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Interview: ‘The Young Messiah’ Filmmaker Cyrus Nowrasteh
The director of my favorite movie this spring about Jesus and a Roman soldier talks about working with Sean Bean, Jesus’ human consciousness, and bringing the biblical world to life.
By Steven D. Greydanus
The Young Messiah isn’t the only Jesus movie in theaters this spring — in fact, it isn’t even the only Jesus movie in which the film’s biggest star (in this case, The Lord of the Rings’ Sean Bean) plays a Roman soldier trying to track Jesus down — but it’s probably my favorite Jesus movie, and almost my favorite biblical movie of any kind, since The Miracle Maker 16 years ago.
It almost didn’t happen. Filmmaker Cyrus Nowrasteh and his wife and writing partner Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh (The Stoning of Soraya M) first set out to adapt Anne Rice’s novel of Jesus’ youth, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, five years ago. In 2013 the film was in deep pre-production when things fell apart and the project was shut down. “It was like a death,” Nowrasteh told me. At one point he even wondered if God was telling him he wasn’t the right filmmaker for the project.
But the project never entirely died. “There was always life to it,” he added, “always someone stepping up and saying, ‘This is really good. I’d like to help; how can I help?’” Twenty months later, the film was under way again. Crediting key supporters, Nowrasteh said, “I do believe in angels.”
The Young Messiah opens March 11. See it — you won’t be sorry. (And skip the tell-all trailer … you will be sorry.)
As unlikely as this seems, when The Young Messiah opens, there will be three films on American screens that depict a Roman soldier encountering the mystery of Christ — even if one of those is the film within a film in the Coens’ Hail Caesar!
I just saw Hail, Caesar! I got a kick out of that!
This genre of the “Good Roman movie,” in which the Christian story is told at least partly through this lens of someone who is not a believer, has been with us since the Golden Age and maybe before — and it’s one aspect of your story that doesn’t come from the source material. What were your thoughts about bringing that element into this story?
In Anne Rice’s novel, through the first-person voice of young Jesus, you sense a threat of danger and chaos from the Roman occupation, from Herod, from the rebels, from the civil war. In the movie, we have to say, “How do we show this?” How can we make it interesting, make it a journey?
Of course we didn’t invent this idea of a Roman who could be touched by Christ. We just thought this is a different angle: This is a guy who was actually at the slaughter of the innocents, who is haunted by that, and now is being asked to kill a child again. We just felt that it was natural and that it worked.
Did casting Sean Bean in that role have any impact on the character or the story?
Only in the sense that while we were writing it I wanted Sean Bean for the part. I consider it one of the high points of my career working with Sean Bean, for a whole slew of reasons. One of which is I was a fan, going back many years now, to when he did the Sharpe series.
The opportunity to work with him came to us in the writing of this part. He just has the gravitas and the presence and the acting chops. He was a delight to work with. Sean is very focused, very quiet, very to himself, very internal. That’s one of the reasons he’s a great actor: He’s thinking.
Your story, like the book, explores Christ’s human consciousness, and in particular the mystery of God Incarnate growing up — not just physically, but also in wisdom, as Luke says (2:52), and in understanding and maturity. This is really interesting and important terrain, both theologically and psychologically, but many pious viewers are going to struggle with the idea of even a young Jesus not fully understanding who he is. What would you say to them?
This whole issue of the human Jesus and the divine Jesus is a complicated one. I believe, and I’ve been told from the advisers and consultants that we talked to, that Jesus was always God. It seems, though, even though he never ceased being God, in his human form or experience, he veiled his divinity in accordance with the Father’s will, to experience what it was like.
To be [human], he voluntarily put himself in the position of needing to assimilate knowledge as a man, or a boy, would. That’s what the theologians told me and why they felt this was orthodox and we were justified in going down this path.
I am not a biblical scholar or theologian and have never claimed to be, so I have to go on the basis of what they are telling me and what I can make work for this story — which I think is a beautiful one that honors God, that honors Jesus and, therefore, is worth telling, despite the risks.
You and Betsy are Christians, but not Catholic, is that right?
Your story does include some elements that reflect a Catholic perspective, such as Jesus’ brethren and sisters (just one of each here, James and Salome) being depicted as Jesus’ cousins.
Right, they’re cousins, and the idea is that they have sort of been adopted into the family. In those days, one of the historians was telling me, the extended family was sort of this very strong unit that stayed together — first cousins, second cousins, even more distant cousins. They all referred to one another as brother and sister in those times. I guess this could be considered a cop-out, but we felt like we could play it both ways.
Did you have both Catholic and Protestant advisers on the film?
Yes, we did. And it wasn’t that one had more weight than the other. We just had to decide what we believe and accept, and also what works for the story. You are trying to marry two or three different agendas, for lack of a better word — a dramatic agenda, and, also, we have to navigate a little bit of a minefield with all the different denominations. We don’t want to offend; we don’t want to contradict anything in the Bible. It’s quite a dance, making a movie like this.
We have had really consistent cross-denominational support on this movie. I have not heard any evangelicals say that it’s too Catholic of a movie. I’ve had Catholics come up to me and say, “We love it! It’s for us.” I think people are bringing their own views and interpreting it through that prism. And I think that’s a good thing. We’ve actually been surprised at the extent of the evangelical support of the movie, because we were concerned about that. But there has been very little pushback.
You are of Iranian decent. In recent years, the questions of ethnicity in Biblical films has become something of an issue. Ridley Scott took heat for casting the story of Moses and the Exodus with mostly English Australian American actors. Interestingly, back in 2006 The Nativity Story had a Guatemalan Joseph, a half-Polynesian Mary, an Iranian Elizabeth and so forth.
You have an Italian Mary, an Irish Canadian Joseph and an English Jesus. Do you think ethnicity matters in Biblical pictures and can you speak to that?
I had a much more difficult task than any other Biblical movie ever made, and I’ll tell you what that is. My movie hangs on a seven-year-old. So I can’t sit there and say, “Go out and find me the best seven-year-old Polynesian actor, or the best seven-year-old Israeli, and he’ll be perfect.”
We did a global search. I guarantee you that if I had found an Israeli boy who could have played this part, and he was the best, I would have cast him. If I had found a Pakistani boy, I would have cast him. We saw over 2,000 kids.
The child we ended up with, Adam Greaves-Neal, is from London. And I can tell you with great confidence that there was no other child that was even in the ballpark in comparison to him in terms of performance and capability. And I can only cast on merit, because there is a lot hanging on this. He’s our movie, and if he’s not good, nobody’s going to say, “It’s too bad the movie isn’t good, but I give you kudos for casting a brown child.”
Adam is English, but he has dark brown hair and brown eyes. He’s Catholic, but on his mother’s side of the family they are part Jewish. I think it works.
Then I have to cast around him with the same accent. I can’t have Mary and Joseph and his cousins and everyone speaking with different accents. Because then the audience is going to run for the aisle, they’re out of there.
English accent does seem to work pretty well in classical films, in Biblical films. The only other choice is to do what Mel Gibson did and go with the Aramaic. Even then, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had ended up with Adam Greaves-Neal doing it in Aramaic, because he’s such a fine actor. And the camera loves him.
Rice’s book opens with two episodes drawn from the apocryphal “Infancy Gospel of Thomas”: the clay birds and the boy Jesus curses. She gives one of those stories an important twist, but your film significantly — and, I think, brilliantly — reimagines both of them to bring them more in line with the sensibilities of the Gospels. Can you talk about that and where the inspiration for that came? Was that you? Was that your wife?
It started with Betsy, no question about it. Betsy’s knowledge, reading of the Bible and her whole religious compass is much deeper than mine, and that jumped out to her. We then talked to people, our advisers; we also just talked informally to Christians that we know, Catholics that we know. Everyone found that objectionable in Anne’s book. We just knew that we had to find a solution there that is going to work for a broader audience.
You don’t want to have something in your film — especially in the opening scene — that is going to be so controversial and problematic. I think Betsy’s instincts were absolutely right.
Other than the fact that Jesus is 7 years old, which is obviously a pretty dramatic departure from other Bible movies, was there anything else that you saw, looking at other Bible movies, that made you say, “I want to do something different here”?
I looked at a lot of Bible movies — some of the old corny ones; some from the silent era; some that I admired. One that I really felt was pretty darn good was Barabbas (1961). I am a huge fan of Mel Gibson and The Passion [of the Christ]. I think Mel Gibson is a brilliant filmmaker. I think The Passion is a very powerful film; I understand it’s not for everybody, but I loved it.
What I felt about The Passion, most powerfully, was that this was the most convincing re-creation of the ancient world I’d ever seen on film. I felt like I could walk right into that world. It didn’t feel like the Hollywood version of the biblical world.
I wanted people to believe the world more than anything else. I wanted them to believe, also, the people and the dialogue. I wanted to avoid that stiff biblical dialogue that one hears in a lot of these old movies. I wanted it to feel natural; I wanted it to feel eloquent — I didn’t want it to feel too slangy or contemporary, but at the same time, I wanted contemporaries to be comfortable with it.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Follow him on Twitter.
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