When producer Christian Peschken watched Pope Francis appear on the balcony in Rome on the day of his election, he thought: "This will make a great scene for the end of a movie about his life up to the point where he became Pope."
In a matter of days, Peschken began turning the thought into a reality. He is already deep into the project with the working title Friend of the Poor: The Pope Francis Story.
Peschken is organizing it as a theatrical motion picture and is in the process of recruiting some prominent people in the industry to help him with the endeavor. A European investment group has already approved a $25-million budget for the film.
Projects don’t always come together so rapidly in the film industry. But Peschken is no newcomer.
In his native Germany, he was a professional cameraman, producer and director in film, television (including his own weekly TV talk show) and radio. Switching to Hollywood, he worked as a producer and was chairman of the Social Awareness Committee at the Producers Guild of America.
Things changed when Peschken became a Catholic convert. He shifted gears, and a number of his independent productions have been shown on EWTN. Also a trained actor, he is the voice of Father Robert Barron in the German-dubbed version of the acclaimed Catholicism series as well as the voice of Marcus Grodi for The Journey Home, both aired by EWTN in Germany.
Peschken regularly does language adaptations and voice-overs for EWTN’s 24-hour channel in Germany for shows like The Friar and, currently, the animated series My Catholic Family. For the movie project on Pope Francis, Peschken has started assembling a team that includes Vatican insider Andrea Tornielli, the author of several books on popes, including Francis: Pope of a New World (Ignatius, 2013).
"He not only is the author, but has known Cardinal [Jorge] Bergoglio since 2002," Peschken said. "We spoke at great length and discussed what type of movie that will be."
Peschken reports that when he called Tornielli, the Vatican insider had just spoken with the Holy Father a few days earlier.
Peschken puts the theme of the planned movie into focus by explaining that it won’t be a strict biography.
"We will make a movie about a person who followed God’s call and then became a shepherd of men — a man with a mission and a man with a destination," he said.
"We want to be authentic and truthful about the life of Jorge Bergoglio/Pope Francis," he added.
"We portray him as who he is: a person who constantly points to Jesus and the message of Jesus — of love, of responsibility to neighbor — a person who puts Jesus first and everything else second."
Friend of the Poor will not be a Catholic movie per se, explained Peschken, but a movie about a man who listened to God and unconditionally has followed him, "a man who lives what he preaches and, through his humble attitude and lifestyle, directs the attention of people of all walks of life, of all religions, believers and non-believers alike, to him, but then takes always the opportunity to point to Jesus, to God, a perfect Shepherd."
At this point in the production process, Peschken is not discussing the more detailed story lines being considered. But no secret are the people he has recruited to the project so far.
Besides Tornielli, others who have responded with official letters of interest (standard industry practice) include Spanish film director Antonio Cuadri as scriptwriter and director and Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Tornielli will be the project and script consultant. Peschken contacted Sergio Rubin, author of El Jesuita (2010), the only biography of Pope Francis before his election, to come aboard also as a script and story consultant.
Cuadri — who, among other awards, received the International Catholic Film Festival’s 2012 Mirabile Dictu Award for Best First Film — has directed major films and TV series and has been featured on Rome Reports.
Storaro is a three-time Academy Award winner. "With him on board, my film will have the highest artistic and technical level of photography a motion picture can have," said Peschken.
He shares how the cinematographer wrote to him about how he loves Pope Francis and that he realized a film on the story of Jorge Mario Bergoglio "can be very positive for all human beings around the world."
Said Peschken, "Keep in mind these high-profile people are interested even though we do not have a script yet." That includes the sales agent/distributer, AMG Films, which has what is known as a "first-look deal" with Warner Brothers.
"We are confident and aiming at a major theatrical release in the U.S.," said Peschken.
He believes this team will help him communicate the right message without making a specifically "Catholic" movie.
"I want the movie to appeal to everyone," Peschken said. "It’s what the Pope tries to do himself. It’s what our Church does: speaking to everyone. So our movie wants to speak to everyone. … We want to reach the masses with this film. We do not want to leave anyone out."
The producer said his approach is not to put Catholicism on a movie label, but to put Catholicism in the content of the movie.
"When we show his life, we will automatically communicate the message of the Catholic Church, of Christ," said Peschken, who believes that doing so will make the movie a powerful evangelization tool.
At the same time, with the possibility of other secular outlets someday also producing films about Pope Francis, he wants to make sure his movie is made from an authentic Catholic perspective.
"We plan to film at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, with some on-location work in Argentina," Peschken disclosed. Cinecitta is Europe’s largest film studio.
But despite the Rome locale for most of the production, Friend of the Poor will be filmed in English.
"We are filming in Rome for a good reason," the producer said: He wants to be close to the source, so to speak.
"We are ‘next door’ to St. Peter’s tomb. And to make, close by, a movie about one of the successors of Peter has a spiritual significance. I believe that the Holy Spirit will love it and will help us to accomplish our mission."
The Passion of the Christ was filmed in Rome, too. That crew was reported to have prayed each morning before filming, and Peschken envisions doing the same, so that the "production is very much driven by prayer and the Holy Spirit."
Already, he is praying for the success of this movie with the help of St. Gabriel the Archangel, the patron saint of communication workers.
The producer says that everyone involved would like Pope Francis’ approval of the final script, if at all possible. The team also hopes to receive the blessing of the Holy Father for the entire project.
The plan calls for filming to start early next year and to screen the movie at the Vatican on Dec. 17, 2014, Pope Francis’ birthday.
Peschken is already confident about the reception of the project.
"This movie," he said, "has a good chance to become an international success because of who this person — Pope Francis — is."
He describes that first appearance of the newly elected Holy Father — high above the faithful on a balcony — as absolutely contrary to what one would expect from people in a powerful position.
It will be that vision, of papal humility and service, that this film project wants to bring to the screen.
Said Peschken, "Here was a humble person with a refreshing and humbling gesture that defines his papacy."