Dicey location opens its arms to pricey period epic

Mexico City– Taking American stars to film in Mexico’s dicey Durango region might seem like a bit of a gamble — and one that only grows when you consider that the film in question, the $8 million “Cristiada,” is a historic epic about the nation’s bloody 1920s conflict over religious freedoms, not necessarily a subject that travels easily.

But producer Pablo Jose Barroso of NewLand Films thinks that by shooting in English with names like Andy Garcia and Eva Longoria, the film has universal potential. And he says the drug-related violence in the region hasn’t been a problem, thanks to security and other arrangements provided by the Durango Film Commission.

Visual effects supervisor Dean Wright, who worked on “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King,” is making his directing debut on the project, which NewLand is targeting for international release in late 2011.

According to Wright, the film weaves a narrative thread through the lives of the military and political leaders involved in the Cristero uprising, with Ruben Blades playing Gen. Plutarco Calles, whose opposition to Catholicism led to the uprising. Also joining the cast are Peter O’Toole, Catalina Sandino (“Maria Full of Grace”), Bruce Greenwood (“Star Trek”), Oscar Isaac (“Body of Lies’), Eduardo Verastegui (“Bella”) and Santiago Cabrera (“Heroes”).

Shortly after locations were set in late 2009, the production enlisted the help of casting vets Diane Crittenden and Karen Rea, along with Manuel Teil (“Under the Same Moon”) for the Mexican casting.

Other local industryites include one of Mexico’s most sought-after production designers, Salvador Parra (“Volver”) and long-time Lemon Films production manager Sandra Solares.

“Cristiada” wraps as the nation is poised to unspool a raft of multimillion-dollar historical dramas surrounding Mexico’s Bicentennial and 100-year anniversary of the Revolution, including next week’s “El Atentado” and the Independence Day release of “Hidalgo” on Sept. 16.

Both of those films were heavily supported by federal coin and had estimated budgets running in the $6 million range, whereas the privately-funded “Cristiada” is one of the highest budget Mexican films yet.

Barroso’s relatively young shingle opened shop in 2008 and already has finished shooting treasure-hunt pic “La Leyenda de las Arcas,” topped by John Rhys-Davies and set for release next year.

Wright was unfamiliar with the story behind “Cristiada” but intrigued by the events, when he read the original screenplay by Michael Love last year.

“This film needs to show that this conflict took place in all of Mexico, and most people don’t know what Mexico really looks like. They’ve seen pictures of Mexico City or maybe Cancun, Acapulco and Tijuana, and that’s what they know,” the helmer says.

Pic is shot in the Mexican northern and central states of

Durango, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Puebla and Mexico City, as well as at the new Estudios Interlomas studio facility located 45 minutes from the capital.

Despite the ongoing violence in the north of Mexico, where Durango is located, both Barroso and Wright say they feel confident basing the production there.

“We’ve had nothing but open arms and incredible generous hospitality everywhere we’ve gone,” says Wright, who feels that though most of the violence is confined to drug gangs killing each other, the U.S. bears some responsbility for encouraging the drug wars.

“Durango was one of the best,” says Wright of the location and its people. “They (gave us) phenomenal, fantastic support from the scouting to helping us in many, many ways. … (The violence) hasn’t been an issue the entire shoot.”

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