Over the course of my career I’ve written, produced and directed dozens of hours of non-fiction content for broadcast and cable television and multiple feature length documentaries, several of which received theatrical release. Non-fiction was my specialty.
So, it was a pleasant surprise when in the spring of 2017 one of my non-fiction colleagues made me an offer to write and direct a dramatic feature film on famed Argentinian faith leader Luis Palau.
I knew of Luis Palau because I had been working for several years to secure the rights to direct a documentary on Billy Graham, and from my research I knew Luis was Billy’s Spanish language interpreter in Central and Latin America beginning in the1960s. He was even later called the ‘Latin American Billy Graham’. Since then Luis has built a worldwide ministry and has preached to tens of millions of people in 75 countries.
While I’ve written all of my documentaries, I don’t by trade write feature dramas. And though many of my documentary films have extensive dramatic reenactments, the chance to direct a feature length drama was an exciting opportunity.
Writing a Feature Drama
My method in writing and directing documentaries is to outline a basic three-act structure, shoot all my interviews and b-roll, gather all the archival material, and then write the script. With a dramatic feature, it is obviously the opposite. The script comes first, is the blueprint for the film, and will influence the choices to be made by the director. To put it another way, my style of directing documentaries was to carve out a film from materials I shot or archived, and continuously sculpt it as new material came in. With my feature drama PALAU, I was shooting the script I wrote.
For my research on the script I read Palau’s autobiography and a dozen other books written by or about him. I also interviewed Luis at length. Eighty-three at the time, he was inquisitive, clear-eyed and brilliant in his knowledge of a multitude of subjects, a man of deeply sincere faith and very engaging.
I felt it was important to show Luis’ childhood and his early days learning to preach in the streets of his small town in Argentina, his time at seminary school in the United States where he meets his wife Pat, and his breakthrough speech as an evangelist in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1966, a time of intense political turmoil. That story arc offered many dramatic opportunities.
I had four months to write my script, and once my outline was approved by the Palau organization, I went to work. Luis Palau’s many books and videos helped me create his character and inspired the dialogue and plot points.
The Magic of Casting
After the Palau team approved my script, the challenge was how to shoot a period piece set in Argentina and Colombia in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s on a budget and in two languages. I traveled to Argentina several times to scout locations and cast the movie.
In Buenos Aires, we cast 10-year-old Agustin Amoedo as young Luis, known as ‘Luisito’. This was Agustin’s first film, and I knew the instant he began to read for us during a casting call that he would be perfect. He had a naturalness and innocence that was exactly what we were looking for.
Early in the film Luisito learns of his father’s (Fabián Carrasco) unexpected death from pneumonia, and Agustin was able to convey a nuanced sense of loss and unease about his future. The prosperous Palau family construction business will be ruined by a former associate of Luis’ father, putting Luisito, his mother (Alexia Moyano) and little sister Martha, (Lola Toledo), into financial peril.
We cast the popular Argentinian television actor Santiago Achaga as Luis Palau, age 22, when he finally acts on his father’s advice and begins to preach in the streets.
The acclaimed Argentine actor Gastón Pauls plays Luis Palau in his late thirties.
We had limited rehearsal time, but did have a table read with the principle cast, which helped all of us to get to know one another and establish trust.
Argentine casting director Norma Angeleri filled in the rest of our South American cast, including Denise Yañez and Manuel Ramos. Michel Noher was also cast.
In the states we cast Alexandra Bard (The Meanest Man in Texas) as Luis’ wife Pat Palau, Daniel Roebuck (Lost, The Fugitive), Scott Reeves (Nashville), Richard Shelton (My Week With Marilyn), Jim Gleason (Ozark), Jason McDonald (Miracle Workers) and singer and actor Darren Dowler as Billy Graham.
Filming a Two-Hour Movie in 17 Days
In pre-production calls over Skype, our South American crew raised legitimate doubts whether we could shoot a two-hour movie in 17 total days, 14 of them in Argentina. But together with Argentinian Unit Executive Producer Guido Goldberg and Production Supervisor Raimundo Bassano, and my first AD Celina Eslava, we had a chance of pulling it off.
I had storyboarded the entire movie, and we had location photos that I took on numerous scouts that helped me pre-block each scene.
For our interiors, we shot in a church in Buenos Aires and in a massive four-story Victorian mansion called Los Olivos, built in the late 19th century, filled with antiques.
We needed to find a location for our exteriors that was mostly free from modern touches, and we found it in San Antonio de Areco, a beautiful Spanish colonial town two hours north of Buenos Aires.
I had previously sent my DP Dan Rubottom ‘look books’ on the look I was after. We both love great cinematographers, and mentioned most often the work of Roger Deakins, Emmanuel Lubezki, and Bruno Delbonnel.
We shot with two cameras, an Arri Alexa XT and an Alexa Mini. I shot nearly every dialogue scene with both cameras, which really helped us stay on schedule. We used Cooke prime lenses, and an Angenieux Optimo 24-290 zoom, which also allowed us to move quickly.
When I wasn’t using the B Camera for a dialogue scene, I would send them out to get landscapes and atmospheric shots. Having directed so many documentaries in many budget ranges over the years, I’ve learned not to let a second camera go to waste.
We had incredible period costumes from the acclaimed Facundo Veiras, impeccable production design from Lorena Llaneza, and hair and makeup from Clarisa Reynoso.
Other than my DP and his 1st assistant camera Brian Aichlmayr, the rest of the crew was Argentinian. Communication was never an issue. Argentina has many talented film and television workers and our crew was outstanding.
Back in the United States, Paul Mills and Zack Leffew composed the score.
It’s A Wrap
Because of the dedication of the cast and crew we able to shoot on time and on our two million-dollar budget.
Writing and directing PALAU was an incredible experience. Just before we started shooting in January 2018 in San Antonio de Areco, we learned that Luis was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. It made the whole team even more determined to bring the best they could to the inspiring story of Luis Palau.
PALAU opens in theaters on April 4th, 2019, in the U.S., Central America and South America.