Resurrecting Mother Teresa

Director William Riead and Juliet Stevenson as Mother Teresa in "The Letters." (Photo Credit: Freda Eliot-Wilson.)

William Riead is the director, writer and producer of “The Letters,” a new feature film about Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta that opened in U.S. theaters on Dec. 4. A former CBS News and TVN broadcast journalist, he began making documentaries for Columbia Pictures in 1976 and has continued for several decades to make a variety of films.

On Dec. 3, I interviewed Mr. Riead by telephone about his new film. The following transcript has been edited for style and length.


What drew you to make a film about Mother Teresa?

It happened 14 years ago when my wife and I were standing in the kitchen of our home and we watched the World Trade Center being attacked. I had never witnessed that kind of evil up close and personal. The next day I felt compelled, almost like it was a calling, to use my background and abilities to do something—anything—that would be good. Through my own personal frustration and anger at the evil I had just witnessed, I wanted to do something that would reflect good rather than evil.

My wife and I talked about it. Years earlier I had met Richard Attenborough when he had just finished the film “Gandhi.” And I remember, when I walked out of the theater, I thought: “That man effected change. Not one person who leaves this theater is going to be the same.” Just experiencing that movie, and seeing what Gandhi was about, makes you automatically a better human being.  

So I thought: Who in my lifetime would be the epitome of good as opposed to the Sept. 11 evil? And that would be Mother Teresa. I started thinking maybe I should call in everything and everybody that I know to say: “Work with me, help me, let’s get a movie made about Mother Teresa that will be the same experience for audiences when they see the film that I experienced when I saw ‘Gandhi.’ That is, they’ll leave the theater a better human being than when they entered.” I was surprised people rolled up their sleeves and helped me.

Even with that, I experienced horrible setbacks and obstacles, and a Catholic priest friend of mine who is a Jesuit said to me: “You’re experiencing spiritual warfare.” I said, “What the hell is that? I never heard of that.” He said: “You can’t do something as good as bring Mother Teresa back to life on the screen without experiencing duality—the polar opposite, evil. There will be negative forces that will be trying to stop you from getting the film made and then getting it to the screen.” And I said: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Hogwash.” But here I am today, with the movie opening nationwide tomorrow, and it took me 14 years of constant, daily, agonizing dedication to get it done. You could write 16 books and it still wouldn’t encapsulate all I went through, in terms of spiritual warfare, to get this film made. The obstacles I ran into were beyond comprehension. But it’s finally hitting the screen tomorrow.

What is distinctive about your approach as a filmmaker to this material?

Well, I’m a writer-producer-director-editor. The way Hollywood usually works is one person is a writer, another person is a producer, another person is a director, another person is an editor, and they all work together to coordinate. What distinguishes me from others in this system would be that I really don’t go along with this system. I don’t want to take someone else’s script—this is just me personally, not looking down at the system in any way—and go off and make that film, because it leads to two frustrations. One, the guy who wrote that script gets interpreted to the screen what he intended. Two, the director is taking someone else’s thought process and putting it on film.

So to me, it begins in my brain: I visualize what I want to do and I see it clearly. Now in order for others to see it clearly, I have to sit down and write the script. Once I write the script, then others for the first time see what I’m thinking, and then we break it down into a shooting script—you can’t just go off and shoot it, then head for post-production to the editing room, edit it, store it, mix it, because then you end up with answer print. With me, it’s one process. I’m always being introduced as “writer-producer-director William Riead.” And that’s the industry. But in reality I’m a filmmaker. What started out as my vision in my head, I ultimately get to the screen. The film you saw was in my head and it took me quite a process to get it to where everybody now sits in theaters and sees what I was thinking in the beginning.

That’s why I’m a little different from others, I suppose, except James Cameron. He also writes, produces, and directs films, as does Woody Allen, but there’s not very many of us.

What’s the message of the film?

Be a better human being. You know, be more selfless. Mother Teresa was selfless. I naively thought everybody would love my movie. It never dawned on me that there would be critics out there who could possibly find anything against Mother Teresa. A few critics have given me a negative review more geared toward Mother Teresa, with one in New York writing that “director-writer Riead didn’t tell everything about Mother Teresa. He left out her misappropriation of funds, for example.” And these are people who bring to mind the expression “a little bit of knowledge is dangerous.”

Mother Teresa never, ever misappropriated funds. I mean, what do they think, she would wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning and drive a Mercedes around Calcutta? She had no interest in personal wealth, she lived in meager quarters. What happened is that she would take money from people who would be considered a bit unsavory like Charles Keating of the ethanol crisis. When he went to prison, he had given her money and she was criticized for that. But she said: He was going to give it to somebody, so he gave it to me and I gave it to the poor.

Pope Paul VI, when he toured India, he did so in a white Lincoln Continental convertible. When he left, he so admired Mother Teresa that he handed her the keys. I’m not sure of his motivation, but I doubt seriously that he thought she was going to start running around Calcutta in a white Lincoln Continental convertible. I think what he was expecting is exactly what she did: She held a lottery, sold it, and then created a leper colony with that money.

How do you feel about the criticisms of Mother Teresa found in some reviews of your movie?

I don’t understand why critics can be mean-spirited. Back in 1997, when “Titanic” came out, just before it hit the screens, a critic in the Los Angeles Times wrote a scathing article about the movie he had just seen—and here was a scathing article in a major newspaper. He wrote: “I predict that the movie Titanic is going to sink faster at the box office than the real Titanic sank in the North Atlantic.” Then I went to see the movie a few days later with my wife and I saw a terrific movie. I knew it was going to make a lot of money, but I didn’t know it was going to set a record: It made $1.8 billion, the highest grossing picture in history at that time—a record that was only beaten later by the same director, James Cameron, with “Avatar” making just under $3 billion. But back to the critic: Obviously, he was incredibly wrong in his assessment, but I’ll bet you he had that funny little wonderful quote already written before he went to the movie. He just thought he was so clever.

There are mean-spirited people out there and there’s no reason for that. It’s like Simon Cowell on American Idol or Piers Morgan on the Voice a few seasons ago: they’re very mean-spirited at putting people down and so forth. I don’t understand the motivation except that some critics feel if they give a good review, they won’t be cool, and it is cool to give a bad review. I have a sense of humor, I’m pretty easygoing, and it takes a lot to upset me. But having spent seven months researching Mother Teresa, writing a script that I felt was accurate, going off to make the movie, returning to America having been sick five times in India, including being bedridden for 22 days with malaria, and generally sacrificing for this movie, to have someone in New York decide it would be fun to criticize Mother Teresa—I have no sense of humor about that at all. In fact, it makes blood shoot out of my eyeballs; it’s so upsetting. I expected people to take potshots at me, but I didn’t expect that. What some of these critics do to get attention is the polar opposite of what Mother Teresa was about—she was selfless, not selfish.

Who is your audience?

Women 40 and over. But I’ve been surprised: We had a movie showing on the University of Southern California campus where college students packed the theater and then crowded around in the lobby afterwards. That flew in the face of everyone who said it would just be women over 40.

We had a screening at a theater in Huntington Beach, Calif., with a cross-section in the audience of teenagers to people in their 70s. The people who hosted it passed out a card asking the audience to fill out a questionnaire on whether the movie was poor, medium, OK, or exceptional. Everyone checked exceptional. Would you recommend this film to others? There were different levels of recommendation. And 73 percent of the audience in attendance said they would “definitely recommend” that others see this film. And there were no walkouts, which is almost unheard-of. When a friend at FOX read that, he called me and said: “I cannot believe these numbers. This is unprecedented.” Again, I don’t know, I’ve heard from the experts that our audience is women 40 and over, but it seems we’re getting a lot more than that. I think Mother Teresa cuts to everybody.

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

Getting to know Mother Teresa, becoming a better human being by her example, becoming more selfless by her example, coming back from India a better human being because of feeling Mother Teresa’s presence on the set every day. All of us flew back to our home countries—Juliet Stevenson flew back to London, I flew back to L.A.—and we all experienced being better human beings because of it.

What were some challenges you faced?

Well, getting malaria was one. Getting the film made at all was a challenge. A studio is two things, a bank and distributor—they own copyright and he who owns copyright rules. The people who own copyright have two words in their contract called “final cut.” So the movie I make will not be the same movie you see on screen because studio executives will start re-cutting it and making changes—doing things perhaps to generate controversy or word-of-mouth.   

How would you describe Juliet Stevenson’s performance as Mother Teresa?


Your movie boasts an impressive cast of co-stars. What was it like working with Max von Sydow?

Words can’t describe my admiration for his talent. He was voted recently the greatest actor alive. He and Juliet showed up on the set and neither one of them was unprepared. They showed up knowing their lines, they were incredibly professional. Every director should have the privilege just one time in a career of working with people like Max von Sydow and Juliet Stevenson. What a treat it was. Juliet was in the other room a moment ago and I gave her a big hug; she’s a doll to work with, she’s a wonderful human being. And Max, I just love the man.

What did Rutger Hauer bring to this movie for you?

Rutger is Rutger. Rutger was a trip; he’s legendary from films like “Blade Runner.” Rutger’s a buddy of mine. He came to work, he came to do his job, and he did it.

Sanctity is notoriously difficult to portray on film, with many religious biopics coming across as free of tension or uninvolving on a human level. How did you find the right tone in depicting someone as beloved as Mother Teresa?

She was easy: She breaks your heart. I just sort of let the film take its own narrative and I let God handle it. It didn’t start out so spiritual, but that’s the way it ended up. In the beginning, I was just the pragmatic, hardworking guy who believes in getting the job done. I rolled up my sleeves and went to work. Midway through the project, I encountered so many obstacles in a 14-year period that I started waking up in the morning and saying: “God, I’m your employee. Mother Teresa was just a pencil in your hand, but I’m just your employee, so let me get to work for you today and guide me.” So I just surrendered it all to God and said: “You put me to work. I’m your humble employee.”

Now the film’s getting all kinds of attention and there will be 90 positive reviews for every 2 negative reviews. But I don’t pay any attention to the negative. We’ve had an overwhelming positive response from screening audiences. I just feel humbled when people walk up to me and say: “What a beautiful movie.” I feel a little embarrassed because I don’t feel like I made this movie; I feel like, at some point, the Old Man upstairs took over.    

What is your own religious background?

I’m Catholic. I come from a big Catholic family. My mother died three years ago at the age of 101 and a half and went to Mass every Sunday right up until she died. My brother died a little less than a year ago and he was a deacon in the Catholic Church. It’s a big Catholic background.

How has your faith changed or evolved over the years?

What can I say? I’m a Catholic guy. I believe in Catholicism. Nothing has changed there.

How does Catholicism influence your approach to filmmaking?

Well, I made a film about Mother Teresa. I decided I wanted to make films that matter. I’m not ego driven. I’m 72 years old. When I was 30 and 40 years old, it would have been a different story, but today I’m just grateful that I’m comfortable financially so I don’t have to work. When I make a film now, it’s to give back, and it’s never for me. Catholicism affects me in making me aware that I’m in a privileged position in life, I’m affluent, I have an enormous wealth of experience having been doing this for over 40 years, and so I try to use my camera to make film product that will influence others to be better people. That’s what this is about: I’m not doing it for ego reasons at all. It’s a tremendous sacrifice for me to make this film. I went through virtual hell to get it made and it’s nice to see that people are receiving it well.

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about Mother Teresa, what would it be?

Canonize her.

As you mentioned, like many recent faith-based movies, “The Letters” is already getting negative reviews from some mainstream critics. If you could give people one reason to see this movie, what would it be?

You’ll leave the theater a better human being than you were when you entered the theater.

What are your hopes for the future?

I wish al-Queda would go away, I wish ISIS would go away, I wish people would stop attacking us, and I hope my film will serve its purpose of being the polar opposite of that evil. That’s why I make films: to make a better world through the example of people like Mother Teresa.

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

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