Producer Mark Johnson discusses Bless Me, Ultima, debuting in theaters February 22
Producer Mark Johnson has been successful in all avenues of the entertainment business, making movies such as the Oscar-winning Rain Man, Bugsy, Donnie Brasco, What Lies Beneath, The Rookie, The Chronicles of Narnia series, and last year's Not Fade Away, just to name a few. He is also one of the producers of the hit AMC series Breaking Bad, which wraps up its fifth and final season this summer. His latest project is much smaller in scope, but features just as powerful a story as any of those other big-budget movies.
Bless Me, Ultima centers on a young boy named Antonio (Luke Ganalon) who has an awakening of faith when his grandmother Ultima (Miriam Colon), an aging spiritual healer, comes to live with his family in this drama set against the backdrop of World War II. I recently had the chance to speak with the producer about this new film, which opens in limited theaters February 22. Here's what he had to say.
Mark Johnson: Did you get a chance to see this?
I did. I really enjoyed it. It's quite an interesting tale. I really enjoyed it.
Mark Johnson: It's interesting. When we talk about the fact that it was controversial, and even banned in some places, you look at the movie and go, 'Why would that be?' Obviously, the movie doesn't go into as much detail as the book (by Rudolfo Anaya), but if you read the book, the book is hardly controversial. I think some orthodox, perhaps Christians or Catholics, found it very unsettling, the fact that the boy questions religion. They found it really upsetting, but the truth of the matter is, the message is so wide. Discover for yourself. We've got this kid, Antonio, who has a Catholic mother and a slightly agnostic father, and a grandmother who says, 'God is all around you, in the land and the wind.' There are these great alternatives. It seems to me such an upbeat message.
I wasn't even aware that it was banned. Just watching the movie on its surface, it's kind of shocking, but it kind of makes sense, to an extent, when you think about the issues it presents. Still, it's not a movie I would consider 'banned.'
Mark Johnson: I know, I know.
You have a very diverse filmography. Was there something in particular about this story that you were drawn to? Is there something intangible that you look for when you're trying to decide on your next project?
Mark Johnson: Part of it is just that, to try and find something I haven't done before, and a story I haven't told before, things that might be slightly different. It's all a qualitative thing. It's all based on what kinds of movies I'd like to see, and I like big Hollywood commercial movies, and, sometimes, I like small, esoteric movies that are about something. Also, I think if there's a theme to the movies I've been involved in, more often than not, it has to do with family, how important family is to support one's self. It's a family that you're born into, like Avalon, or a family you create like in A Little Princess. There's a support and protection you get from those people around you that you consider a family.
What can you say about bringing this cast together? I've been a fan of Benito Martinez since The Shield. I was really impressed with Luke Ganalon as Antonio, and the rest of the child actors as well. Was there a large search to find these kids?
Mark Johnson: We used a casting director, a woman named Carla Hool, who specializes in Hispanic-themed films. With kids, you spend a long time looking for them and, sometimes, truth be known, you don't necessarily go with the best actor, but the actor you can coax into doing what you want. When I did this movie A Perfect World that Clint Eastwood directed, the boy in it, I don't even know if I'd call him a good actor, but he gives a wonderful performance. Part of it is almost from trickery. Sometimes you have to shoot a lot, in order to get what you want. Sometimes, when children are acting, they sort of miss the boat. When they're not paying attention, is when you can steal the real gems you need.
If they're "acting" it will just seem forced.
Mark Johnson: That's exactly right.
You actually shot this in New Mexico, correct?
Mark Johnson: We shot in New Mexico, in Santa Fe, in and around Santa Fe, which is ironic because I also do Breaking Bad, and we shoot that in Albequerque.
Were you shooting at the same time as Breaking Bad?
Mark Johnson: No, we were actually in between seasons for Breaking Bad, so we were able to steal some of our crew, and hold onto them, and have them to this movie while we were in hiatus on Breaking Bad. It worked out really well.
There's a lot more being shot in that area. It has such a distinct look. It's not a place that you can fake for any number of cities.
Mark Johnson: That's absolutely right. The state of New Mexico is just a gorgeous place to shoot. With Breaking Bad, we get credit all the time for the feature look of the show. Half of that credit really goes to the skies and the panoramas of the state itself.
Did you have a fairly condensed shooting schedule?
Mark Johnson: We had enough time. It was definitely a low-budget film, but we had enough time to get it right. It was really important that we not rush through it, especially with kids. We had 30 some odd days, which is not incredibly low, but it is for a Hollywood feature.
Like yourself, director Carl Franklin has a very diverse resume. Is there something in particular you saw that made him right?
Mark Johnson: I had known him for awhile, and wanted to work with him for some time. I gave him the book to read, and it so touched him. He was so articulate about what he wanted to do with it. There's nothing about his filmography that says, 'Oh, he would be the perfect guy to do it,' but, upon sitting down with him and hearing what he wanted to do, and he wrote the screenplay too, he became the perfect person for it.
It was great seeing all these character actors I've seen in numerous things, like Castulo Guerra. He was just wonderful in this, such a menacing presence. He's one of those guys you've seen for years. Were you actively looking for character actors like this?
Mark Johnson: Absolutely. Obviously, the movie had to be Hispanic. We weren't going to bring in non-Hispanic actors to play Hispanic characters. We were sort of freed from having to have names, because there just aren't many names, Hispanic actors, who were known and were right for this.
That makes sense. With shooting this as a period piece in New Mexico, I imagine there's not a lot you had to do to enhance the period setting.
Mark Johnson: No, that's exactly right. Obviously, we built several sets, and enhanced some existing structures. We built some of the inside of the house on a stage in a warehouse, but, by and large, we took advantage of what was there.
You said before that this had been banned in certain places. Do you think American audiences will spark to a story like this? It definitely isn't your garden-variety movie about spirituality and faith.
Mark Johnson: I'm a sucker for rites of passage, or coming-of-age stories. This is about Antonio's spiritual coming-of-age. That's what really got me, the idea of a movie that opens up with the voice of an older Antonio saying, 'Why is there evil in the world?' That question is, in one form or another, asked throughout the movie. It's just a young boy wanting to understand the world, and in this case, he sees a man being killed very quickly on in the movie, and he doesn't understand it. He doesn't understand why men would do that to other men.
As an enormous fan of the show, I have to ask about the last half of Breaking Bad. I believe you're still shooting the last few episodes.
Mark Johnson: That's right, and (series creator) Vince Gilligan is going to direct the last one. I'm about to be heartbroken. We completely understand why the show is coming to an end, but I keep saying, 'Why now?' We'll finish shooting in about a month and a half, and we start airing the episodes in July.
Has the script for the final episode been written yet?
Mark Johnson: It's still being written.
One of the things I keep thinking about was in the Season 5 premiere, "Live Free or Die", that flash-forward scene on Walt's 52nd birthday. How far into this new run of episodes will we see where that came from, or more tidbits of that flash-forward?
Mark Johnson: Yeah, needless to say, I can't answer that. Who is that guy? With that license plate, and that driver's license, yeah. I think Vince Gilligan is a genius, and how things have tied together in episodes up until now, has been remarkable.
Will there be any flashbacks to the past, or will these last eight episodes be going straight forward?
Mark Johnson: I can't really say, I'm sorry. I'd love to, but I'm sorry that I know as much as I do. Forget about executive producing the show, I'm a fan of the series and I just want to sit down and watch it.
What would you like to say to anyone who might be on the fence or curious about Bless Me, Ultima, about why they should give it a shot in theaters?
Mark Johnson: It's based on a book that's hugely popular in the southwest of the U.S. It's on the required reading list in public schools. It's a book that many of us, and especially those of us that come from the East Coast, have never heard of. It's a wonderful story of spiritual discovery about a young man's life in the 40s in New Mexico. I think it's a very smart movie. For me, one of the best selling points is there's nothing out there quite like it, and that is hugely important for me, as a movie goer.
Excellent. That's all I have. Thank you so much. It was a pleasure talking to you.
Mark Johnson: Thank you, Brian. Thanks a lot.
You can watch Mark Johnson's Bless Me, Ultima in theaters February 22.