Killing Jesus round-up: Set visits, interviews, and two clips.

Killing Jesus round-up: Set visits, interviews, and two clips. March 26, 2015


Killing Jesus had its New York premiere on Monday, and the various people involved have been promoting it ever since. A few outlets have also posted some new set-visit reports. (My own set-visit report is here.) Check ’em all out below the jump.

First, the print (or should I say text) reports and interviews.

The New York Daily News has two articles, starting with a set-visit report that includes the only interview with Rufus Sewell (who plays Caiaphas) that I have seen in connection with this film anywhere. (He did not speak to the press at all while I was there, which is a shame, as I’m a big fan of Dark City. But anyhoo.)

The News also has a story on the multiple Bible movies that were shot in Morocco last year, and how the actors all hung out together during their downtime:

“Any time you’re around the pool, there is a mix of three Jesuses, a brace of Mary Magdalenes and disciples fighting over the condiments,” says Rufus Sewell, Caiaphas in “Killing Jesus.” . . .

Stephen Moyer, Pontius Pilate in “Killing Jesus,” said he was delighted when, after traveling 31 hours, he ran into Sewell.

“Rufus is an old mate of mine,” Moyer says. “One of my best friends is on one of the other jobs, ‘The Jesus Code.’ Michael Higgs — he’s playing Joseph of Arimathea. All of us were at the Royal Shakespeare Company 23 years ago and now we all around the pool sipping cocktails. It’s like being in Soho in London.”

With so many actors in such a small and remote place, the connections and reconnections are constant. Chipo Chung, Mary Magdalene in “AD,” ran into a pal from L.A., Haaz Sleiman, Jesus from “Killing Jesus.” They ended up riding camels into the Sahara.

“He organized this `Killing Jesus’ trip,” Chung says. “We traveled for seven hours, and who do I bump into? Juan Pablo (Di Pace, who plays Jesus in “AD”). He was by himself.”

Meanwhile, Daniel Fienberg at Hitfix — one of the reporters with whom I visited the set — has an interview with Kelsey Grammer, who plays Herod the Great:

There are things Grammer almost certainly does merely because they’re jobs, but “Killing Jesus” isn’t one. Grammer is a man of faith and he’s never been shy when it comes to discussing his ideology or his religious background. Members of the religious press contingent reported that in their roundtable, Grammer got choked up several times talking about the subject matter. That didn’t happen in our secular group, but Grammer was certainly passionate when the idea was raised that faith-based productions might sometimes face challenges from wide audiences.

“Gosh, I think faith is a wonderful thing,” Grammer says. “And I even think religion’s a wonderful thing. I know a lot of people want to say, ‘Religion’s the only reason that man has had any trouble at all,’ but you know what? World War I and World War II were not fought because of religious reasons. So the greatest amount of cruelty to one another, the greatest amount of death has been rained down upon each other by simple ideology and acquisition or whatever, but very rarely honestly just motivated by religion. There are some instances and some of the more current in which we are facing that element. We’ll see how that works out but I don’t have any difficulty doing a show that’s about faith or doing a show that actually even is affirmative about faith.”

Fienberg also has a much longer report on our visit to Ouarzazate:

John Rhys-Davies is a veteran of the sort of movies and TV shows that are filmed in and around Morocco and he has a history with Ouarzazate.

“A little town like Ouarzazate, which is just booming, you should have seen it when I came here first about 20, 30 years ago and then even 10, 15 years ago,” Rhys-Davies says. “There are new buildings going up. Probably 60 to 80 percent of the town’s wealth, employment derives one way or another from the film industry and in their heart of hearts, they must be terrified, because they know that The Beast is coming.” . . .

Rhys-Davies traces the transformation from the Ouarzazate he knew years ago, to the Ouarzazate he now sees.

“The people were just as wonderful,” he says. “The poverty was more apparent. The fields still brought their crop of stones every year. What film’s brought here is a real sense of modernism, of being part of the modern, civil world. It’s brought prosperity it’s brought these people the sense of belonging to an international community. You look at this cast and the crew? They are from all nations, all religions. And our job is to get on and make things happen, make it work.”

Jonathan Merritt at Religion News Service has an interview with Haaz Sleiman, who plays Jesus:

Both the book and film retell Jesus’ crucifixion and accounts of his resurrection. Muslims do not believe either of these events occurred, and although Sleiman says he was not aware of these historical discrepancies prior to accepting the role, they were not concerns for him.

“As an actor my number one focus was to be on the same page with the writer, director, and producers,” he said.

Kevin Ott at Rockin’ God’s House also has an interview with Sleiman:

What you said reminded me of this thought: many people think violence is radical, but really, loving your enemy is extremely radical. It’s so against human nature.

Yeah, and it’s the most powerful thing to do and the hardest thing, but it’s actually powerful. It’s not weak. It really takes a powerful, strong person to really understand that and do that.

John W. Kennedy at Beliefnet also got a soundbite from Sleiman at the premiere:

He adds “You know, there are few here and there from both sides that were just either not happy about it or had their opinions and I love that — because that means we are doing the right thing. Whenever you create some sort of disturbance in the air, there’s an awakening that happens, an opportunity for a conversation, an opportunity to build bridges, specifically, an opportunity to connect different groups that typically wouldn’t connect with one another…”

Washington Life interviewed Sleiman after the film’s world premiere in Idaho a few weeks ago (as did I; that interview should be online soon, too):

“I think as long as we end up respecting one another for our differences, then that’s great,” he told Washington Life, fittingly, over a glass of red wine at the Sun Valley Film Festival in Idaho, after the film’s world premiere earlier this month. “We need to have different opinions and we need to speak openly about them because I think for a civilized nation or society, that is the basis for it to be able to give your opinion even it is different from someone else it is healthy. Even if you disagree. You want that in a marriage, you want that in a relationship, you want that in a society. It’s no different.”

Kate O’Hara spoke to Sleiman about a scene that I watched him film:

What was even more emotionally draining was not the Crucifixion, it was him walking, dragging the cross, on the way to be crucified. It was directed, but inside, I was falling apart. I couldn’t stop myself I couldn’t control it, because really, it got into every cell, having empathy for someone. It floored me to have to go through that humiliation — the idea of being completely shunned by everybody, ashamed, everybody around there, being made fun of.

O’Hara also got this quote from screenwriter Walon Green:

First of all, an Evangelical seeing the movie will be disappointed that there’s not more miracles. [But it might appeal to] the person who doesn’t know whether they believe in miracles. They’re not believers that Jesus was probably the Son of God or a Messiah. They’ll like our movie. It takes you quickly into the reality of the man and stays with him in the story. I can’t profess to be a really religious person at all, but this is a guy who arrives with a message that’s completely humane.

There’s conquerors, there’s kings, but they’ve all got some sort of other agenda. Here’s a guy who arrives with nothing other than a message of love and proved, by his life, that it takes more than we think to deliver that message than anybody could comprehend.

To me, that is an inspirational story, so I don’t really need to get into the miracles. That’s enough for me. We live through narratives as people, and the narrative of someone’s life is more powerful than a bunch of books.

Gerri Miller at Mother Nature Network also spoke to Green, as well as producers Teri Weinberg and David Zucker. Says Green:

“The movies that have been done before have been from the point of view of Jesus, and this is a film that’s placing a man in his times, at a critical stage with political and other religious forces coalescing against him that this will inevitably result in his death,” says Green. “He knew what his destiny was yet he didn’t feel he could turn away from it. There was not another path he could take.”

And Vincent Funaro at The Christian Post spoke to Chris Ryman (who plays the temple guard Malchus), Alexis Rodney (who plays Simon Peter) and Joe Doyle (who plays Judas Iscariot) about the film’s “ambiguous” approach to the miracles:

Ryman also told CP that when he first received the script for “Killing Jesus,” he wasn’t told that Jesus’ miracles wouldn’t be depicted in the film. He further admitted that while the entirety of Jesus’ story can’t be told without acknowledging the supernatural aspects of His life, it can be achieved without the use of Hollywood special effects that are often found in other portrayals of Jesus’ life.

Alexis Rodney, who plays Simon Peter in “Killing Jesus,” elaborated more on Ryman’s point.

“In a lot of other versions you see lights and rays, and that’s fine — it serves its purpose,” he told CP. “But again [what we’re bringing that’s different], I think, is being able to make it slightly more ambiguous. You draw in a larger audience who will then get the core message.”

Turning to outlets overseas, in New Zealand spoke to Moyer and Grammer while Tonight in South Africa spoke to Grammer and Sleiman.

Next, the videos, starting with two clips from the film.

This one shows the famous incident in which Jesus saves a woman from being stoned for adultery by saying that he who is without sin should cast the first stone:

And this one depicts the (somewhat gory) scourging of Jesus:

The National Geographic Channel has also posted two more videos of the actors discussing their roles, including Kelsey Grammer on playing King Herod…

…and Stephanie Leonidas on playing Salome:

Entertainment Tonight also has interviews with Grammer, Sleiman and O’Reilly (in the second video, O’Reilly is asked about this minor kerfuffle):

Breathecast has a red-carpet interview with Grammer:

Inside Edition has an interview with Sleiman:

Sleiman also appeared on Last Call with Carson Daly:

Dispatch Radio posted lengthy audio interviews with Sleiman…

…and Green:

And, of course, because O’Reilly is a major Fox News star, a number of the filmmakers have been promoting the film on the Fox networks, too — though none of those interviews seem to be embeddable outside of the Fox websites.

O’Reilly himself appeared on Outnumbered, Grammer and Sleiman appeared on The O’Reilly Factor (of course), Sleiman appeared on Varney & Co., and Sleiman and Eoin Macken (who plays Herod Antipas) appeared together on Fox & Friends.

Finally, the creative team behind the film’s ad campaign has posted an extensive and heavily illustrated account of how they developed the various images that were used to promote the film, in print and on screen. The post includes these videos:

If I find any more promotional interviews, I will add them to this post.

March 29 update: Some more interviews appeared before tonight’s premiere.

Nicola Menzie at The Christian Post went on the same set visit that I did, and she has her own report up now, which quotes director Chris Menaul extensively:

Menaul said he went “for a very ethnic look to try and create an eastern Mediterranean Levantine country 2,000 years ago as it might have been without sort of blue eyed, blonde American or British actors you know plunked into the middle of this sort of setting which always looks kind of phony even in films which are otherwise quite good I think.” . . .

Another vital element for the Son of Man who the Gospels say told a would-be follower that he had “no place to lay his head” was to make the rabbi and his followers look like common Jews of Judea.

“We went for very shabby clothes for the disciples and for the people they mingled among,” Menaul explained. “Again, you quite often see it sanitized in sort of clean robes and everything. So these are poor people. Of course with Jesus and the disciples they were effectively vagrants, they were tramps because they moved from town to town and village to village, they lived on charity, they had to carry a lot of what they needed with them.” He added that it was not until Matthew, the presumed wealthy tax collector, joined them that Jesus and his disciples got “hooves,” or a donkey.

Vincent Funaro, also at The Christian Post, also spoke to Menaul, and to producer Teri Weinberg and actress Emmanuelle Chriqui, who plays Herodias:

“We wanted to create a believable Palestine of 2000 years ago,” said director Chris Menaul to The Christian Post at a New York City special premiere event on March 23 . “What Morocco gave us was these amazing locations and faces. We used one village which had been a Jewish village up until 1974 when all the Jews got out at the time Yom Kippur was because they thought Africa wasn’t the place to be anymore.”

“It’s still there and it was built hundreds of years ago exactly in the style of the villages that Christ lived in with mud bricks and courtyards, and very few people have moved into it.”

Several new interviews with Haaz Sleiman have come along — including my own!

There is also this interview that Daniel Fienberg at Hitfix did during the set visit that he and I were both on. It begins with a discussion of crucifixion:

“It’s a messed up way to die,” Sleiman reflects. “It’s probably the most gruesome awful way to die and comparing to any other kind of torture it’s like the ultimate because it’s also humiliating. They have you walking naked and dragging the beam. I mean the thought of me as Haaz walking with a beam naked, nothing… It would mortified me. I mean I would be terrified. So imagine someone actually really had to go through that. And if I had to do that on the set? A part of me would have liked to walk naked, to be honest with you, because it would be terrifying for me and that would feed me so much to work with as an actor, but just even that on it’s own made me feel something very profound like for people who went through that.” . . .

Sleiman has another unusual reason to be worried. He’s heard from other Jesuses that crucifixion, even crucifixion for television, is hard. The title star of History’s (sic) “Jesus Code” is also shooting in the same Moroccan city and he and Sleiman spoke about the experience and the amount of time spent on the cross, even attached to a harness.

“He said he lost the feeling of his nerve in his arm hurt. And I’m like, ‘Well it came back right?’ He’s like, ‘No it’s still gone.’ I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I’m like, ‘Well that’s not good.’ So one has to make sure that I’m okay as well, because once the production is done it’s me and myself and I,” Sleiman says.

Channel Guide Magazine spoke to Sleiman on a different set visit:

Sleiman introduces himself, then smiles and gestures at the Atlas Mountains visible through an ornately grated window and says, “Every day I am grateful, because it is overwhelmingly beautiful being here. Morocco is such a beautiful country; it feels like you are on a movie set just looking at the homes and architecture and the people and the set-ups they have. And to just be a part of this! How many times in your life can you say ‘I get to play Jesus Christ’?’” . . .

Sleiman credits his social circle for helping him take the first steps on what he sees as a God-driven journey into the Moroccan desert — and a new chapter in his life.

“The timing is very interesting to me,” he explains. “I am getting more spiritual and it was due to some friends that I look up to who were constantly quoting Jesus and sharing with me a lot of his teachings. Now I am given the opportunity to tell that story. It was as if God were saying, ‘OK, now it is time for you to give back.’ It is very poetic that this has all just fallen into place.”

Sonoma Christian Home also spoke to Sleiman:

SCH: That love that you speak of with such passion really came through in the film. I think that’s what felt so fresh and authentic about your portrayal. You referenced growing up as a Muslim; did that affect how you approached the role of Jesus and was there any hesitation taking on the role?

HS: Listen, trust me, I was freaking out and I was having doubts. I was thinking am I good enough? Am I worthy and funny enough? Every time I would think of Jesus and His teachings and His love that’s what gave me the strength. I was like, “Of course, I can do this.” I mean if Jesus was here in front of me, I can’t put words in His mouth, but I can take his teachings and apply them to that moment I was in, questioning myself. I do have a damaged psychology in a way. When you think you’re not good enough, or you think that you’re not worthy, it’s a psychological hang up that does not match the magnificence of God’s creation.

SCH: Why do you think you were chosen to play Jesus in this film?

HS: That makes me cry when you say that, and I’m not going to get emotional, but why was I picked? I think honestly, it’s hard for me to say 100% why. All I can say is that there is a God. I believe in God and He has given, all of us, love, and that’s our guidance. It is what guides us in this world and we either choose to let it guide us or not. For me, I’ve been blessed to have people that are sent to me.

I don’t know how this works, but he sends to me signs, people, angels. And I had one person that came into my life and his guidance was love. I saw, I’m sorry (pause) – I was so blessed that God sent me this human being who had been living his life guided by love, through his intentions and direction. And I saw how he had been touching people and changing their lives, and been transforming people, and I’m so blessed that he came into my life.

Nuke the Fridge evidently interviewed Sleiman without seeing the film:

Haaz Sleiman: Also, if you want to talk about his teachings, I know your point is that once you talk about his teachings it becomes a religious thing.

Nuke: I want to talk about it. I’m hoping this movie gives us an opportunity to.

Haaz Sleiman: Well, his relationship with his friends, his disciples which are his friends, his relationship with his mother, his family, making him as human as possible for us to relate to that. What happens in other productions, they make Jesus very ethereal and otherworldly. It makes us judge ourselves as a result because we’re not that. In this, we didn’t want that. We wanted to make him as human as possible in everything, whether it be his relationships, whether it be his journey, his frustrations, his challenges because we wanted to show that that is the beauty of us as human. Even when he says love your enemy, or love your neighbor as you love yourself, those are big ideas because they’re not easy to apply. Again, one can argue that when you have such an idea about “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” would you say that is religious concept? Or would you say that is a concept that transcends religion?

And Tony Jones posted this video interview with Sleiman:

Meanwhile, Channel Guide Magazine has a new interview with Stephen Moyer:

Moyer says that he appreciates how the script, based on the bestselling book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, lends dimension to the tumultuous path that led Pilate to make a decision that would change the course of Christianity, giving him some breathing room as an actor.

“I really like the fact that Pilate does it with a nod and I put that little moment in of him walking away — because he feels he’s been pushed into this position,” Moyer says. “He doesn’t necessarily believe that this man deserves die but when you know the story as well as we all do, and we’ve so many definitive versions of it, I think it’s very hard to tell it in a different way. So you look for little details to make it yours. … I think that Pilate is pushed into this. Caiaphas exonerates himself by pushing it, by making somebody else make a decision for him.”

The Star Tribune spoke to screenwriter Walon Green as well as Sleiman, Chriqui and Kelsey Grammer:

The movie avoids Bible thumping. While there’s plenty of preaching, Green’s script is more interested in the man than the miracles. In other words, don’t expect to see Jesus walking on water.

“I think all viewers will really like this film because they can immerse themselves in the human story of this guy,” Green said. “Most people think he’s a good guy, but others think, ‘Uh-oh. This is a bad thing. I don’t know how we are going to deal with this. What if he really catches on and becomes huge? The Romans will come down on us like they’ve done with other apocalyptic people. Will the death of this one man save others?’

“These are not questions that are necessarily religious. They are questions that involve the moral conundrums of today or any time.”

Finally, Sleiman, Chriqui and Stephanie Leonidas spoke to Yahoo TV:

They also played a game of ‘Bible or B.S.’:

You can also see pictures at National Geographic and Haaz Sleiman’s Facebook page.

April 4 update: Rodney spoke to The Church Boys about the Palm Sunday scene:

“There was a scene where Jesus was fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah … where he’s riding the donkey colt into Jerusalem, and the people are laying the palms on the floor and there was a moment where it reached near rapture,” Rodney said, when actors appeared caught up in the moment. “The people — they were going to cut, we had finished the scene — were in an absolute state of rapture. They were just screaming ‘Hosanna!’”

Rodney continued, “They weren’t stopping. They were paid supporting actors … and the camera operator used his good thinking and just carried on filming … I felt like a biblical superstar. It was just absolutely amazing.”

Chriqui spoke to The Christian Post about playing Herodias:

One of the most challenging aspects of the role of Herodian was playing what she described as a “very hated person” in history due to her involvement in the beheading of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist.

“The bigger challenge for me was getting past playing a very hated person [that was] deeply despised and finding a way to play it and not play the evil,” she said. “That’s the cartoon way of playing it. [It’s more about] who’s the woman? That was the challenge.”

And Sleiman talked to Christian Piatt at Homebrewed Christianity about the violence he saw growing up in Lebanon, and how it informed his performance as Jesus.

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