Interview: The Red Tent director Roger Young on bringing humanity to Bible stories, the four kinds of love in his new miniseries, and getting Ben Kingsley to play a teenager

Interview: The Red Tent director Roger Young on bringing humanity to Bible stories, the four kinds of love in his new miniseries, and getting Ben Kingsley to play a teenager December 5, 2014

rogeryoungIt’s quite possible that Roger Young has directed more feature-length Bible-themed films than any other mainstream filmmaker. Cecil B. DeMille made four or five for the big screen — including two about Moses, one about Jesus, one about Samson and one that takes place shortly after the Book of Acts — but Young, who has worked almost exclusively in television, now has seven such films under his belt.

Between 1995 and 2000, Young directed five installments in the Lux Vide “Bible Collection” series, starting with Joseph — which won the Emmy for best miniseries — and continuing with Moses, Solomon, Jesus and St Paul. More recently, he has revisited some of those stories by directing adaptations of Bible-themed novels.

Last year Reelz aired his adaptation of Par Lagerkvist’s Barabbas, which takes place partly during the ministry of Jesus. And now, on Sunday and Monday night, Lifetime will air his adaptation of The Red Tent, the Anita Diamant novel that tells the stories of Jacob and Joseph through the eyes of their daughter and sister Dinah.

I spoke to Young — whose visits to the ancient world also include TV-movies about Hercules and Augustus, as well as an episode of HBO’s Rome — by phone earlier this week. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

I was really keen to talk to you because I’m sort of a connoisseur of Bible movies.

Young: (laughs)

You’ve directed several of them now–

Young: Yes, yes I have.

–including a couple of my favorites. Joseph and Moses, for years, have been my favorite versions of those stories.

Young: Oh, thanks.

Do you have a personal affinity for the genre, or is that just what keeps coming your way?

Young: What happened was I got offered Joseph with Ben Kingsley in Morocco, and you’d be a fool to turn that down, and it won the Emmy for Best Miniseries that year, so the producer, Gerald Rafshoon — who was actually the communications director for Jimmy Carter — took Ben and I out to dinner one night and said, “How would you like to do Moses?” And Ben said, “I’ll do it if Roger will do it.” And I said, “I’ll do it if Ben will do it.” And there we were. And both of us said, “You know, we’re crazy to do this story, because it’s been done on film and done rather well.” But anyway, we did it, and it turned out okay. And then the company that was involved in Italy put me under contract to do a miniseries a year, and they were very interested in doing the Bible because the man who owned the company used to run RAI television, the state television in Italy, and his sort of bucket list was to do the Bible before he died, and so that’s how I got into doing a series of them. And then, after that contract was over, I came back to the United States, and I was sort of pigeonholed. So that’s really the story behind that. But I grew up a Southern Baptist and went to church three days a week up until I was 18, so it wasn’t foreign territory for me.

One of the reasons I’ve always loved Joseph is because it gets into some stuff that other Bible movies just plain ignore. It had the story of Dinah, for example — a more traditional version of it than The Red Tent has, but it was there.

Young: Right.

And one of the things I find really fascinating right now is I can think of only one other film that has dealt with that story, and you’ve now dealt with it twice!

Young: Yes! I didn’t realize there were other films that actually had dealt with that story.

I can only think of one right now: an African film called Genesis, by a director from Mali, and it’s an all-African cast, but it basically tells the stories of Jacob and Esau, and Judah and Tamar, and Dinah’s in there as well. It’s good. You should check it out.

Young: Have you seen The Red Tent?

Yes I have.

Young: Okay. Well then you know, if you’ve read the story in Genesis, then you know that this picture doesn’t follow that story at all, or very little of it.

Well, it’s historical fiction, and it certainly gives a different spin on the story, but a lot of the basic plot beats are still there.

Young: Yeah. Well I think what Anita did was to say to herself, “What if it wasn’t a forced sexual act on the part of Shalem [the prince of Shechem]? What if she actually did fall in love with him?” And that’s where we jump off.

Right. So you’ve now handled the story twice, but you’ve told it from these two very different points of view. What was that experience like?

Young: Well, it was such a minor part of Joseph that I didn’t think about that at all, to tell you the truth, because it’s the whole– Well, it’s not the whole story, but it’s the major part of night one, in this picture. And then of course, the rest of her life in the miniseries is completely fiction. So I really didn’t deal with it on the level of how can I do it differently, or whatever, because it’s so different.

How was it adapting a book like this that’s been around for 20 years and has a lot of fans, and dealing with fidelity to that text, as it were? Was that a concern at all?

Young: It didn’t really come into my side of the project, because the script was done when I came on, and they weren’t looking for changes. They had been in development for more than a year on the project, and through several changes and two writers, so it wasn’t like, “Hey Roger, what do you think?” It was like, “Hey Roger, direct it!” Lifetime and Elizabeth [Chandler] — she was the main writer — were concerned in terms of trying to make a miniseries out of a big novel. I think that was their main concern, was how to get that whole story into two 88-minute episodes.

So that wasn’t something that you yourself were directly involved in at first, then.

Young: No. In this case, when they finally got the green light to go, they were ready to go immediately, and literally, Ouarzazate in the summer is just awful.

There’s been a big controversy lately with another film, Exodus, over the casting. Was that sort of thing an issue for you at all when you were making The Red Tent?

Young: What’s the controversy over Exodus? I’m not aware of that.

The cast isn’t racially diverse enough, the main Hebrew and Egyptian characters are all played by people of northern European descent.

Young: Well, we did that. With two exceptions in the main cast, they’re entirely English, and some of the smaller roles are Moroccan, so obviously, that was not anybody’s concern.

I noticed that the actors in the Egyptian part of the story included Hiam Abbass, who is Palestinian, and Darwin Shaw, who also seems to come from a different ethnic background than the actors who played Jacob and Dinah, for example.

Young: True, true. But obviously, we weren’t concerned that they be Jewish or Middle Eastern. We were concerned that they could act.

Fair enough. Hopping back to Moses, you worked with Ben Kingsley on that one, and one of the things I love about his Moses is that he’s so human. He’s not the Michelangelo statue that Charlton Heston was, he’s a much more human sort of character. What do you make of seeing him now in another Moses movie, now that he’s been cast in Exodus?

Young: Oh, has he? You know, I’m really not up to date on Exodus at all. What’s he playing in Exodus?

He’s playing Joshua’s father.

Young: Ah.

He’s playing the person who reveals to Moses that he’s actually a Hebrew.

Young: Right. You know, working with Ben Kingsley is a dream. He’s just so intelligent, so dedicated, so focused. He arrives on the set, he’s not the kind of guy who’s “hey, how’s it going,” none of that — he’s ready to work, and he wants direction, takes direction. He’s a one-word kind of actor. When you’re working with Ben, and you’re watching a take, and there’s something you want different in the take, what I’m desperately searching for is the word– I want one word I can say to him, because that’s all he needs. He just is so attuned to the direction that you’re going in, without a lot of explanation. So in my eyes, he can do anything. I mean, look at his career. He’s just done so many different kinds of characters, with so many different kinds of attitudes, and looks, from the worst bad guy to the best guy in the story. It’s amazing.

Do you anticipate your Moses movie will get any more attention now because he’s now co-starring in another one and there will be references back to the older one?

Young: I don’t know. Do you think that will happen? A lot of times, I find that big-feature people just don’t want to talk about the fact that something has been done on television before. I had that with The Bourne Identity. I did a miniseries long before they did the Matt Damon Bourne Identity, and it was like we didn’t exist — except in the social media. People who had seen my version compared it to the Matt Damon version — which I loved, by the way, they did a fabulous job. But we stayed next to the book, they did not. It’s Ridley Scott directing Exodus, right?

That’s right.

Young: I don’t know what they will do with it. I would fear that they don’t go too far away from the Bible, although with Noah, you know, I don’t know what that was about, that was so far away from the Bible it was silly. So I’m eager to see it and see what they did.

Are you concerned about anybody lobbing that sort of criticism at The Red Tent, because it too has a very different take on the story that it’s telling?

Young: I think it’s a foregone conclusion that we’ll get those rocks, sure. I’d be very surprised if there weren’t some thrown that way. And that’s not something that I am going to be concerned about, because it wasn’t under my control in the first place, and I doubt that Lifetime is concerned about it, because Lifetime was much more attuned to doing the book than they were to doing the Bible.

What would you say, though, if somebody came at you or came at the show with that kind of criticism?

Young: I would just say we’re doing an adaptation of the book, The Red Tent, not of the book, The Bible.

You also did a movie a couple years ago about Barabbas, which I think was based on a novel as well.

Young: Yes. It’s closer to the Bible in terms of what happened to Barabbas in the part that the Bible speaks about, but then, once again, it takes off from there, and the entire premise of that picture is Jesus takes his place on the cross, but he has all the same questions that we all have, but he can ask them of the people who were there — Jesus, Peter, Mary, Lazarus — and he does. He goes and questions all of them, about: Why? Who was this guy? What happened? Why am I involved? It’s an interesting story.

That kind of fascinates me, because Barabbas is another case where– You actually did the Jesus miniseries, and then you came back and did the story again, sort of, from this more historical-fiction point of view. Is this sort of the next phase of Bible movies for you?

Young: (laughs) The thing that I loved about the Jesus miniseries that I did was that the whole focus of that was Jesus as a man, not Jesus as God, and we tried to tell it from that standpoint. Jesus calling his buddies by their nicknames, and racing with them towards the fountain — just being a guy. In Barabbas, of course, Jesus is barely seen in the film, and he is seen only as a religious icon, which is the normal way that we show Jesus. But the reaction to the miniseries Jesus was amazing. I got e-mails from firemen in Brooklyn who said, “We sat down to have a good laugh and we watched the whole thing and we were crying at the end.” It’s like, wow, if we can get firemen to be involved in that story, that’s pretty much an accomplishment, I thought.

Well that seems to be a running thread through a lot of the Bible movies that I’ve seen you do. I mentioned earlier that, in your Moses movie, Ben Kingsley plays him as a much much more human figure than maybe we’re used to, and your Jesus movie as well focused very well on the human side of Jesus, which I thought was really interesting. And now The Red Tent does something which maybe is kind of similar, in that it takes what might be a familiar story — Dinah might not be that familiar to people but certainly it has elements of the Jacob and Joseph stories — and it tells them from a point of view that maybe people haven’t considered before. So do you see a throughline there, through the films you’ve done, that you’re sort of taking these familiar stories and exploring them from angles that people maybe hadn’t considered much before?

Young: Definitely, and I appreciate that you noticed. I think it’s the only way to do it now. I think we’ve had decades of seeing Jesus in The Robe and Moses in The Ten Commandments— those were done without any idea about the humanity of those characters, it seems to me, and I don’t think you can do that with modern audiences any more. People want to see reality. And obviously we don’t know what the reality was, but we can certainly try to find it without going against what’s in the Bible, just adding to it. Otherwise I just don’t think we can reach people. It doesn’t have to be on a religious basis, I mean reach people just as a story, try and tell a story. So what they bring away from it is up to them.

I think the reason people watch these movies is that all of us, whether we recognize it or not, no matter how religious or agnostic we might be, there is a need in the soul to have the answer to the big question: Why are we here? What’s our purpose? And it’s sort of the Cliff Notes away of going about trying to find that answer. Watching a movie that comes from a book that we regard as having the answers — whether you believe that to be true or not, you still know that culturally it’s correct — so watching the movie is kind of an easy way to see if you can find one more hint, to find an answer for yourself.

If you had to articulate what the theme of The Red Tent is, what would you say it is? I have an idea myself, but I don’t want to say it yet.

Young: I see The Red Tent as four love stories. This isn’t exactly the answer to your question, but I’ll get to that. To me, it’s the story of the love of family first, and then it’s the story of first love, the infatuation kind of love, and then the love of a child, and then finally the final love, the second love, the love that is not so much about infatuation but is about a deeper regard for the other person. The part of the story that lasts throughout the entire film is the love of family. It’s her relationship to her mothers, whether they’re living or not, and how what they taught her carried her through her entire life, which is true of all of us. So to me, that’s the theme, what the love of the family can do to your life, for your life. What would you say?

The thing I zeroed in on was the theme of forgiveness. There’s a line of dialogue when Jacob meets Esau, and Leah says to Dinah, “That’s the mark of a great man,” and this comes up again–

Young: –at the end, yes.

Yeah. That was what stood out to me. But certainly forgiveness and love are very closely intertwined.

Young: True, true.

One other element that was very pronounced, when I first saw photos from the film, was the colour scheme. A lot of Bible movies, especially lately, have this sort of drab, earth-tone kind of look to the costumes, and in The Red Tent there’s this very pronounced sort of thing where one character is wearing bright green and another character is wearing purple and another character is wearing blue. What was the thinking behind that?

Young: That was a Lifetime choice. Lifetime made it very clear to me, from day one, that costume-wise they did not want it to look like the other films that I’ve done, in terms of the drabness of the costumes, and then when the costumer came in, she wanted to help delineate the characters, which is always kind of a problem with Bible movies because everybody is in the same colour and pretty much the same uniform. So, yes, you’re right. Dinah is almost always in green, and Leah is almost always in blue, and Rebecca is in purple.

I have to say, I really did like the sequence where we go from the young actors to the older ones. We see the four wives mature in the course of a few very quick cuts. I thought that was a really interesting choice. A lot of films don’t do anything quite as creative as that.

Young: I was trying desperately to try to find a way to do that, because one of the discussions I had for most of the prep period with Lifetime, is I was very concerned about the point at which we went to an older Dinah, because it can get very clumsy and very difficult to follow, in a picture that has this kind of epic quality, that goes over so many years, and we had a lot of discussions and some disagreements about at what point that should happen. And finally my assistant director and I came up with the idea of doing what we did, and I think it worked. I think you know who these people are, and that we’ve had a passage of time in a few seconds. So I was pleased with that. Wasn’t easy to come to that!

This raises another question, actually: the age issue. I think the actress playing Dinah is roughly 30 years old, but reading the book, one gets the impression that Dinah is quite a bit younger, still a teenager, when she meets Shalem. Were there any concerns about that, or were you trying to avoid the impression of anything statutory going on?

Young: No, it was a question of trying to have one actress play throughout the whole picture. Because if you have her as a teenager when that happens, then at the end, when she’s supposed to be 40 or whatever, obviously it’s silly, it doesn’t work. So you’re trying to reach a compromise: at what age can she play young and still play older. I had the same problem on Moses. I think the weakest part of Moses is when Ben’s character is supposed to be a teenager, and he didn’t really look like a teenager. So that didn’t really work too well.

Was he actually supposed to be a teenager in those early scenes?

Young: Well, he was supposed to be younger than he was, let’s put it that way. And the only good part is that that part of the film didn’t last very long, so we could get out of it quickly, but in The Red Tent it does last quite a ways, all the way through night one. So we start out with an 8-year-old, and then make that jump rather quickly after an act break, and just hope that people understand that that’s Dinah. But yeah, it was a question that we dealt with for quite a long time, to decide at what point– how old is she going to be. Because we didn’t want to have three actresses, which was also up for discussion, but then it would get really clumsy, I think, for the audience, if you had an 8-year-old and a 19-year-old and then a 40-year-old or 30-year-old. It’s too many actresses to try to follow.

Most of the Bible movies that you’ve made were made before The Passion of the Christ came along and started talk of a Bible-movie revival. When you look around now and see movies like The Red Tent or Exodus or Noah being made for TV or the big screen, what are the discussions like now, compared to what they were like in the ’90s, before The Passion came along and changed everything.

Young: Well, in this town, there’s only one discussion, and that is the fact that people come to see them. So that’s what it’s all about here. But you know, people came to see them before The Passion of the Christ. Jesus did really, really well, so did Joseph. Big audiences. So I think, at that time, everybody thought, “Well, it’s a fluke. It doesn’t really matter.” It wasn’t like people were calling me up because there were millions of people watching. It was really The Passion and then the Bible miniseries that the Survivor guy did that made Hollywood put hundred-million-dollar budgets on the schedule.

But has the conversation around these things changed at all? After The Passion, there was talk about how The Passion supposedly found a new audience that hadn’t been tapped yet. So back in the ’90s, when you were doing Joseph and Moses, were people talking about that audience? Or has the discussion over the past ten years changed around that?

Young: I don’t think people were talking about that audience. I don’t think they thought there was an audience. The fact that Joseph won the Emmy helped a lot, and was surprising because up to that point, just like you can’t make a Western today, people thought you can’t make that kind of picture any more because people won’t go see The Robe or The Song of Bernadette or any of those pictures, they will just look down upon it. And so when a big star came along and did a picture like that, and it did billions of dollars, they had to pay attention.

So in the ’90s, if they weren’t talking about that particular audience then, when they made Joseph and Moses, what sort of audience were they anticipating that those movies would be for back then?

Young: I think a core group of believers, but it obviously went way beyond that. Certainly for Jesus. I didn’t get the kind of reaction from the public for Joseph that I did for Jesus, that I described to you earlier. Within this town, I got a lot of reaction, because it was a well-made picture. But as I said before, I think most people thought it was a fluke.

Do you have anything else lined up for the future? Any Bible-related novels you want to adapt or anything like that?

Young: (chuckles) The answer is yes!

Oh really?

Young: Wolfgang Petersen has a project that I’m not at liberty to talk about yet, but he’s brought me in as a producer-director. It’s a miniseries, but a longer one, ten hours, that we’re gathering the money for — and yes, it has a biblical tone to it.

Are there any Bible stories that you want to tell but haven’t had a chance to?

Young: Yeah, you know, I would love to do Revelation. I’d love to do the final book, with all the visual effects that you can do today. It doesn’t cost millions any more — well, millions, yes, but not billions. It seems to me that this would be a good time to try that, if you could find a way to — I’m going to put this in very street language — to make sense out of that book, I think it would be a fascinating film.

Are you talking about a literal take on the beasts with ten heads and a sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth and that sort of thing?

Young: Yes. Yes. Yes. I mean, it’s basically an action-adventure story. And it’s been tried — it’s been done. A long time ago, this company I was working with — Lux — did it once, and I didn’t see it, but the word was it didn’t work, and they probably were just ahead of their time in terms of the kinds of effects that you need to do that. But I think, if you could find exactly what the story is and exactly what it is that people should come away with, because there are a lot of different interpretations of what that is all about, it could be very interesting.

The Red Tent premieres December 7 and December 8 at 9/8c on the Lifetime network.

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