National Geographic’s ‘Killing Jesus’: Tales from the Morocco set

03.27.15 3 years ago

National Geographic Channels/Kent Eanes

OUARZAZATE, MOROCCO. Officially, the Moroccan city of Ouarzazate is nicknamed “The door of the desert,” resting south of the High Atlas Mountains and on the edge of the Draa Valley.

Thanks to the presence of Atlas Studios, though, Ouarzazate is perhaps more appropriately known as The Hollywood of Central Morocco, or perhaps even The Hollywood of Morocco.

Ouarzazate has a population of just over 50,000, but in late October of 2014, that population includes a disproportionate number of Jesuses, Judases and an absurd number of Marys, both Jesus' mom and of the Magdalene variety. 

It's late October of 2014 and Ouarzazate is the beating heart of TV's Biblical world.

“It's a very holy town right now,” laughs Haaz Sleiman, one of the Ouarzazate Jesi — Yes, that should be the name of a fantasy baseball team — specifically playing the title role in National Geographic's “Killing Jesus,” the project that has brought me to this region.

The check-in desk at the Kenzi Azghor hotel, my primary residence for three Moroccan days, is littered with maps of the city and basic tourist information, but also call-sheets for “Killing Jesus,” as well as the myriad competing productions.  There's “Bible” sequel “A.D.” There's a Jesus-based television documentary that's shooting reenactment footage. And then there's Spike TV's “Tut,” which isn't Biblical. A lot of the casting revealed on the call-sheets hasn't even been reported in the Hollywood industry press, but somehow nobody at the Kenzi Azghor is worried about scooping Deadline on the secret identity of Mark Burnett's Caiaphas.

It creates strange circumstances.

“I dined, had lunch with one of them,” Sleiman says of rival Jesuses. “I've laughed with another. I never met the third one. Maybe he's not real, I don't know. Maybe he doesn't exist.”

And it creates an odd and inevitable competition that Sleiman insists isn't a competition at all.

“Definitely not competition,” Sleiman insists. “I mean, you know, I was not in competition but I've seen other people, like producers, who say, 'Our Jesus is better than their Jesus.' I was definitely not part of that competition because that's not very Jesus-like of me..”

For me, there's no competition either. “Killing Jesus,” based on the book by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, is the project I'm in town for. 

The film premieres on NatGeo on March 29, 2015.

What follows are notes from three days on the “Killing Jesus” set, during which time a small group of reporters — four, including HitFix, representing “secular” press, another 10-ish writing for various religious sites — talked with Sleiman and fellow stars including Eoin Macken (Antipas), Kelsey Grammer (Herod), John Rhys-Davies (Annas) and Joe Doyle (Judas Iscariot), as well as director Christopher Menaul.

Insights and hopefully amusing tidbits — plus some pictures, both mine and NatGeo's — follow…

LOGISTICS, PART I. Ouarzazate isn't the easiest place to get to, but it isn't hard. The Aeroport de Ouarzazate is serviced by Royal Air Maroc, an airline that absolutely, positively is capable of getting you to the location you need to get to. End praise. 

Credit: Daniel Fienberg

Aeroport de Ouarzazate has several daily flights to and from Casablanca, with small planes that treat the airport like a bus stop, pausing on the tarmac long enough to hope you've noticed this is your stop, causing a frazzled disembarkation process as you realize how close you came to ending up at the next stop on the route, no doubt a nice place, but probably not home to production on a string of Hollywood Biblical epics.

My exposure to Casablanca comes at six in the morning after a regular-length flight from LA-to-JFK and a much longer red-eye. Taxiing across the Casablanca airfield with dawn yet to break, I make a joke about this being the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Nobody laughs. 

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John Rhys-Davies is a veteran of the sort of movies and TV shows that are filmed in and around Morocco and he has a history with Ouarzazate.

“A little town like Ouarzazate, which is just booming, you should have seen it when I came here first about 20, 30 years ago and then even 10, 15 years ago,” Rhys-Davies says. “There are new buildings going up. Probably 60 to 80 percent of the town's wealth, employment derives one way or another from the film industry and in their heart of hearts, they must be terrified, because they know that The Beast is coming.”

Ominous words, but Ouarzazate is becoming a fairly modern city. Voyeuristic stories about the Middle East often refer to people who “look like they stepped out of the Bible” and I guess there's some of that, but  there's also steady traffic and the rooftops are dotted with satellite dishes. Maybe what Rhys-Davies means when he talks about The Beast is Western commercial interests. Ouarzazate may host hordes from the entertainment industry, but it's blissfully Starbucks-free, which cannot be said of Marrakech, for example.

Rhys-Davies traces the transformation from the Ouarzazate he knew years ago, to the Ouarzazate he now sees.

“The people were just as wonderful,” he says. “The poverty was more apparent. The fields still brought their crop of stones every year. What film's brought here is a real sense of modernism, of being part of the modern, civil world. It's brought prosperity it's brought these people the sense of belonging to an international community. You look at this cast and the crew? They are from all nations, all religions. And our job is to get on and make things happen, make it work.”

[Continued on Page 2…]

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We spend three days at The Temple in Jerusalem, recreated on the outskirts of town. The drive is a reminder of the importance of the film industry to Ouarzazate, which has hosted productions including “Hanna,” “The Mummy” and a little drama called “Lawrence of Arabia.” “Killing Jesus” executive producer Ridley Scott also shot parts of “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven” here and parts of the “Kingdom of Heaven” interiors have been repurposed for the NatGeo film.

A sculpture of twisted celluloid dots the center of one rotary, an oversized clapperboard marks another rotary in front of CLA Studios. Atlas Studios, with its imposing pharaoh guards, is set further back from the road and you would never guess that in terms of acreage, it's the world's largest film studio.

Credit: Daniel Fienberg

Past several landmarks listed at casbahs and requiring near-nonstop singing of The Clash, The Temple is perched atop a hill overlooking a barren terrain that's near Martian in its rocky redness. The set itself, though, is a zoo of trucks and buses, just like the Biblical Temple, I'd assume. An ambulance sits at-the-ready with a sign which reads “Reanimation Mobile.” Yes, the sign is in French, but on the set of “Killing Jesus,” it seems to take on a different meaning.

The windy roads to the top exist more in terms of small markers preventing drivers from toppling off the hill entirely, rather than in terms of lanes or paving. As a result, most vehicles wait at the bottom where there are two massive tents, herding areas for appropriately dressed extras and also for cast and crew to line up for craft services consisting of meat and intriguing combinations of carbohydrates, offering the rare opportunity to mix rice, pasta, bread and mashed potatoes.

Getting down from the Temple to the tents isn't easy. There's the flat path taken by most of the Anglo members of the crew, requiring a jaunt of at least twice the distance of the more sheer and rocky path being taken by many of the locals. A number of children, though, run screaming down the hill happily and luckily dodging rocks big and small. It doesn't look safe, but nobody gets hurt.

Like so many productions worldwide, “Killing Jesus” is an opportunistic scavenger when it comes to sets. Production designer Tom McCullagh has been entrusted with rebuilding The Temple.

“When we got to the Temple set, it was in a pretty bad state,” he recalls. “Half of it had disappeared, just blown down. So he had to decide whether it was worth rebuilding etc or if there anything else available, but it turned out that was the only [place], so we had to kinda rebuild half of it. I think it's 20 years old, that set, the main heart of it. And it was in pretty bad state of repair.”

Yes, in a region characterized by ancient architecture, a 20-year-old set counts as old enough to have gone fallow, though it has a history of its own.

“I think it was Solomon's Temple and then it became something else,” McCullagh says. “People have come along and added bits and pieces to it for various productions. Possibly lesser budgets have not shot against the piece that's missing or in the various corners, but from our point of view, 360 degrees was an essential thing to make the set work.”

Credit: Daniel Fienberg

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“Killing Jesus” director Chris Menaul is British.

Much of the crew is speaking French or differently accented English. The costume designers are speaking Italian. I can't say for certain if the extras are speaking Arabic or Berber, but it”s my hunch that it's a little bit of both. 

This is the story of Jesus, but the Biblically inclined would be more likely to compare this to Babel.

“If we were making the picture in French, it would be a lot easier,” Menaul says. “Virtually all of them speak French as well as Arabic, but us being English, our language is absolutely useless and my French is very basic, so we have to use interpreters to do these crowd scenes, which can be very inert, very boring as I'm sure you're familiar from watching other films where they're just milling around in the background. But in this film particularly, there are lots of scenes like this where Jesus is working the crowd..”

Menaul wants “Killing Jesus” to have a Levantine look and the extras are all local. Over three days, we see a number of group scenes requiring collective expressions of adulation to be directed toward Jesus or collective expressions of outrage to be levied against either the Roman rulers or the intimidating priests. Crafting vocal rabble is a complicated process when everybody is speaking the same language, but coaching these extras is difficult because between Menaul or the assistant director's initial instructions, several translations need to be performed in order to get everybody repeating a single exhortation. 

You might, for example, want a group of 20 people to be mixing up their cheers, five saying “Woot, Jesus!” and five saying “Jesus is The Man” and five saying “Behold!” so that the resulting hubbub would have cacophony, but also form.

Instead, you end up with 20 people, in unison, saying “Hosanna… King of the Jews!” with the first phrase — “HOSANNAH!” — being declared with absolute confidence and the second phrase being muttered into something closer to a half-whispered “Kingofthejews.” It's the same when the crowd roars “Down with with the money lenders!” and it becomes “DOWN WIthmoneylenders.” It's easy for the crowd to unite behind a single word and when some group of pharisees or sadducees tries to quell a riot, the shouts of “SHAME!” are deafening. In each case, the more English-confident extras become featured extras almost by default. In our time on set, it becomes possible to identify at least one woman whose mastery of both “Shame!” and “Hosanna… King of the Jews” should earn her plenty of “Killing Jesus” screentime, if you're watching closely.

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In our days on-set, we see a love-story in reverse.

On the third day, we witness the meeting between two like-minded individuals.

Stranger: “I share your anger, rabbi. Let me follow you.”

Jesus: “What is your name?”

Stranger: “Judas of Iscariot.”

But we already know this “When Jesus Met Judas” story will end badly, because we'd spent hours the previous day watching Judas slink away from a pontificating Jesus, scurrying away from the Temple with nefarious things on his mind.

Actor Joe Doyle, an entirely friendly Irish actor, explains the mindset of the fleeing Judas.

“At this point he realizes the actual threat, which is death, which is the fact they were the guys who were imminently going to stopped, quelled and crushed and I think it's that realization. It was hinted at earlier in the story, the script, but when he comes face to face with it, he realizes that, 'I think the game is up with this one.'”

When put that way, it seems very reasonable. 

[Continued on Page 3…]
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LOGISTICS, PART II. Ouarzazate is desert-adjacent, but weather can vary.

The first day we're on-set, fresh off of our 20-plus-hours of travel, it's hot, probably in the low-90s.

The second day we're on-set, it begins warm and then the clouds roll in. It looks like rain, but instead, we get seconds of drizzle and wind that blows the top off of covered area. 

Credit: Daniel Fienberg

The third day? Rain. Brief, but powerful. Standing just outside the door of the Temple and looking out on the 360 panorama, you can watch the dramatic deluges begin and end. On-set, it rains for maybe 15 torrential minutes, as stars and extras alike huddle in corners of the structure, looking for any shelter at all. The rain comes down almost without space between the drops. Then it stops. And within minutes, the arid ground has devoured all traces of moisture and it's bone dry again.

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Menaul assures us that that first day isn't actually all that hot.

“The heat. It's not hot now, but when we started, it was very hot and a lot of people have gone down with illness. Some of them have come back to us and some haven't, so it is quite tough physically,” he says.

It's easy for the director to say. He's dressed casually. 

Kelsey Grammer, however, is wearing flowing robes, a long wig of silver locks and a high hat. And for the scene being shot as we arrive, he's walking up the steps from one tier of The Temple to another and he's doing it over and over again, because Menual appears to be a fan of ample coverage.

“I don”t work out a lot but I think I”m in actually pretty good shape. I”ve been doing this for a long time, you know, you have to be sort of athletic to do a good job on most of these things,” Grammer says. “When we did that first walk up the steps in that heat and those robes I thought to myself, 'Sh**, this is really challenging. This is hard. What the hell?”

Between shots, Grammer is closely trailed by an assistant with a red umbrella keeping him in shade, but when the assistant isn't available, he stands around with his robes unselfconsciously pulled up nearly to his waist, fanning himself.

“You”ve got to just get the air in,” he jokes. “You have to. Maybe that”s what Herod, our Herod would have done too. For a lot of reasons.”

For more on those “reasons,” which relate to Herod's less-than-savory medical difficulties, you'll have to check out my Kelsey Grammer feature.

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Credit: National Geographic Channel

“We wanted to go for a muscular Jesus,” Menaul says.

Regarding viewer takeaways, Menual explains, “I hope they'll take away from it the sense of someone who's a real person and not the rather kinda sanitized, and do I wanna say 'wimpy,' individual that, not always, but quite often has been portrayed.”

On the second day on the set, we witness muscular Jesus. 

We're in the Courtyard of the Gentiles and, as you may have heard, Jesus is unhappy with the moneylenders. And he's unhappy with Caiaphas, the high priest who is rather heavily implicated in the title plot in Reilly & Dugard's book.

“My house will be called a house of prayer,” Sleiman shouts over and over. “You have made it a den of thieves!”

Caiphas responds with predictable indignation and co-star Rufus Sewell is on-set to provide lines even though he isn't featured in the particular shot, standing below the entrance to the Temple-proper, which includes a giant menorah and a green screen, since interiors will be shot elsewhere. Underdressed — his blue jeans peek out from beneath a light robe — he offers varied readings into a fuzzy boom mic and then watches as Jesus and his disciples repeat the scene, which begins with laying waste to various sources of disrespect in the courtyard and culminates with the aggressive sweeping of coins from a table that will soon become Jesus' pulpit. 

“Down with the moneylenders,” the extras shout as one, once again unable to retain and repeat multiple points of advocacy. 

The Courtyard of the Gentiles has, if you know the story, become a marketplace and Jesus is displeased. He's especially unhappy with the merchants keeping animals in stalls and he's determined to free them.

The complication: Most of the animals aren't that anxious for liberation. To the people, Jesus may be king, but for the goats and chickens, he's a false messiah. He pulls open paddocks and unhinges gates, but the animals make no effort to move. The birds are even harder to convert. Jesus lifts cages, shakes and at the most, the doves and pigeons flap a few feet and settle in the rafters of the Temple, but mostly they hold their position.

Naturally, the animals are unmoved by Jesus' actions, but they're very excited by his words. As Jesus riles the masses, the lambs bleat manically, destroying many moments of audio. And it's inevitable that every silence, intended to be heavy with portent, is going to be interrupted by an impertinent cow or an unruly rooster. 

“Got a cow,” a disgruntled sound guy says after one especially good shot is spoiled.

“Put a cucumber in his mouth,” is the helpful suggestion.

I guess this is the price you pay for authenticity. Menaul's interest in capturing 360-degree environments, mentioned by production designer Tom McCullagh earlier, have him staging long takes in which Jesus and the apostles enter the Courtyard, go by four or five booths freeing animals, ending with the displacement moneylenders all without yelling “Cut.” This means long resetting periods in which the birds and beasts emancipated from their pens have to be restored to captivity and quieted.

[Continued on Page 4…]

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Photography on the set of “Killing Jesus” is forbidden, except that between shots, every extra is whipping out a phone and posing for pictures.

One obvious strategy taken by many extras is to position themselves in a place in which Haz Sleiman is visible in the background. 

Were it not for the language barrier, this would surely be called a Jeselfie.

It's not that the bigger name actors are keeping to themselves. 

Sewell passes out water bottles when he isn't having his beard tinkered with and reapplied or, in moments of clear repose, he leans against a hollow Corinthian column and reads something on his Kindle. 

Prohibition aside, Rhys-Davies is posing for any “Sliders,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “Lord of the Rings” fan who wants a shot.

Credit: National Geographic Channel

“You'll notice that on the set, I allow extras to have photos with me. This is strictly against company policy, because we don't want any shots on the set,” he says. “Truth of the matter is, we've got to bind these people with the bonds of affection and friendship, to bolster them in their attempts of modernity.”

Taking steps back from modernity is Eoin Macken, who eschews the lighter, handier iPhones and flaunts the anti-photo policy with a bulky, retro camera that shoots with something the old folks used to call “film.”

“I get bored so I need to go and do stuff,” Macken says of his on-set hobby. “I studied some cinematography and I do photography and especially on a set like this I think if I can shoot medium format film with black-and-white and get some really cool images, this seems like the right moment to shoot some old black and white, make it nice and grainy and kind of get it cool.”

Prowling the set undercover with a hat and sunglasses, Macken looks like Dennis Hopper in “Apocalypse Now,” documenting every moment.

“You know when you shoot digitally, you take 100 shots and you don”t look at half of them?” he asks. “So instead I take 30 and then you get the joy of waiting for it to get developed and you get the three pictures and it”s kind of fun.”

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On our last night, the “Killing Jesus” reporters retreat into the dark alleys of Ouarzazate to La Kasbah des Sables. It's Ridley Scott's favorite restaurant in town, we're told, and several cast members are more than happy to grab a meal.

Credit: Daniel Fienberg

Judas is there, jovially speaking French to an international journalist.

Another apostle closes dinner with a religious themed stand-up routine.

A third apostle shares pictures of cast members traveling by camel and dune buggy through the desert. 

It's amusing and a bit religiously surreal and this is only with part of one cast of one Ouarzazate Biblical epic.

“We”re all hanging out together,” Eoin Macken claims of the different productions. “It”s bizarre.”

“Killing Jesus” premieres on Sunday, March 29 at 8 p.m. on National Geographic.

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