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Talking With "Gospel of John" Director Philip Saville

  • Staff
  • Published Apr 12, 2004
Talking With "Gospel of John" Director Philip Saville

Veteran director Philip Saville attributes the challenge of bringing "The Gospel of John" to screen word for word as the key factor in his decision to participate in this unique project.

Notes Saville, “This attracted me for a very simple reason. I’ve done many things as a director, I’ve never done anything that is truly authentic about the Bible, so in a way it was a very personal, almost selfish experience. It is a very rare piece to do, it’s not like a thriller, or a simple love story, or a romantic piece. The interesting thing about it is that it is a well known story, it has a good message that ultimately being good is more powerful than being bad. That said, the notion that I would really like people to take away from seeing this film is re-establishing the belief in love for others.

In approaching "The Gospel of John" Saville said he wanted to be “as truthful as possible. I hope that my guidance leads to some form of truth in the experience on the screen.”

Of paramount importance to this film was the ability to bring the text to the screen in a precise word for word reenactment. Saville viewed this as less of a hindrance and more as an opportunity. “There is always a benefit to working on something that can’t move around – it doesn’t always become an obstacle – it often becomes something to admire. You see it differently. You say, well it can’t be changed, it can’t be modified but it is surprising how you can still re-interpret that sentence in many different ways through performance.”

John Goldsmith (screenwriter) and I met on many occasions and we would both admire and curse the fact that we couldn’t change a single word, not even a preposition. We couldn’t add words; we couldn’t cut anything, so this does become difficult. Many, many, many times I would throw up my hands in the air and say this is really too much, this is irksome, particularly when you had a wonderful performance by an actor who said ‘and’ instead of ‘then’ or ‘but’ instead of ‘the.” We kept our fingers crossed every time for the actors at least to say the words as they were scripted.

Saville says “I was very lucky to work with a wonderful creative team that not only understood the inherent challenges of this project, but embraced them. Every actor did the same. I was lucky to find some remarkable actors to play Jesus and all the disciples. They are all played by up-and-coming stars.”

Executive Producer Sandy Pearl concurs. “We had nearly 1000 tremendous Canadian and British actors audition for this.”

In casting the role of Jesus, Saville comments “I wanted someone who passed as Jewish. By that I don’t mean any demarcations of figurative appearance, but someone who was able to appreciate the Jewishness of a person born in that time. I think we found someone who had the fervor, who had the drama, who had the charisma certainly, who could carry off someone who was divine, elegant, who could bestride the world not like a colossus, but by a gentle giant-like person in a compact, everyday appearance. We found this astonishing young actor who was at Royal Shakespeare Company called Henry Ian Cusick whom even if I was to cast somebody world famous, I wouldn’t exchange.”

Saville also acknowledges that research was critical to executing a faithful version of an ancient period, citing an intensive 15 week period of pre-production. When we came back to Toronto from Spain, we arrived on Sunday and by Thursday, we were shooting a major street scene in Jerusalem.”

“One of the things, that along with the production designer Don Taylor, we strive for is to give textures to the period in stone, the ground, the houses. You may think it is nothing special, but it is. You see a lot of period pieces that all look very shiny and new – we had to of course, build a massive amount, yet one of the things that we found when we were in the desert areas is that the old houses that existed today were the same shape as the houses that were there 2,000 years ago. They were single story dwellings with little windows.”

Click here to read an interview with executive producer Sandy Pearl.

Click here to read a review of "The Gospel of John."