Fr. John Paul Wauck is a professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, and he was an on-set adviser to the movie There Be Dragons, a positive portrayal of religion — based on the early years of St. Josemaría Escrivá — that will be on the silver screen starting today. Fr. Wauck talks to National Review Online about the movie itself and what he picked up about moviemaking along the way.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What was your official role with There Be Dragons?
WAUCK: In the credits, it says I’m a “consultant.” Basically, the director, Roland Joffé, wanted me to do what the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan did for his earlier film, The Mission – be on hand during the filming to help the actors and answer questions. So in 2009, I ended up spending about four months on a movie set, all summer in Argentina and then a few weeks in Spain in October.
LOPEZ: How did you get involved?
WAUCK: Like a lot of things in Rome, it all began with a good dinner. I met Roland Joffé back in late 2006 over pasta at the Taverna Giulia while he was in town to do research on St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei. Since I’m one of the few English-speaking priests of Opus Dei in Rome, it was natural that he and I would meet.
LOPEZ: It’s not a proselytizing film, though, is it?
WAUCK: No. One of the amazing things about the film is that Roland — who not only directed it but also wrote the screenplay — is not a Catholic, or a Christian, or even a theist. He calls himself a “wobbly agnostic.” It’s a film for everyone, believers and nonbelievers. It doesn’t try to prove a point or convert anyone. But it should make you think. All the people I’ve spoken with over here say they like the movie even more the second time they see it.
LOPEZ: I’ve heard that it had quite an effect on one or two of the actors involved in it. Is that true?
WAUCK: The two main actors, Charlie Cox and Wes Bentley, were both deeply affected by their experience making this movie — especially Wes. While we were filming in Argentina, Charlie, who is a baptized Catholic, told a group of reporters in Buenos Aires, “My relationship with the Catholic Church and with God has certainly been profoundly affected for the better throughout this process.” And Wes has spoken publicly about how he got sober while making There Be Dragons. He had been seriously addicted to drugs and alcohol for nearly a decade, and he turned his life around while he was on the set: “I found so much in my relationships with Roland and Charlie Cox and the rest of the cast. . . . I found a reconnection to God and to people and to life. . . . There was something very special spiritually on this film. I’ve never had it before.” Now Wes is married and has a little boy. It’s a beautiful story. Olga Kurylenko — who was also in the last James Bond movie — has said that her attitude toward religion changed thanks to the movie.
LOPEZ: What a weird title for a movie about a saint. What’s that about?
WAUCK: “There be dragons” is a reference to the Latin phrase Hic sunt dracones (literally, “There are dragons here”), with which medieval maps sometimes designated unexplored lands and uncharted seas. It’s the realm of mystery, the unknown, and the dangerous. In the movie, though, the dragons are mostly a metaphor for the challenges of life that we all have to face, particularly suffering, death, and guilt. How different people respond to these challenges is what the movie is all about. Some are destroyed by these dragons, others become saints, and others just keep wrestling.
LOPEZ: Is it a movie about a saint?
WAUCK: St. Josemaría is one of the main characters, but not the only one. Like Joffé’s The Mission and The Killing Fields, this new film has at least two protagonists. And, to complicate matters, in a recent interview, Joffé suggested that the real protagonist of There Be Dragons is Jesus Christ! That came as a bit of a surprise to me. I’ll have to see it again.
There Be Dragons is not a hagiography, a documentary, or a “biopic.” It’s a big picture that happens to have a saint in the middle of it.