It would be hard to overstate the importance of Paul of Tarsus in the history of the early Church and, for that matter, the last two millennia of human history. His extraordinary missionary travels and his explosive letters are crucially important to the shaping of early Christian thought and praxis.
Yet for all the Bible films that have been made from Hollywood’s Golden Age to today (the silent era was another story), it seems that not a single big-screen feature film has focused on St. Paul.
Writer-director Andrew Hyatt has taken at least one step toward redressing that.
Paul, Apostle of Christ, starring Jim Caviezel and James Faulkner, doesn’t cover the sweeping scope of Paul’s life — that would take a more ambitious effort, with a bigger budget — but instead shrewdly focuses on Paul’s last days, looking back on key biographical events in flashback.
I saw the film in a recent screening at New York’s Fulton J. Sheen Center for Thought and Culture, and Hyatt did a Q&A afterward with Faulker and the film’s producers, moderated by the Sheen Center’s David DiCerto. (The Sheen Center is where David and I shoot Reel Faith for New Evangelization Television.)
Afterward, I spoke to Hyatt by phone about St. Paul, making the film and the state of faith-based films generally.
Paul, Apostle of Christ opens in theaters today.
SDG: Faith-based films have taken off in recent years, yet by and large they continue to appeal overwhelmingly to the faithful. Why do you think this is, and what do filmmakers of faith have to get better at?
Hyatt: That’s a great question. I think there is this insular kind of approach to filmmaking since The Passion of the Christ — I put The Passion of the Christ, of course, on a different level.
I don’t want to say “preachy,” but there is this tendency to want to make ourselves feel good as Christians, to watch things that inspire us, rather than maybe look at the muddier side of things, if you will, that are part of the human experience.
Christian films can resonate because they’re speaking to your already-lived experience. But as Christian filmmakers we have to get much better at really digging into these struggles we are all facing, whether you are a believer or a nonbeliever. I think there is this tendency to just avoid those things.
I hope that Paul at least sheds a little bit of light on the suffering that we all go through, and that there is an answer out there — this beautiful truth of love and grace, this new path. I think we need to get better at being okay with showing the dirty laundry of our sin and our struggle in the faith, rather than making everything feel so “vanilla” and so happy and wonderful.
SDG: That reminds me of something that the filmmaker Jean Renoir said: “Man is a creature of habit, and the task of the artist is to try to break these habits.”
SDG: Do you think this kind of “habit-breaking” filmmaking will be difficult for faith audiences — experiencing that kind of “dirty laundry” in cinema?
Hyatt: You make a great point — I guess that’s always the fear, right? That you start to show the grittier side of life, and then you lose the faith-based crowd, because they don’t want to think about that. So it is a conundrum, at the moment.
I would say that quote is perfect, because if we are going to create art and put it out to the world, it needs to challenge people. It needs to point to something bigger and beyond us. If it’s just making us go to sleep at night feeling good about ourselves, I don’t know if that’s the point of art.
SDG: In St. Paul, you have a central character of enormous importance, not only in the development of early Christianity, but also to the whole trajectory of Western civilization. Is this a historical figure that nonbelievers should be interested in, and how do you make that case?
Hyatt: I hope so. This was one of the surprise things, for a lot of our crew that were not Christian — most of them — and our cast, who were saying, “Whoa, I didn’t know that this really happened.” Like, this is history; this isn’t just a Bible story; this is really interesting.
So this man Paul really lived and breathed, and he really did these things. And there really was an Emperor Nero and a first-century Rome that was persecuting Christians — these things really happened.
SDG: Speaking of persecution, your film is dedicated to those who have been persecuted for their faith. I confess some concern around the potential role of persecution narratives in American Christian culture today, because, while globally Christians are facing unprecedented levels of persecution, I think American Christians tend to think that we have it worse than we do.
On the other hand, I appreciate your film’s contemplation of violence in the name of Christ and its rejection of it. Did you think about any of these issues in a contemporary context while making the film?
Hyatt: I don’t think you are wrong at all in saying that we as Americans don’t want to think about those things — or to say that we have it bad, too. Literally, our brothers and sisters around the world are being murdered for their faith today.
We just tried to tell the story as it really happened, so the persecution [theme] came organically. I think you’re right in saying that it is difficult as Americans to wrap our brains around that. If the film could just remind us to even be praying for these people, to be thinking about these things, I think that that would be a great start.
SDG: How does the theme of rejecting violence in the name of Christ resonate today, in your mind?
Hyatt: I think that, especially in America, it’s a very tough concept — but when we read Jesus’ words, when we read the Gospel, we see what Paul was saying and doing and how this Christian community lived. It was a nonviolent community.
Obviously there are bigger conversations and dialogues that come with just-war [theory] and all these things that the Catholic Church has been grappling with for many years. I don’t think that we wanted to have an agenda about it.
We looked at St. Paul’s words and just brought them to life. I think that there could be some fascinating dialogue over that issue and the Gospel that could come out of this.
SDG: This is a very conversational film, and except for the flashbacks, it’s mostly shot indoors. Can you talk from a cinematic perspective about making all these conversations visually interesting?
Hyatt: (Laughing) It was difficult, I’ll tell you that much! It was a limited budget, and we had such a limited time to shoot the film — we shot it in 23 shooting days. So how do you make an 8-by-10-foot prison cell interesting to an audience when you are going to spend 20 minutes of the film down there?
It really came down to working with Geraldo Madrazo, our wonderful cinematographer out of Mexico, and Dave Arrowsmith, our production designer out of Scotland. We had to try to find different camera angles and a different technique for each scene.
SDG: Lighting, I think, was an important component there. I think the most striking lighting effect is the one with the idol. Can you talk about that?
Hyatt: That was the Roman god of health. That was really all Dave Arrowsmith, our production designer. He came up with that fascinating idea to use that big piece that he created and let the light shine through, and it really creates this ominous, very eerie [effect]. It had a weird power to it.
We were trying to create something that felt — we never wanted to take the Roman pagan faith and treat it with a Christian view, like “Look at these silly people doing silly things.” We wanted to give it respect, because, then, I think it’s more powerful when Mauritius sees that all of these things are not working for him.
SDG: I expect you hope that this story will appeal to both Catholic and Protestant audiences — like Jim Caviezel’s last Bible film! I’m curious whether being Catholic yourself, rather than Protestant, shaped your approach to this material.
Hyatt: I did want the film to be as ecumenical as possible. I think it’s important to reach across the aisle on both sides and find common ground. I never wanted the film to feel like it had a Catholic or Protestant agenda.
The only thing I can say is — maybe? I certainly didn’t go into it thinking, “Okay, I’m going to do this because I have this Catholic perspective.” But I don’t think I could ever say that those things didn’t shape me or form me, growing up in the Catholic tradition.
I think that there is a depth of looking at the world, especially art [in the Catholic tradition]. There’s a sort of a deeper desire to look deeper into things, to find the beauty in the mud and the muckiness.
I don’t know if that comes because we are so surrounded by art, growing up in the faith tradition in our churches. I certainly wouldn’t say it was something I set out to do. Honestly, I can’t not be me; I can’t not look at the world a certain way based on my spiritual formation and my upbringing.
SDG: I wonder if that ecumenical impulse had anything to do with the absence in the story, even in dialogue, of the other big apostle who was imprisoned and martyred in Rome around the same time as Paul, namely Peter. The Christian community in Rome is obviously concerned about Paul, but I’m thinking: What about Peter, whose martyrdom in Rome forms the foundation for the papacy?
Hyatt: It was something we did have in early drafts. It actually came down to more of a creative decision.
We had just come off Full of Grace, which was about Peter and our Blessed Mother’s final days. We spent so much time with Peter in that film that in this one we really just wanted to focus on Paul and the Christian community at large.
Also, it was kind of difficult — there were a lot of contradictory things with when, in the timeline, Peter’s death was, with some saying it was before Paul arrived, some saying at the same time, some saying it was later. So it was one of those things.
I do think you are right that there was a little bit of that in an attempt to keep scripturally accurate and to keep kind of ecumenically pleasing.
SDG: At times you rely on actual language drawn from Paul’s letters. It made me think of Robert Bolt, writing A Man for All Seasons, expressing concern that what he wrote should match what he borrowed well enough that the theft shouldn’t be too obvious. Were you worried about that at all?
Hyatt: Thank you; I love that movie! What I was mostly concerned about — and all these things come from a desire for myself; I’m asking questions and looking for answers, and that’s why I make these films — for this one, I really wanted to explore how Scripture could feel a little more like a lived experience.
We hear these words every Sunday. We’ve read these books all the time, growing up, through our whole lives. And one thing I wanted to do was take it out of this idea that we all have of the Bible. Paul didn’t write these letters knowing that there was this thing called “the Bible” that gets put together and billions of people around the world would read it. He’s not off in a lakeside villa writing these amazing theological treatises — he wrote these letters for specific communities that had a need.
So I wanted to figure out a way to take his words and apply them to a real, raw, authentic, lived-in experience: things that Paul would have been saying all the time to people; not just like one time he wrote this thing to the Romans, but instead passionate things that he lived with and spoke to everyone about. That’s what I was going for.
It’s not the unmade epic about the life of Paul of Tarsus many would like to see, but what it is is worthwhile in its own right.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.