The Beauty of "Bella" | An Interview with Tim Drake, author of Behind Bella | November 10, 2008 | Ignatius Insight
Tim Drake is an award-winning journalist, a senior writer with both the National Catholic Register and Faith and Family magazine, and the author of several books. His most recent book is Behind Bella: The Amazing Stories of Bella and the Lives it's Changed, published by Ignatius Press. Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, recently spoke with Drake about the book and Bella, the movie that inspired it.
Ignatius Insight: It's a beautiful book.
Tim Drake: Yes, it is; it's a very beautiful book. The film was beautiful and the book is a beautiful companion piece to the film.
Ignatius Insight: Is this a good time for me to admit I've not yet seen the film?
Tim Drake: [Laughs] That is shocking! [More laughter] Actually, I've talked to a lot of people who haven't seen it.
Ignatius Insight: Well, my wife saw it. She saw it with a group of ladies. And I planned on seeing it in the theater, but it was only in theaters here for a while. Anyhow, I plan to see it on video soon. Anyhow, how did the idea of this book come about? What inspired it?
Tim Drake: The first story I ever wrote on Bella was shortly after it won the Toronto International Film Festival's "People's Choice Award" back in 2006. The National Catholic Register had asked me to take a look at this little film and what it was about and what it was doing because it was certainly a surprise win, and a life-affirming film. So that was my first connection with the film.
I talked to one of the producers and financiers of the film, Sean Wolfington, about a lot of the background of what went into the film and how it had come together, which was an amazing story. That story then led to about four or five more stories that I wrote for the Register as the film was trying to find a distributor, as it found a distributor, and then opened in theaters in the fall of 2007.
In January (of 2008), Ignatius Press contacted me, knowing that the DVD of the film was coming out, and they had talked to the director, the producer, and the lead actor, Eduardo, and they had come up with a behind-the-scenes book, a coffee-table book for the movie, but also a book that would look at some of the results of the impact of the film, of how it had changed people's lives. They contacted me because they were familiar with the articles I had written and asked if I had an interest in the book, and I said, "Yes, I would."
I set to work on the project and discovered that while I knew some of the stories, I didn't know all of them. And the more I heard these stories, the more I was amazed at how the film came together and how these principal people involved got connected with one another. But also the impact the film had on them, and the impact the film had on the primary actors, and the impact the film had on those who saw it. So the book tells a beautiful story, with beautiful pictures. And that's how it came to be.
Ignatius Insight: Looking through the book, it seems that it is a story, in part, of how art changes lives, not just the finished film, but the actual making of the work of art. You mentioned various things that happened and came together in the making of the film that had a providential quality to them. What were some of those?
Tim Drake: One was how the producer, Leo Severino, came to meet the actor, Eduardo Verástegui. Eduardo, of course, had been known as a popular soap opera actor who was living the playboy lifestyle. Through a language coach, who was helping him to learn English, he had a reversion back to the Catholic faith, and he started attending daily Mass. It was at daily Mass that Leo first spied Eduardo, who was standing by a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with his hand on the Heart and his head bent over in prayer. And Leo made the mental note that here was a young and handsome man who was a daily Mass-goer and who he should talk to. But he didn't talk to Eduardo at that time because Eduardo was in prayer.
Some weeks went by and Leo saw him again at Mass and he planned on talking to him after Mass. But after Mass a woman began talking to Leo before he could get to Eduardo—she was asking for some restaurant recommendations—and so he was delayed in leaving the church. But as he left the church, there was Eduardo again praying by the statue; he was praying for direction in his life, praying for direction in filmmaking and his career. Again, Leo didn't want to interrupt him, so he went outside. As it happened, the woman who had talked to him had parked behind Leo's car so closely that he couldn't get out, so he was delayed in leaving. He had to get back to work, so he went out a different way, and as he was leaving the parking lot, Eduardo walked in front of him. So he rolled down his widow and started up a conversation. They actually spoke in Spanish with one another, and that was really the initial connection for those two.
Another incident that most people don't know about involved the lead actress, Tammy Blanchard, who played Nina. She wasn't the first choice for Alejandro Monteverde, the director, but she really felt that the part was written for her because she had grown up in a family that had struggles similar to those portrayed in the film, and so she felt the role was meant for her. So she really advocated to Alejandro for the role, and I think she filled that role well. But what's amazing is that after the film she became pregnant and she said that before the film she wouldn't have known what to do—she couldn't see herself as a mother, thinking it was pointless to have children. After making the film and interacting with the young girl who was Bella in the film, she realized what a life was, and so she ended up giving birth to Ava Jean, her daughter. So that is, I think, another very providential story from the film.
Ignatius Insight: There is a section in the book about people who saw the film and whose lives were really touched. There have apparently been a number of children who parents have said that they wouldn't have been born except for the influence of the film.
Tim Drake: Yes, that's right; they call them "Bella babies." That's in the third section of the book, which is titled, "New Life". The first fruit, as the Metanoia team calls him, is baby Eduardito, and that is the baby boy whose life was saved even before the film was made. Eduardo went to a crisis pregnancy center to do research for his role in the film. And while he was there a couple came up to the crisis pregnancy counselors who were standing outside—this was actually an abortion business—and there were pro-life folks there praying and trying to do sidewalk counseling. And this couple came up and spoke Spanish—and no one in the group knew Spanish. So the couple was brought over to Eduardo. Because they recognized him from his soap opera days in Mexico, there was a connection between them. And he was able to talk to them and they talked about faith, and family, and food, and all these other things. They talked for so long the couple missed their appointment to go into the abortion business. A few weeks later Eduardo went out to New York to do the filming for the movie, and after the movie was done, he returned home and received a call from this young man telling him that they had had a son, and they wanted to name him Eduardo. He tells that story, as it being the first fruit of Bella.
And now the producers are aware of at least 21 children who were born because of the film in some way, shape, or form. Those are just the ones they are aware of—young women who were in crisis pregnancies and saw the film and ended up choosing to either place their child for adoption, or to have and keep the child. I spoke to one young woman in New Hampshire, Leigha Lawrence, who had been in college and had her life planned out and then discovered she was in a crisis pregnancy. She didn't know what to do; she ended up going with her boyfriend to an abortion business for a counseling session, and they gave her the options—adoption, abortion, keeping the baby—and she wasn't certain what to do. Thankfully, she ended up connecting with a crisis pregnancy counselor, Kelly Roy, through Operation Outcry. Kelly suggested she go see Bella, and that was on opening weekend, and Leigha went and told me that watching the film was like watching her own life on the screen. It really impacted her. She knew that she couldn't place her baby for adoption; she and her boyfriend decided to raise their child and they ended up getting married. Earlier this year they had a daughter, Isabella, whom they call "Bella" for short.
Ignatius Insight: Despite all of the critical and commercial success of the film, there have been some strong criticisms of Bella from some Catholics. Is that surprising to you that some have argued that the film isn't actually pro-life, that they say it is morally ambiguous at best?
Tim Drake: Yes, some have said that from a pro-life perspective, Bella might be ambiguous. Well, here is my argument about that. The film is a pro-love film; it is a pro-adoption film. And my argument would be that any film that supports adoption is pro-life. I say that from my own life. I was threatened in the womb by abortion; I essentially was adopted. Sure, you can criticize the film from an artistic perspective, as you can any film. But I cannot look at this film and think it isn't pro-life. It wrestles with the very questions that any young woman struggling with a crisis pregnancy wrestles with.
Ignatius Insight: I was struck by some of the comments from the makers of Bella, indicating that they weren't trying to make a religious film, per se, or a overtly pro-life film—as a sort of polemical or didactic statement—they recognized the limits and nature of art, which isn't necessarily to make such statements.
Tim Drake: I talked to Alejandro about this, and he was very adamant in saying the idea that this film was pro-life was in many ways an afterthought, because he set out to make a film that would celebrate Hispanic culture and Hispanic life and Hispanic families. He called it a pro-love film that portrays sacrificial love. When they started showing rough cuts of the film around the country, people would come up and say, "Wow, we in the pro-life movement have been praying for tools that can be used in the battle for life, and this film is a wonderful tool." I think they were surprised, in fact, by the reaction at first. Because, as I say, they didn't originally set out with that intention.
Even though they didn't set out to make a movie that was didactic, we know that every sort of artwork—a painting, a film, a poem, a song—does convey a message. It's amazing that this is the message that's being portrayed through this very artistic film. Most movies, when you walk out of them, you think, "That was entertaining," but it doesn't stick with you for very long. How many movies can you say have an eternal value, as this film does, resulting in at least 21 babies who exist because of it?
Ignatius Insight: And it shows the need for good art, good films, that make people see the world differently and make them think about things of eternal value. We've been a bad place for a lot of years as far as Catholic art—or art made by Catholic, however it might be described—is concerned.
Tim Drake: What we might be seeing is the beginning of a new renaissance in Catholic art. I was just at the new Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and I was struck by what I would describe as contemporary art that was done reverently and well. In particular, the paintings in the Shrine itself and the tile work outside on the Rosary Walk are amazing examples of this new renaissance. I thought it was stunning.
Ignatius Insight: This is a unique book for Ignatius Press. What are some of the goals in producing such a book?
Tim Drake: The book was written to be a companion piece to the DVD. But what has happened, and what is really interesting to Ignatius Press and myself as the author, is that crisis pregnancy centers have really fallen in love with the book. Many are taking it and placing it in their waiting rooms, on the tables, so that young women or men are waiting, they can flip through it, see the beautiful pictures, and perhaps be drawn in to the story. A lot of the centers are also utilizing the film by playing it in the waiting room, or making it available to those who come in for counseling, so they can take it home and watch it in the privacy of their own home. So this is something, I think, is something Ignatius Press didn't expect, but it is happening. There is also a whole side effort, a non-profit, called "Bella Hero," which is trying to obtain financial donations to help make the book and DVD available to crisis pregnancy centers that might not be able to afford it. I think it is a wonderful testament to how the book is being used.
Ignatius Insight: Any final thoughts?
Tim Drake: It would just be to highlight the stories in the book: they tell of what can happen when we say "Yes" to God. For each of these individuals who were involved with the film—and you could even say myself getting on board with this book project—this project didn't always make sense. "Why get involved?" might have been the initial thought of a lot of these folks. But yet there was the powerful feeling that this was something that God was asking of them. So I think that just as Mary's "Yes" two thousand years ago had eternal consequences, so does our "Yes," when we are being asked to do something that perhaps doesn't make sense to us fully. When I interviewed the people involved with the film and they told me, again and again, these stories about how they got involved and how they agreed to the project although it didn't make sense, I think that is the thing that really stands out to me.
Tim Drake is an award-winning journalist and author. He serves as senior writer with both the National Catholic Register and Faith and Family magazine, and was a key journalist in covering Pope Benedict XVI's April 2008 visit to the U.S., as well as World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia in summer 2008.
Behind Bella is Tim's fourth book. He has previously published There We Stood, Here We Stand: 11 Lutherans Rediscover their Catholic Roots (AuthorHouse, 2001), Saints of the Jubilee (AuthorHouse 2002), "Young and Catholic: The Face of Tomorrow's Church" (Sophia Institute Press, 2004).
Tim has published more than 600 articles in publications including the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Faith and Family magazine, Catholic World Report, and many others. He's also been a guest on both television and radio, including Vatican Radio, Fox News, EWTN, and a variety of other nationwide radio programs.
Tim's writing awards include: Metro Right to Life Writing Award - 6th place (2000); Ex Corde Ecclesiae Award from the Cardinal Newman Society for significant contributions to the renewal of Catholic higher education (2003); Bernardin-O'Connor Award from Priests for Life for Pro-Life Journalism for best pro-life news story (2003); The Aquinas Senior Fellow Award from the University of St. Thomas, in recognition of his continuing dedication to the integration of vocation and professional excellence (2006); Special Honorable Mention, National Right to Life 11th Annual Excellence in Journalism Award (2008).
Tim serves on the board of directors for the Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations and is a member of the advisory board for the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors.
He graduated from the University of Minnesota, Morris, with a bachelor's degree and social science teaching certificate in 1989. Tim resides in Saint Joseph, Minnesota with his wife and five children.
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