and I made it in the editing room.”
“25 years later, after that first experience of mentor to child, we are now working together as equals.”
There Be Dragons: Secrets of Passion is currently awaiting an international release date.