In his five-part miniseries about Junipero Serra, Cambria filmmaker James Kelty tried to portray the Spanish Franciscan friar who founded nine of California’s 21 missions as a real person, not as a saint.
“I don’t look for saintliness,” explained Kelty, who wrote, directed, produced and narrated the miniseries. “I look for human qualities that make them like you and me, the same foibles, the same weaknesses.”
"Serra: Ever Forward, Never Back” premieres Wednesday on Catholic cable network EWTN. The first four half-hour episodes will be aired one at a time, with all five segments to be broadcast on Sunday, the 300th anniversary of Serra’s birth.
“Serra” intersperses documentary-style segments with dramatic re-enactments of important events in Serra’s life, including his upbringing in Mallorca, Spain, his work establishing missions along the California coast, and his clashes with Native Americans and the Spanish military.
According to Kelty, the production features several local cast and crew members, including San Luis Obispo resident Julio Mora, who stars as Serra.
Long Beach actor Diego Antolini and Arroyo Grande resident Dusty Hughes play his fellow missionaries, Francisco Palou and Juan Vizcaino. Brandon Mahana, who also lives in Arroyo Grande, appears as Serra’s helper, Jose Maria.
A former journalist, Kelty spent seven years in Paris teaching English and working for news services before returning to the United States in 1980 to attend film school at Los Angeles City College.
He founded his own production company shortly after graduating. James Kelty & Associates Inc. moved to the Central Coast in 1988.
Historical documentaries and docu-dramas have dominated his filmmaking career, Kelty said.
In 2011, he filmed “Footprints in the Wilderness,” a EWTN miniseries about Jesuit missionaries in Canada. Kelty was approached by the network about
10 years ago to tell Serra’s story.
“One of the problems you have with doing (a biography) about a figure like Junipero Serra is he’s so well-known. … He’s kind of a cross between Father Time and Santa Claus,” said Kelty, who pored over Serra’s letters and read “Palou’s Life of Fray Junipero Serra” to prepare for the project. He also consulted with Father Joe Scerbo of the St. Paschal Baylon Catholic Church in Thousand Oaks, who served as history and theology adviser on “Serra.”
For the miniseries, Kelty said he tried to capture the qualities that made Serra exemplary while emphasizing his innate humanity.
“The audience doesn’t want to see someone who is improbably good, who never gets angry, who never gets jealous,” he said. “That’s not believable.”
Although Serra’s legacy is wreathed in controversy, the filmmaker said, “The most important thing about him for history to know is how devoted he was to the Native Americans.”
Unlike the Spanish soldiers, who saw California’s native peoples as savages, Serra took a more paternalistic view.
In the priest’s eyes, “They were like Adam and Eve before the fall,” he said. “They were pure. They were innocent. They were pagan, and unless they were baptized, they were doomed.”
Mora likened the experience of playing Serra to a spiritual journey.
“We still need inspirational figures such as priests … that can help us understand and live the life of Christ,” Mora said. “For me, just getting to know the character wasn’t enough. I wanted to know about what inspired him. Who were his role models? Who was his family?”
“The more I found out about who he was, the more I was drawn to the value of prayer and meditation,” the actor said, adding that the experience inspired him to walk from Mission San Miguel to Mission San Luis Obispo this summer toward the end of shooting.
With the exception of location shoots in Mexico and Spain, “Serra” was filmed entirely on the Central Coast, Kelty said, with shooting starting in August 2012 and ending in June.
“The Central Coast is a great place to shoot because it’s not that developed compared to most of California,” he said. “You can get away from airplanes, and you can get away from cars.”
Locations included the Wagner Ranch in Arroyo Grande and the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve and Covell Ranch in Cambria. Kelty even shot scenes at his Cambria property, using a canvas tent he built himself.
Cast and crew members also spent a rainy day battling seasickness aboard the Lady Washington tall ship near Morro Bay. With a storm on the horizon, the helicopter pilot working with the production refused to fly.
Weather also complicated a scene involving actors dancing around fire pots.
“We had a windstorm that was blowing lights over, and it was just a nightmare,” Kelty recalled.
Meanwhile, the production’s animal actors proved problematic as cast members continually fell off their temperamental steeds.
“(Filmmaking is) the art of the possible,” explained Kelty, who is currently working on a miniseries about 17th century Mohawk saint Kateri Tekakwitha. “You have to find ways of bringing the story to life with the budget you have, the locations you have.”
"Serra: Ever Forward, Never Back” airs on EWTN at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday through Saturday and 4:30 p.m. on Sunday.
The miniseries features the work of several Central Coast residents, including cinematographer Rick Smith of Cambria, set designer Rob Wagner of Arroyo Grande, camera operator Eric Botorff of Arroyo Grande, makeup artist Marie Steck Johnson of San Luis Obispo and costume designers/prop masters Gayle Pierce of Atascadero and Sherry Scott of Arroyo Grande.
For more information, visit www.ewtn.com.