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‘Cabrini’ Producer Jonathan Sanger Says the Film Is More Than a Religious Story

When Oscar-winning producer Jonathan Sanger was first pitched “Cabrini,” the story of the first American saint, he wasn’t quite sure he was right for the project.

“I said, ‘I think it’s a great idea. I think you should make the movie. I don’t really think I’m the right guy to produce this,’” Sanger recalls of his early conversation with executive producer J. Eustace Wolfington. “I tend to like to make stories about real people, that most people who watch these stories can relate to. And I don’t know how to relate to a saint.”

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Wolfington wouldn’t take no for an answer, telling Sanger he was missing the point: Francesca Cabrini may have become a saint, but her powerful story of overcoming adversity as both a woman and an Italian immigrant takes place far before her posthumous canonization in 1946.

“The more I learned about her, the more I realized that she was an extraordinarily unusual individual,” Sanger says. “Women didn’t get an opportunity to do these kinds of things.”

While religious folks may connect with Francesca’s devotion to God, Sanger appreciated the film’s focus on her dogged tenacity, and not just her faith. “It was very important to me that the emphasis of the story wasn’t intended to be a religious, faith-based kind of story about the value of prayer — not that that isn’t valuable. But that wasn’t really what the movie was about,” he says. “The movie was about what you can do yourself, without relying on supernatural forces, just what you can do in the world to make it a better place. And that meant a lot to me.”

He was also compelled by the hopeful message, adding, “I’m at a stage in my own career where I see all kinds of movies, but I’m not terribly interested in leaving a movie theater and wanting to kill myself. That is not my favorite thing to do. And yet, there are a lot of movies that tend to make you feel that way. I mean, I’ll go see them. But I don’t want to make them. So if I’m going to make a movie, it should have some element of hope in the conclusion of the story. And I felt this did.”

Once he began working with screenwriter Rod Barr, their biggest early challenge was landing on the scope of the story. “She did so many things over so much of a period of time that it would be a 10-part miniseries to do a longitudinal story about her,” Sanger says. Thus, they landed on an origin story of her initial arrival in New York.

To recreate early 19th-century Manhattan, Sanger pulled from his experience on the 2017 film “Marshall” — and its filming location of Buffalo, N.Y.

“Every major American architect worked there: Frank Lloyd Wright, Richardson, Sullivan, you name it,” he says. “When Buffalo was an industrial city, you had brick warehouses everywhere, all over the city.” Those warehouses became the basis for the Five Points neighborhood, where Mother Cabrini created a haven for children in the area.

Of course, Sanger and his team also had significant work to do in post-production, with one major element coming together at the 11th hour: an original song performed by Andrea Bocelli and daughter Virginia (who has a role in the film).

“It all came together in the last month and a half,” Sanger says of the track, titled “Dare to Be.” “I mean, we’re talking about a movie that we shot in 2021!”

Sanger wasn’t sure the production would have the budget to bring on a name like Bocelli, but he found a way to make it work with the encouragement of distributor Angel Studios.

“I knew very little about Angel,” Sanger recalls. “We’d already made the film when Angel came into the picture … we were looking for a distributor, and we had many suitors, strangely enough.” Though three studios were competing for “Cabrini,” Sanger says a compelling pitch from Angel Studios sealed the deal — and that was before their hit “Sound of Freedom” made box office waves last summer.

Sanger is effusive in his praise of Angel Studios, citing willingness to hear input from the production team for the film’s marketing and release plan. “They put the film into almost 3,000 theaters. Imagine that! I mean, two years ago, you could not have imagined any independent movie like this ever getting a release like that.”

Sanger hopes “Cabrini” is reflective of the stories audiences want to see these days. “We all wondered whether theatrical would ever come back. And maybe the way it comes back is with really good stories, and not just big blockbuster action films. So that’s the hope for people like me who want to make these kinds of movies. I’m very thrilled that Angel has really put their pedal to the metal and done what they’ve said they were going to do.”

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