It’s been a long, rocky road to the big screen for The Young Messiah, but at last, it’s here.
The film is based on a 2005 novel called Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, which takes place when Jesus is seven years old and his family is returning to Nazareth from Egypt. It was written by Anne Rice — best known for her vampire novels — after she returned to the Catholic church. An early attempt to make a film based on the novel fell apart in 2007, and Rice herself publicly quit Christianity in 2010, though she said she still follows Christ.
The book’s film prospects turned a corner when Rice wrote a glowing review of The Stoning of Soraya M., a 2009 movie about the treatment of women in Iran that was directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, an American of Persian descent. Nowrasteh acquired the rights to Rice’s book, wrote a script with his wife Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, and got Harry Potter director Chris Columbus to come on board as a producer. The film comes out March 11.
I spoke to Cyrus Nowrasteh about creating new characters for the film, the tricky nature of movie ratings, the role the film played in his own journey towards Christian faith, and the possibility of a sequel. The interview below has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
How did you get involved with this film? Did you approach the producers, or did they approach you?
Nowrasteh: I approached them. Anne Rice saw The Stoning of Soraya M. and wrote a rave review of it, and through a series of happy coincidences and connections, we got her book and wanted to run with it, and she was fine with us running with it, and that was probably the whole reason for her representative sending us the book — and we were interested because my wife Betsy had read it when it was originally released, so it’s a combination of all of those factors that brought the property into our hand. And then we took it to producers. We said, “Hey, we love this Anne Rice book, we think it could be a great movie, let’s get into business together on it,” and they jumped on it. So it was great.
How hard was it to find producers for this film?
Nowrasteh: They were my second phone call, so it wasn’t that hard. The hard part is getting a studio to finance it and distribute it. That’s the hard part. These producers that I took it to were people that I had known and had worked with before and had a certain commonality with, but then the struggle becomes, “Okay, how do we get it made, financed, etc.” And luckily we had people like Tracy Price of Ocean Blue Entertainment, who had helped close the funding on my previous film, who really stepped up and was kind of a hero at the eleventh hour, to get this movie over the hump and get it made finally.
Was that the producer you had approached on your second call?
Nowrasteh: No, the producer I approached was Chris Columbus and 1492 Pictures. Producers have different functions: some produce and actually physically produce the movie, some go out and find financing, some do both of the above, some basically acquire properties and let others do the financing and make the movie. These are all different categories of producers out there, all of them do different things just depending on their experience.
How involved was Anne Rice beyond letting you have the rights to the property? Did she have any input after that?
Nowrasteh: Contractually, no. We acquired the book and ran with it, and we were going to do it the way we wanted. However, we felt that Anne had a lot to contribute, because she had done a lot of the research, and also we wanted to make changes, and I just felt that, as the original author, she was entitled to be at least consulted and talked to and informed. I would do that with any author, whether they have it in their contract or not. So she was well aware of the process of what we were doing, and she was very supportive.
It’s been several years since I read the book, so my memory of it’s a little rusty, but my recollection is that the subplot with the Sean Bean character is new to the film — it’s not part of the book — and the Devil is in the book but not as prominent as he is in the film, I think. Is that correct?
Nowrasteh: Yeah, that’s correct.
So how did you come to the decision to either add or expand those roles in the film?
Nowrasteh: Every movie needs an antagonist. If you don’t have it, you don’t have a movie, you don’t have a story. Is there a better antagonist than the Devil? I don’t think so. It was just too juicy to pass up, and Anne did have the Devil in her book. We just decided to have him lurking about a little bit more, you know what I mean? And as far as the Roman centurion and Herod, in Anne’s book there’s a lot of talk and description of threats, chaos, discord in the Holy Land, and the fears that the family is encountering — so in a movie, you can’t just say, “Hey, it’s dangerous out there.” You know what I mean? You’ve got to show it! It’s got to be alive on screen. You’ve got to have characters who represent it. You have to experience it. That’s why I’m always saying that screenplays are much harder than novels. In a novel, you can just go through a stream of consciousness and somebody tells you how they feel or what they’re concerned about, etc. In a movie, you have to depict it. You have to experience it as a dramatic event, through characters. So they were critical, the centurion and Herod, in conveying that idea that was represented in Anne’s novel.
You mentioned that novels can have a stream of consciousness. One of the significant things about the novel is the fact that it’s very subjective — it’s written from Jesus’ point of view — whereas when you’re watching a movie, you’re watching the actor, but you don’t necessarily hear what Jesus is thinking. You have one or two voice-overs in the film, but not a lot of that. Does that change the depiction of Jesus, now that we’re watching him instead of reading his thoughts all the time?
Nowrasteh: Well, the thing is, though, you’re seeing the world through his point of view. You’re watching him watch the world. You’re watching him experience events. You’re watching him react and respond. So the point of view, visually and dramatically, is still his, primarily. In a novel, that first person voice, I thought that was very ingenious, what she did in the book. But I think, in a movie, you sort of need to experience it through him. It’s very subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, but basically, he turns and he looks, you get his point of view, you cut back to him, his reaction. That’s point of view in a movie. He’s sort of our compass point throughout just about every scene that he has.
When you were casting the movie– There’s been a lot of controversy over the last few months or years with regard to the “whitewashing” of films and so forth, and it’s become a very sensitive subject for some people. When the first photos from The Young Messiah appeared, I posted the image on my blog, and some people began posting comments complaining right off the bat that the Jesus of the film seemed too white to them. How did you approach those issues?
Nowrasteh: Here’s the thing. I don’t know if these people or I or anyone else can really say what Jesus looked like. So that’s a tough one, for me.
I just don’t know– I don’t cast anyone purely on the basis of looks, unless it’s absolutely based upon the description of the actual character. For example, if you’re doing a biopic about Martin Luther King, well he’s got to look like Martin Luther King, because we know what he looked like. A lot of those comments I find kind of amusing, because it’s obvious to me that these people have never cast a seven-year-old in a lead role in a movie. If they think it’s easy, I wish them luck, because there’s very few seven-year-olds out there who have a lot of acting experience.
This movie — a multi-million-dollar movie — is hanging on a seven-year-old actor. I mean, just think about that for a second. That is a huge deal, and very, very risky. So what’s the most important criteria? That child had better be able to act, right? You’re not going to find a lot of seven-year-olds who’ve ever acted in their life, much less acted in a movie or carried one. So I can’t sit here and say, “Gee, he has to be a certain tint of brown, and his eyes have to have a certain tint and his hair has to be curly in such a fashion…” That’s not how you cast.
Fundamentally, nobody knows what Jesus looked like. We’re all guessing. People think, “Well, he must have been Semitic, he was Jewish, he must have had black curly hair and he must have been really brown, and he must have had a beard, or X, Y or Z.” And I guess you could call those informed or educated guesses, but fundamentally they’re guesses. It is reported, historically, that people who came from Galilee were often light-haired and blue-eyed, because Galilee is in the north.
So I can’t really go on the basis of that. I have to go on the basis of merit alone. I’m looking for the best seven-year-old actor I can find, who can deliver for me. And the notion that the choices were infinite is laughable, not only to me but to every casting director who helped us. And I’m gonna tell you: we saw over two thousand children. We had tapes coming in from all over the world. I had casting directors in Rome, Jordan, Israel, London, Los Angeles, New York. Global search. We also had a casting director in Australia — I forgot about Australia. So I’m looking all over the place, you understand? And I can tell you with absolute confidence there was only one kid who could do it. Every other kid would not have been able to cut it. It’s that simple.
The child that we finally selected — Adam Greaves-Neal — was far and away the best. It’s like the choice between Michael Jordan and a junior-high-school basketball player across the country. That was the difference. So there was no question in my mind who was playing the character. The whole movie is hanging on this kid’s shoulders! Now, I did consider, in looking at him, “Okay, what’s he look like, tell me his background, who are his parents.” He’s got dark brown hair, he’s got brown eyes, he comes from a faith-driven Catholic family, and on his mother’s side of the family, that family is part-Jewish. I think it works.
Oh, I have.
Nowrasteh: –and hopefully that compensates.
I don’t often get involved in the comments section, but in this case I did point out that, of all directors, you would have a sensitivity to these issues that other directors might not.
Nowrasteh: Actually for me, it’s just the opposite. The only thing I care about is merit. That’s all I care about. I’m looking for the best script, the best book, the best story, the best actor, period. And nobody gave me this movie to direct, or any job in my entire career, because of the colour of my skin, and I certainly hope not.
I was actually wondering: In the scene where the Magi appear, James says in his narration these men were advisors to the kings of Persia–
Nowrasteh: That’s right.
–and I wondered if that was sort of a nod to your own heritage, because the only other film I can think of that’s been that explicit about where the Magi came from is a film that was made in Iran called Saint Mary. I don’t know if you’ve seen it?
Nowrasteh: No, no I haven’t. When was that made?
About a dozen years ago. It’s hard to get the dates sometimes for films from Iran because different people report different things, but it’s a film that tells the story of Mary from a Muslim point of view, and when the Magi come up, the point is made that they are already monotheists, and that they come from Persia and that they are looking forward to the Messiah, basically. It’s an interesting film.
Nowrasteh: I’d like to see it. I think that it’s based on, or from, Anne’s book. I wouldn’t be surprised if I chose to mention it because of my Persian background. I have heard from other sources that one of those kings was Persian, if not all of them. I also heard from [another source that] that is accurate, and I’m so glad that you pointed that out, so I guess it’s working for a lot of folks. So I don’t know. It could have been one of those things, absolutely was intentional, almost subconscious for me. It’s hard to say.
Because it’s a movie about children, do you see this as a family film, or as a film for families or kids? Because the film does have a fair bit of violence in it.
Nowrasteh: Compared to… Risen? I mean, let me tell you something, Peter. It is a joke that our movie and Risen are the same rating. You compare the violence in those two movies. I mean, I guarantee that you don’t see anything in our movie. You know why? Because I was very careful about it. Even in the scene where Sean Bean does the mercy killing of the guy on the cross, I guarantee that you see nothing. You do not see a knife. You barely see his knife. You don’t see his knife come out of the scabbard. You don’t see it go in. You see no blood. You only see the knife when he puts it back in the scabbard. Same thing with the slaughter of the innocents. All suggested. All impressionistic. It is the context — this is what I was told by the ratings board — it is the context of what is going on that gave us the PG-13.
Honestly, I think we deserved a PG. I absolutely believe ours is a family film. I think you can take seven-year-olds and up very comfortably to this movie. Ultimately it is the parents’ decision, and I support that, but the violence in our movie — even the ambush when the Romans are ambushed by the rebels — it’s pretty tame stuff. I mean, it’s stuff you see on any afternoon TV movie, comparatively. There is no real gratuitous violence. As you can see, there’s a couple of points about this that kind of irritate me, and that’s one of them, and I think we deserved a PG. Or there should be some kind of rating– If anything, if we’re PG-13, we’re a soft PG-13. Because the problem is, with PG-13, it’s so broad. You can get really violent movies that get a PG-13, and you can also get movies with a lot of sex and four-letter words that get a PG-13, and then you get our movie. (laughs) So I don’t know. It’s disappointing to me, because I think this is absolutely a family film, and look: Catholic Moms got behind it and said, “Take your kids.”
So, anyway, I think if you look at it definitely you don’t see much, it’s just that you feel it, and this is one theory I also have about movie violence: If you care about the story and the characters involved, and I mean really care — there’s different levels of caring — but if you really care about what’s going on onscreen and who the people are, the violence has much more impact even when you don’t see it.
One thing I really like about the film: In the gospels, it refers to the brothers and sisters of Jesus, and people don’t often think about the brothers, and they especially don’t often think about the sisters, and of course in the Catholic tradition the idea is that they were cousins or slightly more distant relatives, but I love the fact that your film begins with Jesus playing in the street with his sister, basically, which I thought was a brilliant touch. Were you aware of the fact that this is an aspect of the gospel story that hasn’t really been handled before?
Nowrasteh: I was aware that this hasn’t been handled. We play it kind of safe, because we use “cousin”, “brother” and “sister” interchangeably, and what we found through our consultants and advisors was that in that time, cousins and extended family were referred to as brother and sister. It doesn’t mean brother and sister by the definition that we use today. So we thought, “You know what? They’re cousins but they call them ‘brother’ and ‘sister. It’s that simple.” That’s what we went for. It seems to work. I think it would have been more controversial if we had made a decision on who James is, because there’s a lot of discrepancies between the different denominations about who James is. In the Eastern Orthodox, he’s an older brother via Joseph from a previous marriage, so it can get really complicated if you go with one of these versions over another. So you can say it’s a cop-out (laughs) but ultimately, we decided we’re going to say they’re cousins but we’re going to call them “brother” and “sister”.
However one sorts out the traditions there, I just really like the fact that the film begins with Jesus playing a sister, however you understand that word, because I had sisters growing up, I have two sons and a daughter, and people often don’t think about the fact that Jesus had a childhood like that, with siblings of both genders. And I just thought it was great that the film begins on that note and keeps it going throughout.
Nowrasteh: Well thank you. It’s funny, a lot of people have commented on that, in different ways. I’ve had a lot of women say to me, “I just think it’s wonderful that he’s there, playing with his little sister, he may not really like it but he’s doing it, and that he defends her, he speaks up for her.” I got a lot of comments on that. It’s amazing, when you make a film, the stuff you expect you’re going to hear, and then the stuff that you do hear. (laughs) Anyway. I’m glad you liked that.
I was also curious: I read somewhere that you reportedly said at a screening, you were commenting on the effect that making the film may have had on your own spiritual life. Do you feel free to talk about that?
Nowrasteh: Oh yeah, I’ve been pretty open about that, sure.
I think you even said that you had been baptized since starting the film.
Nowrasteh: Yeah, I was baptized a few years ago, but my journey to Christianity started long ago, probably longer ago than I even know. It just seemed like a natural evolution, especially after I married my wife Betsy in a Christian ceremony with a pastor, and I think it kind of started then. But then it evolved, as you’re raising your kids and they are baptized. It just seemed natural, for me, a natural evolution to end up doing this movie, and for it to just sort of fall into my lap, which is kind of the way it happened. If Anne Rice hadn’t written that review– I mean, my wife had read the book, but the notion that we would do a movie from that book hadn’t occurred to us, because it just seemed like that was out of the realm of possibility, and there had been others who were trying to do Anne’s book as a movie. It just seemed to be a natural evolution both personally, and professionally, to go towards and become closer to Jesus.
What was your background before you got married?
Nowrasteh: Religious background? My parents are Muslim, from Iran. They’re immigrants, came to this country many years ago. I was born here in the United States and raised primarily in a kind of secular home, so that’s my background.
And what denominations were you married and baptized in?
As I’m sure you know, the book you adapted was originally written as part of what was going to be a multi-part series, and Anne Rice did write one sequel, but I believe she has said she is not going to write any more. So is there any talk about possibly adapting that second book?
Nowrasteh: Not presently. We’ve got to see how this movie does, and go from there. The second book is him, I believe, as an adult.
Yeah, it jumps ahead in time, so you’d probably have to re-cast everything.
Nowrasteh: My feeling is that if people want a sequel, they’re going to want more of him as a child. And the conversations that we’ve had, the reactions to screenings, that’s usually been the indication. So maybe, it’s even been mentioned that maybe we should go to the Temple with him at age twelve. So I don’t know.
Oh, okay. Well that sounds like an interesting possibility. Certainly your producer, Chris Columbus, has experience with kids aging along with their characters in multi-movie installments.
Nowrasteh: I know. And I think it may have been Chris who first mentioned that! (laughs) That’s how very successful franchises are made.
— A shorter version of this interview was published at ChristianityToday.com.