The Letters, a bio-drama about Blessed Mother Teresa, was released in theaters December 2015. Its cast includes cinema stars Max von Sydow, Rutger Hauer, and Juliet Stevenson. Catholic Digest had the opportunity to speak with writer and director William Riead. Riead’s long career began in television journalism, including a stint in the White House press corps in the 1970s. He transitioned into making independent documentary and dramatic films and has worked with many cinema notables for more than four decades.
CD: You’ve said that this film was 14 years in the making. It was the events of 9/11 that clarified your desire to do an inspirational movie. How is The Letters an answer to such evil?
WR: The events of 9/11 made me realize there was greater evil in the world than I’d previously imagined, and that as a response we should explore and showcase the polar opposite of that extreme evil—extreme goodness. Who represents that more than Mother Teresa? After 14 years in the making, I don’t think this film could come to the big screen at a better time. We need to see what goodness is amidst so much evil.
CD: You’ve described your work on The Letters as a “calling.” Why?
WR: I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but from day one when I woke up and said, ‘I’ve got to make this!’ I’ve felt obsessed and compelled. I felt a guidance I’d never experienced before. It was my wife who first pointed it out. She said, “You always wrote scripts in your ‘cave,’ with the door closed, but this time you wrote in the family room with distractions all around.”
At one point she came into the family room to ask me a question. I started talking to her while I was still typing. That was evidence to her that I was being guided by a higher power. When she pointed this out, it was a jolt. I was amazed to realize that perhaps this film was meant to be made, and maybe, just maybe, I had been appointed as the one to make it. Mother Teresa was clearly guided by God during the course of her life. I think we are all guided in various ways.
CD: As the title suggests, the framework for the film is the collection of letters written by Mother Teresa to her spiritual director over a period of many years. You didn’t learn about these letters until you had already written the script for your film. How did the change come about?
WR: Originally I’d written the script as a normal cradle-to-grave biopic. But then I learned about her letters to Father Van Exem where she shared the spiritual darkness she felt for many years. Reading them I realized that this was a much more complicated story, a more complex reality. So I rewrote the script almost from scratch. When you read about Mother Teresa confiding to her director that “my longing is so great that I feel a constant sense of torture,” and “there is no longer any God in me,” it rips your heart out. When her letters were first published [Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, published by Image in 2009], many people misinterpreted them and imagined she’d lost her faith in God. She never lost her faith in God, but she did feel as if God had abandoned her. It was the dark night of the soul that many other saints have also experienced and written about.
CD: You said that you expect everyone who sees The Letters to be affected by it. Have you seen that happen?
WR: At the Sedona Film Festival—where it won the Audience Choice Award—I was surrounded afterwards in the lobby by people wanting to talk to me. Many had tears in their eyes—I was used to that by this point—but one woman came up with tears streaming down her face and said, “You just saved my life.” I said, “What do you mean?” She told me that she had been planning to commit suicide. Her husband had died some time ago, and her daughter had just died a few days before from cancer. She said, “I saw no reason to go on living until I saw your movie and I realized I still have a lot to live for.” That was a gut shot. I realized the responsibility I had taken on and what films can do to effect change.
What I’ve chosen to do at this stage in my life is to use my camera to try to make it a better world. I mean, look around us! We have ISIS, Al Qaeda, violence in Paris, in San Bernardino, California, and that’s only the beginning. Anybody who can must do something to combat that. If you have a way of doing that, if you can do something and you don’t, there is something wrong with you. I knew the best actors and the best crew would rally to join me. To not try to make a difference would be, for me, a sin.
I believe that everyone who walks into the theater to see The Letters will be changed for the better.
CD: How has Mother Teresa changed you?
WR: Human beings are so often ego-driven. It’s the way most of us get things done. Since making the film, there is far less of that in me. Mother Teresa had no ego to speak of, yet she accomplished so much. I think I learned something from her. There have been some negative reviews of the film. I don’t care if they criticize me as a director. The only thing that makes me mad is when these critics find fault with Mother Teresa. If you want to take a shot at me, fine, but don’t go after her. I did the research. This isn’t a work of fiction. She was faultless, ego-less.
CD: The Letters also depicts several major obstacles Mother Teresa had to overcome in starting and continuing her work. You had plenty of obstacles in bringing this project to completion. Did you see the hand of God in getting some of them resolved?
WR: It seemed that everything that could go wrong did, yet in the end everything that happened worked out for the best. The casting is an example. I had wanted Max von Sydow for the role of Fr. Van Exem. Unfortunately he was tied up with other projects, so instead I got Peter O’Toole. But then Peter had to withdraw because he had macular degeneration. I contacted Max Von Sydow’s agent to see whether there was any chance he could come in after all. It turned out that the film he was working on had been delayed in production, so now there was a window in which he could work with me. I sent him the script, and he called back to say he loved it and wanted to do the part. It was blessing in disguise because, although I’d lost Peter O’Toole, I now had the actor I’d wanted in the first place.
Also, I’d initially cast another actress as Mother Teresa, but there were problems and I wasn’t able to work with her after all. Then I learned that Juliet Stevenson was available. She turned out to be such a joy to work with! When you see the film, there’s no doubt she was the only actress for this role. So many negatives turned into positives throughout the process. That’s why I say I was hanging onto the saddle horn rather than guiding the horse. I just climbed on the horse and let the Old Man Upstairs take over.
The Letters is available on DVD and Blu-ray. Visit TheLettersMovie.com for more information.