San Antonio filmmaker served as cinematographer for Sundance dark comedy set in Mormon church

click to enlarge San Antonio filmmaker served as cinematographer for Sundance dark comedy set in Mormon church
The American Standard Film Co.

Writer and director Gregory Barnes, a former member of the Mormon Church, received permission from church leaders for him and his crew to shoot a short film inside an 85-year-old temple in Los Angeles.

There was one problem, though. The crew didn’t get cleared to actually step into the baptismal pool. So, the members had to work fast before someone came along and told them they shouldn’t be there.

One of those crewmembers was San Antonio native and filmmaker Fidel Ruiz-Healy (The Homefront), a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. On set as cinematographer, he said there was a “guerilla filmmaking aspect” to the project.

“We weren’t really supposed to be in there,” Ruiz-Healy told the Current. “We had a soft permission, but not necessarily to be in there with a camera — or in the water. We were discovering it as we went. When it came down to shoot the scene, it was very spontaneous.”

The prospect of getting thrown out of the church ended up being worth the risk. The dark comedy The Touch of the Master’s Hand was selected to screen virtually at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival on January 28. The film tells the story of a young Mormon missionary who must make a humiliating confession by revealing that he’s addicted to watching pornography.

Currently back in San Antonio waiting out the pandemic, Ruiz-Healy, who considers himself a “good, old-fashioned, non-practicing, Mexican Catholic,” talked to the Current about his experience working on the Mormon-themed short last year, finding out Sundance wanted it and what he’s been doing in San Antonio since he left his home in New York City when the pandemic hit.

What was your initial reaction when you found out the film was chosen to screen at Sundance?

We were all very ecstatic. When you start making movies, you submit them to festivals that make sense for your movie, but you also buy those lottery tickets and apply to the big festivals too. Sundance is a big one. We’ve always applied to Sundance, so to finally get in, it was like, “Oh, we finally did it! Now, what do we do?”

Did you get to see the acceptance letter?

Yeah, Greg sent it to all of us, so we could make sure he wasn’t lying. Actually, Greg got a call first letting him know the film got accepted. But during the call, he had bad reception, so he wasn’t really sure what film festival he was talking to. He had to confirm with them afterward because he was like, “Who just called me? Was that who I think it was?”

What kind of conversations did you have with Greg about the look and feel you wanted to give the film?

For Greg, it was really important to capture a specific aesthetic. He told me that growing up, the Mormon Church was very insulated and even had its own media. He told me about these educational, borderline soap opera-like Mormon films they would watch on VHS. It’s like daytime television, but with Mormon morals. He wanted to mix that aesthetic into the movie. It’s very glowy and takes this melodramatic approach to storytelling. So, we mixed that with a soft, naturalistic look.

Talk about working as a cinematographer in comparison to being the director of a film.

Directing is very stressful, but when I’m holding the camera as a DP [director of photography], it sometimes feels like there is more weight on my shoulders. When you’re a director, you look at something and sign off on it. But when you’re holding the camera and you’re in charge of the lighting, there’s an extra element to it. Everyone is waiting on me to make it look just right. If I don’t pull it off, it’s like I didn’t even hit the record button.

What have you been doing in San Antonio for the past few months?

A lot of the work I had planned in New York was pushed indefinitely because of the pandemic. So, I’ve been here in San Antonio writing. I’m working on a short horror-comedy with my brother. The working title is Agua Negra. It’s a creature feature set on the Rio Grande River.

Once the pandemic is behind us, is it back to New York?

I’m not sure, honestly. It’s definitely back to New York for commercial filmmaking. But a couple of the movies I want to make would make more sense to shoot them here or somewhere in Texas or in California. I need to figure out what the next chapter of filmmaking is for me.

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