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Director Cyrus Nowrasteh on Filming The Young Messiah

Cyrus Nowrasteh on the set of The Young Messiah movie
Movie Info
 

RATING:

PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements

GENRES:

Drama

RELEASE:

March 11, 2016

STARRING:

Adam Greaves-Neal, Sean Bean, Sara Lazzaro, Vincent Walsh, Jonathan Bailey, David Bradley, Rory Keenan

DIRECTOR:

Cyrus Nowrasteh

DISTRIBUTOR:

Focus Features

More on this movie at IMDb.com

Best-selling author Anne Rice's Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt has inspired a faith-filled Focus Features film. The Young Messiah, starring Sean Bean (Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings) and newcomer Adam Greaves-Neal (as seven-year-old Jesus), follows the holy family as they encounter serious danger and divine questions while traveling back to Nazareth from Egypt.

Filmmaker Cyrus Nowrasteh helmed this intriguing film and co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Betsy Giffen-Nowrasteh. On a press tour promoting the film, the Iranian-American believer explained how they turned Rice's fiction into an inspirational movie and how God saved the production – even in the face of enormous debt. Here are excerpts from CBN.com's exclusive interview:

How would you describe The Young Messiah?

Cyrus: This is a family story. It's a family movie. It's for families to watch. It takes you inside that Holy Family like no movie has ever done. That brings with it inherent risks. We knew we were taking chances here, but somebody's got to take the leap. It's how you do it that matters; and I like to think we approached it properly.

How did you approach making a movie about Jesus' childhood?

Cyrus: In this movie, to tell the story, you have to go inside that family and you have to see the challenges before these parents of this very special child. They're His earthly parents. First of all, it's incredible, for their keeping a secret, knowing your child has this incredible destiny, but not knowing the details, not knowing, 'OK, how do we get there?' Then, [Mary and Joseph] also wanting Him to be a regular child, to have a normal childhood while also knowing that He is the Son of God, their people's Messiah.

On top of that also is the responsibility of protecting him, knowing that there are threats and dangers out there. Then, it's just building this family construct that's believable, and showing the uncertainty and the fear of that world, and living in that uncertain world. I think parents can connect to that when they're watching the movie because we live in an uncertain world today. It's rich, just in terms of what you face in presenting the family as a family.

What happened when it was time to cast young Jesus?

Cyrus: I got a call from the casting director in London who said, 'We just saw a child come in here who made the hair stand up on the back of our necks.' So I flew to London to see the kid, met Adam, put him through a thoroughly exhausting audition process, met his parents, which is a very important part of it all… tried to find out what kind of family is this? What kind of child is this? Are they religious? What I found is that they were indeed a very faith-driven family, and Adam was very talented and was far and away better than any child we had seen.

I wanted him pretty much from the get-go. Once people saw his auditions, all of which we recorded, there was pretty much a universal agreement that he was it. It was a combination of factors, but the most important one is can he act, the next most important is his look. That can always be controversial because we really don't know what Jesus actually looked like, but I had thought brown hair, brown eyes. He's part Jewish on his mother's side of the family. It worked for me. That combined with his performance. This child has a real charisma.

Were there any other hair-raising times?

Cyrus: We shot the scene where he comes out of the cave at night. He's leaving his family because he wants to go to Jerusalem. He knows that they are fearful of the Romans and want to turn back. He goes out and he walks out. It's kind of windy out; and he drops to his knees and he prays for guidance on his journey. Then, he runs off into the night. [Adam] did it so beautifully and so powerfully in an affecting way. I almost felt like, 'oh my, there's just something else at work here.' That's when I felt that he really is going to be great in this role. There was something very magical about that night. I don't know how else to describe it.

What made you the most nervous about approaching this story?

Cyrus: How Christians would react, because you just never know. We were exploring sort of un-trod territory and people might take offense at that. But, we did it carefully and thoughtfully. One person said to me, 'you navigated a mind field.' And that may be true. But, we've gotten good reception, a wonderful collection of endorsements from all different denominations. So we're actually surprised at what little resistance we've gotten, and pleased.

When you were writing the script, was there a scene that especially spoke to you?

Cyrus: That beautiful scene in [Anne Rice's] book where Mary and young Jesus are seated in an olive grove together. She basically tells him a story about an angel, and you can take it from there. [Producer] Chris Columbus told me it was one of the five most beautiful scenes he's ever seen in a movie. Women, mothers especially, really respond to that scene. It was an amazing experience shooting it, frankly, to see how Sara Lazzaro, who plays Mary, the way she just drew this child into this story. It was literally happening onset with our young actor. Anyway, that's the scene that sort of confirmed it all for me.

How did you come across such a find in Sara Lazzaro for the role of Mary?

She's a remarkable Mary. She's gotten great response to her performance, which I'm really glad of, because she was working in a shoe store. She's from Italy, but she's come to L.A. She was trying to get around L.A., navigate the audition process and get noticed. And, of course, she ends up getting cast out of Rome. I had originally seen her in Rome, but she was working in a shoe store in L.A. when I called and told her she got the part. She hung up on me. She was overwhelmed.

We see a lot more of Joseph in The Young Messiah, compared with other Jesus films. How was it exploring his side of the story?

Cyrus: A lot of the biblical movies that we've seen, and I saw them all in my preparation for this movie, one of the characters who I think gets the most short shrift is Joseph. He's usually wallpaper. My feeling is he had to have been strong and sensitive at the same time because the task before him and the reason why he was chosen. We have to speak to his strength and to his presence, and to his integrity. So I wanted a strong Joseph. We found a wonderful actor, Vincent Walsh out of Dublin, who came in and read. I just thought he had those qualities that we were going after.

There's also a darkness represented in the film. What was it like writing that part?

Cyrus: That was from the book. There's a demon character, who's tracking this boy who is wondering if this is the one. Then, he needs to track him and see if he can study him in one fashion or another. We expanded on the role of the Demon in the movie, and he's portrayed really wonderfully by an actor named Rory Keenan.

Rory came in and he was a very good-looking guy and blond-haired, light hair, light eyes, but he auditioned so well. It was in a room like this. He sat in the chair there. I'm sitting here and he's doing the part; and he's kind of freaking me out. So I thought, 'boy, this guy's really good. Let's just go with his look.'

Going with this good-looking guy, who is very seductive and interesting, and going with his look, it turned out to be a fairly bold choice that I'm very happy with.

How did you get Sean Bean on the project?

Cyrus: Sean was in our mind to play the Centurion when we were writing the script. I've always been a fan of his. He has a great presence onscreen. He's an internal actor. He doesn't do a lot, but he says a lot with his eyes, with his reactions. The best actors are always thinking. They're thinking in terms of the role they're playing and the camera reads it. I mean, the camera is really a divine instrument. It reads what's going on in people's heads and Sean is one of those actors that it does that with.

What reactions did you get from the cast as they began filming this faith-based movie?

Cyrus: Well, Sean went around Rome visiting all of the churches. You know, everyone in this family had their own faith, walk, journey. I didn't use that as a litmus test for them to work on the film. I just told them that I wanted them to think about it because it's pertinent to their performance and to what the movie's about. But they were all game, and you really don't have to pick and prod at them very much. Everyone was very serious about doing this movie and doing it right…. So it was really a privilege to have this cast and it was a very positive sort of set atmosphere.

Did you feel like the project was blessed?

Cyrus: Yeah I did, absolutely. Not a question. Initially, I didn't feel that way because we had to shut down. We started in 2013 to prepare in the film. We were building sets. We were in pre-production. We were casting. We were spending lots of money. Weeks into pre-production, we had to stop because the financing apparatus fell apart. Usually, that's death for a film. You're done. You don't have a chance. We were three million dollars in the hole, that really makes it hurt and because you're an independent production. But, for some reason the project would not die.

The first thing we did was Betsy and I took the script, took it apart, reimagined some things, rewrote the script, because that's where you can save money easiest. We realized we had to do the movie for half the budget we originally intended if we wanted to get it out after a shutdown like that. What happened was we ended up with a better script and a better movie for all of those obstacles and difficulties that we had. So we were blessed, no question about it.

What do you hope that this film brings to moviegoers?

Cyrus: I want people to be moved by the film, to be moved by this depiction of Jesus in a fashion like they've never seen. Showing Jesus as a child certainly helps children identify with Him. I think it increases their love for Him, and can draw them closer to Him.

They love seeing Jesus as a child and I think it helps them perhaps better understand what Jesus is about through the actions that they see this child take on screen. I guess ultimately, that's really what it's about, is to turn people's attention toward Jesus, to talk about Him, think about Him, what does He mean.

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