Making of ‘The Young Messiah’: An interview with director Cyrus Nowrasteh
Cyrus Nowrasteh is an Iranian-American Presbyterian filmmaker known for movies like “The Stoning of Soraya M” (2008) and television productions like the ABC miniseries “The Path to 9/11” (2006). The Ayatollah of Iran banned “The Stoning of Soraya M,” which nevertheless won a number of international film awards.
Mr. Nowrasteh most recently directed “The Young Messiah,” a new film starring Sean Bean that opens in theaters on March 11. Based on Anne Rice’s 2005 novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt and co-produced by Chris Columbus, the movie imagines a year in the life of the young Jesus (age 7) as his family returns to Nazareth from Egyptian exile. Mr. Nowrasteh and his wife, Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, co-wrote the screenplay adapted from Rice’s book.
On March 2, I interviewed Mr. Nowrasteh by telephone about “The Young Messiah.” The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for style and length.
“The Young Messiah,” your new film opening in theaters on March 11, adapts Anne Rice’s novel on the life of Jesus at age 7 as his family returns from Egyptian exile. What inspired you to make this movie?
It’s a beautiful story. I read the book and thought it was about as fresh and original a take on the Jesus story as I’d ever read. For me, it’s all about the story, it’s all about the narrative—it’s all about a sense of wonder through the eyes of this very special child. The whole heritage of biblical movies had never touched upon Jesus as a child. And I thought: “If I do this right, it could be an extraordinary little film.”
Who is your audience?
Whoever shows up at the theater! Certainly, the faith-based audience is a huge component of this. We want Christians to go and we think they’ll want to go. But we also think this is a movie for a general audience—this is a movie for secular folks, for atheists, for Jews, for whoever is inspired. And I think we’ve got a lot of interest across the board. We’ve certainly got cross-denominational Christian endorsements from a lot of people we didn’t expect.
In addition to directing “The Young Messiah,” you and your wife co-wrote the screenplay. What do you hope people will take away from the film?
I hope they’ll respond to the film on its level—which means that they’ll enjoy it, that they’ll be entertained by it and that they’ll be moved by it. I don’t sit down and sort of list things I want people to take away from what I think I’m trying to say in a film. I’ve never done that in my entire career. For me, it’s all about the story: Is it a story that touches me? Is it a movie that I want to see? Is there an emotional connection for me? That’s all I want from a story.
I make a movie first and foremost for myself: I’m interested in the narrative. When I sit in a movie theater, there’s only one thing I’m interested in: What happens next? That’s why I go. So I feel that if people are entertained, that’s enough for me. If they’re moved, if they’re transformed, if they come out talking about Jesus and all of the above: great.
“Faith-based film” sometimes feels like a dirty word in Hollywood and among critics. What’s different about your movie?
Nobody’s ever done a movie about Jesus as a child. This is the greatest story never told. That’s what’s different about it and I think that’s a lot.
The boyhood of Jesus, often called his “hidden life,” is not even depicted in the canonical Scriptures outside of a couple brief episodes in the synoptic Gospels. Given that the Bible doesn’t say much about his childhood, what were your primary sources for this story?
It all started from the novel by Anne Rice. In the epilogue of one of the paperback editions, she goes into some detail about her sources. But I felt, in adapting this to film, that we needed to reexamine all of that stuff. I decided there may have been some things in the book which were theologically questionable or may have been met with some resistance. So we had advisors, we had theological consultants—experts, priests, pastors, friends—who read an early draft of the script and raised red flags wherever there were any. We sort of managed to navigate through that while still being able to tell the story I wanted to tell.
What reaction have you gotten from faith-based audiences so far?
There have been a lot of religious influencers and faith-based folks who have come to see this movie in the advance preview screenings we’ve done. One thing I’ve heard, over and over again, is: “Gee, I came in with a lot of skepticism, I really didn’t expect much, and I had some real concerns about this.” But every one of those people walked out and said: “Boy, I just loved it on the screen.” What I’m talking about here is a situation where people come into a movie theater with their theological checklist, their personal skepticism and their doubts, and what happens is they emotionally connect to the characters on screen—who embrace them back.
This emotional connection causes people to toss aside that theological checklist—that skepticism—and that’s the power of movies. When you go to a movie, it’s about an emotional connection. It’s that simple. All the intellectual stuff, all the orthodox stuff, all of those other things become less important if we actually are touched by people.
Speaking of connecting with characters emotionally, Jesus can be tricky to depict on film in a relatable way, and theologians have long debated how much he knew about his identity and when he knew it. What kind of character development does the young Jesus experience in your film?
When you talk to the theologians, it’s true you find they don’t always agree. They have differences. When did Jesus know what?
If there’s one thing I found consensus about, it’s that Jesus was always God. But in his human experience in some matters, he veiled his divinity in accordance with the Father’s will. He subjected himself to physical, intellectual, spiritual, social growth. The Son of God is voluntarily put in the position of assimilating knowledge as a human being, as he becomes like us.
I felt that gave us a lot of latitude. There’s a line in the movie where the boy says: “There were angels at the river. I couldn’t see them, but I know they were there. How do I know that?” This is clearly a child who knows something’s up, who knows there’s something different, and he’s seeking and searching to gain that wisdom.
What was the best part of working on this film for you?
It was working with the children, working with three great kids—very gifted kids—playing the parts of Jesus, James and Salome.
What was the most challenging part?
Part of the challenge was navigating the theological minefield! Another was in terms of just shooting and making the film. There’s a scene we shot of the Romans getting ambushed by some Jewish rebels that the boy witnesses and I had to shoot it in a day. We didn’t have a lot of time to shoot action stuff on this movie; we did not have a big budget or a long schedule. So the challenge was getting that scene done, in a reasonable amount of time, in one day. You’re dealing with horses, you’re dealing with action, you’re dealing with men on horseback and you’re dealing with a child in the middle of all this. So that was pretty hairy.
This kind of faith-based material may seem like a departure from some of your past work. What’s distinctive about your approach to it?
Like I said, I just respond to a story. I don’t sit and analyze why I do the things I do, why I choose this or that—I’d drive myself batty. The bottom line is that you either respond to a story or you don’t. You either connect with an idea, or person, or passion, or you don’t. And it’s hard to analyze and explain it.
But I think there’s a strong spiritual element to my work. I also did a movie called “The Day Reagan Was Shot,” and there was a very religious moment in that where one of the doctors is about to operate on the president to find the bullet but steps aside and prays before he does it. And it’s definitely in my miniseries that I did for ABC, “The Path to 9/11,” where I followed one of the reverends involved with the fire department. In that one I also dealt with the spiritual nature of the terrorists themselves—one character starts calling out comparisons between Islam and Christianity. So I actually think faith is in a lot of my work, but it’s not as if I’m consciously trying to add it or not. It either pops up as a part of the narrative or it doesn’t.
You’re a Presbyterian yourself. How would you describe your own religious faith?
It started long ago, probably longer than I know. I’m of Muslim origin, but I grew up in a secular family. Christianity started with my marriage and it’s grown deeper over time. I felt, when this project came along, that it seemed like a natural leap for me to wrap my arms around bringing the material to life.
Who have been your biggest role models in the Christian faith, either living or dead?
Obviously, Jesus is a role model for all of us, but I’ve met a number of terrific Christians in my life who have influenced me. My youngest son returned to Jesus at a difficult moment in his life. There are also some producers I’ve worked with in the past at critical moments in my career, like Steve McEveety and Jack Shepherd from “The Stoning of Soraya M.” They’re Christians who convert you by example, in terms of the way they deal with people and with you.
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.
The Catholic Church has sometimes had a difficult relationship with Hollywood. If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about moviemaking, what would it be?
I would say go see “The Young Messiah” and praise it! I think Pope Francis would see some value in this depiction. The experts tell me the Catholics will love this movie and the evangelicals will have problems with it. Well, they’re right about the Catholics but wrong about the evangelicals—we’ve had beautiful endorsements from Focus on the Family, Campus Crusade for Christ, Cal Thomas and Southern Baptist leaders.
What are your hopes for the future?
I’d really like to be able to continue to make the movies I want to make, movies that touch people and that reach out to an audience often neglected by Hollywood. I think I work very seriously, but fundamentally I want to do the stories I like and care about and want to see. My hope is others will see it the same way. What I see, going around with this film, is that there’s a real hunger out there for stories with a little bit “more.” It’s a real privilege to make the films I want to make.
Any final thoughts?
I recently spoke to a Catholic gathering that saw the movie and I let them know that the child who plays Jesus in the movie comes from a very faith-driven Catholic family. And I think that shows on screen. This boy’s performance is remarkable and I’m very proud of him. It’s a heavy burden on any child to play a savior, but he just stepped up with great focus and energy. He didn’t take himself and the project too seriously, which is good because if you think about it too hard you can sort of freeze up about who you’re playing and who’s going to be watching. I was just very impressed with how he handled it all.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.