I am seated near a bank of monitors in a maze-like casbah in Tamnougalt, a 400-year-old village in Morocco’s Draa River valley. Actors, crew members and locals mill about in cool, cramped hallways with rocky floors, clay walls and a tightly thatched ceiling that, now and then, releases a shower of dust that coats our hair and teeth. Flies and feral cats are omnipresent. And we’re all in the presence of Jesus.
Actually, it’s my first day visiting the sets of National Geographic Channel’s Killing Jesus, its most ambitious film project to date and the third of the network’s films culled from the controversial book series by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard and executive produced by Ridley Scott.
I’ve arrived just in time to see the Last Supper.
To mimic night, the crew has raised a blackout tarp over the courtyard, then lit the space with oil lamps. And because this depiction of Jesus’ life and death is historical rather than theological — presenting him as an eloquent everyman whose most supernatural power is the ability to unite thousands with a message of peace in a savage time — the pivotal meal will be depicted as it is likely to have happened, with Jesus and his disciples seated on the ground, enjoying a simple spread. The faces around the “campfire” — a mix of Israeli, Moroccan, English and Australian actors — are achingly soulful, none more so than Haaz Sleiman, the Lebanon-born actor who plays the man O’Reilly calls “the most famous human being who ever lived.”
“The movies that have been done about Jesus from King of Kings on have basically been from the point of view of Jesus,” explains the film’s Oscar-winning screenwriter, Walon Green. “This is a film that’s really placing a man in his times.” And examining how, almost 2,000 years after his death, 2.2 billion people worldwide (including 77 percent of the U.S. population) still follow his teachings.
O’Reilly and Dugard, both devout Roman Catholics, say they approached the book as investigative journalists, mining records and writings to piece together their “history” of a time and place where people were political pawns and few made it past age 35. And regardless of your religious proclivities (or your opinion of O’Reilly), there is much to be garnered here in terms of where we are as a world population.
After the Last Supper scene has wrapped, I sit down with Sleiman, whose face glows with purpose. “I personally believe in Jesus,” says the Los Angeles-based actor who, despite pushback from some in the Christian community over his Muslim upbringing, says he was “overwhelmed with joy and gratitude” to be given the role — for reasons that go far beyond his career. “I am not religious, but I am very spiritual so it’s kind of profound that I get to play him when I have been going through a certain stage in my life, trying to put my energy to applying his thoughts and ideas. That is what actually saved me out of the darkness I was in: To not judge others so you, too, not be judged. To love your enemy. All these beautiful, powerful ideas that, today, we still struggle with.”
He wasn’t alone in saying the shoot held more than just professional satisfactions. Over lunch in the casbah’s cafe, cast and crew mix with locals cradling infants used in the day’s heartrending “slaughter of the innocents” scene, and I learn that many of the actors took a three-day sojourn into the desert on the backs of camels. It was bonding for all, even sacred for some.
• FIND OUT MORE: Haaz Sleiman: “Killing Jesus” is “a celebration for us as humans“
We sat around the fire and sang songs; we laughed and broke bread together,” smiles Alexis Rodney, who plays Jesus’ closest friend, Simon Peter. “I complained at one point, ‘Where are the stars? I am really disappointed that they are very sparse tonight and it is such a clear sky.’ Then I fell asleep outside in the open and about 3am I felt what I thought was a torch shining on my face. I thought it was the Bedouins waking us up to continue the journey, so I opened my eyes and it was a constellation of stars so intense and so profound. I was very moved.”
The next day’s shoot takes place at the Kingdom of Heaven set built by Scott for his 2005 feature film of the same name, then absorbed by Ouarzazate’s sprawling Atlas Corporation Studios — aptly nicknamed Hollywood, Morocco.
Today we’ll be watching the culmination of a power struggle between Roman governor Pontius Pilate (True Blood’s Stephen Moyer), the high priest Caiaphas (an intense Rufus Sewell, whose eyes flash against his inky black robes), and Jerusalem’s reigning ruler Antipas (Eoin Macken, The Night Shift).
Antipas has assumed the title — and the wrath of the Jews — after the death of his father Herod the Great (Kelsey Grammer), who ordered the slaughter of all male babies in Bethlehem to prevent the rise of the rumored newborn Christ.
Moyer has arrived on set with just three hours of sleep after a numbing 20-hour journey. His exhaustion serves the pivotal scene. Having been volleyed back and forth between Pilate and Antipas, a battered Jesus stands before Pilate, who urges Caiaphas that scourging is punishment enough, knowing that he cannot rule without the support of the powerful priest. As the steely Caiaphas, Sewell bellows for the death of this one man to extinguish his dangerous revolution. At the monitors, everyone smiles.
Relaxing in his trailer, Moyer discusses Pilate’s dilemma. “When he first gets to Jerusalem, he puts the emperor’s face on banners, which is idolatry, so he is on a back foot from then on and needs the priests to be his conduit. One of the questions I think is interesting is when this type of story is being told, we don’t know about what else was going on at the time. The story is always about Jesus, but we don’t know how many other decisions Pilate was having to make, how many other councils he was taking, whether this was even important to him.”
• FIND OUT MORE: Stephen Moyer on playing Pontius Pilate in NGC’s Killing Jesus
Later, I join Sleiman in the makeup trailer where he is being covered in the horrific effects of the scourging scene he’ll film next, featuring a complex blend of expert stunt work and CGI effects. “It’s so inspiring to have somebody like Jesus do what he did, given the circumstances,” Sleiman muses. “The people as a collective in that time were so oppressed and there was so much fear and they
were so hungry for hope. It took a lot of courage for someone like him to go against the system — and especially to go against the temple. It became like a corporation … it became politics mixed with religion mixed with economics. Jesus was just simply trying to bring it all back to the truth.”
“Having been a history teacher trying to bring things back to life, give them some intrigue and current values, I thought Killing Jesus was an interesting idea — surround [Jesus’] story with the political energies of time,” adds Grammer. “It is horrific to realize what Herod did then and to see it in contemporary terms now — and the fact we are still going through stuff like that is extraordinary. It’s an important story to tell just on that level alone.”
Killing Jesus premieres March 29 at 8pm on NGC.
Unless noted, all photos: National Geographic Channels/Kent Eanes