The Biblical epic, once a mainstay in the film industry of a bygone era, may be poised for a comeback. 2014 saw the release of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah as well as Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. While these large scale films were being developed to give Old Testament stories a cinematic facelift for a post-Lord of the Rings audience, AFFIRM Films—Sony Pictures’ faith-based production house—had been tinkering around with a project pitched loosely as a follow-up to Mel Gibson’s landmark 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. That film, set to be released on February 19th, is RISEN.
The film follows a hardened Roman centurion named Clavius, played by Joseph Fiennes, who is tasked by Pontius Pilate with tracking down the stolen body of Yeshua, the recently crucified “Nazarene” whose followers claim has risen from the dead. Taking a page from such classics as The Robe, the film abstains from following a straightforward Resurrection narrative that might remain focused on Christ and the disciples, instead opting to frame the story from the perspective of a non-believing Roman.
Making a film that harkened back to the age of the religious epic is precisely what producer Micky Liddell had intended to do. “I grew up on The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur and all those incredible movies,” says Liddell. Trying to recapture films of those caliber is in fact one the reasons the producer embarked into Hollywood. “They’re why I wanted to move here. But when I got here, for some reason, I felt like there was a backlash and people were not making those movies at that kind of quality. So that was the goal of it, was to try to emulate some of those great movies of the past that are loved and play every year and still hold up.”
Liddell’s company LD Entertainment is helping to distribute the film alongside Columbia Pictures. The film’s production is nearly ten years in the making, as the script ran through some overhauls as development unfolded. The team vetted the story with everyone from priests to academics to try and whittle it down to the most authentic representation of time, place, and characterization. “There have been, over ten years, so many drafts it would take over ten minutes to name all the people we had shown them to,” says Pete Shilaimon, another producer on the film. “It was really important to get as many people’s feedback before we started shooting this movie with this script.”
While approaching the story of Christ from the perspective of an outsider character has a firm precedent in classics such as Ben Hur and The Robe, taking a modern film in this direction could have the faith-based target audience cautious about “artistic license”. With films such as Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings taking liberties with the Old Testament to make their films more accessible to wider audiences, such a concern is not completely unfounded.
“There’s no proselytizing agenda, but we do want to present the creative vision of the writer, director and the producers,” says Rich Peluso, Senior Vice President at AFFIRM. “We wanted something that doesn’t seem preachy to non-religious, but we want to make sure we have enough content where it feels like a real story and part of their story, to the religious.” RISEN has already hit its mark with test audiences of both stripes, making a film that can wholly be described as a “Christian film” and yet remains enjoyable to secular viewers and non-believers.
“In a way, when we finally chose this path, to tell it from his point of view, I actually thought it was exciting,” reflects Micky Lidell, on the decision to place the Roman centurion at the center of the story. “That to me is the strength of this film. That we take you to a non-believer and watch him react to the crucifixion, the ascension—all the moments we all know about and have pictured in our mind a thousand times—but to see it through an actual character I think is really exciting.”
The strength of Clavius’ characterization and the angle with which RISEN approached the storyline was so intriguing it drew in actor Joseph Fiennes to the project. With faith-based films, even many of AFFIRM’s own projects, stars often come from within the Christian film community. RISEN brings on board not only Fiennes, known for starring in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love as well as 2001’s Enemy at the Gates, but also Tom Felton, best known as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films. Fiennes plays Clavius, the seasoned veteran, and Felton plays Lucius, the young, inexperienced subordinate, apprentice, and partner in the case to track down the body they believe has been stolen.
“Our characters deal in the industry of death,” says Fiennes of the two hardened Romans. “The thing about Clavius is he reeks of death, and then to put Yeshua to death and to see or witness the resurrection, there’s a certain second chance. I think that’s very compelling.” The role of the skeptic on the trail of the risen Christ is how he thinks the film plays as well as it does. “That was the big attraction of the part actually,” the forty-five year old actor says of the role. “It has been done in the past, think of The Robe `with Richard Burton,” says Fiennes. “I love that; I think for the modern audience that’s a wonderful way in—that lens, that point of view.”
“I thought it was very different and very brave,” says Tom Felton, of the film’s approach. “It’s an amazing story by itself, almost regardless of the subject,” says the young actor. “But the fact that it incorporates the stories that we all know so well, I think gives us a chance to explore a new perspective. Quite easy to say, yeah, this definitely something I would like to be a part of.”
New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis, who appeared in The Whale Rider and currently stars on AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead, reached out to the filmmakers about six weeks before shooting was to begin about playing Christ. “He had always wanted to play Yeshua,” says Pete Shilaimon. The actor took a vow of silence while off set and not shooting his scenes. Both he and his co-star Fiennes share a pivotal scene that the two actors took very seriously. “We didn’t have any communication,” says Fiennes of their relationship in the run up to shooting their scene. “That upped the stakes so that when we did finally meet and we did finally share eye contact, I mean, we had been out there two months—we saved it for the camera.”
• RISEN opens in theaters on February 19th. Official trailer:
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