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Glorifying God with Children's Cinema | An Interview with Jim Morlino, President of Navis Pictures | Ignatius Insight | July 9, 2010

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Navis Pictures was founded in 2007 by Jim Morlino, an actor and video director who lives in Danbury, Connecticut with his wife, Fran, and their six children. The fledgling film company recently released St. Bernadette of Lourdes, a feature-length movie about the beloved Saint that has a cast of 166 children—and no adults. Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, interviewed Morlino about Navis Pictures, the making of the film, and the importance of culture and art in the lives of children.

Ignatius Insight: How did Navis Pictures come into being? What is your background in filmmaking?

Jim Morlino: I was a professional musician and actor for about 25 years (I got my S.A.G. card when I was 24). After graduate school, I moved from San Diego to New York where I worked mostly in commercials and did a little theater. After I got married, and children started coming, I eased out of acting, and began working as a video producer for various Catholic organizations. As my children got a bit older, we started making silly, little short films, imitating some of our favorite movies. These were so much fun to watch, that I began to think it might be edifying for young people to experience working on a larger, more professional-style film. Once I saw how our Robin Hood was received, I knew we were on to something.

Ignatius Insight: Why did you decide upon a film about St. Bernadette and Lourdes?

Jim Morlino: After Robin Hood, we knew we wanted to do something with a Catholic theme, and we knew it had to be something in the public domain. In early 2008, my friend, Ken Davison, with whom I created an audio series called Glory Stories, suggested St. Bernadette, as it was then the 150th anniversary of the apparitions in Lourdes. Once I read the beautiful account by Fr. Trochu, I was sold. I knew that we'd have a decent chance at re-creating at least some of the geography, dress, and architecture needed for the story, but I wasn't able to even start the script until the fall, and didn't actually finish it until the following spring.

Ignatius Insight: What was the inspiration or goal behind having a cast of all children?

Jim Morlino: I think at first, I just thought it would be fun, plus it would be kind of like starting out with Little League, perfecting your skills, before maybe setting your sights on the Majors. But it wasn't too long before I began to see the intrinsic value of working with children. They are the future of the Church, they are the future of our culture, and they need to know the real purpose of art, and what it is that makes something truly beautiful. I saw this as a way for good Catholics to begin to re-invigorate our culture. I think most children have an innocent, innate, creative energy – they don't need years of classes to learn how to "pretend". A boy picks up a sword, and he's a pirate; a girl puts on a fancy dress, and she's a princess. All we are doing, really, is encouraging that instinct, shaping it, directing it. When you start out with a bright, and enthusiastic talent pool, treat them with respect and patience, surround them with high production values, and remind them that the art they are making is for the Honor and Glory of Almighty God ... wonderful things can happen.

Ignatius Insight: What was the film-making process like? What were some of the biggest challenges in making the film?

Jim Morlino: This film was the most exciting and challenging project I have ever had the privilege of working on. We shot it in about 21 days, spread out over three months or so, in some absolutely beautiful locations in Connecticut and New York. There were about fifty wonderful families involved, many of whom helped out with props, costumes, make-up, catering, and transportation. We had a great crew, several of them young film-makers, themselves. Some of the challenges were the same things any director would face when dealing with non-professionals; mostly scheduling, logistics, availability, etc. But other issues were, I think, specific to the fact that this cast was made up of over 160 young people – some very young, in fact. I tried to be mindful of a sometimes more limited attention span, or a lower tolerance for working in heat and difficult circumstances. This was tough sometimes, especially when we just needed one more shot, and there was just no way I could ask all those generous Moms to stay for two more hours. But in spite of that, we usually finished on schedule, and there are only a few places in the film I wish I'd been able to spend a lot more time on – and most people probably wouldn't know where they were, unless I pointed them out.

Ignatius Insight: I thought all of the kids were wonderful, but I was especially impressed by the young lady who played Bernadette. Is that your daughter? Has it been mostly a matter of "on the job" training with the kids when it comes to acting? What are some basic tips you give to kids who are learning to work with lines, in front of a camera?

Jim Morlino: All of the children in the cast, no matter their role, bring to the set an enthusiasm and an innocent energy that is truly edifying for someone of my years. I can't tell you how many times a young person, even a background actor (that's a fancy term for "extra") has come up to me while I'm in the middle of planning a difficult shot, and asked me to weigh-in on the state of their costume or something. It's beautiful to see how important it is for them. In certain respects, the process of directing a large cast of young folks is no different than were I dealing with adult professionals: there's a lot of yelling involved! (I've really got to get a megaphone next time). Much of it involves timing: where they start on "Action!", where they go, where they end, what they're doing, their attitudes, gestures, posture, use of props, etc. And consequently, they get a real sense of the rigor of a professional film set, namely, repetition. There are so many other factors involved in a single shot: lighting, focus, camera moves, framing, composition, sound. If even one thing is off, we do another take. But the difference here is that if you're dealing with paid actors, they expect to put in eight to twelve hours or more in a day: with our cast, I need to be more mindful of their limitations. I want to get it right, but it's a balance--it becomes a matter of Prudence.

For the more weighty scenes, involving the principal actors, again, there are similarities with a professional film: a director might discuss a particular scene with Johnny Depp or Liv Tyler, for example in terms of motives, actions, or obstacles for their characters, and the actors would then process that direction through their years of professional training, and life experience, and come up with a performance--but that same director would never dream of simply telling an actor how to say a line. But our cast doesn't yet have that training, or experience. And so I try to fill in the gaps, where I can. I try to build on what they do have: an innocence, a playfulness, an openness. But when all else fails, I have the luxury of giving them very specific direction: I can say, "Stress this word, instead of that one." or, "Raise your eyebrow after he says that line to you." They aren't insulted by this degree of guidance, they usually welcome it. There's a certain trust, and ultimately, a correspondence to Grace. I think that's what you see in my daughter, Genevieve's performance as Bernadette. She's never had a formal acting lesson in her life, and yet because of her sensitivity and Faith, she was able to imagine what it would feel like to have the overwhelming privilege of Our Lady appearing to her ... and her alone. Those tears of joy are real.

Ignatius Insight: I was also struck by the excellent sound throughout the movie. The music score by David Hughes is very well done. What is his background and how did he go about creating the soundtrack?

Jim Morlino: I think a lot of people just don't realize how vital the sound can be in a film's success. What the audience hears is just as important as what it sees, and in some ways, even more so. Carefully recorded dialog, and attention to sound effects can really raise the bar in terms of production values. They are part of "the language of film" that we have become used to in the last century. But the real glue that holds everything together is the music. Good music can underline, support, connect and punctuate a story. It can guide the audience, comfort them, warn them, and excite them. And if it's really well crafted music, it does this without calling undue attention to itself. I think that is exactly what our composer, David J. Hughes has done with his score for St. Bernadette of Lourdes. David is an incredibly talented and knowledgeable musician, and a very sensitive artist, but he is also a man of great Faith. He draws on his encyclopedic knowledge of Church music to inform every note of his score in ways that might be lost on many. What most of us come away with is, "Wow, that was beautiful." He is also a wonderfully generous collaborator, and was eager to incorporate my general ideas, and even specific wishes for particular styles or moods in a seamless way. But where we really benefit from his work, is in the very aesthetic he brings to what he does. He writes what he writes for the Honor and Glory of Almighty God, period. We are truly blessed to have him.

Ignatius Insight:What approach did you take to "Robin Hood"? Is it available to purchase?

Jim Morlino: Robin Hood – the Good Spirit of Sherwood, was our second large movie project, and was actually filmed in 2007--2 years before Bernadette. After our first film, which was based on the Redwall books by Brian Jacques, we decided we needed to tell a story that was in the public domain. Even though the Robin Hood legend has been the subject of many films, I thought there was much to be explored in terms of its Catholicity. Sometimes Robin of Locksley is portrayed as an outlaw, or even a proto-communist, but I thought it would be interesting to view his actions in light of the Church's teaching on Justice. So, we wrote the script with the idea of The Just War: The legitimate sovereign (King Richard) gives Robin the authority to restore justice to his afflicted people, Robin seeks the further blessing of his Bishop, he instructs his men to use only as much force as is absolutely necessary, and he returns only that which was unjustly taken. And, since most of England was Catholic at that point in history anyway, I thought it would be a natural fit. I also thought it would be refreshing to represent the clergy in a more noble light, instead of as buffoon or villain. The 37-minute film was previewed by about 75 people crammed into my attic, and we've made copies available to the families involved. Since we completed it before we had finalized the business end of the company, I still need to revise some of the credits before we release it – I hope to have it ready by the end of the summer.

Ignatius Insight: Are you currently working on Noel? Can you talk about it a bit? What are some other projects you hope to work on?

Jim Morlino: Noel is a great little re-telling of the Nativity Story that was made before any of our other films. Written, produced, directed and edited by a young friend of ours named Gary Gasse; all I really did was film and light the movie for Gary. But since it represents a shared aesthetic, and in many ways served as the inspiration for Navis Pictures, I'm pleased that Gary wants us to distribute it. Like Robin Hood, it too, has a few adjustments yet to be made before it can be released, and we're hoping to have it ready by the end of the summer.

As for other projects: We're currently working on a short, fun instructional video for young people. We'll be taking them, step by step, through the process of creating a movie. Designed to help them avoid the common mistakes, and work around the usual obstacles that get in the way of effective film making. To illustrate the instruction, we'll be re-creating scenes from some of the world's most recognizable movies, plus producing a short film of our own. Also due by late summer, 2010.

As for the next big project, that's anyone's guess. We could do another European or American saint story, like The North American Martyrs, or St. Ignatius, or maybe something on the Revolutionary War, or the English Martyrs. We've had many suggestions, including the Children's Crusade, St. Joan of Arc, and the Cornish Revolt, but I keep coming back to one of the most important events in Western Civilization: The Battle of Lepanto. Does anyone in your audience have a 16th century Spanish Galleon or two?

Ignatius Insight: What advice would you suggest for parents who might not be able to have their kids act in plays or movies, but who want to find ways to introduce cultural and artistic riches to their children? From your perspective as a Catholic filmmaker and writer, why are culture and art so important?

Jim Morlino: I am not an expert in anything, much less theology, but I can say this: I believe God is the origin and end of all things, and so I try to live life in that context, and pass that on to my children. It's not just in matters that obviously deal with the soul like prayer and worship, but in the every-day, mundane things like how we make a living, or do our schoolwork, or clean the house and cook our meals. I want to try and do every little task God has presented me within my state in life with as much perfection as possible. I know in this, He is pleased.

So I think it starts with adopting a supernatural view of things; God can be found and glorified in the littlest things. I think part of our hearts' restlessness until they rest in God (to paraphrase St. Augustine) is manifested in our attempts to create art. We seek Truth and Beauty, and our art is, or should be a reflection of that. We should surround our children with the absolute best and most beautiful art: Mozart, Shakespeare, Michelangelo. Why give them the mediocre? That's not to say that The Beach Boys or a Marvel Comic doesn't have its place, but all things in proportion. Children don't need a class to learn how to pretend, or create, or perform; they do it naturally. So anytime we can encourage that, whether in an organized event like a school play, or just at home with brothers and sisters, I think we can be helping them know themselves, and God better; we can be helping them on the road to heaven.

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