The Young Messiah: the Cyrus Nowrasteh interview round-up

The Young Messiah: the Cyrus Nowrasteh interview round-up March 10, 2016


The Young Messiah is now in theatres. Two days ago I collected some of the interviews that producer Chris Columbus has done to promote the film. Now it’s time to round up some of the interviews that co-writer/director Cyrus Nowrasteh has done.

Apart from the interviews gathered below, I interviewed Nowrasteh myself, and he has appeared in the film’s ‘Extended Look’ and ‘Parenting’ featurettes. He has also made statements about John Debney’s score and why the movie’s title was changed.

And now for the links I haven’t posted before.

First, Nowrasteh himself wrote an essay for Fox News on how he came to make a Bible movie, and why he filled in some of the Bible’s gaps:

While millions of Americans flocked to see Mel Gibson’s amazing work “The Passion of The Christ,” few remember that the movie wasn’t actually based upon the Bible, but rather upon a book by a German nun named Anne Catherine Emmerich who saw vivid visions of the death of Jesus and transcribed them.

In “The Passion,” Mel Gibson decided to give Satan a creepy baby, and was extensively questioned by some religious leaders about this extra-Biblical choice. I loved his response, when he said he did it because he knew that Satan likes to copy God so he figured he’d give Satan a son since God had Jesus.

That’s what artists often do–we fill in the lines and add color and context-and film is a great canvas, trying to imagine moments that we can’t know, yet doing our best to ensure they are consistent with the character and nature of our subjects.

World magazine visited the film’s set, and talked to Nowrasteh about the hurdles he faced getting the movie made — and how it almost wasn’t made:

The movie almost didn’t see the light of day. In late 2012, The Young Messiah had a green light, with a nice, fat, $40 million budget. In January 2013, it “fell apart,” Cyrus said, while the Nowrastehs were in Rome prepping for filming. Betsy contracted acute pneumonia, so they couldn’t fly back to the United States. The film was $3 million in the hole already from pre-production costs.

“We thought it was dead,” Cyrus said. “But it just never died.”

Producer Tracy Price, who Cyrus said rescued Soraya, came and helped financially rescue The Young Messiah. With additional producers, and eventually the backing of Focus, the film got back on track. Cyrus and Betsy cut the script significantly to slash the movie’s budget, but Cyrus says he doesn’t “miss any of it.” He later learned that if they had shot the mostly outdoor movie when they originally intended, it would have rained most of the time.

In the interval between the movie dying and coming back, Cyrus says he became a Christian. It was a slow journey to faith; Betsy was already a Christian, and Cyrus watched his youngest son become a Christian: “I saw how it transformed him.” His conversion isn’t something he likes to talk about much in connection with the film: “Ultimately I just want to make a great movie that honors its subject, and its subject is God. … It’s not the filmmaker, it’s the film.”

World also claims that there will be a PG version of this PG-13 film on the DVD.

Nowrasteh spoke to my friend Steven D. Greydanus at the National Catholic Register about how this film addresses the consciousness of the young Christ:

This whole issue of the human Jesus and the divine Jesus is a complicated one. I believe, and I’ve been told from the advisers and consultants that we talked to, that Jesus was always God. It seems, though, even though he never ceased being God, in his human form or experience, he veiled his divinity in accordance with the Father’s will, to experience what it was like.

To be [human], he voluntarily put himself in the position of needing to assimilate knowledge as a man, or a boy, would. That’s what the theologians told me and why they felt this was orthodox and we were justified in going down this path.

I am not a biblical scholar or theologian and have never claimed to be, so I have to go on the basis of what they are telling me and what I can make work for this story — which I think is a beautiful one that honors God, that honors Jesus and, therefore, is worth telling, despite the risks.

He also addressed this issue with The Gospel Herald:

“Jesus is a child, a very curious and bright child who recognizes there is something different about him, and he wants to know what that is and why that is,” Nowrasteh told The Gospel Herald in an exclusive interview. “He sets about on a journey to find that out over the course of the movie. There’s no more important aspect than that going on at that time. Even in an everyday child’s life; that’s the age of the dawn of reason, that’s when the concept of mortality becomes engrained in a child, that he’s separate from his mother, that he’s going to die, that there are larger issues and questions out there. Who am I? Why am I? I think 7 was really a perfect age to explore.”

He talked to about finding a “fresh” take on the Jesus story:

After reading Anne Rice’s take, Nowrasteh found the “new” he was looking for. “I thought to do young Jesus, age 7, fully divine and fully human – but his human side coming to the full comprehension of who he is – I thought this was an extraordinary idea, [that] it could be a powerful and transformative movie. For many.”

For Nowrasteh, that power comes in what he described as “Jesus moments.” They are the “special moments where Jesus reaches out and embraces others,” Nowrasteh says, “when he’s extending a hand to others. Kindness. Forgiveness.” He says these scenes are “so critical” because “that’s what I think Christianity is all about. That, to me, was the key.”

He talked to The Christian Post about when Jesus started performing miracles:

CP: The first miracle recorded in the Bible is when Jesus turns water into wine but in “Young Messiah,” Jesus was performing miracles since a child. Is that what you believe happened in his young life?

Nowrasteh: He performs three miracles in our movie and it’s clear this is the first time he’s aware of it. It troubles him and propels our story forward. The water-into-wine miracle was “suggested” by Mary to Jesus hence she must have known or seen it in the past. That was our premise. But, Jesus turning water-into-wine is the first recorded miracle.

He talked to Brian Godawa about dealing with the novel’s apocryphal source material:

B: What unique issues did you face in adapting this book to a film?

C: She did a very challenging thing in the book. It was pretty gutsy. The entire book is written in the first person voice of Jesus. That was challenge number one. The other challenges were theological. Anne grew up Catholic. I didn’t know it at the time, that she used a lot of other sources. Some of them are apocryphal, and some of them are legends that come down about the childhood of Jesus in the vicinity of Alexandria going back 2000 years. The Coptic Christians still tell these stories about Jesus. She used everything and anything that she could find. And we felt, Betsy (wife and co-writer) and myself, that if we were going to write it, that we were going to have to reexamine those issues. We are not theologians or scholars. It was through multiple drafts, having friends and associates, theologians, people who we trusted, who came back with feedback. It took time for us to figure out how we could navigate those issues and still tell the story in a dramatic and compelling fashion.

He talked to the Christian Examiner about how he wrote Mary and Joseph:

CE: What kind of characteristics were you trying to write into the roles of Mary and Joseph, with as little as we know about Joseph in the Scriptures?

Nowrasteh: I have never been satisfied with the portrayal of Joseph in any movie that I’ve seen. He’s basically wallpaper in movies. The inherent problem is that Mary has been deified; they’ve been icons – a disappearing icon and a very prevalent icon. In this movie, we’ve got to go inside the Holy Family and watch them as parents. I wanted people to connect with them as a human being.

He talked to the Catholic News Service about how he cast the part of Mary:

However, there were providential moments in the process. During the auditions for Joseph, actor after actor appeared before a small group of people as well as the cameras, reciting lines read off-camera by a woman who read lines for Mary, Jesus’ mother. At the end of the day, when asked about casting Joseph, Nowrasteh said he answered, “I don’t know about Joseph, but I’d sure like to see Mary.” The woman who had read the lines, Sara Lazzaro, was ultimately cast as Mary.

He talked to Ricochet about audience response to his film’s depiction of Mary:

Cyrus Nowrasteh: Our film marketer, Paul Lauer, who repped Jesus films like Son of God, The Nativity, The Bible, and The Passion of the Christ, says that he’s never seen more cross-denominational positive responses to our portrayal of Mary. Why? Because in The Young Messiah she’s portrayed as a dear and loving and very human Mother to her very special child … your readers have to see the movie to really see what I’m talking about. Everyone’s skeptical until they see it.

And he talked to America magazine about his favorite scripture:

What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?

Well, I love Psalm 23, and of course it made its way into the movie! It’s a really interesting scene, when they’re walking up the crucifixion row, and they’re clearly alarmed by what they have to see and walk through. Mary can tell that the slave girl they rescued along the way is very upset because she’s already seen a lot of violence. So Mary just starts saying it as they walk and I think it’s really a nice moment in the movie.

Next, some video interviews.

Nowrasteh spoke to The 700 Club

… and to 700 Club Interactive:

He also spoke to CVC La Voz:

And he spoke to Raymond Arroyo, in an interview I first posted back in December:

Finally, Nowrasteh also gave a couple of podcast interviews to The Church Boys

… and Breitbart News:

Nowrasteh also spoke to Christian Cinema, HuffPost Entertainment, Madison and the Austin Movie Examiner, but the last three sites used very few actual quotes of his.

March 12 update: Nowrasteh wrote an essay for The Blaze on how he cast an actor as Satan — or ‘The Demon’, as the character is called in the film’s credits:

But our movie, “The Young Messiah,” is not a horror film. All we knew going in was we wanted him to be appealing, handsome, and blue-eyed to reflect the glory of the skies and seas. In other words, to be what he thought he was — the finest of all, a challenger to the divine, blinding in his charm.

When an actor named Rory Keenan auditioned, he nailed it. He is a former child actor who transitioned into adult roles, is a marathon runner and abstains from all vices that might impact that. He also happens to be a natural blond. That triggered a new take on what we had envisioned, so we exaggerated it. After all Lucifer derives in part from the Latin word ‘lux’ meaning light and II Corinthians says that Satan — or the demon, as we called him — masquerades as an angel of light. He was the most handsome and favored of all the angels. He was beautiful, impressive and blinding. . . .

In the script we had the demon transforming, showing the true ugliness beneath. With hair and make-up changes, his eyes blotted to black, his hair grew tinged with ashes, black veins popped on his face revealing the hideousness that is his true being whenever he was thwarted. Patience is not his forte. Delayed gratification isn’t in his wheelhouse.

In editing, all that came to seem excessive, redundant in a way, and frankly like a different kind of movie. Keeping him shrouded in an illusion of beauty felt truer, more powerful, and in the end, more terrifying. After all, hasn’t everyone alive met him some time or another without special effects, perhaps in the dark, or in despair, or out of the corner of your eye or in the rumble of a lie.

He spoke to Terry Mattingly about some of the changes he made to the story:

In the novel, Jesus — wrestling with his mysterious powers — brings clay pigeons to life. He also kills a boy, before reviving him. In the movie, Jesus joyfully resurrects a dead bird. Later, he is attacked by a bully who runs away and dies, after tripping on an apple Satan tosses into his path. Satan then tells the crowd that Jesus killed the boy. Later, Jesus brings the boy back to life.

“I’m not a theologian. I’m an instinctive writer and I’m telling a story,” said Betsy Nowrasteh. “Things had to feel right. … Clay birds seemed like magic, to me. Why wouldn’t Jesus reanimate something that had been alive? Why wouldn’t he perform miracles similar to what we see in the scriptures, later in his life?”

He spoke to Time magazine about dealing with controversy:

Director Cyrus Nowrasteh, who wrote the screen adaptation of The Young Messiah with his wife, Betsy, agrees that wading into the holy waters of the Jesus story was “fraught with peril.”

“But I’ve had other projects I’ve been condemned for,” he says, referring to The Stoning of Soraya M. (2008) and The Path to 9/11 (2006), both of which drew criticism for alleged misrepresentations of fact. “So I’m kind of used to that territory. Someone said to me that we were going ‘where angels fear to tread,’ but that, to me, was what was exciting about it. I felt if we do it right, people will recognize that and it will attract a lot of interest.” . . .

It’s not as if he isn’t playing to a tough crowd: At one screening, Nowrasteh says, a viewer took exception to a scene set in Jerusalem, in which a Roman confronts the young Jesus, who is being sought by King Herod for execution; a fellow Jew covers for the child, claiming he’s mute. Jesus doesn’t say a thing.

“Someone got up and said, ‘You’ve got Jesus complicit in a lie,’” says Nowrasteh, “and someone else got up and said, ‘No, they’re foreshadowing that Jesus will always stand mute before his accusers.’ I thought that was great.

“There are a lot of good answers for some of the questions raised in the film,” he said. “And usually they’re provided by someone else in the audience.”

He talked to USA Today about the “diversity” issue:

Excluding minorities wasn’t the intention of writer/director Cyrus Nowrasteh, an Iranian-American filmmaker whose approach was to cast the rest of Messiah around the boy playing Jesus. He and producer Chris Columbus put out casting calls in Israel, Jordan and Italy, and auditioned 2,000 kids from the United Kingdom, Greece, Pakistan and other countries.

“I was open to any ethnic or racial component,” Nowrasteh says. “We made our best effort to make as wide a search as possible. I wouldn’t say that was because of a worry about backlash — I would say a concern that we have to find an exceptional child and he may be somewhere else.”

He spoke to the Baptist Press about one possibly “sensual” scene:

“First, it’s not Salome. It’s not the same Herod,” Nowrasteh said of the brief but sensual moment. “As to why that scene is there, it has to do with the contrasts in the movie; the primary contrast being between the Holy family and how they conduct themselves, and Herod and how he conducts himself. Herod is very dark, very hedonistic. If you don’t show that contrast, for me it takes away the context. And as a dramatist, I want the audience to understand the reasons and the longing for a Savior.”

He spoke to Deseret News:

”What this whole movie came down to was presenting Jesus with some measure of educated or informed conjecture,” Cyrus Nowrasteh said. “This is imagining a year in the boyhood of Jesus — it’s fiction. But you want it to be a fiction that is informed, that is intelligent, that is thoughtful. And that is what we strove to do here.”

He spoke to

Did you see signs of God’s presence when you were filming the movie?

We had many many obstacles thrown before us in the making of this movie. We had a jump start in early 2013 when we were deep in preproduction and about to start shooting but we had to shut down [for financial reasons]. We had sets being built. Casting was being done and we had to shut down and three million dollars went down the drain. That’s a death knell for a movie. You’re done. The likelihood of getting the movie back up after something like that is slim and none but this one would not die.

It took a year and nine months for the movie to get back up and was so much better for it. So many things were better about the film as a result of that delay and so it was kind of a blessing in disguise.

During that period, was your faith in the film tested?

Sure. I went through some deep dark moments wondering ‘Okay. Am I the right person to make this film? Is my faith deep enough? Maybe God’s telling me something’ but it wouldn’t go away. The corpse was always breathing. One day, it got up, stood and started running and it was amazing.

And he spoke to Breitbart News, the Catholic News Agency and The Daily Caller.

March 13 update: Nowrasteh spoke to the Denton Record-Chronicle:

What is the one question that you wish someone would ask that hasn’t yet?

Ha! I have been asked a lot of questions, but I guess the one thing I hardly ever get asked is about the craft of filmmaking. Because of the nature of what my movies are about, I always get asked about the themes and ideas behind my films — and that is fine — but there is a point in which I feel like I am explaining my movie and I don’t feel I should be explaining my movie. I think the movie should speak for itself.

He also spoke to Carl Kozlowski at Lifezette.

March 16 update: Nowrasteh spoke to Fox411:

“It makes Jesus so much more relatable, watching his generosity, his compassion, his kindness, his love, his inquiry—it just makes him so accessible not only to children but to everyone, and if you are coming out of the theatre talking about Jesus I think that’s a good thing.”

He also issued a statement and gave an interview to WND saying he was pleased with the film’s A- CinemaScore. He said he expects the film to “play well into Easter.”

March 17 update: Nowrasteh spoke to Nell “Movie Mom” Minow at Beliefnet:

My favorite part of the film is His endless curiosity about the world, and, like all parents, the way Mary and Joseph have to try to figure out how to explain things to Him.

It’s a part of the story but it’s also part of the character. I mean I have to believe that young Jesus was a very bright, capable child and very curious and very interested in the world. So in a sense that was sort of a part of why the human side of Jesus was amongst us and dwelt among us because He is here to learn and experience what it is like to be human. And that takes with it a lot of curiosity and intelligence and thought.

March 20 update: Nowrasteh also did a podcast interview with Mike Gallagher.

March 23 update: Nowrasteh talked to the Catholic News Agency about Joseph:

“I think in other films that have been done over the years, he’s just kind of wallpaper, he’s just kind of hanging around and frankly, not distinctive at all,” Nowrasteh told CNA. “I thought to myself, ‘That could not be the case.’”

Even though Joseph has no recorded words in the Gospel, Nowrasteh sensed that he “must have been strong and morally upright” given the “really heavy responsibility” God gave him in raising the Son of God and being the husband to the Mother of God. . . .

“I was very motivated to make sure there was a very strong imprint of the Joseph character and his fatherly devotion to this child and his husbandly devotion to Mary and to protecting the family in chaotic times,” he said.

May 9 update: Nowrasteh also spoke to The Glazov Gang:

June 11 update: Nowrasteh spoke to Kate O’Hare for the upcoming DVD release:

Straying outside the Jesus of the Gospels always carries the risk of offending Christian audiences. Why did you think the risk was worth it here?

It’s always risky to attempt something extra-biblical. But it all depends on how you do it. Is it done with reverence and respect, with genuine thoughtfulness and scholarship? I wanted to remain faithful to the Bible and remain true to the character of Jesus revealed in the Bible. So as we considered how Jesus would react to a situation in His childhood, we looked at what the Bible tells us about how He reacted to similar situations as an adult. Our story shows a young Jesus behaving the same as the adult Jesus did.

He also did a second interview with the Austin Movie Examiner:

Cyrus Nowrasteh has told how the movie gives detailed authentic attention to the Jewish culture. He states, “Jewish families will recognize the rituals and traditions of the Jewish family in THE YOUNG MESSIAH, the importance of these rituals and traditions to the family dynamic. We also see the importance of Passover to this Jewish family.”

June 15 update: Nowrasteh spoke to the Christian Examiner a second time, too:

“I do believe that biblical fiction can have a positive impact because it sparks conversation and debate, and exploration,” Nowrasteh told the Christian Examiner. “What’s wrong with that?”

“I think it’s a good idea to take a look at fresh new stories about Jesus as long as they convey the character of Jesus consistent with as He’s revealed in the Bible,” Nowrasteh said. “And as long as the message is consistent. Alternately, I guess we could go on making the exact same movies that have already been made about Jesus — but I feel as long as one is reverent and respectful, that we should explore what we don’t know.”

August 31 update: Nowrasteh spoke to The Washington Times:

Q: I and others were particularly struck by the portrayal of Joseph.

Yes, the film attempts to take you inside the Holy Family … They are usually portrayed as icons and Joseph is usually given short shrift — he’s usually like wallpaper.

I always felt Joseph had to be strong — he was selected for a reason … and he had to be substantive: He had to be an ideal father in the human sense of the father. I wanted him to have those qualities — strength and sensitivity and relatability — and I am very happy with Vincent [Walsh’s portrayal].

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

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