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Talking With "Gospel of John" Executive Producer Sandy Pearl

  • Staff
  • Published Mar 29, 2004
Talking With "Gospel of John" Executive Producer Sandy Pearl

Sharing the commitment to produce an accurate version of "The Gospel of John" was Sandy Pearl, who credits the Advisory Committee of the film with bringing an unprecedented level of factual accuracy to the production. The decision to involve a committee in the process came about as a result of the need to ensure the film would be faithful to the text. Explains Pearl, “It would be pure hubris to think that we, in any way, shape or form, could have an understanding or enough of an education in this area to be mindful of everything involved. So there was a phenomenal committee put together of outstanding scholars from the different religious denominations.”

According to Pearl, their role in providing background and research for the film was vital. Not only were they able to consult on theological issues, they were a valuable source of information regarding the historical locations and sites which would have figured in the story. Notes Pearl, “Peter Richardson, the Chairman of the Advisory Committee has participated in archaeological excavations from this period in history. We had the good fortune to benefit from his slides and pictures of what the world was like at the time of Jesus.”

As the committee is comprised of theological scholars from numerous religious denominations, they were able to bring tremendous insight to the many elements contained in the Gospel. According to Pearl, their importance to the production cannot be overstated. “The Advisory Committee was brought on because a commitment was made to produce word for word films based on the Bible. It was through conversations and meetings with them that the decision was made to proceed with "The Gospel of John" as the first film in the Visual Bible series. The Committee was actually in place prior to our deciding which Gospel we were starting with.”

According to Pearl, the Advisory Committee was involved with virtually every aspect of the film including production design, costumes and issues relevant to the text. “Was the meal at the Last Supper a Passover meal? What did they serve, would there be women in the synagogue, and what was the role of women at that time? We would have these fascinating conversations and benefit from their years of study and research.”

Pearl believes that the addition of renowned screenwriter John Goldsmith to the production team was as key an element to the success of the film as the involvement of the Advisory Committee in the production process.

“Across the board there was this commitment to the purity of research and education connected to this environment. But we are still making a movie. We had to dramatically represent this story. It’s not interpretive, it’s literal. Key to all of this was the writer, John Goldsmith.”

Goldsmith, who was born in the United Kingdom, had a tremendous amount to contribute to the production as not only is he an accomplished screenwriter; but he is also a student of the Bible. “It wasn’t that we just hired a great writer, because there would have been way too much of a learning curve. I don’t know that we could have done it with a writer who viewed this as just another project. John was as sensitive as the members of the Advisory Committee as to what we were dealing with, and the kind of respect that was required to ensure the safety of the words. He was phenomenal in taking "The Gospel of John" and creating a screenplay for film. The Advisory Committee was actually awed by it – the way he did it, and his profound understanding of the Gospel. “

Pearl credits each member of the production team with bringing an exceptional level of expertise to the production process. “Don Taylor, our production designer did a magnificent job in picking locations, areas where there were remains of the past that could be enhanced so that they were truly representative of the time. Our costume designer, Debra Hanson, with her background in costume design from Stratford, was steeped in an understanding of how to approach a period piece. The research on all fronts of this project was tremendous and that’s what has given the film its richness.”

Casting the film was undertaken with great care, with auditions held in both Canada and the United Kingdom for seventy-five principal roles. The final tally of on-screen participants, including extras, numbers approximately 3000.

Explains Pearl, “I think casting is absolutely critical to the success of the film, because again it is a word for word, which means there is no opportunity for either the writer or the actors to omit a word, change a word, or for us to edit. We cast actors with strong theatrical backgrounds because they know how to deal with text. They are used to being ‘on the word’ every night and to be unwavering in terms of their performance and their delivery of the same lines over and over. This is especially true for the role of Jesus in the requirement and pressure for him to learn tremendous speeches.”

“I don’t know that there is an actor today or in recent times, who has had as large a role as Henry Ian Cusick playing Jesus. I can’t think of anything, any role that is larger than what he has just finished filming. It was critical to the whole production that we had to feel confident that the actors would know how to approach text and be able to learn it and deliver it without twenty-five or thirty takes.”

The film’s editor Michel Arcand concurs entirely. “I am amazed by the performance of the actors. They are so impressive. Mr. Cusick is going to be a star, that’s for sure. He was so focused. I was really impressed with the way every actor was really focused on his or her character. They were not even blinking … they were ‘there.’ It was so amazing,” notes Arcand.

Continues Pearl, “It’s an ensemble piece, and so in doing that, the challenge was how to create the 12 disciples. How do you make them all distinctive and unique, give them all personalities, and yet, have them band together? Again, because of the way that we cast, and because of hair, makeup and wardrobe, we really created twelve distinct individuals. I think it’s going to be interesting for audiences as this will be one of the first times the disciples really have become their own characters. You get to understand who a Nathanael was; who were John, Andrew and Philip. If you look at movies from the past where the disciples are portrayed, they are all interchangeable. They look the same, they sound the same; there is nothing about them that gives you a sense of them as individual young men.”

“We were very cognizant of trying to create a film that reflects these men; Jesus and the journey at the time it was unfolding. We have the benefit of history now to go back to and reflect upon. At the time, they were a bunch of young guys who really didn’t know what was going on except that they were drawn to this man, his teachings and what he was saying. They were, in some cases, uneducated, rough around the edges and willing to believe. They were fisherman, carpenters and laborers. We tried to make this a very human and natural performance. I think it’s key to the success and truism of this piece.”

Adds Pearl, “For Philip (Saville), the story is about the relationship between a father and son. It is also the story of a man and his group of followers who ultimately become his support and foundation. In casting this, we looked for guys who would come off as authentic and real people, not holier than thou. We wanted real, vulnerable guys who would be convincing in their bond with this man. After all, they agree to follow this person for up to three years.”

Pearl believes that the process of transferring this literal version of "The Gospel of John" onto film had an effect upon the production team and crew, as this was the re-telling of a story unlike any other, one that is imbued with incredible significance and whose messages still resonate today.

Observes Pearl, “I think people were invested in this because it is such a unique project. It is a movie, but there is something special about it. Regardless if you are a believer or not, if you take it purely as a story – and a great story – the words and lessons that one reaps from it, maybe it’s because of the times we are living in now, mean something. And that’s what you hear among many of the crew members. Day to day they listened to the words, they heard it and it resonated with them. It made them stop and think or feel like they are working on something of real consequence. It is a job, but it’s more than just another job. I think there is something profound about that.”

“The commitment of everyone involved didn’t lag. Spain was thrilling but grueling … very grueling and challenging. The good news was we had magnificent locations, but the logistics and weather was trying. In some ways, it was very primitive. Everybody rose to the occasion with no complaints. They did it, they delivered and the end result is going to be worth it, but it was not easy. We were tested right up to the last night of the shoot when it rained at 3:30 in the morning. Every step of the way we were tested.”

While the production was “tested,” Pearl believes that the end result has surpassed expectations and has more than justified the inherent challenges.