Interview: The Chosen writer-director Dallas Jenkins on harmonizing the gospels, finding the emotional impact of Jesus’ ministry, and how his series resembles The West Wing and Friday Night Lights

Interview: The Chosen writer-director Dallas Jenkins on harmonizing the gospels, finding the emotional impact of Jesus’ ministry, and how his series resembles The West Wing and Friday Night Lights March 8, 2020

Dallas Jenkins wasn’t necessarily planning to create the first multi-season series about Jesus when he produced a short film about the birth of Christ in 2017.

But working on the first episode (so to speak) in Jesus’ life gave Jenkins, an experienced filmmaker, a taste for more — and when the short film in question became a social-media sensation, he decided to see if he could raise enough money through crowd-funding to make an entire season about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

The result: he raised an unprecedented $10 million from over 16,000 investors, and so he was able to release the first eight-episode season of The Chosen last year: four episodes just before Easter, and another four episodes just before Christmas.

And, just as the show was created with the public’s help, so too it is now being distributed with the public’s help, through a “pay it forward” program that gives viewers the option of streaming the show for free (via an app) or, if they prefer, paying towards the costs of streaming so that other people from around the world can watch it for free.

I spoke to Jenkins about the series and its possible future just before New Year’s Eve. Various things prevented me from posting the interview earlier, but I hope to follow this up with posts on each episode, one at a time, between now and Easter.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

May as well start with The Chosen itself and how it got started. Was the original short film — the one about the Nativity — done with a series in mind, or was that initially a standalone thing?

Jenkins: Yeah, I did the original Christmas short solely as something for my church’s Christmas Eve service [said church being Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago]. That was all it was intended to be. I was coming off of a career disappointment. I had just done this feature film with some of the biggest producers in Hollywood, and the plan was to do multiple faith-based movies over the next ten years, and I was a director with a bright future and a great opportunity, and then the movie failed at the box office, and I suddenly didn’t have any options in my future. I just didn’t know where I was going to go, and I poured myself into this short film.

It was an idea that I’d had for about a year or so, and I had done several things like this for my church before, for Good Friday services or for Christmas services — short films, vignettes, typically stories of Christ but from different perspectives. And so we planned to do this for Christmas, and while I was doing it, I realized, Man, I feel like we were able to explore more back story and mine more depth in 20 minutes than in most portrayals of the Christmas story or the Jesus story that I’ve seen, and I went, Why has there never been a multi-season show about the life of Christ? So I had that idea, but that did not come before the short film, that came kind of as I was making the short film. But even at that point, I was thinking ahead. It wasn’t until VidAngel saw the short film and heard the idea that it really started to become something that was real.

The long and short of it is, this was just supposed to be something for my church, I did it on my friend’s farm in Illinois, and I didn’t have any idea at the time of what it was going to lead to.

That was in Illinois, but I believe the series itself is being shot in Texas, right?

Jenkins: Correct.

You said you wondered why there hadn’t been another multi-season series. There sort of was an attempt to get one off the ground a few years ago with A.D., but that was more of a book of Acts thing than a gospel thing, and in the end that one didn’t last more than one season anyway. It’s been almost 16 years since The Passion came out, but it’s also been about six or seven years since The Bible miniseries came out, which kind of renewed interest in biblical themes for a while. Do you find that those things have made it easier to do The Chosen, or have they stoked interest in that sort of thing, or are those things really factors any more? Has that trend come and gone? Is The Chosen in its own sort of — I don’t know how to phrase this — its own ecosystem, as it were?

Jenkins: No, I think that’s a great way to phrase it. I think that The Chosen is its own ecosystem because it’s so different from other projects. It is the first multi-season show about the life of Christ. I think that, even just when you’re watching episode one, right off the bat you know that it’s different. That doesn’t make it better or worse, I’m not making a judgment call, I’m just saying that right off the bat, you’re halfway through episode one and Jesus hasn’t even shown up yet, and it takes a bit of time to adjust to the fact that this is more like a normal show than it is a traditional Jesus project where you’re just taking the Bible verses and re-enacting them. So it’s a really good question that you’re asking, and I think it’s worth considering.

I think it actually matters more in the marketing. I think that when people see the trailer, they’re oftentimes conditioned to think, Okay, this is another Jesus show, or another Jesus project, and for some people that may turn them not off but maybe they’re just not interested because they’ve seen it before and they don’t need to see it again — but for other people, they just want to see as much Jesus stuff as possible. So I don’t know that it makes much of a difference whether it’s been done before or not, it’s just another opportunity to dig in.

Then there’s another group of people, who I think when they see the trailer or when they hear from friends or family that this is different and that it’s a multi-season show and that Jesus doesn’t speak in King James British dialect and that it doesn’t feel like a sanitized version of the story that they’ve seen before, they embrace the fact that it’s a little bit different.

It’s been fascinating to see. You’ve got the spectrum of people and how they approach Jesus projects. Some are excited about the fact that it feels different and new and fresh and was inspired by shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad and Friday Night Lights, and then you’ve got people who would be disappointed to hear that. It really comes down to people — when they watch it, the response has been pretty overwhelmingly positive, but getting them to watch it has had various degrees of difficulty, because it’s just different.

And I think also the fact that it’s not on a traditional network or a big streaming service, I think that also impacts it. I think in some cases that makes it more difficult and some people are not as interested, and then in some cases it makes it refreshing because people are becoming increasingly turned off by the Hollywood system.

You were talking about how you get halfway through the first episode and you haven’t even seen Jesus yet. There’s a couple different questions that I have around that. First of all, simpler question, I think you say in the intro to one of the episodes that you’re thinking of doing six or seven seasons, is that correct?

Jenkins: Yeah, six to eight seasons is pretty much our goal, yeah.

Six to eight, okay. On Twitter or Facebook I made some comment the other day, before I saw that, to the effect that I wondered how the show would be paced, because I talked about M*A*S*H, the TV show, and how the Korean War lasted three years but the TV show lasted four times as long —

Jenkins: Right.

— so traditionally, the traditional belief is that the ministry of Jesus lasted about three years, so I was wondering if you were going to do three seasons or if you were going to do a M*A*S*H kind of thing and stretch it out a bit, which would be fine, but I was just curious as to how that would be done. But the other thing is, I asked that question before I had seen the second half of season one, and the first half has a lot of set-up, and I remember when I was watching the first episodes, I wondered what the response to those episodes would be from the investors and the crowd-funding people, because I can imagine a lot of people would have said, “Hey, a TV show about Jesus! This is great!” and they maybe would have assumed that it would stick fairly close to the gospels, and then when they would have watched the first couple episodes and there are all these fictitious subplots about Peter trying to trick the Romans into doing things with fishermen and so forth, you know? And at a certain point some viewers might say, “Well when does the gospel kick in here,” you know?

Jenkins: Right, right. Well, all I can tell you is that, yes, episode one has been the most challenging for people who have expectations that this is a Jesus show. But the ending of episode one, for those people, has been kind of the redemption — no pun intended — where they go, Oh, okay, I get it, I see what you’re doing here.

And the ending of episode one has been so powerful for people. Typically, whenever you see people online ranking their favorite episode, episode one is usually in second or third place, behind episode seven, because of the ending. And because after episode two comes in, you realize that all the set-up is actually paying off, it’s actually leading you to be even more engaged and more moved when things happen. So I was actually concerned, like you said, will the investors be a little bit concerned when they watch episode one? Like, Hey, I thought this was the Jesus show? The ending has redeemed that in many ways.

But also, I do think that the pilot episode — the Christmas special, which is 99.9% the investors saw and got interested in investing — the first half of that episode is the same, it’s just set-up, so I think people do understand and I think they do trust that when they see a project by us, they know that it’s going to pay off somehow. And so I think they were willing to give us some patience. But all I can tell you is, our investors have been over the moon about it. I think episode one was challenging, but once they got to the end of episode one and once they got into future episodes, they were just over the moon about it. And the response that we’ve been getting has been even greater than we expected. And I think as each episode happens, they get even more and more excited.

And the second half is I think generally even more exciting [for viewers] than the first half, but I think the second half has increased people’s love for episode one, because of the time that we’re taking to set things up. I mean, if episode one didn’t exist, episode seven with Nicodemus and Matthew and those stories from the gospels, I don’t think would be as powerful. I think taking the time to develop their back-story and their struggles makes the payoff even sweeter.

But the second half of the season was released several months after the first half, so there was a bit of a risk there, right? What was the rationale behind releasing the season in two sections like that?

Jenkins: The rationale was we had the money to do the first four episodes (chuckle) and so we went ahead and did them, and then we ended up getting the money for the second half. So we didn’t have all the money for the entire season from last fall, but we decided that it would be best to just get going and get these four episodes done, and then hopefully they would generate even more passion — and they have!

When we released the first four episodes earlier this year, it was kind of around the idea of trying to generate word of mouth. We don’t have a ton of money on marketing. So it was slow going, it went slower than we anticipated, VidAngel had some issues in the court system that slowed things down as well, but the people who saw it became evangelists. I mean, the passion people have for these episodes has been truly extraordinary. And I think the fact [that episodes] five through eight increased their excitement has just been kind of a fortunate byproduct of it.

We don’t set out thinking, Let’s do the first four episodes and then the next four will be even better, and then the four after that will be even better. We’re not thinking in terms of better or worse, we’re just thinking in terms of telling the story as best we can.

And here’s the thing, Peter. From what I’ve read, you’re someone who watches TV and movies like most people. And I can’t think of too many shows, other than maybe Breaking Bad, for whom the pilot episode was as exciting for people as later episodes. Traditional television — some of the greatest shows ever, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, the shows that I love — the shows always get more engaging and emotional the more you get to know the characters. And episode one of every show suffers from the fact that you don’t know the characters yet, and the emotional impact just isn’t going to be there.

And not just the viewer, but very often the creators don’t know the characters yet either. They’re sort of finding their way as well.

Jenkins: Exactly! But I think any good movie, particularly any good show, takes the time to really develop the back stories, takes the time to really develop the characters, so that when the big moments come — the big water-cooler moments — they’re that much more impactful because you’ve experienced some of the pain of it. And so I remember in episode one, when we did test screenings just of episode one, we were getting feedback that was very positive, especially because of the ending, but they were saying, “Oh, I don’t like Peter very much,” or, “I don’t like Matthew very much.” But now when you hear people talk about it, they say Matthew is one of their favorite characters, and Matthew’s probably gotten the most passion of anybody. And it’s because we took the time to set up some of the pain and some of the negativity and some of the unlikability of him so that when he had an arc that the arc is that much more impactful because of it.

Right. I’m going to get back to questions about stuff like that, about the creative side of things. I’m also curious about the business side of things. You talked about having the money to do the first season. Do you have — not to put too fine a point on it — but do you have the money to do season two, or are you planning on doing more crowd-funding? Is the “paying it forward” thing also a way of raising money for season two? Where is that going to come from?

Jenkins: As of this moment, no, we do not have the money for season two. And as of this moment, we are not sure what combination of financial means we are going to utilize to finance season two. So we know that DVD sales are going to be a factor, and they have been already. We know that the “pay it forward” engine, long term, is going to be the most sustainable engine. Paying it forward absolutely is not only a way to allow people around the world to see it, but is also a way to finance future episodes and seasons. And yes, we anticipate that we will probably, in the spring, have to go back to the crowd again and generate some sort of investment opportunity to go into season two. What exactly that looks like, how much we will need at that point, we really don’t know. We really are taking it day by day, week by week, because there are times when the show has blown us away with the response and we’ve been surprised by some of the financial income, and then there’s been times when it hasn’t always been what we’ve expected. So we’ve just learned to take things as they come. And so, I will say that most likely in the spring we will be raising financing through the crowd again, but we already know that we won’t need to raise the entire amount thru crowd-funding, because we’ve already generated some income from DVD sales and the “pay it forward” plan.

Would the costs potentially be lower because you already have some of the sets built and things like that?

Jenkins: On one hand, yes, we have props and materials and whatnot. We’re probably not shooting in the same location this time, for season two, because as you’ve seen, season one ends with them leaving Capernaum. So we need to come up with new places. So we’re not sure exactly where we’re going to shoot season two.

We also know that shows get more expensive, the more you go. The cost of cast and crew doesn’t go down, it tends to go up, and we also — we were pretty pitched with season one. We want the show to grow. We want the show to increase in its production value and in its scope. So we do believe we’re going to need more for season two than we did for season one. But that depends on where we’re going to shoot, and we’re writing the stories right now, so we’ll see.

I know this doesn’t make for great answers, but it really is true: This whole project, from the beginning, has been like— We call it the manna program. The Israelites got manna every day and it was just enough for that day, and God told them, “I’m not going to give you any more than your daily manna, and if you try to store it up for the future, I’m going to make it rot.” He wanted them dependent on him every day, and that has been our experience on this show. That’s not a platitude, it’s a reality, and I wish it weren’t that way in some cases, because it would be easier for my wife and I to plan our future if we could have a more reliable source of income. But for both me personally and for my partners personally and for the show as a whole, we have only gotten exactly what we’ve needed and nothing more at each stage of the project.

It was interesting seeing the flashback to Jesus in Jerusalem, because there’s just that hint of the Temple above the rooftops there, but unless I missed something, you haven’t actually shot any scenes at the Temple yet—

Jenkins: Correct.

— but presumably when that day comes it will require some set-building beyond what you’ve done so far probably.

Jenkins: Oh for sure. Or there are some sets that have already been built around the world, that we could make use of. We’re just not sure. But at some point, some building is going to have to take place.

Around the world! I actually visited a movie set in Morocco several years ago. There was a Temple set there that we were visiting. Would you do that? Would you actually go outside the U.S., potentially?

Jenkins: Sure! We’d be open to that. We’re really open to anything. We’ve looked into Malta, which is where Sony Affirm shot the Paul movie [Paul, Apostle of Christ]. We’re open to anything. There’s a big set in Utah that we’ve been looking into that was originally built by the Mormon church, and we’ve considered that. But we’ll see. We really don’t know. We didn’t anticipate that season one would be shot on a small set in the middle of Texas either, so we’re open to surprises.

As I’m sure you know, people often talk about the synoptic gospels and John’s gospel and how they have somewhat different structures. If you read the synoptic gospels and nothing else, you would think that the whole ministry of Jesus might have lasted a few months, because he just goes to Jerusalem once at the end of the gospel, but in John’s gospel he goes to Jerusalem repeatedly — Jerusalem, Galilee, Jerusalem, Galilee — so there’s the question of how you approach the question of harmonization. Because it’s not just the structure of the gospels, the gospels also emphasize very different themes and very different subjects — so there’s the question of harmonization, how do you approach that, and do you see this as a show where, would Jesus be going back and forth repeatedly Jerusalem and Galilee or is it going to be a bit more linear than that?

Jenkins: Well, you’re raising the conundrum we’ve been in all along. The gospels don’t make for easy storytelling, if that’s the purpose that you’re trying to— The gospels weren’t written to be a TV show. They weren’t written to be a smooth narrative. The guy’s just telling you essentially the greatest hits of Jesus’s ministry for the purpose of impacting the reader, and convincing people that Jesus was the Son of God.

So there’s good news and bad news when it comes to analyzing the gospels and trying to make a great TV show. The bad news is they do hop all over the place, and we have tried to— When we are choosing which story to tell, or which order to tell it in, we tend to just go to whichever gospel book best serves our purpose. And so we’re not trying to change anything, but in terms of the order of the events, we pull from any of the four gospels. So we try to stick to chronological order where possible, but at the end of the day we’re trying to make a great show, and we don’t believe that the order of events or the location of events is quite as important as the people involved and the stories being told. And we say that right up front before episode one. We say, “Disclaimer: some locations have been combined and some chronologies have been combined for the sake of the show, but we’re not trying to change the actual intention of scripture, and we do encourage viewers to read the gospels.”

The good news is that the events of the gospels, and the people that the gospels talk about, are so rich and so much richer than I even have known — and I’ve been a believer my whole life, and I was a Bible major in college, I’ve studied the Bible my whole life — when you’re looking at it from the perspective of a TV show, I’m trying to tell a great story, it’s been so fun to see things that sometimes you forget that they were there. And when you study the people that were involved, you realize, man, Jesus put together a really cool group of people that make for great television. When you really think about it, in the gospels it mentions that Matthew is a tax collector and Jesus came by and said, “Follow me,” and Matthew left his tax booth and followed Jesus — that takes up about a verse or two. When you really think about the context of what that really meant, and what the other disciples must have been thinking, to see a tax collector join their group, there is so much to explore, which is why eight episodes of season one have come and gone and we’re only, what, two or three weeks into the story.

So there’s so much richness to be mined there, that’s the great news. But in terms of chronology and locations, it’s been admittedly a bit of a mine field to wade through.

I thought it was interesting how, like, the wedding at Cana for example, we all grow up knowing that that’s the first miracle, or at least the first “sign” as John’s gospel puts it, and I thought it was interesting how in your series the catching of the fish miracle happens before that, which arguably it would kind of have to if that’s how he called the disciples who were with him at the wedding — so in your script you make a point of distinguishing between a private miracle and a public sign, so that’s part of the harmonizing that you do in the series. How has it been, approaching those sorts of issues and trying to combine those elements, and do you see other things like that in the series that have either already happened or are coming up?

Jenkins: That was our biggest concern. I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised at how little controversy we’ve gotten from viewing the wedding in episode five and the miracle of the fish in episode four. We talked to our Bible consultants about it. John is the only one who mentions that, where he says this is the first of his signs and the disciples believed, and it’s just a very unique and interesting way that he put it. Did the disciples not believe the miracles before they followed him? We really looked a lot into it, and it just seemed to us that it was plausible that the miracle — that the wedding at Cana — we found it plausible that that could be referring to something public. It’s possible that he could have done other things before then that weren’t public, that weren’t quote-unquote a sign, that weren’t done for the purpose of illustrating his divinity.

So did the miracle of the fish happen before the wedding at Cana? Probably not. It probably didn’t. But we believed that what we said before episode one, and in our Bible round table discussion, we talked about it. We’re very open about it. We do these Bible round table discussions on our DVDs, and we’ve released clips of them on social media, where we say, “All right guys, what did we get right, what did we get wrong, what do you think of this,” and we talk about it. And our scholars say, “Yeah, it’s probable that the wedding at Cana was the first miracle that Jesus did, but the way you’ve done it doesn’t fall outside of the character of Christ, it’s not something controversial you’re doing, you’re not saying the Bible is wrong or anything like that.”

So I think there’s going to be other things that happen throughout the course of the show, where the order of events might not exactly match up with the book of John, for example. But we’re just up front about that. We’re just saying, “Listen, we’re doing our best to capture the intent and character of both the gospels and Christ, and where we change the order of events, we will tell you and talk about it, and we’re not going to hide anything, and hopefully you will find that the show is a very faithful honouring of scripture,” and what we’ve found so far is that people have been more excited about scripture than ever before after watching the show and that it points them back to scripture, and so I say up front—

In fact, Peter, you probably don’t know this because it just released this morning, but you might find it interesting, on Facebook and on our YouTube channel we have released a video where I basically give our show’s statement of faith, because we have received some criticism for the fact that, for example, we included a Catholic priest in our roundtable panel. We’ve received some criticism for the fact that not everyone on our show is a believer. We’ve received some criticism for the fact that there are people of all different faith traditions connected to the show. And we just wanted to get ahead of that and say, “All right, here’s where we stand on these issues, we have nothing to hide, here’s where I stand, I’m an evangelical, but yes we have other people involved in the show, here’s our approach to scripture, here’s how we look at things,” and we just kind of put it into one video.

We hope that that allows people to judge us fairly. But we understand that some people just don’t want to see a show that isn’t a verse-by-verse re-enactment of scripture.

Well, those movies already exist.

Jenkins: Right!

There’s the Genesis Project, the Visual Bible, the Lumo Project. We already have verse-by-verse adaptations of the gospels.

Jenkins: Yeah, and they’re all fine and good. So this is something a little different. I just know that people who’ve watched it, even including some extremely conservative Bible-believing evangelicals, have just described it as an overwhelming experience, that it’s beautiful, that it’s only enhanced their love of scripture. And I think that that’s because this show is made by someone, in myself, who not only wants to offer a fresh perspective on seeing Jesus but who also really loves the Bible, who really believes it’s God’s Word, and I have no desire to improve it, I don’t believe that’s possible, nor do I have a desire to change it. I’m just trying to make a really great show. And that also introduces or revives and enhances people’s love of Christ. Because I think there are things you can do in a multi-season show that you can’t do in a 90-minute movie, that you can’t do on the page.

One issue that often comes up in the Jesus-movie genre: In the early years filmmakers were very reluctant to get too close to Jesus directly, and I actually went through the 1960s film King of Kings once and timed it, the character Jesus is in less than half of that movie, the movie spends a lot of time on the supporting characters. I’ve often said that when you have a typical biopic, the main character is someone who actually has some sort of inner life, some sort of character arc, but movies about Jesus tend not to be Jesus biopics in that sense. Instead of being somebody we identify with, he’s somebody we’re supposed to look at, and so the emotional energy often gets put into the supporting cast around him. So watching your series, the first couple of episodes both sort of keep Jesus off-screen until the very end, and then the third episode brings him in as the central character teaching the children, and since then there’s been this interesting balancing act with Jesus as the main character but also he is someone that the other characters are looking at and responding to. How have you approached that balancing act, that juggling act, of making Jesus somebody who affects other characters but also perhaps treating him as a character in his own right?

Jenkins: Yeah, that’s a great question. I would argue though that what you’re describing in Jesus projects from the past is actually not a recent thing. I think that recently Jesus projects have been far more Jesus-centric. I mean, The Passion of the Christ is the most obvious example. But for the most part, in the last 20 years or so, maybe even a little bit longer, Jesus is the main character. I think back in King of Kings, Ben-Hur, some of those projects, Jesus was less the main character.

It is a balancing act. I don’t believe Jesus actually makes a great main character for a TV show, because he doesn’t have much of an arc. I was just reading an article about It’s a Wonderful Life and how Mary, George’s wife, doesn’t have much of an arc, she’s just devoted to George and to doing the right thing throughout the whole movie, which makes her a better supporting character than a main character.

There’s two reasons why it’s a little scary to make Jesus the main character. One, he doesn’t make for a great main character as I already said, for a TV show, but two, you really do start to enter into, I think, unnecessarily controversial areas when you start diving deep into Jesus’s motivations. And you do look at The Last Temptation of Christ, for example. That’s the kind of movie that generates a ton of controversy because Martin Scorsese or the book [that his film was based on] was exploring certain themes that we’re just not that interested in exploring.

I think the fact that it’s a multi-season show allows us to make Jesus one of the key characters but not the main character. We look at it as similar to The West Wing, where the president was the central figure but he wasn’t the main character. All of the characters kind of surrounded him, but Martin Sheen was always nominated for best supporting actor. He wasn’t the lead of the show. [Note: While Sheen’s performance in The West Wing was nominated for many different awards, some of them did specify that he was a “lead actor”.] And so I think Jesus is for sure the central focus and the central character of The Chosen, but he’s not the main character, and that allows us the opportunity to, when it comes to character arcs, we’ve got plenty of characters to work with. So we can keep Jesus as the sinless Son of God and still keep the show interesting.

I don’t think it would be a very interesting show if it was, like, eight seasons of just following Jesus, and then you also don’t get the emotional impact of the people that he does [the miracles for]. When he does a miracle, one of the problems that I find when I watch a lot of Jesus movies is there’s not much of an emotional impact, because you’re just going from miracle to miracle and you’re not really getting into the lives of the people that he’s impacting, and so there’s really not anyone that you can relate to. It’s hard to relate to the sinless Son of God. It’s far easier to really connect with some of the people around him, and I believe that if you can see Jesus through the eyes of those who actually met him, you could potentially be impacted in the same way.

For what it’s worth, back when The Passion came out I wrote an essay on that film and other Jesus movies, looking at how they balanced subjectivity and objectivity through camera techniques like point-of-view shots and so forth. The Passion, I think, does a very interesting balancing act between the two things, and I was reminded of that when watching the wedding at Cana episode in particular, because you have Mary talking to Jesus when he’s a boy and then again when he’s an adult, and at key moments in both conversations, you go to a point-of-view shot of Mary’s face, as seen from Jesus’s point of view, and that briefly puts us in his position, subjectively, you know what I mean?

Jenkins: Yeah.

Because everybody has a mother — most people have mothers — and having that moment where we see Jesus’s mother the way he sees his mother, and we connect with Jesus on a human level if I can put it that way, I thought that was really interesting.

Jenkins: Yeah, and you know, even that — I think those two shots have found as much — I don’t know if controversy is the right word because it’s been relatively small — but there are some people who are uncomfortable with that.

Really?

Jenkins: Because they felt like, Oh does she have some sort of power over him? They felt it was like this almost supernatural moment. And all we were trying to illustrate was, Jesus had a mom! And she was really, really scared when she couldn’t find him for three days, and she was trying to deal with this concept of raising the Son of God, and it was really difficult, and it was really scary.

Those two moments, though — the wedding at Cana and the time when she was missing him for three days — we wanted to connect them, because we thought they were both really illustrative of the simple fact that Jesus had a mom! And we find it fascinating that Jesus’s first public miracle was essentially him doing a favour for his friends because his mom asked him to. And that, to me, doesn’t diminish or reduce Jesus’s power or impact. It, in many ways, it makes it even more beautiful. I think the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is no more impactful because of its size than the fact that he did something similar for a small wedding. And I just found that so fascinating. And so we wanted to connect those two moments.

And, yeah, we’re probably not going to do that regularly, but we really felt like that was an opportunity to explore a facet of the scriptures that isn’t often explored. And that’s what this show is, ultimately. That really is what we’re trying to do with this show, is we’re taking these famous stories and illustrating something human about them that isn’t often explored. And we’re bringing it down to the small.

And when we get to the final or second-to-last season, of illustrating the crucifixion of Christ, people have said, “Oh, how are you going to treat that?” And we’ve just been saying, “All you can know is it’s going to be different from what you’ve seen before, and it’s probably going to focus on the emotional angle, not the physical angle. It’s not going to be torture porn or an opportunity just to—” Mel Gibson did it better than I could ever do it, and I’m not going to be able to capture the physical side of the crucifixion as well as Mel did, and so I’m not going to even try. But what I think I can do, and what I think we’ve been doing so far in this show, is find those small moments and character moments and make these big gospel moments even more relatable, more joyous and emotionally impactful, and then sometimes as in the case of the crucifixion maybe even more painful.

Also, referring to the character of Jesus, he has a lot of dialogue in the series that does plug into that relatability issue. Some of the idioms he uses, or the way he talks about how if we always have a question and answer session it’s going to get annoying, or the scene with the goat cheese for example.

Jenkins: The most popular one is when he says, “Not too shabby,” when he heals the leper.

Right! “Green is your colour,” I think, is what he says, right?

Jenkins: Yeah, he says, “Green is definitely your colour,” yeah.

Yeah, it’s very casual, if I can put it that way. And yet there are parts of the gospels which are also in your series — certainly when he’s speaking to the woman at the well — where he’s speaking of himself as the messiah and the divine one and this is typically handled in a very exalted sort of way. How do you combine that with these, I don’t know if earthier is the right word, but these more sort of down-to-earth moments, where he’s just sort of a guy that people can hang out with?

Jenkins: I think even in that woman at the well scene, there’s plenty of down-to-earth moments as well. We believe that scripture was written, again, to capture the most important things of Jesus’s life, and they were emphasizing that he was the messiah and the Son of God. But that doesn’t mean that he talked that way all the time. So we have the safety net of all of these well-known gospel stories that we do cover, that there’s going to be plenty of opportunities — and there already have been — to show his divinity. Even the fact that he does a miracle inherently shows his divinity.

So we’ve had a few people who weren’t comfortable with Jesus saying “Not too shabby.” He didn’t say that in the gospels, and that’s modern language, and that phrase didn’t exist back then. And we have two responses to that: Yes, the words “not too shabby” did not exist two thousand years ago. Actually, the word “the” didn’t even exist two thousand years ago, because English didn’t exist two thousand years ago. However, they did have phrases, they did have idioms, they did have phrases that were casual, they did have their versions of these phrases, and so we’re just doing a transliteration of the kinds of things that they would have said back then, just in the way that they would be said now. So that’s one way to look at it. Yes, the words “not too shabby” didn’t exist, but there was a version of the phrase “not too shabby” that did exist.

Number two is, when Jesus is performing a miracle, we’re covering the divinity part. That is clear as day. No one questions where The Chosen stands on Jesus’s divinity. We’re showing him do miracles, we’re showing him as the messiah and a prophet. But within those miracles he does, do we really believe that he stood there with a halo around his head and waved his hands magically? He was always very connected. He was always about relationships. Even the miracles that he chose to do were oftentimes about relationships. We just talked about that with the wedding at Cana. His first big miracle — his first public sign — was a favour for a friend.

So I’m not arguing that our way of doing things is the best way, and there may be people who are uncomfortable with it, they only want to see Jesus in an exalted, pious way, but all I can tell you is that the same thing that has made some people uncomfortable, like seeing him say “Not too shabby” or seeing him wink in episode two, when Barnaby teases him about being from Nazareth, seeing Jesus stretch out his aches and pains in episode three and cover up a wound and start a fire and all those human things— Some of those things that have made a small percentage of people uncomfortable are the exact things that have made most of our audience love the show more than anything they’ve seen before. It hasn’t diminished his divinity in any way, it’s only enhanced it. It has made people say, “Wow, the same Jesus who participated in the creation of the world made jokes, and got cuts on his arms just like we did.” So it’s just been fun from the beginning.

Our approach has been, we’re going to humanize these stories, and we’re going to live or die on allowing the audience to connect with the people. And again, that doesn’t mean we’re going to deny Jesus’s divinity or create some alternate universe where Jesus doesn’t do miracles and isn’t actually the Son of God. Jesus is the Son of God in our show, a hundred percent, but Jesus also told jokes and hung out with his friends and cared about what his mom had to say about what he did. And that’s our approach, sink or swim, and so far it seems to have been resonating.

You’ve talked about how you use, I don’t want to say modern language — some of it’s modern — the language provides perhaps a closer connection to the audience, but the actors are speaking a lot of this dialogue in a sort of foreign or period accent, which might create a bit of a distance from the audience. How was that decision arrived at?

Jenkins: We were trying to find a middle ground between pure authenticity, which would be having them speak in Aramaic or Hebrew, and the total modern-day, just they’re all speaking in casual modern English. We felt like there was a middle ground to be had, so we felt like giving them accents, Middle Eastern accents, could subconsciously kind of fit into the authentic approach of the show. There are so many British accented versions of the Jesus story. We just didn’t find that there was an accent, whether it was American or British or whatever, that didn’t feel like it maybe just hurt the authenticity a bit, and so we just felt like an accent was going to help that. It’s not perfect, it’s not on the far end of the authenticity spectrum. It was just a choice that we believed could help us find a middle ground. We’re going to have them speak in a relatable way, but we felt like if we did that and they spoke with just kind of American accents, it would be too far. It would be too modern, too inauthentic, and we just wanted to find a middle ground.

Well it seemed to me that the Jewish characters speak with the accent but the Roman characters felt like modern Americans, the way they spoke. And you mentioned the British acting thing. Traditionally, whether it’s Star Wars or Bible movies, it seems like the imperial forces always speak with British accents in movies–

Jenkins: Correct.

–and the underdogs always speak with American accents, whereas in your series the underdogs sound kind of foreign but the Romans sound like Americans. Was that intentional, or is that something that just sort of happened?

Jenkins: I think the Romans, the accent that we chose, even though it’s not very perceptible, is trans-Atlantic, which is a formal way of speaking, and so the Romans actually, they don’t speak casual American accent, it’s not like a Midwest accent. It’s very highly articulate. So it’s not British but it’s not, like, Midwest either. It’s just very articulate. And that was just solely because we wanted it to sound hyper-formal, because the Romans were all about formality and order, and we wanted to contrast that from the Jewish people. We didn’t want to do British because that’s been done many times, and there wasn’t any other accent that we really thought would make sense. So we just thought there’s this kind of down the middle trans-Atlantic accent that’s just formal. And so whenever you see the Romans in this show, they’re as clean and as pressed and as formal and as rigid as possible, just to show that that’s what they were trying to instill. They were always trying to be as rigid as possible. We thought that a straight down-the-middle dialect would be the best way to go.

I recently wrote an essay — it hasn’t been published yet — on obscure things in the gospels that sometimes do or don’t get translated into movies, and one of the major elements in that essay was the family of Jesus — not just Mary and Joseph, but the brothers and even sisters of Jesus. The brothers are mentioned in all four gospels, they’re mentioned in the book of Acts and the epistles, and I believe John 2 even says that they were at the wedding in Cana. Are you going to bring the brothers of Jesus into the picture at any point, I have to ask.

Jenkins: (chuckles) Yes, you have to ask. This is so funny, I was just thinking about this this morning. The following question is asked by both evangelicals and Catholics: Are you going to portray Jesus as having brothers?

Oh, they’re all over the New Testament.

Jenkins: But they ask it with extremely different tones of voice! The evangelicals ask, (upbeat voice) “So, are you going to show Jesus’s brothers?” And the Catholics ask, (sober voice) “So, are you going to portray Jesus as having brothers?” Because Catholics believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary, and that Jesus did not actually have brothers, and that when it mentions brothers, that that’s just a general term for relatives, and it doesn’t mean actual siblings. So I personally do not know yet if we are going to portray Jesus as having siblings. And that’s an honest answer. But I do know that, whether we do or don’t, it’s going to generate controversy.

For what it’s worth, I’m Eastern Orthodox myself, and we would sort of line up with the Catholics on that one, more than the other, but I mean, the brothers are mentioned all over the New Testament, so it’s only a question of what that word means, and traditionally, I think Catholics tend to lean towards “they were cousins” whereas in the Eastern Orthodox church the tradition tends to lean towards “they were Joseph’s children by a previous marriage,” so they were step-brothers and step-sisters, for whatever that’s worth.

Jenkins: Yeah, I honestly don’t know yet what we’re going to do. I genuinely don’t know. But I haven’t hidden the fact that I’m an evangelical, and as we showed in our pilot episode, Catholics were upset — some Catholics, not all, a minority actually — were upset that we showed Mary experiencing pain in childbirth. I do not personally believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary. But I also love my Catholic brothers and sisters, and I’m not interested in creating unnecessary controversy, but I do believe that Mary experienced pain in childbirth, I do believe that Mary was a sinful human like the rest of us, I believe it actually makes the story beautiful, that Jesus was born of a human being, not of a perfect person. And so I disagree with some of my Catholic friends on that issue.

Well, without wanting to wade into all that, whether you call them cousins or brothers or whatever, the fact is you have both Mark and John talk about how the brothers didn’t believe in Jesus — they thought he was crazy, they were sort of opposed to him during his ministry — and yet by the time of the book of Acts, the brothers are members of the church, they’re leaders in the church, so there’s an arc there that could be explored if one wanted to.

Jenkins: Yeah. That’s true! If they wanted to, they could certainly explore that arc!

And so few films have done it! So if you’re going to have seven or eight years of material to fill, y’know, maybe– maybe–

Jenkins: Well, there’s no question that it would make for fantastic drama. The story of Mary and Jesus’s brothers waiting outside and saying, “What the heck is going on here? You’re crazy!” and then telling him that and him saying, “Yeah, well, they’re not my brothers and mother, you are my brothers and mother,” It’s a fascinating, controversial moment in the gospels. And we are not shying away— We have not proven to be, nor will we be, afraid of those intense controversial moments, it just hasn’t come up yet. So we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

One of the other things I get into in my essay is the depiction of women in the Jesus movement, and how a lot of films tend to focus just on Mary Magdalene. There was a movie called Mary Magdalene last year — I don’t know if you’ve seen it — it kind of treats her as the only really significant female disciple, and of course Mary is there traveling with Jesus in your series, but Luke 8 in particular talks about the “many” women who traveled around with Jesus, like Joanna and Susan and a few others. Are we going to see more of that in future seasons, do you think?

Jenkins: Absolutely. In fact, episode five introduces Thomas and this other girl, Ramah, and he says, “Jesus wants us to meet him in Samaria.” So she’s going to become a regular character. Simon’s wife Eden, we spent more time on her than I believe I’ve ever seen in any Jesus project. She’s going to have a key role throughout the show. And we will absolutely introduce Joanna and the other Marys. So right now, when people say, “Why is Mary hanging with the disciples?” There’s only six disciples. And I’m like, “Yeah, there’s a lot more people coming.” At the end of season one, we’ve got only a little over half the group so far. So right off the bat, in season two, we’re going to start expanding the group, and that will absolutely include women.

I think season one indicates that we have a great love of, and respect for, women in the Jesus story, and we intend to explore that more than most projects have. The women on our show so far have been very strong, and it’s not just Mary Magdalene. Nicodemus’s wife, Simon’s wife, and Thomas’s potential love interest are strong characters with great faith that we want to showcase in a great way. And again, we want to do it in a way that’s also accurate. We’re not trying to make some sort of progressive statement where we’re going to rewrite history. We know that history has some challenging things to reveal about how women were treated at that time, so we’re not going to all of a sudden create a different world than would have existed. But we do believe that we can accurately portray women as something that Jesus utilized greatly in his ministry. There’s just wonderful, wonderful stories in the gospels that showcase the role that women played in his ministry.

I’m actually really glad that you do focus on Peter and his wife as much as you do. I can think offhand of only one film that’s shown his wife at all, and it was this early ’80s thing called Peter and Paul, with Anthony Hopkins playing Paul. I don’t know if you’ve seen that one.

Jenkins: I didn’t see it, but I do remember it.

There’s just one or two brief scenes where Peter talks to his wife at home. But even that is depicted during the events of Acts. It doesn’t really integrate her into the story of Jesus and his ministry. And there are one or two other films that acknowledge Peter’s mother-in-law, but they portray Peter himself as a widower, so his wife isn’t even in the picture!

Jenkins: Right, yeah. To me it misses out on a great opportunity, and that’s what people have loved so much about season one so far. Eden, Simon’s wife, has been one of their favorite characters, because when you think of what Simon was like — what Peter was like — and then you imagine what he must have been like as a husband, it’s so exciting and interesting. And what kind of woman would have put up with him.

But I remember when we were filming one of the scenes, I don’t remember if it was Peter and his wife or Nicodemus and his wife, but I remember thinking to myself, “I have never seen a marital argument portrayed in a Jesus project before.” And then I realized, “I’ve never seen a marriage portrayed in a Jesus project before!”

So I think people have really responded strongly to the scene when Simon comes back in episode five to tell his wife that he’s giving up his job for ministry, and people have responded so strongly to that because it’s something that hasn’t been explored much, but it’s very relevant. The scene when Jesus tells Eden what her role is in this, and that he sees her and he knows that she is making sacrifices too — we’ve heard from dozens of ministry wives who’ve thanked us through tears that we finally showed that aspect of ministry that isn’t easy, that wives oftentimes feel like they’re just supporting characters in this big story, and we really wanted to illustrate that women played a strong role in this.

Yeah, I did really like that, and also that you gave his wife brothers, which makes the family dynamic even bigger. But now, just to play devil’s advocate — because I have a tendency to do that — you show Jesus speaking to Peter’s wife, and doesn’t he have a line in there where he says something like, “You saw something in him before I did”?

Jenkins: No, Jesus doesn’t say “You saw something in him before I did,” I think he says, “You saw something in him before others did. You and I have something in common.”

That was interesting, and I really liked that, but — and somebody has probably asked you this already — how do you reconcile this with Jesus telling people, “Unless you hate your father and mother or unless you hate your wife even—” or, “Blessed are those who have left their wives and families to come with me.” How do you reconcile his sensitivity to Peter’s wife in the series with these passages where he seems to be a little more caustic, almost, about it?

Jenkins: Well, I just always saw those as metaphors. I don’t think he literally means the word “hate”. That would be such an obvious contradiction of scripture, to say you’re supposed to hate your parents, when all throughout scripture you’re talking about honouring your parents. So to me it’s just, I always interpreted that as an illustration, like, “I come first. God comes first, Jesus comes first, family needs to fall behind me when it comes to consideration, just in terms of what has your heart, where does your loyalty most lie.” And there are some people who put their loyalties into their family even at the expense of their relationship with God. And I think Jesus was speaking of, again, that. So I just don’t see anything that indicates that he truly meant you’re supposed to hate your family and reject them. I just think he was making an illustrative point.

But still a very harsh-sounding one, though.

Jenkins: It is, and I don’t know that I can reconcile his tone when he says those things. I can only imagine he was responding to people who were just unwilling to accept him as the messiah and follow him and give up their life accordingly, and I think he was saying, “No, you need to give up everything. And whatever it is that’s most important to you needs to take second place.” So in the case of the rich young ruler, he was saying you need to give up your money. And in the case of someone who was too family-focused — and that’s a possibility — he was saying, “No, you need to give that up too.” I don’t know that I can perfectly reconcile it.

Certainly one can point to his different approaches to different people. You mentioned the rich young ruler to whom he said give up all your money, but on the other hand he did have friends like Lazarus who was a wealthy guy from the look of it.

Jenkins: Yeah, and throughout the gospels and the book of Acts and other books, it talks about the importance of people who have means to be able to support the ministries. So not everyone was called to ministry. But it seemed like Jesus was always focused on the heart. Whatever it is that has your heart over me, that’s what you need to be willing to give up.

One more question: Do you have any favorite Jesus movies? Any that you like to watch? Any that might be key influences on what youre doing now? Maybe even films that are giving you pointers on what not to do in your series?

Jenkins: Yeah, I think that’s a good question. I think that I’ve been more influenced by what not to do than by what to do — not because they’re bad. I’ve grown up and I’ve seen most of the Jesus movies and miniseries, and I’ve enjoyed most of them. It’s more just influenced me in terms of saying, “What do I have to say that’s fresh, that’s an interesting perspective?” Because it’s been done so often, there’s really no need to do yet another Jesus project that’s going to do the same thing that everyone else has done. So my favorite is, for sure, The Passion of the Christ, because I felt artistically it was off the charts, but also, I think that there were moments in that movie that have inspired this show.

So for example, when you ask someone what are your top three favorite moments in The Passion of the Christ, invariably someone will point out the scene when Jesus is with his mother and he splashes water on her and he teases her, and I will tell people, “Yeah, this show is a collection of a bunch of those moments,” those human moments. That moment really resonated with me when I watched The Passion of the Christ, because it made the impact of the larger story even more emotional. So, yeah, I will admit that this show is much more inspired by shows like Friday Night Lights than it has been inspired by other Jesus projects.

— Season 1 of The Chosen is now available on DVD and for streaming via iOS and Android.


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