When you’re headed to West Africa at the height of the Ebola scare, it’s comforting to know you’re going to meet Jesus when you get there.
Such was my fortune in October of 2014 when I flew to Morocco to spend a week on the set of Nat Geo’s production of Killing Jesus, the channel’s third TV-movie adaptation of as many books in the popular Bill O’Reilly series that began with Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy (and now boasts a fourth, Killing Patton). But the big question was this: What or whose Jesus would I be meeting?
O’Reilly’s bestseller, co-authored by Martin Dugard, took an intentionally historical approach rather than a spiritual one as it examined the events that led to Christ’s crucifixion. Yet, as with Killing Kennedy, Nat Geo was dramatizing — not documenting — that account.
Would the film be equally agnostic, or would it succumb to the understandable temptation of heightening the stakes with some spectacular displays of the miraculous? The first clue came from director Christopher Menaul: “This is a movie for the faithful and the unfaithful.”
The filmmakers weren’t interested in defining Jesus, whether as the Savior, merely a prophet, or a benevolent schizophrenic with an overactive God complex.
In other words, the intent of this three-hour television event — which premieres on Palm Sunday, March 29 at 8 p.m. EST on Nat Geo, followed a week later by an Easter encore on Fox News Channel — is to leave it to viewers to decide who Jesus is.
The filmmakers weren’t interested in defining him, whether as the Savior, merely a prophet, or a benevolent schizophrenic with an overactive God complex. They, like the book that served as their inspiration, were compelled to examine all the forces at play — from political to religious, monarchs to peasants.
“There’s this great kind of Game of Thrones thing going on,” said producer Teri Weinberg, who also spearheaded Showtime’s The Tudors (another drama driven by competing and conflicting societal machinations). She explained, “That kind of hierarchy, that struggle for power, it’s the underlying idea of the political battles within what was happening.”
An in-depth look at those on the periphery
Characters who have generally remained on the periphery are given equal time with Jesus and his disciples in the film. Killing Jesus doesn’t just show us what King Herod, his successor Antipas, the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas, or Roman prefect Pontius Pilate did. No, it seeks to get at why they did it. Yes, Jesus is portrayed with great sympathy, but perhaps for the first time so, too, are the other players. Or, if not with sympathy, at least understanding.
Weinberg, Menaul, screenwriter Walon Green, and the entire cast shared ambitions beyond a simple formula of good vs. bad. They sought to seriously consider — and portray — all points of view. “We’re showing those POVs,” says Weinberg, with excitement. “We have linear stories that are going to collide.”
Multi-Emmy winner Kelsey Grammer, who plays the paranoid and disease-ridden King Herod who reigned at Christ’s birth, was taken by the script’s scope. “When you get more of an in-depth look, and are also connected to the idea that God is coming through this man, there’s an extraordinary thing that happens,” Grammer muses.
“Most of these human beings that are involved, except for Jesus, have no clue of what really is happening, that he will cast a shadow throughout time. I think if you posit human behavior and human emotion on each of these other characters,” Grammer argues, “you actually make the story more profound.”
It was enough to make me wonder how thin the line is between being “relevant” and “a brood of vipers.”
It hopes, at the very least, to make for exciting television, but Haaz Sleiman — the Arab actor cast as Jesus — also believes it makes for something more substantial. “Jesus being a part of that and understanding all of that,” Sleiman says, “it led Jesus into doing what he ended up doing. It made him fulfill the prophecies, and understanding that is very crucial to the process. And,” he emphasizes, “that ends up really setting this project apart from other projects.”
Menaul, a veteran director of award-winning British television series and films, was intrigued by the new possibilities. “We’re doing things that aren’t in a lot of Jesus films,” he promises. “There are scenes about why Caiaphas thinks this man Jesus will wreck everything.”
In one such scene that I was able to watch the filming of, Caiaphas (portrayed by seasoned Brit character-actor Rufus Sewell) makes a passionate defense to Nicodemus, a Jewish elder, after Jesus has accused the Sanhedrin of turning the Temple into a den of thieves by bringing commerce into its square.
“Each stone is sacrosanct,” Caiaphas states with conviction. “Every day, 700 of our priests perform rituals for the truly devout for whom this is the house of God.” As I heard his plea, and looked out at the lavish Temple set filled with livestock and trade, I couldn’t help but think of similar (and sincere) defenses given by evangelicals who’ve commoditized their own church buildings and campuses. It was enough to make me wonder how thin the line is between being “relevant” and “a brood of vipers.”
John Ryhs Davies, who plays Caiaphas’s elder Annas, doubts we can sit in judgment of the Sanhedrin when we ourselves labor with spiritual discernment. “There were messiahs coming out of Galilee on a regular basis. How do we distinguish between a hysterical need for a messiah and recognize the true life of the Divine? It’s an eternal problem.”
The Sanhedrin, in essence, represent our fundamental struggle with spiritual mystery, especially when it conflicts with our very way of life. “Caiaphas and Annas,” Menaul stresses, “worked to keep the Jewish religion going, to keep the Jewish way of life going, despite the Roman occupation.” Yet, for them, Menaul concludes, “It’s all going to be destroyed by this madman.”
A different — more human — version of Jesus
While the movie itself doesn’t portray Jesus as unstable or erratic, it does give us a Jesus who could be seen as such by those who don’t believe his bold claims. Most films have portrayed a Savior of the meek and passive variety, but the one in Killing Jesus is, in no uncertain terms, a prophet — and not just when he’s flipping tables.
“Jesus has been shown in many other ways — otherworldly, ethereal,” Sleiman says, “and it’s not like that’s right or wrong, but we felt that that’s been done.” Menaul puts it more bluntly. “We wanted to go for a muscular Jesus, “ he says. “He was a real person, not some kind of sanitized — dare one say wimpy — individual. After all, a lot of people saw him as a popular leader against the Romans. They thought that’s what he might become and were attracted to him for that reason,” Menaul says, “But he didn’t see himself that way.”
Whether confronting Pharisees, addressing crowds, or speaking to his disciples, Sleiman’s Jesus speaks with passion and urgency. He’s a man not only bringing love, but change. “Jesus’s focus was us — humans,” Sleiman says. “That’s why I’m trying to make him as human as possible. He was trying to show us what we’re capable of.”
What the producers strive to show is a historically precise portrait on a grand scale. “We had scholars, we had priests, we had historians, theologians.” Weinberg says. “We made sure we were surrounded by those who could keep us as accurate as we could possibly be. We spent months calculating every scene. The intense amount of research, and the course correcting as we learned along the way. Pretty much anything that’s happening on camera has some sort of annotation to it — and it’s been a painstaking process.”
Their goal, Weinberg said, was “to see the scope of the world and yet the intimacy of the world. We wanted it to be led by character.”
The same level of detail given to the narrative was applied to the production. “With the designs of the costumes and the sets, great care was taken to be historically accurate,” said producer Mary Lisio. “Ridley Scott, our executive producer, was very involved in post-production. He was with our director and editor and our colorist on how to really bring out those details in the piece. Working with Ridley, it’s all about going big and being epic.”
Weinberg felt it was just as important to capture the personal scale along with the grand. Their goal, she said, was “to see the scope of the world and yet the intimacy of the world. We wanted it to be led by character.” To that end, not only do they depict a different Jesus than we’ve seen before (both in temperament and ethnicity), along with deeper looks at Herod and Pilate, but a good deal of screen time is given to Herod’s successor, Antipas, his scheming wife Herodia, and her equally conniving daughter Salome.
Their manipulation of Antipas to kill John the Baptist evolved into one of the film’s more compelling subplots. “We were trying to find that dynamic of why did Herodia want John the Baptist killed,” said Eoin Macken, who plays Antipas. “Why did she want these things to happen, why did Antipas not want it to happen? She was driving what was happening, while Antipas was reluctant. He’s being pulled by the church, and then Rome, and then Pilate, and then by Herodia — you see Antipas being puppeted by her — and so he’s just trying to navigate his way through this.”
Judas Iscariot, history’s most infamous betrayer, is also given a humanized arc. “It’s about fear,” says Joe Doyle, who plays Judas. “When he realizes what Jesus has come to do, when he realizes that the actual threat is death, he realizes that the game is up. It wasn’t always his intention to betray,” Doyle added, “But what’s really interesting is how much he was fulfilling Scripture.”
A Jesus who doesn’t fulfill Scripture
What will likely bother many evangelicals is how, in some respects, this Jesus doesn’t fulfill Scripture. Most depictions of miracles are avoided, and the few that are could be, as Menaul puts it, interpreted as coincidence. Weinberg describes those few scenes as “more grounded in the context of our world.”
The greatest controversy will likely come from Jesus’s initial lack of self-awareness. Here, he grows into discovering his destiny rather than being certain of it, with John the Baptist making early efforts to convince Jesus he really is God’s anointed Savior.
“Whether it’s going to upset somebody . . . it’s their right,” Sleiman said. “But I hope whoever believes in this faith feels good watching this film. That’s important to me. I believe in Jesus and everything that he teaches, what he stands for.”
Though the film does not take a firm stance on whether Jesus was the Son of God, Kelsey Grammer — a self-professed Christian — finds some of the most compelling evidence in favor of Christ’s divinity to be how the disciples lived after Jesus was gone (the history of which he briefly narrates in the film’s epilogue).
“You come in with a certain religious point of view and hopefully you leave with that view,” Weinberg said.
“The things the disciples went through after Christ left,” Grammer said, “were so horrible that, if the resurrection didn’t happen, surely they would’ve said, ‘Okay, you’re right. I give up. It never happened. It was all a lark. I’d rather not get tortured this way.’ But not one of them recanted,” Grammer stresses, noticeably moved by the thought. “Not one of them ever said that this wasn’t true. And that’s pretty profound.”
Producer Teri Weinberg’s intent for the film has always been more about human exploration than evangelism, not looking to convert viewers to or from a belief in Christ.
“You come in with a certain religious point of view and hopefully you leave with that view,” she said. For her, the purpose of Killing Jesus remained simple and clear. “This is about bringing an authentic human story to life.”
Still, for what it’s worth — after spending an entire week there, I came back to America Ebola-free.
The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Image courtesy of National Geographic.