Three Years With Jesus, Filmed in Five

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We’re in the midst of Holy Week now, and moviegoers who want to see a Christian flick have plenty of options. The financial performance of I Can Only Imagine is wowing secular prognosticators. Paul, Apostle of Christ is a competent, moving depiction of one of Christendom’s most important figures. And God’s Not Dead 3 hits theaters this weekend.

But for those who like movies that stick as close to the Bible as possible, there’s another option: Or, rather, four. And they’re out on video right now. While most scholars believe that Jesus’ ministry on earth lasted about three years, bringing those Gospels to cinematic life took, according to their producer Hannah Leader, five.

Leader produced word-for-word cinematic renditions of all four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), all of which are now on video either individually or in a collection of all four—called, fittingly, The Gospel Collection. (You can buy them at Walmart, Amazon and other retailers.) It wasn’t easy. She said as much when I talked with her via email recently. To get the project moving even required her to plunk down her own cash.

“I financed the first stories (the Christmas story, for instance) myself; then when I had filmed that I was able to show financiers what I wanted to achieve and in that way [I] was able to raise the balance of the money,” Leader said. “Each film is different, but obviously we filmed each event depicted say in three or four Gospels at the same time—there are small differences that we made sure we covered—and then in the edit, reflected the different Gospel writer’s approach to telling that story.”

Those differences are critical, Leader  believes, to our overall understanding of both Christ and Christianity—and thus important to get right on film. Each emphasizes a different facet of Jesus’ character and story, with the four Gospel accounts blending eventually into a fairly seamless whole. But that meant paying great attention to the little details.

“When you have to film [all four Gospels], you have to take great care that you have covered all of the differences,” she said. “Easter was the most challenging: There are four complete accounts, and [they have] quiet, subtle differences as well as the bigger differences [such as] the order of events. We had a theology specialist on set at all times to make sure we didn’t go wrong and we did a lot of preparation.”

Leader’s goal was to make the movies as true to the original text and time as possible. That meant not just following each Gospel to the literal letter, but keeping an eye on the Gospel’s time frame, too. Some scenes needed to be filmed during the harvest in late fall. Others required filming in spring. And because all four Gospel movies would be made, essentially, at the same time, Leader needed to take particular care in finding just the right cast. Getting the right man to play Jesus was particularly critical, obviously. And while the role eventually fell to Selva Rasalingam, it took a while to cast him.

“To start with we thought we could cast Jesus in Morocco as we did with the other cast, but we couldn’t find an actor with the right screen presence,” Leader says. “It’s important that he ‘stands out’ on the screen and can carry the drama. So then we had a casting session in the United Kingdom, and as soon as we met Selva we knew we had found our Jesus.”

All four Gospels, if watched end-to-end, would make for 11 hours of viewing. And for Leader, creating them was truly a labor of love.

“I continue to pursue my ‘day job’ as a film lawyer and producer in the mainstream film business—this pays the bills—so I can pursue faith projects when they come along if it’s something I can be proud of and feel will move the faith forward,” Leader says. “Filming the Gospels has been enormously important to my personal faith—I learnt so much—and they became something very personal to me as a result.”

Her next faith-oriented project? She’s not quite sure, but she’d love to find the money to put the book of Acts on screen. “I think that would be fantastic!” she says.