A Journey Of More Than Ten Years From Page To Screen
Risen is the powerful story of a non-believer’s journey into faith, with Joseph Fiennes delivering a heartfelt and impassioned performance as a powerful Roman military tribune who is tasked with solving the mystery of what happened to Jesus (referred to by the Hebrew name Yeshua in the film) in the weeks following the crucifixion, in order to disprove the rumours of a risen Messiah and prevent an uprising in Jerusalem.
The biblical account of Yeshua’s crucifixion and resurrection has been portrayed on the big screen many times, so when LD Entertainment approached Kevin Reynolds to make a movie about the world-changing events of 2,000 years ago, the writer-director was determined to bring a fresh approach to the story.
In contrast to previous versions, including Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent film The King of Kings, 1965 blockbuster The Greatest Story Ever Told and Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ, Reynolds imagined the narrative told though the skeptical eyes of a non-believer.
“We wanted to do something completely different from what had come before, so I came up with the idea that Risen would be told as a detective story,” he says.
Reynolds, who previously directed the blockbuster action film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and produced the Emmy-nominated miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, is no stranger to iconic sagas. “We wanted the film to feel big and epic, but seen from a single character’s perspective,” he explains.
The concept clicked with producer and LD founder Mickey Liddell, who cycled through numerous scripts and directors after launching the project eight years ago.
“I loved Kevin’s idea that our audience would be able to experience something ancient and sacred as if it were brand new,” Liddell says.
“Kevin’s approach gives you the opportunity to put yourself in the shoes of Clavius, this skeptical Roman soldier who’s really confused about all these crazy things that are going on in Judea. He’s not searching for Christ’s body to further his political or religious agenda; he’s just following orders.”
A Question of Faith
With its spectacular vistas, visceral action scenes, earthy characters and detective-mystery framework, Risen aims to resonate with faith-based movie-goers and non-believers alike. “For me, Risen stands out because it’s a quite conservative rendering of the Gospel that accepts the extraordinary word as written,” Fiennes says. “I love that this film embraces the mystery of Christ through an original lens.”
While remaining true to New Testament teaching, Risen incorporates a contemporary tone that also accommodates the sensibilities of skeptics.
“I’ve always wanted to tell a story like this where it really feels like a big Hollywood movie,” says producer Liddell. “Obviously we want the faith community to feel that they’re represented in the right way. But if you’re not a believer, all the action and great dramatic moments offer so many other reasons to be entertained by Risen.”
Reynolds deliberately designed his presentation of the Resurrection so that moviegoers could form their own conclusions about the events depicted on screen. “We don’t really want to tell anyone what they should believe,” says the director. “People can use this film as a vehicle to examine their own spirituality, or just enjoy the story purely from a cinematic standpoint.”
The Skeptical Detective
At the center of the film is Joseph Fiennes as Clavius. The versatile British actor, whose résumé ranges from Oscar Best Picture-winner Shakespeare in Love to hit TV miniseries “Hercules,” immediately appreciated Reynolds’ approach to New Testament storytelling. “When I read the script, I marvelled at the fact that I’d just digested a biblical story that came across as an extraordinary murder mystery,” says Fiennes.
“The script kept me turning the pages without me really knowing how it would end, because when you see it through this fresh set of eyes, Yeshua’s resurrection really is the mother of all murder mysteries.”
The prospect of portraying Clavius’ dramatic transformation over the course of three momentous days proved irresistible to Fiennes.
“When we first meet Clavius at the beginning of the film, he’s this rigorous, ambitious military man who’s spent 25 years serving the Roman army, so he’s really entrenched in one form of thinking,” the actor notes. “Then, through this series of adventures, Clavius arrives at a crossroad where he realizes there might be a life beyond everything he knew before, something outside of his previous conditioning. Having put this supposed Messiah out of his misery, Clavius comes face to face with Yeshua again at the end of the film when he’s resurrected, and that’s a big turning point.”
Fiennes spent time with a police detective to learn interrogation techniques. “My real way into Clavius came from sitting down with a detective and talking about what it’s like to question suspects,” Fiennes recalls. “Although this is a biblical story, I wanted to be pragmatic about what Clavius needs to do, because I really do see the piece as a noir detective story.”
The central mystery in Risen of course revolves around the miraculous comings and goings of Yeshua. He is portrayed by veteran actor Cliff Curtis, who had worked previously with Reynolds in the 1994 Easter Island picture Rapa Nui.
“When producer Patrick Aiello suggested Cliff, I immediately sparked to the idea because I know how intense and versatile he can be,” says the director. “Cliff comes from the Robert De Niro school of method acting, so part of his process in Risen was to not talk to anyone. By being silent on set, something built up inside Curtis that the Apostle characters really responded to and I think that comes across on screen.”
Curtis’ approach hewed perfectly with the character as written on the page. “One of the challenges with Yeshua is that he doesn’t have a lot of scripted dialogue,” observes Reynolds. “That’s why we needed someone who could manifest the presence of Yeshua without being able to do it verbally.”
Curtis, who descends from the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, considered the role the challenge of a lifetime. “Whether you believe he was the son of God or not, Yeshua was an extraordinary human being,” he says. “He changed the way humanity perceived life itself, so it’s been an incredible honor to be portray him. I could only approach the role with gratitude and humility.”
To make sure their scenes together crackled with tension, Curtis and Fiennes avoided eye contact during the four-month-long shoot except when cameras rolled.
“We didn’t spend any time together and I think that served to make our meeting on screen more energized and palpable,” Fiennes recalls. “We were often in the same room but never engaged, and somehow that made it more exciting when we did finally have full contact on screen, verbally and emotionally.”
From Aspiring Wizard to Ambitious Roman Officer
The role of Clavius’ aide-de-camp, Lucius, was a significant departure for actor Tom Felton, known to moviegoers worldwide as Harry Potter’s platinum-blond classroom nemesis Draco Malfoy.
Reynolds auditioned numerous young actors for the role of Lucius but sensed early on that Felton would be the right man for the job. “Tom was a wonderful surprise for me,” he says. “We read a lot of people for the character and at the time he didn’t even have a name—we just called him ‘The Aide.’ When Tom came on board, he made the character much more than he was on the page. He’s got that ephemeral ‘it’ thing that real stars have, which really makes Lucius stand out.”
Felton was immediately intrigued by the script’s novel approach to a familiar narrative. “It encompasses this Biblical story I grew up learning in Sunday school through the agnostic eyes of a Roman soldier,” he says. “It was interesting to get this perspective about what it might have really been like to be in Judea while these great events were happening.”
The British actor also responded to the story arc of his character, a privileged neophyte with a lot to prove.
“I see Lucius as a green soldier fresh off the boat from Rome,” Felton explains. “His father is a friend of Pontius Pilate, so he’s been able to elbow his way into a good position instead of working his way up the ranks like most soldiers have to.”
But what Lucius lacks in experience, he makes up for in ambition. He’s determined to learn everything he can from his boss so he can move up the ranks. “After watching Clavius during the interrogation scenes, he goes from being basically clueless to honing his craft as a soldier and becoming a detective in his own right.”
The on-screen relationship between the young officer and his mentor in some ways paralleled the dynamic between Felton and Fiennes on the set, according to Felton. “Joe’s ferociously intelligent. He has a silver tongue and a great grasp of the English language, but he’s also very approachable. In scenes where I didn’t have a lot of dialogue, he helped me find moments where we could build interactions together.”
Felton also got help inhabiting the character of an ancient Roman military aide from the film’s spectacular shooting locations. “A lot of the sets we went to were actually old Roman sites and ancient tombs,” says the actor. “Putting on those fantastic costumes and doing scenes in those wonderful locations made shooting Risen a very immersive experience.”
A Brotherhood of Apostles
In writing and casting the Apostles, Reynolds felt it was essential to give each disciple a distinct, accessible personality.
“I wanted to create Apostles you could relate to as people who had their own quirks, some of them even showing a real sense of humor,” he says. “For me, it was important to make the Apostles feel like real people and not remote icons.”
In dramatizing the Apostles’ subsequent journey from Jerusalem to the Sea of Galilee, actors including Mario Tardón, who plays Andrew, were aided by the physicality of the roles. “I’d put on the wig and then they put mud all over my body, all over my hands and feet,” he recalls. “Shooting in these amazing desert and beach locations made sense for the character in that you could really get grounded.”
For Fiennes, interacting with the actors who played Yeshua’s disciples provided welcome respite from his character’s military environment. “The Apostles were joyous beyond belief,” he says. “As Clavius, I spent so much time within the barracks and under the pressure of Rome that it was like a great cleansing whenever I got to do scenes with the Apostles. It was a pretty phenomenal experience to go into this completely different realm, both as a character and with those guys as actors.”
Joining the Apostles as part of Yeshua’s inner circle is the former prostitute Mary Magdalene, as portrayed by María Botto. The Spanish actress fondly remembers bonding with her castmates during a series of informal Sunday gatherings organized by actor Cliff Curtis. “Some of us read poetry, others sang,” she says. “Cliff really turned us into a group with those meetings. The actors playing the Apostles were each so unique, every day they brought a lot of energy and love to the set.”
The bond between Mary Magdalene and Yeshua was evident to Botto from the minute she immersed herself in the Risen screenplay crafted by Reynolds and co-writer Paul Aiello. “When I read the script, I was struck by the love between Mary Magdalene and Yeshua and how they fight to bring that love to the world,” she says. “That’s the element I loved most about this story.”
A Return to Malta
Risen was filmed in Spain and Malta, an island nation gifted with eerily beautiful landscapes and ancient catacombs, which previously served as a key shooting location for Reynolds’ 2002 swashbuckler The Count of Monte Cristo. While Malta’s gorgeous scenery offered as spectacular backdrop, the heat proved to be a formidable obstacle, especially in August, when the filmmakers shot the crucifixion scene over the course of four extremely humid, 90-degree days.
“People were sweating,” recalls Liddell. “It was hot. It was dirty. There was no hair and makeup or anything like that.”
Reynolds insisted on capturing Risen’s action scenes “in camera,” rather than relying on digital visual effects. “We didn’t use a lot of CGI because we wanted to get across the feeling that these events actually happened, explains Liddell. “Cliff Curtis really is up there on the cross, hanging up there for days and days and days. And then we went into catacombs that actually were used during this ancient period. We want the audience to go into this historical period and ask themselves, ‘If I were an ambitious Roman soldier, would I follow this very small group when logically speaking it doesn’t really make a lot of sense? Could I really be changed in that way?’”
To make the battle scenes as authentic as possible, Fiennes studied gladiatorial fighting with top Italian stunt artists. “I was fascinated to learn how intricately the Roman army machine worked,” says the actor. “Their fighting style was economical, brilliantly orchestrated and lethal. They fought shoulder to shoulder, shield to shield. There was a surgical aspect to it, which was very fitting in terms of Clavius’ sharpness of mind.”