The twist in The Chosen is that it’s good — surprisingly so, and good, in part, because it’s surprising.
Faith-based productions about Jesus — for example, the Lightworkers projects Son of God and Resurrection — often play like “greatest hits” compilations of familiar Gospel stories, edifying perhaps to the faithful, but doing little either to illuminate the stories for newcomers or to challenge believers to see something new in them.
The Chosen writer-director Dallas Jenkins set out to tell a different kind of Jesus story. One that sees Jesus through the eyes of those around him, for one thing. One that uses novelistic invention to allow Gospel figures to emerge as characters in a drama.
In a word, The Chosen blends a more or less straightforward life-of-Jesus adaptation with historical fiction — a kind of Gospel fiction — with a boldness rare in faith-based work. (I can only think of one other faith-based screen presentation that does something similar, the underappreciated The Young Messiah.)
The Chosen is the outcome of an unlikely partnership between Jenkins, an Evangelical Protestant (the son of Left Behind cowriter Jerry B. Jenkins), VidAngel (a Mormon-owned streaming video company), viral marketing strategist and executive producer Derral Eves, and countless individual investors who helped to make the first season of The Chosen the highest-funded crowdfunding TV or film project ever made.
From a number of cultural details and scriptural insights that the show gets right (or even close), I wasn’t surprised to learn that the writers’ biblical consultants include a rabbi as well as a Catholic priest and a Protestant theologian. (Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus, was baptized Eastern Orthodox, but is now Catholic.)
The first two seasons of The Chosen are currently streaming for free via the Angel Studios website and YouTube, among other streaming options; season 3 is currently still soliciting crowdfunding donations.
I recently chatted by Zoom with Derral Eves about the process of making The Chosen. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
SDG: A big part of the story around The Chosen is the crowdfunding approach to getting it made. With the show reaching more and more viewers, has it gotten any easier to raise the money?
Eves: When we first started, it was very difficult to raise the money. We are really grateful for the the thousands of dollars people raised that made it possible for us to do season 1.
As more people see the show — as they get to about episode 3 in the first season — they start seeing Jesus in a more human way. That’s where he starts really being showcased.
Once people see what the show really is, if they feel that it’s something special that’s done in a unique or fresh way, they generally want to share it with people. They share the videos, they share the app, they share it on social media, but they also contribute. When people pay it forward, it goes out to more and more people that can see it for free.
SDG: So let’s talk about the characterization of Jesus and what The Chosen does that’s different. In many traditional portrayals down through the years, reverence for Jesus’ divinity has smothered any sense of his humanity, and in fact for a long time it was controversial to have an actor portray Jesus at all.
We’re a long way from those days, but there’s still always going to be controversy, and I know that there’s been some pushback about aspects of Jesus’ humanity that you’ve depicted in the show.
Eves: We are never going to perfectly satisfy everyone. Some will be so grateful: “Oh yes, that’s how I envision Jesus.” But then their neighbor is like, “No, no, you’re doing it all wrong; you’re messing it up.” We knew going into it that people would be ultra-sensitive.
We believe that Jesus was human but he is also God. He had human relationships and he personalized each interaction for what the person needed. That’s the direction that Dallas and the writers feel it needs to go.
I want to share one example that impacted me on set. Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus, is an amazing actor, and he’s really sensitive to playing the part. You can interview him on how much pressure it is for him!
But I watched him do a scene that made me reflect differently on the nature of his character for the show, and also on [Jesus himself]. It was the moment where Peter was broken after the miraculous catch of fish. He realized that he’s a sinner, and he got on his knees on the bank and was just pleading up.
I was there when that was being shot, and Jonathan was just supposed to come in, look down at Peter and talk to him. Jonathan went there and he said, “I want to try something a little bit different.” And he did something that I think represents the nature of the show: He went down to the level of Peter and looked him in his eyes and said, “Look at me. Don’t look at them, just pay attention to me.”
And that right there, I think, is the essence of Jesus’ character for the show. It’s that one-on-one touch where he goes after the one [lost sheep], and he connects with the one in the way that they need.
SDG: You have a rabbi, a Catholic priest and a Protestant theologian as Biblical consultants.
SDG: I’m sure that Rabbi Jason Sobel has been enormously helpful in the show’s efforts to do justice to the Judaism of Jesus and his contemporaries. Can you think of a particular example that stands out to you?
Eves: From day one we decided that if we were going to get ready for this we needed to go to Jerusalem. We contacted Rabbi Jason, and we went out to Jerusalem to do fact finding and communion with God. We wanted to experience the places we would be portraying in season 1.
Rabbi Jason was pivotal from the very beginning. He gave us a lot of context of the cultural and historical significance of what was happening in the first century. He gave us context of the “why” — why and how people would react in different situations.
So when we were in Capernaum, which is pretty much demolished, he was painting the picture of the Roman oppression and what it would have been like for Matthew being a Jew working with Rome, and how he would have been received in that area by someone living there who had to pay taxes to Rome through the publican Matthew.
I think that [pilgrimage] set the stage for little details that we needed to get right. All of our BBiblical consultants have been pivotal in helping us understand and get this right.
SDG: Can you think of a particular element in a particular episode that reflects in some way the specific input of the contributions from Fr.r. David Guffy?
Eves: Fr. Guffy gets to look at all the scripts and he gives feedback in all areas. I don’t personally see the feedback that he does — it goes directly to the writers before it comes to the final stages, where I am able to look at it.
In season 2, episode 3 — I really like this episode, Dallas wrote this one — Jesus was healing all through the day and into the night in Samaria. His disciples just figuring out who they are: why they are called, why they are in the land of their enemies, and all that other stuff.
But it was the moment that tensions were at the highest, the discussions and the disputations between the disciples, and that’s when Jesus walks in, and he is physically, spiritually and emotionally exhausted.
Just to see the mother’s love — Mother Mary’s love — for her Son at that moment, and what she does next, was so powerful, especially as she’s helping him get ready for bed, washing his feet, getting him ready to go from there.
Fr. Guffy gave us context [on Jesus and Mary’s relationship] that amplified her role and gave it a lot more meaning.
SDG: I know there have been a lot of questions from Catholics and Eastern Orthodox on the one hand and Protestants on the other about how, or whether, this series will ultimately deal with the question of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. A year or two ago Dallas told my friend Peter Chattaway that he was still undecided about what to do. Any progress on that front?
Eves: Dallas and the writers come up with everything that’s going on, and I have not seen scripts for Season 3 or 4 yet. They’re still working on that.
SDG: A number of distributors have signed up to help the show reach more viewers around the world. Has there been any interest from faith-based producers or production companies, or from Hollywood subsidiaries like Fox Faith or Columbia Affirm, in owning a piece of The Chosen?
Eves: There’s been a lot of interest from people now seeing this success and wanting to be a part of it. And I want to address this head-on, because we did this outside of the Hollywood system for a reason.
We went to the crowd that initially became our partners, and then also the fans that love the show that are paying it forward. We feel like if there were massive amounts of money coming in [from producing partners], that would come with controlling thoughts of how to use that money and what to do. And we wanted to make sure that we had the ability to create the show the way we want to.
One dynamic of why a lot of faith-based projects didn’t work is because they deviated from the first initial pitch because of the people that were basically funding it. And that was the whole reason why we started to get the crowd to do it.
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