Report from Rome: The makers of Risen talk about Bible movies, film noir, sympathetic killers, and meeting the Pope

Report from Rome: The makers of Risen talk about Bible movies, film noir, sympathetic killers, and meeting the Pope February 11, 2016


Note from Peter T. Chattaway: My friend Matt Page attended a special promotional event for the movie Risen that took place in Rome last week. This is his report:

Risen hits theatres in just a few days, so the publicity team behind the film is getting into full flow. Last week saw some of the cast and crew arrive in Rome to meet Pope Francis and to host a special screening in the city for church leaders, journalists and others with a special interest in the film.

Part of the reason for hosting the screening in Rome was of course because it ties in with the film’s central character, Clavius, who is a Roman tribune, though the city itself never features in the movie. But as became apparent in the Q&A that followed the screening, the event had also given many people the chance to travel — some from as far away as North America — to Catholicism’s spiritual home.

The meeting with the Pope clearly had a big impact on the team behind the film. Indeed Joseph Fiennes, who plays the lead role of Clavius, confessed that whilst he’d hoped to get by on his “movie star looks,” he ended up looking “like a blubbering baby” when the Pope blessed him and his children. Producer Pete Shilaimon was also in the mood for jokes, proudly telling those present, “I am my Mum’s favourite son now.”

But aside from taking the opportunity to impress their mothers, the crew were there to pitch their film to an audience who they hope will share their enthusiasm. So given that it has taken around ten years to get to this stage, what was it that made this story stand out from the others?

For producer Mickey Liddell, who has been involved with the project for many years, it was the subject matter: “I thought it was really time for a resurrection story…this story really needed to be told in a big Hollywood movie.” At the same time, Liddell is very much aware that now is a good time to put these events on the big screen. “There’s been a renewal of interest in faith-based films and I think the quality has become so much better,” he said, adding he’s encouraged by this. “At some point in film history we stopped telling these stories but some of the great stories ever told are from the Bible…As I was growing up I loved those stories…they really affected me”.

Indeed it was films such as The Robe and The Ten Commandments that inspired Liddell to get into filmmaking. “I grew up on those films,” Liddell continued. “That’s what made me go to Hollywood and be a producer!” Interestingly Fiennes also mentioned those same two movies. “They were very much of their time and age…but I think we’ve got that balance right here. It’s believable and authentic, but in the same sense not deeply revisionist.” Certainly, whilst the film tinkers with the fringes of the gospels’ accounts, it largely sticks to the main aspects of the traditional story even whilst looking at it through, as Fiennes puts it, “an original lens.”

That “lens” found Fiennes doing a stack of research from archaeologists through to the local police. “I started in Rome at gladiator school,” he explained, but “the first part of the movie has the momentum of film noir, a kind of detective story…so I met with a murder detective in Malta.” Did much come from that? “The detective told me that when you smell death it never leaves your senses…so that gave me the sense of a man… who is aching to retire, to clean himself, so he’s ready for change.”

The real challenge, however, was how to get the audience to sympathise with a man who would have been personally responsible for the death of dozens of men. “The big challenge was how am I to bring an audience along with this character? Surely this is going to be an abhorrent character that we do not want to follow?” So how did he do it? “Well, it was all about understanding that we are deeply conditioned and none more so than in the Roman military…It was a brilliant, sophisticated machine but those men had to be conditioned.” The solution, it turns out, was realising that Clavius is a man who “through a series of investigations is forced to challenge himself and his beliefs and his conditioning and thereby come to a point where he is free.”

That said, it wasn’t just Fiennes’ intellect that was stretched by the role: there were also more mundane challenges. “Sandals!” he joked. “How did they conquer the world in sandals?”

It’s a question Fiennes has had to deal with before. Whilst he was spared wearing them in his best known historical film, 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, he was not so lucky in 2003’s Luther. Uncomfortable footwear aside there are a few similarities between the two films, both of which feature a change of heart and a spiritual encounter, but both of which are also set in worlds with Rome at their very centre. Unsurprisingly, members of the audience were quick to push him on which role was harder to play. “Luther,” Fiennes concluded after some not-inconsiderable deliberation. “He was a man who stuck to his beliefs in the face of a massive hierarchy.” Whilst he and Clavius are “both men of principle,” Luther is after all “a real testament to what happened, whereas Clavius is fictional.”

But one thing that Risen has going for it that Luther did not is that Clavius sees Yeshua face to face, in scenes that prove to be pivotal. For Liddell it was “the most important part of the movie,” and trying to work out how to do it was the thing that “kept us up at night for many, many years.” Indeed at one stage the filmmakers had been “so afraid of having [Yeshua] say the wrong thing…or something he wouldn’t have said” that “we didn’t even have him speak at one point.” Ultimately, though, Liddell and his team decided that, given that “we know he spoke to many people and appeared to many people, we took the creative licence to shoot what we shot and believe that was in the spirit of what he might say… So we kept it, but with not a lot of dialogue.”

It would have been easy for the team to give Yeshua (played by Kiwi actor Cliff Curtis) more to say and to risk putting their own words into Jesus’ mouth. Ultimately though they put far more work into making the more wordless exchanges as powerful as possible. “I never had eye contact with Cliff for months. I never met him, I never spoke to him,” Fiennes said, explaining how the two men stayed apart until the scene where they come face to face. “We saved our interaction so that moment you witness in the film is the first time the two characters, the two actors, ever spoke to each other. It was nice for us to preserve that energy and I hope that that comes through on the screen.”

Indeed Curtis seems to have taken this approach far further taking a “vow of silence” for 30 days and, according to Shilaimon, “he washed the feet of the apostles when he first met them.” Liddell expanded the anecdote: “He really lived like Yeshua and you could feel that presence.” Some viewers may, indeed, be sceptical about that, but then there will doubtless be many who, as Fiennes puts it, find the film “deeply arresting even to a non-believer.” And the film itself? “If you’re brought up in a generation that is not a believer but watches Transformers, well then maybe if you can believe that then you can believe this.”

Sony Pictures has posted a two-minute clip from the Rome Q&A to YouTube:

April 21 update: Sony has posted another clip from the Q&A (via Sr Rose Pacatte):

— The photo at the top of this post was taken by Matt Page, who runs the invaluable Bible Films Blog as well as the Bible Films Facebook page. Check ’em out.

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