By Katie Walsh | The Playlist December 28, 2011 at 11:07AM
It's news to no one that films often don't make it onto the screen in the exact form that their creators intended. What is newsworthy are the ways in which filmmakers are taking the reins and going the extra mile to make sure their vision remains intact. Which is exactly what director Roland Joffé has done with his latest film, "There Be Dragons." Samuel Goldwyn Films released a version of the film in the U.S. in May of this year, but on no more than 259 screens, and the film just barely grossed $1 million in box office receipts. Now, just six months later, a re-edited version is making its way to theaters via Tayrona Entertainment, in an attempt to bring the picture to a wider audience who may have missed it the first time around. The second iteration has been released in Spain and will be opening in Latin America next, before coming to U.S. theaters. We spoke to Joffé recently about the project, and how this unprecedented move is part of the ever-evolving process of independent filmmakers finding their way within the distribution side of the industry.
"There Be Dragons" follows the story of Josemaría Escrivá, the Spanish priest who founded the Catholic institution Opus Dei and was made a saint in 2002. The film is set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, framed by the story of a writer (Dougray Scott) researching a book about Escrivá in 1975. He discovers his ailing father Manolo Torres (Wes Bentley) was a childhood friend of the priest, and attended seminary with him before getting swept up in the civil war. As Escrivá attempts to escape persecution in Spain, Torres struggles with a love triangle within the ranks of the Communist rebels, between himself and the leader Oriol (Rodrigo Santoro) and Hungarian fighter Idilko (Olga Kurylenko). The parallel storylines present different points of view of the war, as allegiances, personal beliefs and relationships are tested within this conflict.
We asked Joffé to describe the process of how there came to be two different films in one year, and how he was able to bring about his second version, the director's cut entitled "There Be Dragons: Secrets of Passion," and he explained that essentially there were two different opinions of what version of the movie should be released.
"The Goldwyn release was an early version of the movie, that was hurriedly put into release because it was too expensive to not release a movie," he said. "I felt that it was a little specialized, in that it was dealing with the life of a saint in a way that would appeal to a more specialized audience, and I was told that inside the movie, there was a more commercial, a more general version that would be open to a much wider public."
"Studios, generally, have the chance to preview their movies a lot, and preview them in a very wide spectrum," Joffé explained. "Actually, attention takes a lot of time and independent movies don't have that kind of luxury. And in the old tradition of theater, you try to play out of town, and you'd run it and you'd run it and make it better and better."
In seeking to release a rendering of the film that was not only more accessible, but hewed more closely to the version he envisioned that offered different perspectives of the era, Joffé connected with producer James Ordonez (the Spanish-language telenova "Zorro: La espada y la rosa"). Ordonez recognized the potential for a version that would appeal to a wider audience, beyond those interested in just the lives of saints. "We worked with him to make an abridged version that was a more condensed version of what the original story was," Joffé said. "But that was still very very true to what it was that I wanted to say about forgiveness. So in some sense it's a very simple story."
The theme of forgiveness was the main element that Joffe wanted to explore. "I think that applies to every single human being," he said. "Josemaría said two things that I like, 'God is not necessarily found in church, God is found in everyday life, in our exchanges with other people.' And I thought, 'Well that's very interesting...how would you find God in a civil war? And the second thing, he said that every human being is capable of being saint. What he meant by that was, every human being has the ability to do extraordinary things -- surmount their more base instincts, hatred, anger...the movie is clearly about the way in which those two things operate in our lives."
Having made other films about historical events and war ("The Killing Fields," "The Mission," "City of Joy") we asked Joffé if representing the truth of history was a main overarching theme to his work, and he clarified, saying, "I think my theme much more is the idea of us as individuals, living in the powerful flow of history. And I think that's often something that's mixed up, even today, our individual lives are extraordinarily bound up in forces that are quite beyond our control in many ways. The Occupy Wall Street movement in some sense, is a sort of struggle towards understanding how do we deal with this. And it's fascinated me a lot, especially the fact that history is written by the victors, so very often what we think of as history actually isn't. And not all historians are trustworthy, and it's always fascinated me to take moments of history and look at what that meant to individuals, because people looking back at our era are wondering what it felt like for us."
Of course we had to ask about Opus Dei, an organization that has gained notoriety through films like "The Da Vinci Code," wherein Paul Bettany's villainous, secretive priest engages in cult-like practices and self-flagellation. There are also rumors of Opus Dei's involvement in the right-wing dictatorships of Franco and Pinochet, though many of these rumors have been denounced by the church and others. The name of the group means "God's Work" in Latin, and was founded to celebrate the holiness in everyone and in everyday life, with an emphasis on work.
"There Be Dragons" doesn't focus on the practices of Opus Dei, simply portraying Escrivá's inspiration for and the very nascent beginnings of the start of the organization. "I have a great fondness for the truth and the truth is often quite uncomfortable. And to be fair to Dan Brown, he really had no regard for the truth at all and I don't know why he called it Opus Dei," Joffé said. "I actually thought that was rather mean-spirited of him. It doesn't represent anything to do with Opus Dei, and Opus Dei suffered, quite like the Jesuits suffered in the 17th century, they sort of become everybody's bugaboo, and people say 'Oh my God, Opus Dei,' this great group of priests that dominate the church and probably dominate finance. It's a bit like the 'Protocols of Zion,' that thing that came out about Jews in the first World War, and I always thought that was rather unfair, the distortion."
Ultimately, what's interesting about the film beyond the story of the Saint and the Spanish Civil War, is its journey to the screen and back again, part of the evolving industrial practices of independent film production and distribution. "This is a battle that one has to fight all the time. I think it's very difficult to be an independent, on the other hand, I think in some ways, that may be better than being drowned in the studio view of the world," he said. "The movie should be a dialogue with the audience and the idea that you can learn from that dialogue, that's got to be happening more and more because to be quite honest, quite soon everyone will have a version of the movie. I wouldn't be at all surprised when the time comes, that there will be 10 or 11 versions of a movie coming out, offering different people's takes, and that happens a little bit on DVD when you get a director's cut. It's become a much more flexible thing than it ever was and I think that's rather nice, because that brings people more deeply into the process, and I think that's a rather good thing."
Despite the unorthodox re-release, Joffé holds no ill-will about the first release, seeming grateful for the opportunity to present a cut that reflects his vision more accurately, and understanding of the reasons why the initial version made it to screens. "To be fair to that first cut, the producers loved it and they loved it in that way," he said. "And things were very dear to them and I kind of helped along with that as well, you know they are very honest and very fine people. I really enjoyed working with them, and as much as I could I really wanted to respect them as well."
Joffé is currently in post-production on "Singularity," with Josh Hartnett, Simone Kessell, and Neve Campbell, a film that he describes as "A great romance across time. It involves love and quantum physics, part of which plays out in India in 1777, and part of it plays out in America in 2025. It's about how maybe we operate in time and space in ways that we don't even begin to realize." We'll be looking out for "Singularity" when it hits theaters, and "There Be Dragons: Secrets of Passion" should be making its (re)appearance in U.S. theaters soon.