The Young Messiah: Interview with Director Cyrus Nowrasteh

Interview with Cyus Nowrasteh director of The Young Messiah, a film, based on the Anne Rice novel, Christ The Lord: Out of Egypt. The Young Messiah Opens March 11 and stars Adam Greaves-Neal as Jesus, Vincent Walsh as Joseph, and Sara Lazzaro as Mary.

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All Photos Courtesy of Focus Features

The Young Messiah imagines a year in the life Jesus during the missing years of his life where there is no Biblical narrative, the time between his birth and Luke’s Gospel account of him as a 12 year old child teaching in the Jerusalem Temple. During this period the Holy Family had been forced into exile in Egypt in order to protect Jesus from Herod the Great who sought his life to the extent that he had murdered innocent children in the hopes of killing this new King. After Joseph was told of Herod’s death in a dream, the family returned to their homeland. The Young Messiah is the account of that journey home.

cyrusI visited with Cyrus Nowrasteh at a hotel near the Dallas / Ft. Worth International Airport. Although it was just two days from the film’s premier, and the culmination of a five year effort, Mr. Nowrasteh was remarkably relaxed and generous with his time and attention. I have been aware of the project since 2014 when I was a part of a group of faith leaders and bloggers that Focus Features sent to visit the film’s set during the fall 2014 production in Rome Italy.

From other interviews, including one shot on the film’s set, I knew Cyrus’s journey with this story began when Anne Rice sent him a copy of her novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt following her viewing and writing a positive review of his 2009 film The Stoning of Soraya M. I was also aware that he had consulted with theologians and pastors as part of his pre-production research. I was interested however if he had studied other Jesus films. In the discussion that followed it was evident that his interest in Jesus and Biblical films had long predated his involvement in The Young Messiah.

KD As part of your preparation process did you look at the presentation of Jesus in other films?

CN I looked at other Jesus movies and Biblical movies certainly. You can come to my house and I will show you DVD’s that will fill up a shelf. I didn’t have a specific reason for watching them. I was waiting for something to jump out at me. A lot of them were movies I saw as a kid in the theater, The Greatest Story Ever told, The Bible and Ben Hur.  Of course I saw The Passion many times so I know it, and I love it, and Mel Gibson is a brilliant filmmaker. I studied The Passion for Soraya. One film that jumped out at me was Barabbas, the one with Anthony Quinn, which was better than I thought it would be. There were moments there that were very powerful. I also thought the whole eclipse scene, I don’t know if you remember it, there was a real eclipse, and apparently that they knew was going to happen and they shot it. It is stunning and I would have loved to see it on the big screen.  So there are some good ones out there, no doubt.

KD Are you happy with the way The Young Messiah is rolling out and the reception you are getting?

CN I am very happy with the reception we have gotten because we have gotten a lot of cross-denominational support which is very gratifying, considering we were expecting perhaps some resistance and push back. So that’s always nice.

KD In an earlier interview you described Jesus arriving at his understanding of himself as his “veiled divinity.”

CN That was from the conversations we had with theologians. I didn’t make that up, this is what they told me, that he veiled his divinity basically to walk amongst us, to experience life and the world as we do.  That, to me, justifies the foundation of the whole, fictional exercise, if you want to call it that… In order to do that, it’s all how you do it. Yes we were careful knowing there are some people you weren’t going to please. We haven’t run into those sort of naysayers as I thought we would honestly,… People were not put off as we ventured into this fictional territory.

KD I liked the way the story was described in the press information, that it was based on the person of Christ as presented through scripture.

CN Oh yes we did not want him doing anything that was contradicting his (Jesus) behavior in the Bible, or anything in the Bible, for that matter.  There is no way that, frankly, I can get up to speed, (scripturally and theologically) do the research myself and make the determinations myself. I really did need help. I do a lot of research on all my projects, and I don’t normally trust other people’s research because I never know when I am going through stuff when something is going to jump out at me as a scene or a character, or a visual. I kind of have eagle eyes for that. When I go through material and stuff pops out, it will only pop out to me. It won’t necessarily pop out to someone else because everything is interpreted. In this movie, I needed help (with the scriptural and theological components.)  What I tried to do with my research is research the time period, the history, the look, the feel, the textures, the colors, all that stuff.

KD Our set visit was my first time on a film, set so you wonder how things will fit together and what things will look like afterward on the screen.  After viewing the film, I think it is just gorgeous.  Another thing I really liked was it built momentum, of energy and story development, throughout the film until the last scenes when Mary explains to Jesus in voice-over and tells him that “your whole reason for coming was just to be.” It was a wonderful presentation of the incarnation.cyrus 9 - Copy

CN The film now ends with the boy giving a narration in his voice.  It’s the boy who says that. Now there is also a scene when Mary is telling him about the Angel, (who foretold his birth nature, and mission) and all about who he is, which I think is a terrific scene, and I am very proud of that one.

KD A lot of films, especially faith films, start out strong,  and even considering narrative arc,  they peter out, but this film built throughout to the very strong and poignant ending.

CN That’s a common thing in a lot of movies.  This one actually builds to a good third act.  I think second act is the toughest. Not only in other films, in my films, it’s the second act that’s the key. Billy Wilder used to always say the third act can’t work if it isn’t set up. I do think our final act is clicking.

KD Oh it’s great, again, theologically, that it really drives home the point of the incarnation, the point of Jesus just coming, something that is easily and often overlooked. Just the fact he came is a miracle in itself and is the event that that changed all history. In those last few scenes, you really put a strong bow, theologically as well as narratively, on the film.

CN Thank you.

cyrus 11KD I want to talk about the depiction and idea of Mary and Joseph, and the burden it was for them. I have a special needs daughter, and it dawned on me, while we were watching the filming, and it came out in the film, that they were raising a special needs child, or a gifted and talented child, who, until they grow into their gifts and talents, have special needs. For parents of special needs children there is no rule book, the normalcies that govern other parents don’t apply to you. You wake up each day wondering what will happen today, and what will we do. That really comes through in the film.

CN The wondering about when this (Jesus’s full nature) is going to start to reveal itself, which it does in our movie, at seven years old, is seen and shown in the way Mary reacts, she says “I just didn’t expect it so soon.” She says that early in the film to Joseph, I thought that was interesting because we say that all the time, when they (our children) graduate from high school, go off to college, all that stuff.

KD I was really hoping that sense would come through when we saw the filming at Cinecitta Studios, and it did.

CN Well I am glad.  Casting is everything. The cast is your story, and I think we got very lucky. We were blessed with this cast…. cyrus 7I am so proud of our Joseph because he is unlike any Joseph you have ever seen. I really think he is terrific.

KD I remember many of us were on the set visit were struck with him (Joseph) in particular because you rarely hear about Joseph. He just sort of disappeared from the Biblical narrative. In this film, you really have a sense of his burden as the step-father of a child whose father was the ultimate birth father.

CN I think that dynamic between them, that family unit, is our movie.  When I was going through the audition process I would try to put people together to try and figure out if this is going to work?  I actually never got a chance to put my choice for Mary and my choice for Joseph in a room together until I cast them.  So, I was just winging it. This movie lives there, that’s it. If that doesn’t work, we’re nowhere. And I think that part of the reason for that is because we are, without patting myself on the back too much, daring to go inside that family, because I haven’t seen it.  I told you I saw all those Bible movies and I haven’t seen it (such a focus on Jesus’s family.)

KD That to me is really the hook that I hope will grab people and bring them in.

KD The other thing that struck me in the film was the shared sense of discipleship we as followers today have with Mary and Joseph. We are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Their discipleship, based on a story told to them by an angel, and in a dream, was on the front end, prior to the birth of Jesus. Our discipleship, based on that story as well as the crucifixion and resurrection is based on the back end. We as disciples are charged with carrying, nurturing, maybe protecting, this story/truth in a world that is in opposition to it, as they were charged with carrying, nurturing, and protecting Jesus in a time and world that was against him. I am really excited about that and look forward to sharing that about this film.

CN It’s so important that people share their impressions of the movie, that they talk about it with one another. I find there is always a level of skepticism and resistance, even in the people who have endorsed the movie the most enthusiastically. I can see there is always this, “aw wait a second” kind of thing.  I am worried that this is our audience and that our audience is doing that and will stay away from the movie.

KD Are you worried at all that it is following close after RISEN?

CN That doesn’t worry that much. Because we were originally supposed to follow Ben Hur, which I think worried me more…. I saw RISEN… I met Kevin Reynolds (Director of RISEN) years ago. We were at USC Film school at the same time, and I think he is a real talent. I thought it was a little rough getting out of the blocks, but when it got where it needed to get it was effective…I did feel like we needed more in terms of the ending with Joseph Fiennes….I thought we needed another piece with him (the Tribune) at the very end….I thought it was interesting that Pilate had decided to send these guys out to get him. I almost thought to myself that’s where it’s going, they’re going to end up getting him, he’s going to die willingly because he knows where he’s going… or maybe a variation of that. I was surprised we didn’t get that extra piece… but I thought it was a good, solid movie. I liked RISEN.

KD I haven’t seen much comment on the character Severus (the Roman soldier who is tracking Jesus down to capture and kill him on Herod’s orders.) Obviously, there is Jesus and the Holy Family, but to me, that is just as powerful a character.

CN You’re right. He’s kind of the rock cyrus 6underneath it all, but he gets forgotten because we are all so enamored with the family because that’s who are sympathies are with. But, Sean Bean (Severus) playing a tortured soul, he does it beautifully. I love working with Sean.

KD Again, I really liked his character. That’s the character that speaks to all the rest of us because that is the character that is faced with a decision to render to Caesar, literally, or to God. He really shows the call to, and struggle to accept, redemption and transformation.

CN Jesus isn’t here just for the needy or the sick.  He is also here for the sinners, especially the sinners. We have to show that. This is a guy who has committed about as bad as sin as you can. So I think Severus is in many ways the backbone.

KD Absolutely, there isn’t any doubt. We are all in some ways Severus, in ways that differ than the way we are like Mary and Joseph in our discipleship. I think that will be the character that speaks to persons who are marginally faithful or outside of the faith.

CN I hope so.

KD Did you have a favorite character as you wrote or directed the film?

CN Not really.  I was excited by the prospect of the Severus character and how he would serve the drama of the piece overall because that character is not in the book. In the book, through the first person voice of Jesus, which was I thought a daring literary device Anne used, he (Jesus) talks in his voice about the threats, the dangers, and the chaos for him and his parents…. But we needed to focus those feelings and observations which we were able to do through Severus.

The interview ended when we discussed what hopes Cyrus had for the audience in viewing the film. He said he had been asked about this a lot and he really didn’t have specific themes and ideas. Where filmmakers often stumble is when they try to “pound themes and ideas” through the story rather than allowing them to grow organically, for each viewer, from the story. We discussed how this is the model of Scripture itself, that even the most complicated teaching in Scripture, the essence of God, humanity, and the relationship between the two are communicated through story. Two prominent examples being when, at God’s direction, Nathan judged David for his crimes against Bathsheba and Uriah through the use of the story of the rich man who stole the poor man’s only lamb, and when Jesus was teaching about the nature of the Kingdom or the nature of God he used stories, the most famous being the parable of the prodigal son and forgiving father. Cyrus indicated his belief that when left to grow through the narrative, intended themes and ideas will emerge, and, perhaps more importantly, other ideas and themes that the filmmaker had not thought of will emerge as well.

Concluding thoughts from the film and interview:

Perhaps the most powerful and important aspect of The Young Messiah is that as story it resonates on a variety of levels, regardless of where the viewer is on the spectrum of faith. Even though the story itself is fictional, it is as Cyrus described it, “informed conjecture” into the time in Jesus’s life where there is no Gospel record. The Film is based on the historical times and the Scriptural presentation of the historical individuals. Whether one has little to no faith or is a person of strong faith living a discipled life, there are themes and messages that emerge in the film. This commonality, where persons familiar with, and those new to the faith and story of Jesus can see it on equal footing is rare in Biblically based films.

Although Cyrus had not encountered as much resistance to the conjectured aspect of the story, I have seen such questioning in the “comments” section of articles relating to the film. In those comments, people have labeled the film as non-scriptural. In reality, it is scriptural. The exile into Egypt is in Scripture.  Additionally the elements of that film that are in Scripture, the Annunciation, birth, and Epiphany arrival of the Magi follow the narrative rather closely. As far as the conjecturing of the events in Egypt, there is nothing, as Cyrus stated, that would go against the spirit of the Biblical persons and events. As stated elsewhere in this interview and thoughts, there is a benefit to such imagining the life that the Holy Family and others lived.  When we can see similarities to us in living our lives and that they faced struggles, perhaps similar in nature, it can offer hope and be a source of comfort and strength.

Whether a new or seasoned disciple, one lives out one’s faith, calling, and experience of God on a variety of levels and in a variety of ways. There is God’s love for us and grace given to us, ultimately expressed in Jesus. This is the heart and soul of our faith and life. There is also the calling to discipleship; following and proclaiming the truth of Christ through words and, especially, deeds to a broken and often hostile world. This is the backbone of service.

In The Young Messiah, one experiences this heart and soul primarily through Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. One also experiences the call to be a backbone of service through the character of Mary, and Joseph and their acceptance of God’s call in raising Jesus. One also experiences the transformational call of Severus, a tortured instrument who hears the call to change his loyalty from the preeminent earthly power, Rome, to the ultimate power and King of all Kings. For most of us for whom God’s is not an easy call to accept nor transformation to make, it is helpful to see characters share our struggles and, through God’s grace and power, accept redemption and transformation.

About revkennydickson

I am a United Methodist minister and my professional passion is connecting issues of life and faith to film and other artforms. I am also interested in autism awareness and ministry and special needs. I am married to Michelle and have two children.
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