“Sound of Freedom” is the surprise box-office hit of the summer — and the latest cause du jour in the far right’s culture war against the mainstream media. The thriller, from director and screenwriter Alejandro Monteverde, follows the journey of a rogue Homeland Security agent, Tim Ballard (Jim Caviezel), who risks it all to save kidnapped children from a Colombian sex-trafficking ring.
Independently produced for a reported $14.5 million, it’s topped $160 million at the box office since its July 4 release, fueled by word-of-mouth endorsements, pay-it-forward ticket purchases and the efforts of conservative influencers and pundits who’ve positioned the film as an answer to “godless” Hollywood’s domination of American entertainment. It has even been embraced by former President Trump, who recently hosted a screening at his New Jersey golf course.
A narrative has emerged in right-wing political circles that the film has had a harder time than most features finding its way into theaters, and into the entertainment press, because its distributor, Angel Studios, appeals to conservative audiences with a roster of faith-based movies. Although there’s no firm evidence that the picture has had a more challenging road than any other independent project, it has made novel use of crowdfunding: In addition to allowing supporters to buy tickets for others to see the movie, the project also raised $5 million from more than 6,600 investors to fund marketing costs associated with its theatrical release.
Its use of crowdfunding has been an unparalleled success — and it’s sure to have caught the eye of executives at a moment of flux for the film business.
The lion’s share of the controversy around “Sound of Freedom,” however, centers on its chosen subject matter. Among the most absurd of QAnon conspiracy theorists’ unsubstantiated claims is the belief that wealthy, famous elites participate in child trafficking to harvest their young blood for a chemical called adrenochrome. And though the film’s plot has nothing to do with the conspiracy, it has become a galvanizing force for followers of QAnon, in no small part because both Caviezel and Ballard have spoken openly about their own beliefs in QAnon’s far-fetched ideas.
Advocates in the fight against child sex trafficking, by contrast, take issue with the film for canonizing the controversial operations of Ballard and his former organization, Operation Underground Railroad. Ballard has been accused of staging rescue missions as a means of self-promotion, and critics maintain that centering his story misrepresents how victims are actually lured into forced sex work.
Largely absent in all the noise, at least so far, has been Monteverde himself.
“When everything started happening, I just went into hiding,” said the 45-year-old director, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico as a teen, in what he characterized as his “first official interview” about the film. “I didn’t want to be part of what was happening. I just like to make movies and tell stories. But then I said to myself, ‘There’s another side of the story. The full story. And I’m the only one that can tell that because I’m the author of the whole thing.’”
How summer blockbuster ‘Sound of Freedom’ became a battlefield in the culture war
With a controversial star, a subject conspiracy theorists love and a sensational box-office take, ‘Sound of Freedom’ couldn’t help but stir up a fight.
July 21, 2023
There’s so much attention and the heat around “Sound of Freedom” that we can address. Where would you like to start?
I call it a phenomenon. Nobody, no one, thought that this movie was going to make the box office it’s making. It’s a complete surprise, including to myself. I thought this movie was never going to see the light of day. So I ended up giving away my points. I’m not going to make $1.
Tell me about the origins of the film and your initial intentions as a filmmaker.
Nobody came to me to say, “Hey, do you want to make a movie about child trafficking?” Nobody. Everything started in 2015. I was writing another film when I saw a small news piece on child trafficking and child pornography. It shook my soul. And at that time, I only had one child. When I went to [bed], I couldn’t sleep. I woke up the next day and I told my wife, “I have to do something about this.” She didn’t want to hear about it because it’s too dark. It’s taboo.
I started doing research, then called my co-writer Rod Barr and said, “Let’s put our other story on the side because I want to dive into this.” He was hesitant, but finally he’s like, “Let’s do it.” So we started writing a movie called “The Mogul.” I was writing it with George Clooney in mind [laughs]. It was going to be the story of this very wealthy man who made all his money in organized crime, and one day he’s offered to buy a child for a new enterprise: child trafficking. It’s a little bit like the “Schindler’s List” approach. He started buying the children to free them. It was full-on fiction. Obviously, it’s not a film that people are going to jump in just because of the marketing. It’s not because they don’t care. That’s a misconception. Everybody cares. It’s just hard to market a movie like that. So I didn’t get support right away.
How did Tim Ballard come into the picture?
The producer of the film, Eduardo Verástegui, called and said he was at a conference and met one of the speakers, Tim Ballard. I’d never heard of him. Eduardo set up a meeting with him the next day. In my head, I was going to meet Tim Ballard just to learn more about the subject. Never to make a movie about him. But he starts telling me his story, and it’s one of the few times where a true story surpassed fiction. He told me about a character that resembled my character, Vampiro [played by Bill Camp]. It was crazy. He buys kids and frees them. I talked with my co-writer, and he agreed [to change course]. We negotiated Ballard’s life rights.
Ballard has been scrutinized by anti-child-trafficking advocates for embellishing his stories and using missions to promote himself, and that has cast doubt about the authenticity of the events depicted in the film.
I tell people you’re not going to see Tim Ballard. You’re going to see an actor playing Tim Ballard. The minute that is happening, you’re already dramatizing. It’s not a documentary. I always wanted to stretch. I would be like, “Hey, can we do this?” And he’s like, “No, you cannot do that. You cannot do that, either.” Sometimes he’ll be like, “Well, that didn’t happen there but it happened in Haiti. Maybe you can do that.” That’s why you put “inspired by.” You’re not claiming it’s everything he said. When you talk to Ben Affleck [about “Argo”], he will tell you the exact same thing. Or “Schindler’s List.” Spielberg will say the same thing. My favorite biopic of all time is “Amadeus,” but you cannot take it as a historic document because nobody was there. You have to fill in the blanks. Also, you have to take many years and put it in an hour and a half.
Child sexual exploitation and abuse is a real and horrific crime, here and across the globe, that needs to be recognized and confronted. But the embrace of the film by QAnon subscribers has potentially hijacked the movie’s intent of raising awareness and made it a rallying cry for their baseless conspiracies.
It’s heartbreaking, and it hurts me. The minute they started labeling it with conspiracy theories, it discredits the purity of the work. A lot of times, I’m like, “Wow, all this headache would have gone away if it was just based on fiction. None of this would have happened.” … If you’re telling me that there is all these conspiracy theories in the film, terminologies, that I’ll see symbols of pizza and the names Q or Z, or whatever — no. There’s none of that.
How do you make a story about such a disturbing subject watchable?
It was very important that I remind the audience at all times that they’re watching a movie. That’s why the film is a little bit operatic. You know the fight, at the end? [The fictional Ballard and his rescue team confront the traffickers and a battle ensues to free a group of enslaved children]. When I arrived the first day, they have rehearsal for three days with the stunts and everything. And I saw it. I was like, “That looks very real. Guys, I actually want to [make it look] like an opera.” Like if you were watching it as a Broadway show. That was my approach — I want the symbolism of dark and light, that fight.
The most important thing for me is to pose questions, not to give answers. I’m looking for answers all day long, so I’ll be the last one to give you an answer. But I’ll give you a question. All I wanted in here is to create awareness on the subject matter, but in a way that was cinematic. That’s why all of this other stuff that happened is very weird for me.
Was it hard to get funding for the film?
Eduardo thought it was an important theme and told me he’d raise the funds. A very eclectic group of investors came together. Their names are in the credits... This is heartbreaking for the investors too. They’re like, “What is happening now?” They’re on the other side of the spectrum, of this whole naming and labeling thing.
I hate labeling. I am the victim of labeling. I made my first movie, “Bella.” I won the [people’s choice award at the 2006] Toronto International Film Festival. We were in paradise. And then, all of the sudden, the movie gets labeled.
As a pro-life film, and you as a faith-based filmmaker?
The interesting thing is the movie was well received, then somebody said, “Uh, oh. This is pro-life.” If you looked at the movie, it is a woman dealing with an unwanted pregnancy trying to figure out what to do. She really balanced both options in the most objective way. It was my first film, but it really resonated with the audience. The lead actor, he barely talks in the movie, he just listens. And it’s all listening until there’s a resolution. It’s just two people with massive pain. That pain becomes each other’s redemption. Pain is a language that unites our world. Politics divide. I’m not a politician... I’m the opposite of that. I’m a storyteller.
Fighting against the exploitation of children seems like it’s the last thing that should divide people, so why has this film become a lightning rod?
I think it’s the culture we’re living in. We cannot not label things. We have to. If you don’t say where you stand, then it’s a problem. If you refuse to give your political view, they’re like, “No, you have to.” But why? And that’s a question. Imagine a hamburger stand. You could have a Buddhist baking the bread, a Muslim making the burger and a Catholic serving it. You’re not going to say that’s a religious burger. So why do we do that with cinema? Let the movie speak for itself.
If you have to label my work, please watch it first, without prejudice. But watch it. Federico Fellini said your job as a director is to break the prejudice that the audience already has about your product. So that was my goal on this film. “Let’s make a movie that explores this darkness but through a vehicle of hope.” So when the audience leaves the movie, they leave in a state of reflection and not all bummed out, like, “Oh, this is preachy. They’re making me feel bad that I’m not doing anything about it.” No, it’s the opposite just by creating awareness.
As with many indie projects, it was an uphill battle making this film. It sat in limbo for nearly five years after Disney acquired Fox, before Angel Studios picked it up. Defenders of the movie have used that hardship as proof of some sort of liberal Hollywood plot against it. But it also appears that Jim Caviezel’s public interviews with far-right hosts like Steve Bannon endeared the film to QAnon followers.
When I started seeing that develop in front of me, my first instinct was to [distance] myself from it. I don’t want to be part of anything that falls in the area of politics. So when I started seeing division, my first instinct was to run. I’m from Mexico, and I didn’t arrive to be part of a divided country. And I don’t like to judge people, because we all have our own way of thinking. Those interviews that you’re mentioning, that’s a different way of thinking than mine. I want to respect it, but I also don’t want to be part of it. So I’m going to distance myself, and that’s what I did. But then later, I realized by distancing myself, the whole story wasn’t coming to light.
Do you still feel Jim was the right person for the role?
When I hear the name Jim Caviezel, I think of one of the most professional actors, who dedicated himself to the role. What he does afterward, that’s his personal life. The lead actor needs to really believe that the atrocities are happening and have a conviction about it... When I was casting, I was looking for someone very passionate about the subject matter. It’s like if you do a movie about global warming, you don’t want the actor who shows up in a Hummer. You look for the actor that cleans up plastics on the beach.
When I first had dinner with Jim, I saw how close to his heart was this thing. He himself adopted three of his children from China. I don’t want to talk about his private life, but this theme was very close. His conviction to want to shine a light on this was so deep that he got emotional. The first time I met him, he was crying.
But his personal views off set did impact the messaging of the film.
In this case, it did have an impact that was not in line with who I am as a person, as a filmmaker, as a storyteller. And that is the pure reason I am here, because I need to say who I am. I don’t want to speak about other people’s views. I want to stay as objective as possible, to make films that create conversation and open dialogue about important subject matter. My hope was that this film creates dialogue at the social level about a subject matter: human trafficking. And that’s what’s happening.
How do you respond to complaints that the film mischaracterizes how victims are trafficked, and therefore muddles the efforts to raise awareness about this type of crime.
Our main drive was to make a movie about child trafficking, to shine a light in the darkness, to create awareness, but never to say this is the [only way] it happens. Of course, it happens differently. There are, unfortunately, mothers who sell their own children. [Kids] get abused by their uncles. I’m not saying that that’s not happening. The film is driven by the origin story of a guy that left the government and did his first mission. It’s just one story. I was terrified with the subject matter and made a movie about the tip of the iceberg. When I dove in a little deeper, I got really scared. It’s even darker.
There’s a direct message to theater audiences after the credits roll, delivered by Caviezel inside an emotional monologue about human trafficking. It asks viewers to scan a code on the screen to pay it forward by purchasing more tickets to the film. Why do that?
I’m glad you brought it up, because it gives me a chance to talk about this. When I direct the movie, one of the things that I ask of everybody is to just let me do my work. You can ask me all the questions you want, but at the end of the day, if we have two captains, the boat will sink. As a director, I want people to let me do my thing. When this movie was on the sidelines, parked, we didn’t know who was going to distribute it. All I knew is the producers had taken it back from the distributor that had it. Then Angel Studios came, saying, “We have a plan.” For me, as a storyteller, anything you put inside my movie that’s not mine is going to hurt me. It doesn’t matter what it is. So this was a matter of trust. They said, “Let us test it, and if the audience doesn’t like it, it’s out.”
Then I saw Jim’s conviction. His delivery was matching the spirit of the film. It really has an impact when you are right there, boom, and you send the ticket to a friend. That is action. Now, if you ask me, “Alejandro, if it was your [move], would you have that?” I will say no. But that’s why I’m not a distributor. If I was a distributor, I’d surely collapse the company because I’d be all about the art. So I respect and admire the work that Angel Studios does, because it’s not an easy movie to market. I’m so grateful to them.
Wouldn’t it have been more in line with the intent of the film to send donations to antitrafficking organizations rather than box-office sales?
What’s better? To raise mass awareness or send it to one organization? The problem is that internationally, there’s thousands of nonprofits doing this work. Do you send it to Guatemala? Somewhere here? But once people watch that film, they are so moved, we’re seeing their desire to want to do something about it. The more awareness you create, the better. To me, awareness creates change more than sending $20 to one [organization].
So you’re really not making money off the film? Can you talk more about that?
As a director, you always get your share of what’s called points. But early on, they needed to raise more money because the film was independent and they didn’t have funds. At that time, I thought the movie was not going to see the light of day so I gave my points away, as did many other people in the film. It took me a while to come to terms with it. But it’s exciting now when you see this massive box office. There’s also something romantic about it. You know, the beauty of the struggling artist is still there [laughs].
Do you think the film is truly appealing to any one group over another?
You cannot arrive too close to $200 million [at the box office] with just a conservative market. You know what movies make that are faith-based? Like $80 million. But you don’t get to $200 million if you don’t cross over and become a bipartisan film. Now, we’re going to see what happens when [it’s released] internationally, because the politics are here. If internationally, we come back with a big price tag, then you can’t deny that. These same conspiracy theories do not exist in Mexico, Argentina, France, Italy. I’m going to Colombia for the premiere, so I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen. I want to keep it humble. But I’m feeling excited.