The Director of The Young Messiah Shares His Vision for Hollywood
- Jeffrey Huston Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2016 8 Mar
If anyone’s aware of just how leery Christian audiences are toward Hollywood’s biblical movies of late, it’s Cyrus Nowrasteh. He’s the writer/director of The Young Messiah, the latest studio attempt at a wide appeal faith-based movie that still plays to the choir. And not only is Nowrasteh conscious of this skepticism, he’s sympathetic to it.
As Christian audiences have enthusiastically cheered indies like God's Not Dead, War Room, and others, they've spurned – and even taken offense at – bigger budget fare such as Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings. The primary difference between the indies and blockbusters? Independent Christian filmmakers have affirmed mainstream Evangelical doctrines and beliefs but, by contrast, studios have taken enormous liberties with biblical narratives, characters, and texts.
Perhaps the biggest sin of all (even for Christians who don’t require their Bible adaptations to be so literal) is how studios have changed the very nature of these sacrosanct Bible stories, turning heroes like Noah, Moses, and the Almighty Himself into personalities that diverge wildly from how Scripture depicts and reveals them. In some respects, they're even polar opposites. Hollywood pitched those movies to churches, and churches ended up feeling burned.
Nowrasteh gets that – not merely as a filmmaker, but as a Christian. Born to Iranian parents, Nowrasteh (pronounced “No-RAS-tay”) describes his own faith journey by saying, "My origin is Muslim, I was raised secular, and I'm a Christian by choice." And as a filmmaker, he's no stranger to religion or controversy. Nowrasteh’s most notable works are The Stoning of Soraya M., about the unjust "honor killing" of a young Iranian woman, and ABC's The Path to 9/11 which was blasted by some for its pointed critiques of the Clinton administration.
Though resolute in defending his past films, Nowrasteh has been more sensitive to Christians' concerns for The Young Messiah and of how Focus Features – an independent arm of Universal Studios – might portray their Savior.
"A lot of people do come in with that skepticism, that questioning, and that fear," Nowrasteh acknowledges during our wide-ranging half-hour phone conversation. "We're touching upon very sacred ground." Given that The Young Messiah tells the story of Jesus at age 7 (based on Anne Rice’s 2006 novel Christ The Lord: Out Of Egypt), Nowrasteh appreciates how delving into a subject that isn’t revealed in Scripture could raise concerns even further. "We're telling a story about the lost years of Jesus – based on what? Fundamentally, it's fiction. That's really, really risky. So I understand why people are skeptical, and why many of them bring their theological checklists."
In telling a story that the Bible doesn't, Nowrasteh's guiding principle was to stay true to the nature of Christ. "We know Jesus as he was revealed in the Bible," he says, "therefore, what he does as a child in our movie has to be consistent with that. And we didn't want to have anything in the movie that would contradict anything in the Bible."
Describing the film as a faithful adaptation of Rice’s book – but with dramatized additions to create a narrative drive – Nowrasteh also noted that he couldn't speak to the veracity of Rice's theological research (though it's reported to have been extensive). Consequently, he felt that the film needed its own. As he put it, "The theology of the piece is different from the dramatic adaptation." So as Nowrasteh and his wife Betsy wrote the screenplay, he described their big focus as asking themselves, "Where is Anne's theology coming from? And is it going to withstand a screen treatment?"
It's a question that's acutely aware of how people perceive and respond to stories from different mediums. “You can write something in a book, or a screenplay,” Nowrasteh says, “but you can't anticipate the power of a motion picture, which is overwhelming sometimes, especially if it’s done right and done well. It can transcend anything you read.” And as they began to flesh out scenes from Rice’s novel, Nowrasteh says, “We were wondering if there were some things in Anne’s book that would be provocative in a way that we didn’t want them to be.”
Nowrasteh and his wife are both Christians but they're not theologians, so they sought professional input. “We asked for guidance,” Nowrasteh stresses. “We talked to consultants, advisors, theologians, pastors. We talked to a number of people; we didn’t rely on one or two. Ultimately,” he says, “you’re going for a consensus opinion. We tried to land where people agreed. Or,” Nowrasteh adds, “if there was an agreed trouble spot, it was our job to come up with another solution.” Nowrasteh also confirmed that “we stayed away from the Gnostic gospels," the non-canonical (and controversial) writings that chronicle passages about Jesus's youth.
Yet for all the due diligence Nowrasteh applied, risking a backlash against such a broad fictionalization of Christ’s childhood – no matter how theologically rigorous – raises a very important question: why even bother to begin with? “There’s only so many times you can keep telling the same Jesus story,” Nowrasteh laments, adding, “and you’re not going to do it much better than The Passion of The Christ.”
As a believer and a filmmaker, Nowrasteh was of two opposing minds. “I understand the need for that story, as a Christian,” he says, “but as a filmmaker I say to myself, “Where’s the freshness? Where’s something new?” After reading Anne Rice's take, Nowrasteh found the “new” he was looking for. “I thought to do young Jesus, age 7, fully divine and fully human – but his human side coming to the full comprehension of who he is – I thought this was an extraordinary idea, [that] it could be a powerful and transformative movie. For many.”
For Nowrasteh, that power comes in what he described as "Jesus moments." They are the "special moments where Jesus reaches out and embraces others," Nowrasteh says, "when he's extending a hand to others. Kindness. Forgiveness." He says these scenes are "so critical" because "that's what I think Christianity is all about. That, to me, was the key."
Perhaps the film’s biggest behind-the-scenes “Jesus moment” was also its greatest test. After pre-production was virtually complete and the shoot was ready to go, the film was halted and shutdown for nearly two years. Such a long break is generally the death knell of any production… and yet this one finally resurrected, complete with its lead child actor (Adam Greaves-Neal) having matured "not physically, thank God," Nowrasteh says with relief, "but he matured emotionally and intellectually." Nowrasteh added that there were also improvements to the script. That break, he says, "was the hand of God telling us that the right time was going to come for this movie. Be patient. In retrospect, that delay helped us make a better movie."
If Cyrus Nowrasteh has one request of Evangelical audiences, it’s a simple but sincere one: “Give us a chance.” Many already have. As he's seen Christians enter numerous pre-release screenings with their concerns and apprehensions, Nowrasteh says, "what I have also found is that Christians are fundamentally kind, and decent, and open." As they've watched, Nowrasteh discovered that "they start to feel embraced by – and themselves embracing – these characters. And this family. And this child. Embracing what’s going on. And that’s what movies are all about. Emotional connection, to the people on-screen and to what's happening with them."
"And," he adds, with an apparent smile in his voice, "the theological checklist goes out the window, because they're inside the movie. And you couldn't ask for better than that. So I ask those Christians who are skeptical: give this movie a chance. Give it a chance to embrace you, and for you to embrace it."
The Young Messiah opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, March 11, 2016.
Jeff Huston is a writer/director/editor for Steelehouse Productions, a film & video production company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also publishes a movie blog that can be found at hustonmovieblog.com, and is a member of the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle. In 2015, his short film Pink Shorts was a finalist in HBO's Project Greenlight competition, and was one of six winners in that show's online "Greenie Awards."