Risen — which stars Joseph Fiennes as a fictitious Roman officer who goes looking for the missing body of Jesus — is out on DVD and Blu-Ray today. Last week I had a chance to speak to Patrick Aiello, the producer who first started developing the film nearly a decade ago, and his brother Paul, who co-wrote the script.
What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation. You can also click here for links to my other stories on the film, including my interview with Fiennes.
There was a story in Variety back in 2007, about a movie that you were going to write, Paul, called Risen: The Story of the First Easter, and at the time it was reported that it was going to be a story centred on Peter leading up to Pentecost. Here we are nine years later and we’ve got a movie called Risen, co-written by you, and it’s a story about somebody else leading up to the Ascension. So can you talk about what the earlier idea for the film was like, and how that changed over the years?
Paul Aiello: Well, the original idea was based on this: the story was the same, it was starting at the darkest moment of Christianity, which was the Crucifixion, and moving towards the light. And in the original first draft of the script, I had Peter — and of course they put that in the press because nobody knew who Clavius was — but Clavius was in the first draft of the script. So the idea was, at the Crucifixion, Peter and the disciples were at an all-time low, and the Clavius character, who was brought in to replace the centurion who left at the crucifixion, was at an all-time high, and he couldn’t care less about these people. He didn’t even know who they were, of course. And the story went on from there.
When Kevin [Reynolds] came in to direct the film, he decided, “You know what? Let’s just centre the movie on Clavius and bring Peter in at the point where they cross.” But the script he read had Peter in it, in the beginning. And quite frankly, when we first started showing people the movie, everyone thought the Clavius character arc was so powerful, and no one had ever seen that before, and no one had ever thought about the investigation and looking for the body and all that. The director really said, “You know, let’s really focus on this one character,” and that really is the only major difference in the story — and you know, I liked having Peter in it, but he said, “No, we know what Peter did. Let’s watch this guy, and then when Peter comes in, he’ll go with him.” And then, because the movie then became about Clavius, there was no reason to go forward with the Pentecost. And this happens with a lot of films, I’m sure you know that: he essentially took a piece out of the script and said, “Let’s concentrate on this,” and that’s what the film became.
So Clavius was always in the story, then?
Paul: Correct. He was always the guy that came and buried the body, and he was always that guy. So when they looked at it as a piece of material that would maybe capture the imagination of an audience, it was like, “We don’t know who this guy is. This would be more interesting.” And that’s where he pushed it down that road of “let’s follow this man.” But yeah, of course, he was always in there, yeah.
Of course, it takes a lot of time to get a film made, and you talk about people not thinking about the investigation the Romans did and all that. Between the original idea for this film and the film finally coming out, we have seen other things like, for example, last year, there was A.D. The Bible Continues, which actually had a whole episode devoted to the search for the body. Did it concern you that people might be beating you to the punch, as it were?
Patrick Aiello: No. We were ahead of them by years in our development; in other words, the script had been finalized a few years prior and the movie was pretty much in production, I think, when that premiered. But it’s a little unavoidable. And you know, material gets shown around town, because you’re sending the screenplay to talent and actors and so forth, so it’s possible they saw the idea and so forth. And it’s also very possible that this happened! And it’s an idea that people went, “Oh! Yeah, I see that, that’s possible.” So it’s nice that they went for it and did it, because it certainly warmed up the audience to the possibility that an investigation actually took place. So if anything, it was a helping hand.
You started this project back when The Passion of the Christ was brand new, and it took a long time to make the film, so by the time you got around to making it almost a decade later, were you surprised that there was still interest in this material, so long after The Passion?
Paul: My inspiration for the film was The Passion of the Christ, the very last scene, where he stands up and walks out into the world. That was my inspiration to tell this part of the story. Films are hard to get made, and a lot of films take ten years to be made, because there are so many people you have to convince, and Patrick finally got Mickey Liddell at LD Entertainment to read the script, and he was on board with this, and then it takes time to get directors and actors.
Patrick: In addition to what Paul said, we weren’t in a rush to make this movie. If anything, The Passion showed that the audience for the film, worldwide, is there. We took our time and methodically put together the film, piece by piece, as you would a house, and in doing that, we hand-selected our elements, that being our filmmaker, our cast, locations, composer, editor, all the way down the line — and in moving methodically, carefully, those pieces had to fit together perfectly, and you’re witness to the end result, and [so is] the audience that saw it, and now the DVD and the video-on-demand audience. So it was just a very methodical process, and we were in no rush. We took our time and did so with great care, because we knew the audience was there. And in making a piece like this, a film, you have to get it right. And Paul and I are both Christians, and we needed to make sure that the known spine of the story was intact and would see the light of day, so it wouldn’t get screwed up, and we had to basically manage that whole process. So it takes time, and that’s why it took so long. But we’re glad we took our time, because it came out beautifully.
I understand there are going to be some deleted scenes on the Blu-Ray, which I have not yet had a chance to see, and when I interviewed Joseph Fiennes a few months ago, we talked about a subplot that was deleted from the film involving his character’s Jewish mistress, and there may be other things that got dropped along the way. Was there anything that ended up being cut from the film that you really wish could have gotten in there?Patrick: It was only a few scenes, I think there were three or four at the very most that fell away. And they did deal specifically with Joseph Fiennes’ character’s mistress. But ultimately it came down to time and pacing. And when we interrupted Joseph Fiennes’ character arc, coming into the faith and understanding that the Resurrection indeed happened and he would bear witness to it, we found that this personal story — this B-story of the lead actor — was interrupting that flow and that momentum. So after testing it and talking internally, we decided to drop it, and in doing so, the movie moved a lot quicker, and that was ultimately the experience we wanted.
There’s sort of a shift in the story, in terms of that moment where Clavius barges in on the disciples when they are actually meeting with the risen Jesus, and it’s sort of like the film does a bit of a pivot there. Up until then, it’s very much a story told from the outside, but then for the last 40 minutes or so it becomes a story told from the inside, even though it’s still seen from an outsider’s point of view.
Paul: That is exactly correct. That’s the intention. Let me ask you, are you Christian?
Oh yeah, absolutely.
Paul: The allegory of the story is this is a person– Clavius stands in for modern man, worn down, living in a very violent unpredictable world, he’s kind of trapped in his career like many people in the world right now. So the whole idea behind the film, for somebody coming to this as a modern-day Christian, we all have tremendous problems now with the media, we’re under siege, so this is a guy that’s starting to look at this and look at Christ, as an allegory, as a story, and then when he finally encounters him, of course it changes him. And that is what the film is about, is the fact that, as he goes on the road with him, he starts to shed his clothes, he starts to become like him. When he’s standing out there on the sand dune, he’s basically Lawrence of Arabia, he’s one of them.
And the fact that he doesn’t fully commit is also realistic for modern Christians. You’re not just going to jump head over heels into this, but when you start to realize that this could potentially be real, in modern life, you go through this process, so that’s what happens. He then becomes, on the inside, he’s still questioning, he’s still poking holes in it, but he’s in the presence of Christ now. And the moment on the rock is the moment we all want, where we sit there and have five minutes with Jesus Christ.
So the film does shift dramatically, and I think that’s the best part of the film. And that shift was in the first draft of the script, where he encounters Christ and he can’t fathom it. He laid this guy to rest, and now he’s there! But that also stands in for us, when we’re all told these stories, or this happened so long ago, but then something happens in your life, supernaturally or otherwise, you go wait a minute, maybe this is real.
What I thought was interesting is that it doesn’t just change him, but it changes the story in a way. Up until that point, Clavius is just like everyone in the audience who has heard the story and is trying to process it, but after that point, he’s got sort of an advantage that the rest of us don’t have, do you know what I mean?
Paul: Mm-hmm. Exactly. That’s the most inspirational part of the film, actually, because now he’s tagging along with them. It all opens up.
But do you think it might make it harder for audiences to relate to that character, if he’s actually seeing Jesus and the average audience member hasn’t?
Paul: Well, it’s a film. The whole point of the film is the experience that’s not possible, right? And again, in terms of storytelling, I think one of the smartest things that we did — and this was Patrick’s idea — was to hire Cliff Curtis as Christ, because he’s so strong, but the main thing we wanted to come across was that he’s also so loving and forgiving, and if you listen carefully when you watch the DVD, when Clavius walks in that room, in the upper room, Christ says to him, “Clavius, there’s no enemies here.” He knows who he is, so the idea — there’s a lot of subtlety to the film, which I think comes out in multiple viewings — is that he knows who he is. There’s a lot of subtlety to it, and the takeaway is supposed to be we’re encountering Jesus Christ here for ten minutes, and we’re seeing these famous scenes from the Bible played out, but the more important thing is we’re getting the feeling of what Clavius– You see Clavius physically change. He’s no longer this man who’s tired of death, to some degree his burden is lifted. That’s what the film is about. When he walks off into the desert, his burden to some degree is lifted. He’s starting a new chapter in his life. That’s what the film is about. At the beginning he’s trapped, he’s a soldier. At the end, he now has a day without death. He no longer has to kill people.
For what it’s worth, in my own review of the film, I made the point that one verse I’ve always been intrigued by in the gospels is in Matthew, when the disciples see Jesus it says that some of them doubted, and even seeing him didn’t erase their doubts. I’ve never really seen that dramatized on film, so in many ways the film feels like a dramatization of that verse. Clavius isn’t a disicple, but he does have the experience and he’s still sort of wrestling with it afterwards, which I thought was kind of cool.
Patrick: If we can imagine ourselves in that position, in other words you’re rewarded with an appearance or presence, it might take a minute to click in. Like, is this happening? And that was the intention. And then it comes full circle, when Christ appears by the Sea of Galilee, and Clavius realizes it’s him, and there he is.
Paul: If you think about it, this is Kevin’s dramatic device, the way he reframed the movie with the beginning of him at the end, because ultimately, if you analyze it as a film critic or a story critic, you realize he’s sitting there telling the story, that’s what he’s doing. He’s running this through his head, he’s processing this. Because it’s just too overwhelming. The whole thing is just too overwhelming. And we all have these kinds of experiences in our lives, where it takes a little time to process all this. And I like to think that, at the end, when he walks into the desert, he’s going to Jerusalem to join them. That’s what my intentions are. Even Peter, after the whole thing, he didn’t believe it right afterwards until he resurrected, and that’s very clearly in the Bible. A lot of that’s in there.
I have to ask: There’s a novelization of the movie, and Paul, I don’t know if you’ve ever had your name on the cover of a book before, but how does it feel, if this is the first time?
Paul: It feels great! I had nothing to do with that, obviously, but it felt great seeing that. It’s beautiful. Very cool, very exciting.
And what do you have in the works now, for a follow-up?
Patrick: We can say that we’re working on a few things right now, and we should be able to get into more detail officially before the end of the year.
Are any of them Bible films?
Patrick: Yes. Well, they are Christian-themed, broad audience films, so like Risen, they should appeal to the core because they’re made by Christians, and they should also cross over to the broad audience as well.