The humanity of the characters, even in ancient times, makes Paul, Apostle Of Christ relevant to modern audiences.
Getting to the point of cameras rolling for a 30-day location shoot on the beautiful island of Malta for the thrilling new film Paul, Apostle Of Christ, was a years-long journey for writer-director Andrew Hyatt.
It began with a personal fascination with Paul, arguably the most important person outside of Jesus in the New Testament. It then grew into a desire to create a biblically authentic, cinematically compelling exploration of the last days of Paul’s life.
“Paul had always been on my mind as a fascinating figure,” Hyatt said. “When I think of God’s grace and mercy and who’s the one embodiment of that, it’s always Paul to me. Somebody who goes from basically the greatest persecutor of early Christians into the greatest evangelizer in all of church history.”
Paul, Apostle Of Christ is the story of two men. Luke (Jim Caviezel), as a friend and physician, risks his life when he ventures into the city of Rome to visit Paul (James Faulkner), who is held captive in Nero’s darkest, bleakest prison cell. But Nero is determined to rid Rome of Christians, and does not flinch from executing them in the grisliest ways possible. Before Paul’s death sentence can be enacted, Luke resolves to write another book, one that details the beginnings of “The Way” and the birth of what will come to be known as the church.
Bound in chains, Paul’s struggle is internal. He has survived so much—floggings, shipwreck, starvation, stoning, hunger and thirst, cold and exposure—yet as he waits for his appointment with death, he is haunted by the shadows of his past misdeeds. Alone in the dark, he wonders if he has been forgotten . . . and if he has the strength to finish well.
Two men struggle against a determined emperor and the frailties of the human spirit in order to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ and spread their message to the world.
Hyatt and Producer T.J. Berden had previously worked together on Full Of Grace, a film about Mary, mother of Christ.
In tackling the life of Paul as a film, they discovered why few had attempted it before.
“The reason why I think there haven’t been a lot of treatments of Paul’s life on film, is his life is so wild and expansive,” Berden said. “And it almost doesn’t seem possible that a person could live it all; it’s like he lived 100 lives in one life. So, to be able to find the narrative through-line that would connect it all was a challenge.”
Andrew Hyatt is the award-winning writer and director of Full Of Grace, The Last Light and The Frozen.
A graduate of Loyola Marymount University, he began his filmmaking career in a variety of executive and creative roles and has been involved in 17 produced feature films along with numerous short-form content and commercials. The Last Light won Best Thriller Feature at the 2013 Shriekfest Film Festival and was acquired and released by Gravitas Ventures in 2014. Andrew was instrumental in the development and production of The Stoning of Soraya M., winner of the People’s Choice Award at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival and winner of Best Feature at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival.
Andrew’s passion is in the creation of content that is deeply personal, seeking to tell stories that delve deeper into the drama of the human condition.
In fact, Hyatt began the script process writing a treatment of Paul’s life, like an essay describing how a film would portray him . . . it ran 150 pages.
Then, writing the script began with investigating the Bible.
“We always start with scripture first and foremost,” Hyatt said. “We try to create the world and build the pallet of characters that all has to be referenced against scripture. That’s the number one thing, and then we start to bring in historical documents, we start to bring in some traditions.”
Like detectives, they poured through biblical references to Paul’s life.
“It is fascinating because Acts, as people know, only goes up until his first imprisonment in Rome, and then it leaves it there,” Hyatt said. “What was actually very fun about this project was trying to piece together the rest of Paul’s life through his letters and being able to look at Second Timothy, which is written at the very end of his life.”
Through their investigations, Hyatt and Berden found details of Paul’s later life to add to the story. This resulted in Luke, the gospel author, becoming a pivotal character in the film.
“An example is why Luke is so prominent in the film,” Hyatt said. “In Second Timothy, when Paul is writing from the Mamertine Prison, it’s the very end of his life, there’s this tiny little bit right at the top of the letter that says, ‘Only Luke is here with me.’ OK, so Luke now is in the prison, and then you keep reading, and you say, wait, so this is what’s happening in Rome, this is what’s happening with Nero. So, it just starts to build this beautiful palette in this beautiful world that is scripturally accurate. You are filling in the details, but it’s all there.”
Then, with all the research, they consulted with experts ranging from pastors to scholars to ensure the world they created—both the Biblical characters and characters created to tell the story—presented an authentic picture of the early Church in Rome during the reign of Nero.
The script attracted the interest of Josh Nadler, Director of Development and Rich Peluso, Executive Vice President of AFFIRM Films, a Sony Pictures Entertainment company.
“I was fascinated—through the research that Andrew Hyatt, our writer-director, did and through additional materials that I read—by those final months of Paul’s life,” Peluso said. “And even more fascinated by the Roman emperor Nero’s fear of Christians and fear of Paul—this old, beaten, worn-down man who had left everything on the playing field for Jesus. To see this frail old man and think that the emperor of the largest kingdom in the world was fearful of this broken man shows the power of Christ through His followers, through His believers.”
The team invested another year in script work to find the right story to tell based on the reality of Paul’s life. And just as the story attracted Hyatt, Berden and Peluso, the script attracted actors.
“This script came along, and I looked at it and said, ‘OK, there’s something great here,’” recalled Jim Caviezel, who plays the physician and evangelist Luke. “Then my wife read it, and said, ‘You should do this.’”
Different aspects of the story of the early church connected with the Caviezel and other actors.
“When I looked at this screenplay, I was amazed that God chose a small group of people whose faith fueled the spread of Christianity,” Caviezel said. “When we watch this film, we see those people, like my character Luke, a doctor, a brilliant guy. But he will never have peace unless he does what he’s supposed to do, and nobody can talk him out of it. We don’t know how he’s going to help Paul, and he doesn’t even know.”
Joanne Whalley plays Priscilla, who along with her husband, Aquila (John Lynch), kept the Christian community in Rome together during those dark times and even continued to minister to the poor and the persecuted.
“It was very intriguing to me to see the weight given to Priscilla,” Whalley said. “And the respect given to Priscilla, and her opinions, and just how she was valued. And then I found the portrait of the marriage just so refreshing.”
Similarly, the script’s treatment of the character of Paul drew James Faulkner to the production.
“It’s the very, very difficult days of early Christianity, and this is Paul’s last few moments to convey the message of hope and love and forgiveness to the community,” Faulkner said. “And to convey that they must hold fast to the faith, no matter what dangers they face. It’s a marvelous opportunity for an actor to play a role like this, the character being so strong, his spirit indomitable.”
In the film, after years of hardship and dangerous evangelistic journeys, Paul’s spirit is severely tested as he is incarcerated in terrible circumstances in the infamous Mamertine Prison. The prison is under the command of the Prefect Mauritius Gallas, a celebrated military officer moved by Nero to this post he hates. Played by Olivier Martinez, the character worships the Roman gods and faces a crisis when neither Roman medicine nor religion can do anything to heal his dying daughter.
For Martinez, the humanity of the characters, even in ancient times, makes Paul, Apostle Of Christ relevant to modern audiences.
“Every story that is talking about human beings is a modern story,” he said. “It’s why Shakespeare is still relevant today and Molière. The great stories never die because they talk about human beings and humanity. And each time I do a movie, I try to talk about human beings as I feel them. So, each movie is a new experience, a new beginning. It’s a very interesting experience as an actor, and I love to do it. Hopefully, you will see that on the screen.”
In the production process, the question arose of where to bring to life on film Rome in the time of Nero and the Middle East during the same time. AFFIRM Films had recently produced a biblical drama, Risen, in Malta. It’s where the films Gladiator and Troy, among others, were filmed, and many of the sets from those productions remained.
In addition to sets, the island itself—its stone and ancient structures—helped Production Designer Dave Arrowsmith find the look he wanted.
“We particularly wanted to give this a different feel from all the other biblical films that we’ve seen,” he said. “What we wanted to do was evoke the period, especially in the time where we are in the first century, with Nero and the fire and everything, but to give it a slight twist. We’re very loyal and precise about period details, but we’re not making a documentary, we’re making a movie. We wanted to give it its own look based in the Roman period and also make it accessible for a modern audience.”
While the film moves throughout Paul’s life, it is focused on his final days. He’s in the Mamertine Prison in Rome awaiting execution. Paul and the fledgling Christian community are blamed for a devastating fire that Nero uses as a pretext to persecute them. Filmmakers walked a fine line in bringing the brutal reality of ancient Rome to life and keeping the film appropriate for a diverse audience.
“We wanted to make a film that parents can bring their fifth-,sixth-graders to, so that they can show them something of Paul’s story,” Hyatt said. “Yet, we don’t want to create such a clean environment that it loses the power of what these individuals actually lived through. I think what’s really important is that people leave the theater knowing how amazing it was that these early Christians kept their faith through this darkness all around them, and how violent and scary the world was. Still, they had such a strong faith that they were never scared off by it.”
John Lynch portrays Aquila, Priscilla’s husband, and he was moved by that faith of the early Church.
“They were facing obliteration. They were facing exile. They were facing many, many things, and they still welcomed people. They still accepted people,” he said. “They still loved people, and that is easier said than done.”
With a March 23, 2018, release, the creative team behind Paul, Apostle Of Christ hopes audiences find the story of Paul’s life compelling, theatrically entertaining and relevant to today.
“I want audiences to leave the movie theater with three specific things they carry with them,” Peluso said. “One is a fascination with this person Paul, how he persevered and how he loved in the midst of this persecution and these final months of his life knowing that he would never be free again, that he had given everything he had yet he still had this hope and this love for others.
“Secondly, I want them to walk away with a desire to read Acts, to really understand the full story of Paul and the other apostles. And thirdly, I want them to have a sense of the ancient world and how these people lived, our forefathers in the faith, how they lived under this time of persecution, how they lived with grace and how they responded to that, and then kind of understand how that is applicable to the time that we are in now.”
For Andrew Hyatt, he hopes the film draws audiences from a variety of faith perspectives, or with no faith at all.
“I hope those from churches are able to come see the film,” he said. “But truly I would love for this film to be appealing or at least to draw in those who are on the fence about their own faith. And especially I would love for this to be shown to people who truly feel like they can’t be forgiven, that God will never forgive them, that God’s grace isn’t big enough. This film shows that it is.”
For Caviezel, Paul, Apostle Of Christ shines a needed light on the import legacy of Luke’s life.
“Luke’s legacy is right there in the gospels, and because of what Luke did, we know more about who Paul is and what he was willing to risk,” he said. “Luke and Paul are heroes because they were willing to give their lives, really, and they don’t do it because of ego, it’s because of real love. Real love is the only thing you’re going to give your life for, and they were filled with it.”
Faulkner sees a similar wide appeal in the film.
“The film is universal. For people of faith, it’s an important affirmation and an interesting representation of the last days of Paul,” he said. “For those who are not Christian in their outlook, it might remind them of the finer emotions of the human spirit, and some people might, as a result, be compelled to live a better life.”