BLESS ME, ULTIMA
From Novel to Screenplay
"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.
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