British director David Batty was busy on a project several years ago when he received a phone call from a producer, Hannah Leader, who had an ambitious request.
“I want to make a film about the Bible,’” she told him.
“Which parts?” he asked.
“All of it,” she responded.
As the story goes, Leader had been hunting for video material for her Sunday School class but was coming up empty. So, she recruited Batty, who already was working on a project for Britain’s Channel 4 called Christianity: A History.
Fortunately for Batty, Leader didn’t mean all the Bible – just the four Gospels.
Still, it was a bold project with quite a few caveats. Leader wanted the movies to be feature films with a documentary aura, giving the viewers the sense of walking with Christ. She also wanted the Gospel text – every single word of it – to be the script. This meant there would be no ad libbing and no tweaking the biblical dialogue.
It would be a series of films about the Gospels, unedited and unabridged.
The Gospel of Mark (123 minutes, Lionsgate) was released earlier this year, following 2015’s The Gospel of John (161 minutes).
All four Gospel movies were filmed, simultaneously, in Morocco.
With the script settled, the challenge for Batty became: What is the visual setting?
“In the Bible, there are no stage directions, so you have to sort of surmise where Jesus is,” Batty told the Christian News Journal. “It might tell you where He is at the end; It might tell you where He is at the beginning. But there’s nothing in the middle.”
The book of Mark, though, is very different.
“Mark is the sort of superhero Gospel. It’s Jesus as action man,” Batty said. “It’s very fast paced. One thing happens after another. So in a way, our problem there was the opposite: How do you slow that pace down to allow people to take in what they’re hearing?”
Authenticity was important to Batty and Leader. That started with the actor who played Christ.
“Normally [in movies,] Jesus is cast blue eyed, and he’s a bit Aryan looking,” Batty said. “Historically, there’s no truth in that. That’s us imposing our cultural aspect on a historical figure.”
Jesus was born in the Middle East, Batty noted, and was Semitic.
“We were determined that the Jesus in our film was going to look – as far as we know – like what the real Jesus would have looked like,” Batty said.
Batty intentionally chose Morocco over Israel as the film location.
“Israel is a small crowded country full of modern stuff. You’d be fighting the modern world the entire time,” he said. “The wonderful thing about Morocco is that there are parts of Morocco where it really feels like what I’d imagine first-century Palestine was like.”
There are two versions of the film: one using the New International Version translation and the second using King James Version narration.
— Michael Foust
Foust has covered the film industry for more than a decade. Visit his website, MichaelFoust.com