Interview: David Batty (The Gospel of John, 2014)

Interview: David Batty (The Gospel of John, 2014) October 6, 2015

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There have been a few attempts to make complete word-for-word film adaptations of the gospels over the years. In the 1970s, the Genesis Project got as far as completing the book of Luke, while in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Visual Bible produced two very different adaptations of Matthew and John (as well as the book of Acts).

But it looks like the Lumo Project may be the first entity to actually finish the job. Their first film, The Gospel of John, was released on Netflix late last year and comes out on DVD today. And director David Batty, speaking on the phone from his native England, says he has already shot the other three films and will finish editing them all by the end of this year.

“It took quite a long time,” he says. “There were a lot of ups and down, because these are expensive films to make. The Bible has a cast of thousands, as we kept reminding ourselves! So it took a long time, in fact nearly six years, and we’re just at the back end of that process of the four films. It’s been a large chunk of my life.”

The project was initiated by Hannah Leader, a producer on films like Gosford Park and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead who also teaches Sunday school on the weekend. She was looking around for film clips that she could use in her class, and she came to the conclusion that there wasn’t really anything “good enough” out there — so she decided to make some video material of her own.

Leader then turned to Batty, who was working on a series about the history of Christianity for Channel 4, and asked him to direct her project because she thought his documentary background would help her films to have the gritty, realistic quality that she felt was missing from the other films she saw.

“We had a very, very strange phone call when she first called me,” says Batty. “She said, ‘Hello, I’m a film producer, and I want to make a film about the Bible,’ and of course, you know, from time to time you get crank calls in your career. I thought this was a crank call and I nearly put the phone down on her, and thankfully I didn’t.

“I went and took the meeting, as they say. My first question was, ‘Which bits of the Bible do you want to film, Hannah?’ And she came straight back at me and said, ‘All the bits,’ and it sort of grew from there.”

Three decisions were crucial to establishing the film’s documentary-like approach.

First, the film was shot in Morocco — like many other Bible films over the last few decades — and the cast consists almost entirely of local actors. The one exception is Selva Rasalingam, the actor who plays Jesus, and even he is half-Tamil, and thus noticeably different from the Nordic or Anglo-Saxon actors who have tended to play Jesus in the past.

“I looked for somebody who had definite Semitic features, or a feeling that he would feel Semitic or Middle Eastern, to avoid the sort of Robert Powell Jesus — who I loved!” says Batty. “I think [Jesus of Nazareth, which starred Powell] is a fantastic production, and I think that’s probably my favorite Jesus, but it is still very Anglo-Saxon.”

Second, instead of picking a modern translation of John and having all the characters speak their lines in English, Batty had the characters speak in a foreign language; this allowed the filmmakers to release multiple versions of the film with different narrators reading from different Bible translations. (The DVD includes audio tracks based on the King James and New International Versions, as well as a Spanish translation.)

“We didn’t want to give the illusion to some people that Jesus and his disciples spoke English,” says Batty, “because I think as soon as you do that, you start to slightly romanticize and also modernize a story that is two thousands year old, and its power and effect is in the fact that it is so ancient.

“The oldest complete texts we have of the Bible are in Greek,” he adds. “Probably even before that, it was in Aramaic. So all of these things are translations. And as soon as you plonk English down as being the spoken language, there is a sort of imperialism, in my view, going on, saying, ‘Well, the language of the Bible is English, so Christianity is English.’ Well it isn’t! It’s actually Middle Eastern. It comes out of Judaism. It’s as far from England and America as you can possibly get.”

Finally, the filmmakers wanted to make four separate films, one for each gospel, while treating them all as different perspectives on the same basic set of events.

“Hannah wanted to celebrate the fact that you’ve got four versions of the same story,” says Batty. “Rather than trying to say there’s only one story and let’s try to iron out all of that, we wanted to say that those four perspectives are really interesting, and why people still like those four. Everybody’s got their favorite gospel.”

Prior to the Lumo Project, the most recent word-for-word adaptation of any of the gospels was the Visual Bible’s The Gospel of John, released in 2003. So why kick off the Lumo Project with yet another adaptation of the very same gospel?

Partly, says Batty, because John has the potential to be the most cinematic of the four gospels — despite the fact that it is filled with long speeches and might seem, to some readers, less action-oriented than the other gospels.

“I have said it’s the one I enjoyed the most,” says Batty, “because I think ultimately it’s the most filmic of all of them. I mean, all the gospels tell the story of Jesus, obviously, but in John you get the story of Jesus on so many levels — you don’t just get the literal ‘and he went there and then he did this and then he did the other and then he died and then he came back.’

“In John, a lot of the time you’re inside Jesus’s head, you’re hearing his mental process, of how he’s trying to persuade people. You’re also hearing that constant struggle, which makes him so interesting as a character, between the divine and the human. And yet it’s the ultimate character study, and I think that’s what was so enjoyable and exciting about John, once we hit on that.”

Batty cites one scene — the ‘Bread of Life’ speech — as an example of how he and his team expanded on the text and imagined the actions that accompany Jesus’ words.

“It’s a massive great long speech, and there’s very little indicators as to what happened,” he says. “You know where he was before it, because he did the feeding of the five thousand, and you know where he is after it, because right at the end of the speech it says something like ‘and some of these things were said in the synagogue in Capernaum,’ but for the bit in between you have no idea.

“So I thought, ‘Okay, well, we know where he starts, and we know where he ends. Well, let’s just build a journey.’ So that’s the starting point.

“And then, when you work out what’s happened before, he’s just fed the five thousand and has been trying to tell people that, okay, he’s physically fed them, he gave them something to eat but actually that’s not the point of the miracle. The point of the miracle is spiritual feeding, a more symbolic feeding, but people don’t seem to get it.

“And at the beginning of the ‘Bread of Life’ speech, you get a series of people who come up to him and ask him the same flippin’ question time after time, and I thought, ‘Well, if I’ve just done this massive miracle, I’ve probably expended a lot of energy doing it, and then I’m asked the same question about it three times, by the third time, I’m going to be a bit pissed, and a bit cross.’

“My other aim was not to have a totally floaty divine Jesus. What makes him more interesting as a character is to have a Jesus who has both divine and human qualities. Well, what are the human qualities? The human qualities are going to be emotions. So you’ve got to have the whole range of emotions, from happy to sad to angry to frustrated to whatever. So here’s a moment for him to get cross and frustrated.

“And so we brought that into the sequence, and then thought, ‘Well, bread.’ Bread is usually the first thing you see for sale in any Middle Eastern market. What if he goes and starts throwing bread around and saying, ‘Well have your bloody bread, you idiots,’ as it were? And so that’s the sort of kernel of building a sequence.”

One other challenge Batty faced was how to balance the slightly different versions of stories that appear in multiple gospels. When shooting, say, the crucifixion of Jesus, Batty shot footage for all four films simultaneously — and he sometimes includes visual details in The Gospel of John that are actually mentioned in the other gospels.

“I treated it as one big gospel, if you like, with four different versions,” he says, “so it’s a bit like one of those books where they list all the parallels. Our script was an absolutely monumental document, with all these lists of all the parallels of a particular scene, and then we would weave a way that included all the parallels.”

Tackling all four gospels simultaneously posed a particular challenge when he had to address questions like whether Jesus healed one demoniac (as per Mark and Luke) or two (as per Matthew), or whether Mary Magdalene went to the empty tomb by herself (as per John) or with other women (as per the other three gospels).

“What I tended to do,” says Batty, “was to say, ‘What’s the maximum number?’ If Luke says two and Matthew says one, then okay, two. So there were two there, but Matthew only wanted to see one, or he only thought one of them was important. So we always filmed the two, but we filmed it in a way that we’re giving the perspective of the writer in each gospel as he would have written it or thought he wanted it to be told, so we can slightly change each story.

“But I really — and deliberately so — only filmed each event once, because I thought as soon as we get into filming it multiple times, we’re then sort of destroying the whole theory of what I’m discussing here, which is one story, four perspectives. It got us into all sorts of trouble, trying to remember what, where and how!”

While the films based on the other gospels are either already finished or almost finished, there are no release plans just yet for those films. “I think there’s going to be a sort of taking of breath to see how John does,” says Batty, “and then, based on that, the other three will be released, hopefully in a similar way.”

For now, clips from all four Lumo Project films are already available via the YouVersion Bible app — and ultimately, says Batty, once the producers have earned back their production costs, they would like to release the entire films online for free, similar to what The Jesus Film Project has done.

Batty says the producers also hope to dub the Lumo Project films into “loads more languages. It’s just a question of time.”

— The Lumo Project’s The Gospel of John is out on DVD and Digital HD today.

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