Benito Martinez, Luke Ganalon and Miriam Colon in BLESS ME, ULTIMA a film by Carl Franklin. Picture courtesy Arenas Entertainment. All rights reserved.
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Bless Me, Ultima (2013)
Opened: 02/22/2013 Limited
|NoHo 7||02/22/2013 - 03/21/2013||28 days|
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|Monica 4-Plex||02/22/2013 - 03/07/2013||14 days|
|Playhouse 7||03/01/2013 - 04/18/2013||49 days|
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Trailer: Click for trailer
Genre: Coming-of-Age Drama
Rated: PG-13 for some violence and sexual references.
Based on the controversial novel by acclaimed author Rudolfo Anaya, BLESS ME, ULTIMA is a turbulent coming-of-age story about Antonio Marez (Luke Ganalon), a young boy growing up in New Mexico during World War II. When a mysterious curandera named Ultima (Miriam Colon) comes to live with his family, she teaches him about the power of the spiritual world. As their relationship grows, Antonio begins to question the strict Catholic doctrine that he has been taught by his parents (Dolores Heredia & Benito Martinez). Through a series of mysterious and at times terrifying events Antonio must grapple with questions about his own destiny, the relationship between good vs. evil and ultimately how to reconcile Ultima's powers with those of the God of his church.
"There are so many dreams to be fulfilled, but Ultima says a man's destiny must unfold itself like a flower, with only the sun and the earth and water making it blossom, and no one else meddling in it."
BLESS ME, ULTIMA is based upon the controversial novel by Rudolfo Anaya. It is a turbulent coming of age story about Antonio Marez, a young boy growing up in New Mexico during World War II. When a mysterious curandera, Ultima, comes to live with his family, she teaches him about the power of the spiritual world. As their relationship grows, Antonio begins to question the strict Catholic doctrine he has been taught by his parents. Through a series of mysterious and, at times, terrifying events Antonio must grapple with questions about his own destiny, the relationship between good vs. evil and, ultimately, how to reconcile Ultima's powers with those of the God of his church.
BLESS ME, ULTIMA adapted for the screen and directed by Carl Franklin is based upon the novel of the same title by Rudolfo Anaya. The film is produced by Jesse B'Franklin, Sarah DiLeo, and Mark Johnson, executive produced by Christy Walton and Kevin Reidy and co-produced by Tom Williams. David Bomba is the production designer, the director of photography is Paula Huidobro, the costume designer Donna Zakowska, edited by Alan Heim and Toby Yates and music by Mark Kilian.
Six-year-old Antonio Marez (Luke Ganalon) is reunited with elderly and wise Ultima (Miriam Colon) when she comes to stay with his family in their small house in Guadalupe, New Mexico. The family has taken in Ultima out of a respect for her healing powers, her knowledge of plant lore, and her long use of folk magic in service of the community. Though they have great respect for Ultima's spirituality, the family is anxious about her arrival, especially Antonio's mother Maria (Dolores Heredia), who is devoutly Catholic.
Antonio's father, Gabriel (Benito Martinez), is a former vaquero or cowboy, who wandered the llanos or great plains of New Mexico. Maria is the daughter of farmers, people who tended to their land. Antonio's parents argue about his future; Gabriel hopes he will become a vaquero, and Maria hopes he will become a priest. When Antonio was born, Ultima served as his midwife and it is believed that she is the only one who knows what lays in his future.
Antonio enjoys spending time with Ultima, learning about plants and trees and helping her gather herbs. One night, Antonio's innocence is shattered when he witnesses the death of Lupito (Bernardo Saracino), a soldier recently returned from World War II. After witnessing Lupito's murder, Antonio begins to wonder about sin, death, and hell. Antonio walks to church with Ultima the next morning, and she tells him that each person must make his or her own moral choices, must choose a set of values to use to understand the world.
His mother tells him that he will understand his moral questions better when he begins to take Communion, and he begins to look forward anxiously to the day he will be old enough to do so.
Antonio's beliefs are challenged even further when his uncle Lucas is cursed by the satanic Trementina sisters. The priest is unable to cure Lucas, but Ultima, with Antonio's help, is able to banish the curse. Antonio realizes that there is no way to explain Ultima's powers within the worldview of the Catholic Church.
One afternoon, Antonio witnesses an altercation between Narciso (Joaquin Cosio) and Tenorio (Castulo Guerra), the father of the evil sisters. In a raging blizzard, Tenorio, who blames Ultima for the death of one of his daughters, calls her not a healer (i.e. curandera) but a witch (bruja) and goes out to kill the old woman. Narciso tries to stop him, and in front of Antonio, Tenorio shoots and kills Narciso. Antonio comes down with a high fever and has frightening and symbolic dreams.
At last, the time comes for Antonio to begin preparing for his Communion. But he seems to be surrounded by dissenting voices--that of his father, who seems to worship the earth more than he does the Christian God, and that of his friend Florence, who incisively points out the failings in Catholic thought. When Antonio finally takes Communion on Easter Sunday, he feels no different than he felt before. He still does not understand how there could be evil in the world or what kind of forgiveness is possible in a world of sin.
Not long after that, Florence drowns while swimming in the river. Ultima sends Antonio to stay with his uncles to recover from the shock, and he spends a happy summer with them, learning how to tend to a farm. On the journey there, Antonio and Gabriel talk about some of the questions that have been bothering Antonio, and Gabriel tells him that he will end the conflict between the Marezes and the Lunas and let Antonio choose his own destiny.
As Antonio makes his way from his uncles' fields to his grandfather's house one day toward the end of the summer, a murderous Tenorio chases after him. Antonio escapes, but Tenorio shoots Ultima's owl. When the owl dies, Ultima is doomed to die as well because the owl is her spiritual familiar, or guardian. Antonio sits with her at her bedside and buries the owl as she requests after she dies.
FROM NOVEL TO SCREENPLAY: BRINGING THE STORY TO THE SCREEN
"Around me the moonlight glittered on the pebbles of the llano, and in the night sky a million stars sparkled. Across the river I could see the twinkling lights of the town. In a week I would be returning to school, and as always I would be running up the goat path and crossing the bridge to go to church. Sometime in the future I would have to build my own dream out of those things that were so much a part of my childhood." -- Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima
The movie began its gestation when executive producer Christy Walton, heiress to the Walton fortune, set up Tenaja Productions Company solely to finance an adaptation of BLESS ME, ULTIMA for the big screen. Monkey Hill Films' Sarah DiLeo partnered with her as producer with collaboration and support from producer Mark Johnson of Gran Via and Jesse B'Franklin of Monarch Pictures. Carl Franklin was tapped as a writer and director.
Christy Walton says "I was given the book by a good friend right after it was published, so I originally read it many years ago. I loved it and put it away. I read it again when my son was in the 6th grade and we would discuss it. Then I read it again a few years ago. I had a near death experience and realized how easy it was to die. It made me question things again. I came up with a bucket list. What did I want to see happen and what did I want to do. I said to myself, 'I really want to see this book made into a movie. I think it's time.'"
Producer Sarah Di Leo explains, "I met Christy through mutual friends at the Sundance Film Festival. She told me about Bless,Me Ultima. When I read it I immediately thought it was very cinematic, that it had an epic feel to it, a very expansive visual landscape, larger than life characters and the classic battle of good versus evil."
The next step was to convince Rudolfo Anaya that this was the right team to bring his novel to the silver screen.
DiLeo explains, "It took me about 9 months to persuade Rudolfo that we were the right people to bring his story to another medium. It culminated with me showing up, mostly unannounced, on his Thanksgiving vacation with his wife in Mexico. Thankfully, he found the visit endearing enough to then finally say yes and let us make a deal for the film rights."
Anaya adds, "Yes, my wife and I were vacationing in La Paz. Sarah came down and hung out for 2 or 3 days. She had the proposal to buy the film rights and the funding."
In an effort to move the project along, DiLeo and Walton contacted producer Mark Johnson. He explains, "I was minding my own business when Sara DiLeo and Christy Walton both contacted me and wanted to set up a meeting to discuss BLESS ME, ULTIMA. They were both very passionate about making this novel into a movie. So, then we set out to find the right writer and the right director for BLESS ME, ULTIMA."
And they all agreed that Carl Franklin was the right man for both jobs.
"I had known Carl and Jesse B'Franklin for some time and had wanted to work with them but we had just not found the right project. I mentioned BLESS ME, ULTIMA to Carl and he said 'Let me take a look at it' and he responded right away. I think Carl is a very spiritual man and he thinks profoundly. He was the perfect choice to write and direct this movie" says Johnson.
Producer Jesse B'Franklin agrees, "Carl is a really deeply spiritual person and I think reading the book touched him deeply on that level and I felt he could bring a lot to the material, in both the writing and directing of it. It is something with which he is in touch."
Carl Franklin adds, "I read it and responded to the spiritual element. I thought it was a beautiful story. I felt the book, when I read it, felt like a poem: 304 pages of poetry".
With Carl Franklin on board the process of turning the novel into a movie really began.
The challenge for Franklin, who was not only directing the film but adapting the novel as well, was to be honest to the voice of the novel and condense it into a two hour movie.
Carl Franklin explains, "There are challenges in adapting a novel. In a novel the conflicts are within the characters and in film it is between the characters. So, trying to find a way to visualize those very internal themes is always hard".
As of 2012, Bless Me, Ultima has become the best-selling Chicano novel of all time. The New York Times reports that Anaya is the most widely read author in Hispanic communities, and sales of his classic Bless Me, Ultima have surpassed 360,000 copies.
Bless Me, Ultima is Anaya's best known work and was awarded the prestigious Premio Quinto Sol. In 2008, it was one of 12 classic American novels selected for The Big Read, a community reading program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts; and in 2009 it was on the list of the United States Academic Decathlon.
Rudolfo Anaya says, "When I read Carl's first draft I really liked it. I made some suggestions and by the time he got to the second and third drafts I emailed him right away and said 'you nailed it!'."
Tackling a period film set in New Mexico during the 1940s with a predominately Hispanic cast became not only a challenge but also a labor of love for the filmmakers.
"I think our culture is specific for a variety of reasons including our history. It has a long history of settlement by Native Americans: the Pueblos, the Navajo, the Apaches. Settlement along the Rio Grande by the Pueblos is extremely important to our history. And then came the espanoles, the Spanish from Mexico. So there is a blending of cultures, both having an important spiritual orientation. And it has been in place for a very long time. There may be other places in our country that have that spiritual orientation, but this has continuity and that is very important. So, it develops on the part of the Native Americans and the Spanish, a whole series of traditions that have to do with oral traditions, with storytelling, with the church, with the spiritual world. That blend you can't find anywhere else in the country," says Anaya.
Just as the novel attracted a legion of loyal readers, the filmmakers are confident that the novel's universal themes will resonate with moviegoers. "I think the key to the book's success is that it is a fusion of a lot of different elements. It is magical realism, it is a spiritual journey, it is a family drama and there are certain elements of ethnic folklore. A lot of people have not been turned on to the folklore but are magnetized by it when they are, because it takes place in the United States yet it has a foreign feeling to it," says Franklin.
CASTING BLESS ME, ULTIMA
"'There are many gods,' Cico whispered, 'gods of beauty and magic, gods of the garden, gods in our own backyards-but we go off to foreign countries to find new ones, we reach to the stars to find new ones-'"
BLESS ME, ULTIMA gave the filmmakers the opportunity to cast some very talented actors, many of whom work outside the Hollywood tradition. The filmmakers are still amazed by the good fortune they had casting phenomenal actors not only in the lead roles, but in the supporting roles as well.
The search to find the right actor to portray Antonio was a long process. The actor had to be able to express not only the innocence of a 7 year old but also the solemn appreciation of the seriousness of life. The filmmakers decided on Luke Ganalon.
"Oh, that was an odyssey. We saw so many young boys for this role. We had initially cast another boy, he was 13 years old, but looked nine. He got an offer to do another film and we lost him. And, I think we were really fortunate. We had to cast a broader net and found kids who were actually the age of Antonio. Luke Ganalon has natural qualities you don't find in people who have had a lot of training. I am not a religious person, but I am a spiritual person and somehow I feel he is just another blessing that was bestowed upon us," says Franklin.
On his part, Luke really enjoyed his experience working on BLESS ME, ULTIMA and especially working with director Carl Franklin.
"Carl helped me a lot! He was off camera telling me things to do. He would explain, give me lots of advice. He said 'Don't be afraid to go big. Go big.' If I had a scene where I am crying he would tell me 'go big!'" explains Luke Ganalon.
Jesse B'Franklin adds, "There were some really good kids, and there were some kids with perhaps more experience, but there was something special about Luke in terms of his spirit and his sweetness and his face. There is a depth and maturity to him that you don't usually see in a nine year old. When Carl directed him, he took direction like an adult."
The catalyst for Antonio's growth is Ultima, a strong woman who seems to have a great understanding of life. The filmmakers cast the actress Miriam Colon.
"Miriam has secrets as an actress and especially for a film actor that is important. When you always feel that they are holding something within that you will never know. She knows her craft. She was just right for the role. She was the right size, the right age, she had the right voice and she had the right look. She was Ultima." says Franklin.
Ultima is the catalyst for Antonio's breaking with tradition. Antonio will be the last person with whom she shares her secrets.
Miriam Colon explains, "Ultima likes Antonio so much. She sees him struggle with life and thinks maybe some of the things she has learned she could teach him. But she is not an overwhelming individual. She gives her advice slowly and with care. She is interested in him not being polluted beyond hope, beyond repair."
Rounding out the cast are Dolores Heredia, Benito Martinez, Castulo Guerra, Joaquin Cosio, and Manuel Garcia Rulfo.
It was important that Carl Franklin was surrounded by not only a cast that would support his vision, but also by a really talented crew. Franklin chose to work with Paula Huidobro, Director of Photography, Production Designer David Bomba and Costume Designer Donna Zakowska.
NEW MEXICO: ANOTHER CHARACTER IN BLESS ME, ULTIMA
"Ultima came to stay with us the summer I was almost seven. When she came the beauty of the llano unfolded before my eyes, and the gurgling waters of the river sang to the hum of the turning earth. The magical time of childhood stood still, and the pulse of the living earth pressed its mystery into my living blood."
BLESS ME ULTIMA was shot on location in New Mexico in Santa Fe, Abiqui and surrounding area during an unexpectedly cold winter.
Jesse B'Franklin explains, "The film really is about the spirit of the people here in New Mexico. It's cultural. It's historical and it would be a travesty not to shoot it here, especially since there is a film business that is happening here. Rudolfo Anaya is a very well respected man in New Mexico. When you shoot a movie in the location where it really takes place, it informs your vision. By being there you pick up the essence of the place. And, in this particular story, which has a lot of spirituality and has lots of mysticism in it, you feel it."
Carl Franklin adds. "The environment is quite dramatic in terms of the dust, the dryness, the beauty, the cold, the heat. It has dramatic landscapes, vast panoramas, the population in comparison to land mass. The history here is so specific.
As the novel is set in New Mexico, Rudolfo Anaya was very pleased that is was shot there. "I would have been disappointed if it had been shot anywhere else. I think Carl and the producers wanted to capture the landscape of New Mexico: the river, the llano, the country, the churches as we have them here; perhaps getting the actors mixing with New Mexicans when they go to restaurants, or on the set, so they could get a sense for how we speak and carry ourselves. If we had been in Iowa ... Oh, God forbid," says Anaya.
DiLeo adds, "I think it was important to shoot this film in New Mexico for several reasons, from a creative stand point, it adds authenticity that I don't think we could find anywhere else. It was a period film with lots of challenges and the tax credits here made it possible for us to make this movie."
Johnson agrees, "We explored Mexico and even Argentina. But because there were tax credits it became clear to us when a collective light bulb went off and we asked ourselves 'how can we really make this movie and not do it in New Mexico?'"
For the actors, shooting in New Mexico gave them a different perspective which helped in building their characters.
Castulo Guerra explains, "Santa Fe is a very powerful place. A lot of people say they can't sleep in Santa Fe. The energies are too strong. Some people meditate to make peace with the energies. Rather than being farfetched, this only confirms what Ultima is talking about. You have to find balance and New Mexico is a splendid place to do it. There are forces at work here. There are plants. There are minerals. There are certain plants and trees here. It is not a joke. Anaya didn't make this up. You stay here awhile and you will find it. You are drawn to the water, how it glistens when the light hits it. I can say New Mexico is a magical place and is the perfect background for a perfectly magical story."
But all those involved knew this production was something special, something significant.
Producer Mark Johnson sums it up, "If you are in New Mexico and you tell someone about Bless Me, Ultima, they know it immediately. If you go to Los Angeles, you are not going to find an executive that knows the book. At the same time, there is something about this not entirely discovered gem. I like the idea that we are going to unveil this movie called BLESS ME, ULTIMA that nobody knows anything about and I think, if we've done our job right we are really going to knock their socks off everyone."