CC.com: What was the impetus to make “Bella”?
Leo: Bella was the first project for Metanoia Films, which is our production company. “Metanoia” is a word used in Scripture to mean basically conversion, or turning toward God. It also has another meaning, which is “turning from the darkness to the light.” It’s like what the earth does every day when it revolves and turns toward the sun.
Bella really is step 1 in a broader vision, and that is to make films that shed a light on humanity. Not only films that educate but that engage and inspire people. Ultimately, when they leave our films, we hope they are uplifted and inspired to do something beautiful for the world. That’s what the Lord has put on our hearts, and Bella is the first fruit of that dream.
CC.com: How did the three of you (Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, Leo, and Eduardo Verastegui) come together to form a production team?
Leo: Providentially. I was working for Twentieth Century Fox at the time.
Eduardo was (and continues to be) like the Brad Pitt of Latin America, and had crossed over into the United States. He had a really successful career in Latin America as a soap opera star and part of a “boy band.” He was doing some work with Twentieth Century Fox when the Lord touched his heart. He realized that he was following this lie of a “real man” being a Latin lover, which he couldn’t defend in light of his faith. So he started going to church to pray, and I was doing the same thing. That’s how we met.
He already knew Alejandro, our director, who had the Bella story in his head. we all got together and said, “Hey, why don’t we start our own production company and try to do this ourselves.” We thought it was providential, because all of the necessary components were there to do a film: the director, a producer-type and an actor. We thought, “Let’s give it a shot.”
So we all left our respective stuff, got into the little boat known as Metanoia Films, and next thing you know, Bella appears a little over a couple of years later.
CC.com: What were you doing for Twentieth Century Fox at the time?
Leo: I am an attorney, and was working in their business affairs department, which meant I was doing contracts relating to the production and distribution of programming.
CC.com: Would you tell us a little about your own faith journey? Have you been a believer and person of faith your whole life?
Leo: At varying degrees. I grew up with a very strong faith, but as is sadly the case very frequently, when I got to my college years, that kind of disappeared. I kept a lot of the Christian ethic in my life. But I didn’t really have a personal relationship and wasn’t walking the walk of a Christian faith. I was as lost as the next guy.
It wasn’t until my third year of law school, providentially, that I happened to pick up the book “The Problem of Pain,” by C.S. Lewis. That totally rocked my world and it changed my life. I can’t wait to hopefully get to heaven someday and give C.S. Lewis a big hug. It put me on the right path back into relationship with the Lord. From then on, it’s been not only the forefront of my career, but the entirety of my life.
Faith isn’t in a compartment; it’s everything. Even in Hollywood, we weren’t born to be movie stars or producers or directors. We were born, like everyone else, to know and love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ. Anything outside of that is a bonus.
With Metanoia, we’re not trying to make necessarily religious films, but rather films that not only entertain but have a solid faith message underneath and underlying them so the message can reach a broad audience. Hopefully in a non-judgmental, loving and effective way.
CC.com: What took you into the entertainment field after law school?
Leo: My first summer in law school, I applied for an internship with Twentieth Century Fox. This was before my big conversion back to the faith. I thought everyone wanted to do entertainment because I was at USC, which is a Los Angeles-based law school. Most of the kids spent a lot of time going to entertainment symposiums, but I just stayed back in my room and studied.
That kind of worked out, because by the time the summer came around, they (Fox) were looking for summer associates. They had certain parameters they were looking for. I met them, so I went in and interviewed and got the job. I worked there my first summer and began to realize, “Wow, that’s really where I want to be.” I liked the draw of being part of something that would be seen by people and hopefully they would be entertained.
Two years later after reading C.S. Lewis, I realized all the more this is the way to help influence and shape and clean up so much that’s Hollywood. So much positive can be done with such a strong medium. So by then, it was clear I needed to be in Hollywood in one way, shape, or another.
I managed to get a job with a very good firm and started practicing there. I also kept in touch with all my old contacts from Fox, who had all moved up. Three years later, there I am at Fox.
CC.com: What was your first response when you heard Alejandro’s story idea?
Leo: I was moved to tears. Alejandro is an incredible storyteller, and he has such power to put forth his vision. When he pitched the original concept of Bella, it was very close to what it is in its finished version. The story just came to him. He was driving from Austin, Texas, leaving his film school to come do another film in Los Angeles.
On the road there, during the hours by himself, he thought of two people he knew in his life. One was the Jose-type character, the other the Nina character. They actually exist, but had never met. He began to wonder what would happen if they met. That’s when the scenes began to come into his head. He would pull over to the side of the road and cry, then get back on the road and drive some more. He’d get another scene and pull over again, crying. He was very touched.
So really the story came from him or even more precisely, through him. By the time he got to LA, the story was pretty much ready. Then we met and got together. We started getting scripts from agencies and others, and nothing struck us as anything we really wanted to be involved in, for one reason or another, either artistically or morally or both.
One day Alejandro said, “Well, I have this story,” and he pitched it to us. We thought it was something that could really make a difference to the world, and hopefully not only touch lives, but maybe even save lives, so we said “let’s try to make that.”
CC.com: It’s a very gentle way to address abortion, a very controversial topic in our nation right now. What were you considering as you tackled this issue?
Leo: Alejandro and I wrote the script. He wrote the original draft, and then he and I got into a room and basically, two months later, Bella came out. Then we had a professional come in and polish it. That was right at the forefront of our minds as we wrote the script.
Our goal with Bella was to make a film that wasn’t a picket sign, that wasn’t preachy and wouldn’t do anything to turn off the audience we wanted to reach and inspire. We thought it was a risk and a gamble worth taking, especially since we knew that the way this film was coming together it had the Lord all over it. We wanted to be very careful while we worked on the script to not argue but have Jose be an individual who listens and loves, who doesn’t judge but offers solutions. We thought instead of arguing about it, maybe the most effective thing to do would be to let the arguments be all on one side.
Let Nina go on and on about why this doesn’t make sense, but at the end of the film, let’s just show life. Because you can’t argue when you see a little girl running around. That’s going to be more impactful than anything else.
To date we know of 13 children who were scheduled to be aborted whose moms, one way or another, saw “Bella” during a crisis in their pregnancies and wound up canceling their appointments. One of them is named after the lead actor, Eduardo, and there’s a little girl in Miami named Bella.
So I’m thinking, since a tree is known by its fruit, “Who are we to see such fruits?” It’s all pretty amazing, the whole journey really.
We were able to get it into the Toronto Film Festival, which is nearly impossible, then wound up winning the Festival. Toronto isn’t a bastion of Christianity, so it was a regular film-festival-going audience. Many of the films that win there go on to win Oscars. So we were glad to see it had the appeal to reach a broader audience since that was our intention.
It was a message that goes beyond romance to sacrifice, true friendship, inspiration, redemption, etc. We got the Legacy Award from the Smithsonian, an award from the Heartland Festival, which celebrates positive films. And finally, when it was released in the U.S. theaters, we sold over 1.3 million tickets.
In the first studies that were done from people coming out of the theater after seeing the film, something like 90% gave the film high remarks despite not necessarily holding strong Christian beliefs or hearing about it from some organization. We think that really played itself out well, and that the Lord helped us reach a bigger audience.
CC.com: What reaction did you find the most surprising?
Leo: There were certain things in the script that we thought were pretty obviously there for a particular reaction. Things like choosing adoption, or to save life, but there were some crazy reactions to things that we weren’t even aware were in the script.
People would come out and tell us how beautiful the relationships were. There was a person who had a father that had passed away in childhood, and there was another person who became a surrogate father for them growing up in childhood. That person reminded them of the father in the story.
There was a gal with two friends who are kind of a big deal in the Latin American community. They had been invited to a screening of the film. Both of them were friends of Eduardo’s, but had absolutely hated each other for years. They had this very public feud that had been fueled with publicity for a long time. At the end of the film where the two brothers reconciled and nudged each other, these two were hugging and reconciled. They walked away ending this very public feud they’ve had for a couple of years. That sort of thing was surprising – surprising in the best possible sense.
That confirmed to us that anything the Lord touches is like a diadem. Whatever lives are touched, it’s going to be reflecting different colors to different people where they’re standing.
The most beautiful surprises are the things people get out of the film that we didn’t anticipate them getting.
CC.com: I think you could watch the film several times and see many levels of story that are applicable to life in general, even beyond the basic question of the sacredness of life.
Leo: There’s an opportunity now because the DVD comes out May 6 and we are hoping people will get it and add it to their library. Seeing the film a second or third time usually results in us getting calls about the symbolism of the film and beautiful little details that people may have missed the first time.
CC.com: What’s ahead for Metanoia Films?
Leo: Thankfully due to the success of “Bella,” we’ve gotten some great offers to keep producing films. We’re in the middle of developing three different projects that have risen to the surface. Hopefully by the end of the summer we’ll be starting production on the next one. That’s our hope.
CC.com: What is your key role in the partnership of Metanoia Films? Both during the production and development processes?
Leo: Well, Alejandro is the storyteller, the director, who makes the story come to life. Eduardo is the lead actor, and he’s also the ambassador. He’s the one who goes out and does the screenings, tells the story, and inspires people. The Wolfingtons are our executive producers and financiers. Which makes me more the behind-the-scenes guy, but we’ve all been pretty much involved in every step of the process.
It’s been nice to be involved in the writing, production, editing and now the distribution and marketing since our production company ran much of that ourselves, which of course we couldn’t have done without the help of thousands of people across the nation who really stepped up during the theatrical release to organize and mobilize people to see this film. We are so grateful to everyone who has and continues to support Bella.
CC.com: How has this changed your personal life?
Leo: It’s so inspiring to wake up in the morning and know that you’re working for something you really believe in. I’ve never had that experience in the purest sense in my life. Even when you’re a student, you wake up in the morning and think, “oh, this class is a bore.” Or you’re working at a firm and getting a contract out that maybe you’re not passionate about.
Here, everyday we’re waking up and knowing that we’re working on something that is inspired, whose fruit we’ve been able to see, and whose blessing we’ve been able to touch. It’s addictive in the best possible sense to be able to continue making these sorts of projects because there’s nothing more fulfilling. Personally, spiritually, and in all other ways, I’m inspired to keep going on this mission.
CC.com: What’s your source of spiritual strength? How do you keep yourself where you want to be spiritually?
Leo: We have a pretty regimented agreement spiritually that involves being on our knees, praying and remembering that the Lord put us on a donkey and rode us into town, just like He did 2000 years ago. We really pray hard to stay on that donkey.
We remember consistently in prayers that we’re in the capital of temptation, that we can’t rely on ourselves, that we need to be humble and have grace. We have principles in place and very strict guidelines about what we will and won’t produce.
More than anything, it’s prayer.
CC.com: If you had the chance to go speak to law students at USC and share some of the benefits of your life, what would you say?
Leo: I’d try to share that the goal, even at a prestigious law school, isn’t to be the top of the mountain, be at the best firm and make the most money. I’d encourage them to not measure success based upon what society tells you. I’ve been around guys like Eduardo who have had more success than almost anybody in the history of the world.
The guy has sold out soccer stadiums of screaming women; 50,000 – 100,000 in Latin America. He had more money than you can count and incredible power. He had all that and it left him absolutely empty.
Try not to chase that false dream, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. Hopefully I’d say it in a way that gets the message across, which nowadays is practically impossible. Mother Teresa said it best, and this is one of the mottos of our company: “We’re not called to be successful. We’re called to be faithful to God. That is our success.”
I find that experientially and objectively to be 100% true. Any way I can impart that I think I’d be a very blessed man indeed.