Ages ago, there was nothing unusual about Hollywood producing epics based on Bible stories.
In the so-called Golden Age, these movies had titles like "King of Kings," "The Ten Commandments," "The Robe," "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and "Barabbas." At least one -- "Ben-Hur" -- was a character-driven classic that helped shape blockbusters for decades to come.
"I have watched them all. … No one called them 'Bible movies' back then or considered them strange. They were big movies about big stories and the big studios knew that lots of people wanted to see them," said Cyrus Nowrasteh. He is the director and co-writer, with his wife, Betsy, of "The Young Messiah" from Focus Features, which hits theaters this weekend.
"These movies went away for a long time … Then there was 'The Passion.' "
Nowrasteh was, of course, talking about "The Passion of the Christ" -- Mel Gibson's 2004 blockbuster that rang up $611,899,420 at the global box office. Hollywood's principalities and powers have been trying, ever since, to find the magic formula that will reach that same audience.
That's a challenge. Just ask the creators of "Noah" and "Exodus: Gods and Men."
There are complex questions filmmakers must face before putting biblical characters on screen, stressed Nowrasteh, who is best known as director of another controversial movie about religion, "The Stoning of Soraya M." That brutal 2008 film focused on a journalist's story about an innocent Iranian woman who was stoned to death after false charges of adultery.
Before producing a Bible movie -- big or small -- "you have to ask if you know how to handle this material," he said. "Do you know how to handle all the questions about history and theology? Do you know how to promote it? Do you know how to do the ground game to reach this audience? Do you know how to tell a story that works on its own, but doesn't offend this audience and send people running for the exits?"
The goal, in "The Young Messiah," was to imagine the life of the 7-year-old Jesus of Nazareth after his family's departure from Egypt, where it was living in exile after King Herod's slaughter of male infants after reports of the birth of a Jewish messiah. The story concludes with the young Jesus visiting the Jerusalem temple at the Passover.
The problem, of course, was that there is no universally accepted narrative about other events in the boyhood of Jesus or how he came to understand his mission. "The Young Messiah" is based on "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt" by novelist Anne Rice, who worked with the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas and other sources.
Betsy Nowrasteh said Rice was very helpful during the writing of the screenplay, which made major additions and changes to scenes in the novel. The team behind the film also shared rough drafts with Protestant and Catholic historians, theologians and clergy.
The challenges began in the first few minutes of the action.
In the novel, Jesus -- wrestling with his mysterious powers -- brings clay pigeons to life. He also kills a boy, before reviving him. In the movie, Jesus joyfully resurrects a dead bird. Later, he is attacked by a bully who runs away and dies, after tripping on an apple Satan tosses into his path. Satan then tells the crowd that Jesus killed the boy. Later, Jesus brings the boy back to life.
"I'm not a theologian. I'm an instinctive writer and I'm telling a story," said Betsy Nowrasteh. "Things had to feel right. … Clay birds seemed like magic, to me. Why wouldn't Jesus reanimate something that had been alive? Why wouldn't he perform miracles similar to what we see in the scriptures, later in his life?"
The central mystery, she said, is how Jesus gradually begins to understand his calling. At one point, Joseph asks Mary: "How do we explain God to his own Son?"
This is tricky territory and "we all knew there were landmines" in the story, stressed Cyrus Nowrasteh.
"We were trying create a beautiful 'what-if' story," he said. "At the end we want people to be able to say, 'That's possible. That was an honest shot at what the childhood of Jesus Christ must have been like.' We want people to see that we treated this material with respect."