Filming St. Ignatius: Q&A with director Paolo Dy

Paolo Dy is a Filipino Catholic filmmaker who directed and co-wrote “Ignacio de Loyola” (2016), the first English-language feature film about St. Ignatius of Loyola that opened in limited U.S. theatrical release on Aug. 26. Produced by Jescom, a Jesuit-founded Catholic media ministry in the Philippines, the $1.2 million production was filmed on location at the Ignatian pilgrimage sites in Spain with Spanish actors. Several Jesuit historical consultants, Jesuit provinces and Catholic institutions collaborated on the movie that will be released on DVD in the United States sometime in the next few months.

On Sept. 19, I interviewed Mr. Dy by email about his recent film.

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Sanctity is notoriously difficult to portray on film, with many religious biopics coming across as either free of tension or uninvolving on a human level. How did you find the right tone in depicting the early life of St. Ignatius, who is not among the most popular Catholic saints despite his strong influence on history?

I attended Jesuit schools growing up, which meant that by the age of 12, my schoolmates and I knew the grade-school version of Ignatius’ conversion story by heart. He was a soldier, he was hit by a cannonball in battle, he was brought back to the castle to heal and out of boredom he started reading books about Christ and the saints—and thus he was converted.

That was a pleasantly inspiring tale to grow up with, but as Fr. James Martin talks about in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, childhood versions of faith are often inadequate for dealing with adult issues and concerns—and that was what I wanted to address with this film. How could we make Ignatius’ journey make sense to a modern-day audience, to bridge the gap between the 16th century Basque soldier and today’s Facebook generation?

As many people know, a core technique of Ignatian spirituality is imaginative prayer, picturing oneself in key scenes from the Gospel, and letting your imagination explore the details, textures, emotions and dynamics of the scene—a technique often leading to very visceral reactions and realizations. Fittingly, this method proved to be a powerful way into Ignatius’ story.

We asked ourselves, what would it really be like to live as Iñigo, the runt of a brood of 13, born into nobility but without an inheritance, with all the pressures and expectations of the world weighing down on him? A hot-blooded youth, given over to vanity and the flesh, terminally in love with a woman he could never have and preoccupied with gaining fame and controlling how the world would see him… suddenly the struggles of the soldier didn’t seem so radically different from many of our own today.

So that was what appealed to me, the challenge and opportunity of telling a saint’s story from a very human starting point. I wanted to put flesh on the bones of the myth, to let the audience feel the blood coursing through the veins of a real human being, flawed and confused.

Ultimately we wanted to say to the audience: this man began much as we did, struggling through pain, turmoil and darkness. Maybe, like him, we too can rise into the light.  

Your screenplay uses the Autobiography of St. Ignatius as its narrative framework, telling the story of Ignatius from before his conversion to his departure for Paris. What led you to focus on this particular section of his life?

In film, we always look for escalating drama and conflict, but in real life, Ignatius’ story was about the quieting of a life, a movement from chaos to serenity and peace. While it’s a story worthy of emulation, it doesn’t automatically meet the needs of narrative cinema.

So looking at the timeline of Iñigo’s life, from a dramatic point of view it felt very natural to place the climax of our story at the two great trials of his life: being brought before the Inquisition, and his interior battle with his scruples. After he surmounts these obstacles, we can consider Iñigo’s interior transformation practically complete, and his path becomes very clear and (relatively) uneventful.

Choosing to focus on this section of Iñigo’s life also leaves open the possibility of a sequel. A narrative of St. Francis Xavier’s adventures can certainly pick up where “Ignacio” left off, with the first meeting of Ignatius and Xavier in Paris.

Several Jesuit priests and institutions were listed as collaborators on the movie, including your producer. What is your own connection to the Society of Jesus and what did your Jesuit consultants contribute to the making of this film?

In many ways I owe the beginnings of my career to the Jesuits. My very first job in the industry was as a video editor for Jesuit Communications [Jescom], the same foundation that produced “Ignacio de Loyola”; back then we did a number of documentaries, TV specials and music videos. Over the years I moved on to brief stints in network television and then into advertising, where the bulk of my work is at the moment, but every now and then Jescom would invite me to collaborate on a Lenten or Christmas special. When they finally decided to make “Ignacio,” they invited me to direct, and it was the easiest decision in the world to say yes.

How did the experience of making this film affect your Catholic faith?

It has given me a newfound respect for Catholic communicators who face the incredible challenges of this day and age. As a filmmaker I am in a much, much easier position, because in many ways a film project is a bracketed task; we put it together, release it into the world and that’s it. The tireless people whose ministry is to constantly communicate and make manifest God’s message, day in and day out for decades, are the true heroes.  

It’s not easy to be heard in an environment where millions of voices are constantly shouting at each other online and in real life. I’m thankful for the shining example that Pope Francis is showing the world, reminding us about what is most important. Love first. Listen first. All else is secondary.

What’s the message of the film? Who is your audience?

The film has several themes, but my favorite is: In times of turmoil, be still and listen.

We made this film for anyone who might need the hope that Iñigo’s story evokes: the hope that you are never too far lost, no matter what is in your past. The hope that you can fight through and survive crippling self-doubt and depression. The hope that defeat is never final, and that second chances are real.

How do you feel about the response of critics and viewers to the movie so far?

I think because we touch on core elements of Ignatian spirituality, viewers have been saying that watching the film is like going on a two-hour mini-retreat—it nudges you re-examine your own life. Not everyone will be open to such an experience, of course, so we don’t expect sweeping enthusiastic responses across the board. We’re just praying that the film reaches the people who need to hear what it has to say.

And of course, a $1 million will never be able to match the polish and grandeur of a $100 million blockbuster. But that’s the reality that every independent filmmaker faces, the uphill battle to find an audience’s support. People pay the same eight dollars for their ticket whether you’re watching “Ignacio de Loyola” or the newest “Star Trek”film, so you have to do everything you can to make the experience worthwhile for them. In our case we chose to give up a lot of creature comforts during the shoot so we could put all the money on screen.

What were some highlights for you in working on this project? What were some challenges you faced?

I like how my assistant director Bombi Plata encapsulated everything a bit prophetically at the start of the project. He said that the experience of making “Ignacio de Loyola” was going to be, in itself, a meditation on the life of St. Ignatius, in many ways walking in his footsteps and struggling as he struggled. He was absolutely right.

I relished the experience of shooting in Spain—it was eye-opening in so many ways. And I was so moved at seeing passionate artists and craftsmen pouring so much of their energy and talent into telling Iñigo’s story.

But it was an incredibly tough, bone-crushing ordeal. The budget was just a tiny fraction of what a standard film would cost. So everyone—from the production assistants to the producers themselves—had to double or even triple up on tasks, loading and unloading the trucks, sewing costumes and making sure everyone was fed well. “Above and beyond the call of duty” became the new normal. We had to contend with so many hurdles in so little time that, honestly, I consider it a genuine miracle that we survived.

And even in post-production, time was forever our enemy, because with limited money you only get limited time to smooth out the effects, the visuals, the sound, the plethora of little bits and pieces that always threaten to pull the viewer out of the experience. When we had run out of time, we just had to step away from the film, bring it out into the world and pray that audiences would see past the rough edges and connect with the heart of the film.

I remain eternally proud of my team and what they were able to accomplish with the meager means they were given. I will always be grateful for their incredible sacrifice and I pray that future audiences will continue to be touched by the work of their hands and their hearts.  

Several reviewers have praised the film’s authenticity in the hand-stitched costumes, orchestral music, rich cinematography and Castilian-inflected English spoken by your Spanish actors. How would you describe Andreas Muñoz’s performance as St. Ignatius?

Andreas is a tremendous talent. We started out knowing that if we couldn’t find an actor who could portray both the raging fire and still water of Iñigo’s personality, we might as well not shoot the film. Fortunately a friend and fellow director, Chris Downs, recommended Andreas to us—they had worked together on a Guillermo del Toro film—and to our delight and relief he was a perfect, perfect Iñigo de Loyola.  

Andreas draws from many traditions and styles of acting, but in many ways he himself is already Iñigo. He’s passionate and sincere, is naturally charming and has a smoldering restlessness that mirrors what we envisioned Iñigo’s pre-conversion personality to be. At the same time he has applied himself diligently towards the sort of control, self-understanding and self-mastery you need to be an effective actor—a quality that the older Ignatius was famous for.

In telling the story of St. Ignatius on film, one challenge is to visualize his inner journey, as he led a deeply mystical and interior life after Pamplona. Your film depicts several moments of spiritual direction between Ignatius and others, but it also illustrates his imaginative prayer experiences through flashbacks and CGI sequences. What scene in the movie do you feel best captures the spirit of St. Ignatius?

My favorite scene is the (deceptively) simplest one, the conversation between Iñigo and Anna, the woman from the brothel. It’s a scene that completely hinges on the skill of the actors, and we were incredibly blessed to have Andreas and Marta Codina inhabit those roles so beautifully.

The scene also illustrates the courage needed to truly see the person before you, removed from the circumstances surrounding her, with understanding, compassion and love. It’s not easy to engage so fully with a person—it can be awkward, embarrassing, even terrifying, but it’s what we are called to do.

Although the film opened in U.S. theaters and in other places around the world in limited release, many people did not see it during its theatrical run. If you could give people one reason to see this movie on DVD or Netflix, what would it be?

Watch it to see how many times you say, “Wow. I didn’t know that about him.”

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

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