We’re in the midst of Holy Week now, a time when Christians commemorate Jesus’ final mortal days on earth. From Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his crucifixion on Good Friday to his resurrection on Easter, the week encompasses both deep solemnity and great joy.
As Christians, we tend to engage with the Gospel—literally, the “good news”—and our faith more deeply during this sacred time of year. But none of us have probably engaged quite as deeply with all four Gospels, at any time, as has Hannah Leader.
Leader, a veteran film producer and lawyer, spent five years of her life helping to bring word-for-word renditions of the Gospels—all four of them—to video, courtesy Lionsgate Home Entertainment. Starring Selva Rasalingam as Jesus, they’re available individually through Walmart, Amazon and other retailers for $9.29 (though prices may vary), or you can buy the four-film collection for $22.99.
I had a chance to talk (via e-mail) to Hannah Leader about what it takes to bring the Gospels to cinematic life and how the work impacted her own faith.
Paul Asay: Hannah, it strikes me what a huge undertaking it is to film, word-for-word, all four Gospels. That translates to more than 11 hours of footage, collectively. Was it always your plan to do all four Gospels? And if so, why was that important to you?
Hannah Leader: Yes it was always my plan—the four Gospels are four different witnesses accounts of the same facts and they all have a valuable perspective. I would have felt it was incomplete if I hadn’t done all four, and of course it makes production sense to shoot all 4 versions of each event at the same time.
Asay: I’d imagine that you devoted a couple of years of your life to these movies. What are some of the unusual challenges of putting together a series like this? Were there aspects that made it easier? Were you able to simply migrate some scenes from one movie to another?
Leader: It took five years to complete all four films. We shot the films in blocks of two-to-four weeks at a time. Some of the events and parables are seasonal—we needed spring [for instance], and then harvest time. I financed the first stories (the Christmas story, for instance) myself; then when I had filmed that I was able to show financiers what I wanted to achieve and in that way [I] was able to raise the balance of the money. Each film is different, but obviously we filmed each event depicted say in three or four Gospels at the same time—there are small differences that we made sure we covered—and then in the edit, reflected the different Gospel writer’s approach to telling that story
Asay: One of the wonderful things to me about this project is that all four movies contain, I believe, essentially the same cast, bringing a sense of unity to the four movies. I thought Selva Rasalingam was especially good as Jesus. Can you expand on his work a bit?
Leader: Yes, the same cast appears in all four Gospels. To start with we thought we could cast Jesus in Morocco as we did with the other cast, but we couldn’t find an actor with the right screen presence. It’s important that he “stands out” on the screen and can carry the drama. So then we had a casting session in the United Kingdom, and as soon as we met Selva we knew we had found our Jesus. He is a busy UK actor—doing a lot of UK TV (and) often playing [a] “Middle East” [character] although he is in fact very British! [He’s] the son of a vicar, but his mother is Tamil in origin [a people who come from southern India and Sri Lanka], which explains his physical appearance.
Asay: When we read the Gospels, most of us are struck by both the similarities and the subtle differences that we find in them. You’ve had an opportunity to really immerse yourself in all four of the Gospels on a level few others have. What really strikes you about their similarities? Their differences?
Leader: You are right: When you have to film [all four Gospels] you have to take great care that you have covered all of the differences. Easter was the most challenging: There are four complete accounts, and [they have] quiet, subtle differences as well as the bigger differences [such as] the order of events. We had a theology specialist on set at all times to make sure we didn’t go wrong and we did a lot of preparation. The result of all of this study is that I have firmly adopted the Gospel of John as my favorite Gospel.
Asay: You’ve been involved in lots of faith-based productions, and I’m assuming that you’re a woman of faith. How do these films impact your own personal beliefs? Does it enrich them? Or do you have to guard against cynicism, because it’s become so much of a business?
Leader: I continue to pursue my ‘day job’ as a film lawyer and producer in the mainstream film business—this pays the bills—so I can pursue faith projects when they come along if it’s something I can be proud of and feel will move the faith forward. Filming the Gospels has been enormously important to my personal faith—I learnt so much—and they became something very personal to me as a result.
Hopefully, one day, someone will give me the money needed to film the Acts of the Apostles. I think that would be fantastic!