By Dan Brownell
The Chosen, a new streaming television series about Jesus, is making history as the very first multi-season TV series ever made about Him. Many movies and miniseries have been created over the years, but no multiple-season show has been attempted before. The show’s 23-minute pilot, available to view for free at http://bit.ly/TheChosenPilot, has been viewed 15 million times in 10 languages. It’s even been seen on satellite TV in Iran. The first four episodes are also available for free by downloading the free The Chosen app at The Chosen.tv, The Apple Store, or Google Play.
Veteran filmmaker Dallas Jenkins, son of renowned writer Jerry Jenkins, is directing the series. He explained his inspiration on the show’s website: “My original idea in making The Chosen was simply to create a short film about the birth of Christ in a fresh way. As I shared it with friends, ministry leaders, and entertainment professionals, I kept getting the same response: ‘I want more.’ As a result, we’ve decided to make an entire TV show about the life of Christ through the eyes of those who encountered Him.”
“There’s little doubt THE CHOSEN will soon become one of the most well-known and celebrated pieces of Christian media in history.”– Movieguide
Plans are for The Chosen to last seven seasons, with eight episodes each season. The first four episodes of The Chosen are available exclusively at www.thechosen.tv for streaming and DVD.
Jenkins is passionate about getting the story about Jesus on the small screen. “The most important message in the world deserves the most influential medium in the world, so we’re going to tell the greatest story ever told in The Chosen.”
An Eye for Accuracy
Jenkins is working with VidAngel rather than Hollywood to preserve the show’s biblical integrity. “I’ve been making movies for some of the biggest studios in Hollywood for 20 years. But this shouldn’t be entrusted to Hollywood. It needs to be made by us,” he said.
Its trustworthiness is underscored by the fact it has been endorsed by noted Christians such as Ravi Zacharias, Alveda King, Anne Graham Lotz, Joni Eareckson Tada, Kirk Cameron, and Phil and Kay Robertson. The concern for biblical integrity is so foundational that the crew agonizes over every detail in the sets. “We sand the underside of the drawer,” Jenkins explained, using the metaphor in a short video that reveals the effort expended to get even the unseen details right. (See the video at http://bit.ly/SandingtheDrawer.)
Executive Producer Matthew Faraci elaborated: “Our goal is to make this the most authentic series ever made about this time period. We’ve had hours of conversations back and forth about details such as the proper depiction of Jewish prayers, what the fringes on garments should look like, and how to correctly portray a first-century Shabbat meal. Dallas has worked hard to cast actors who make you forget where you are and make you believe you’re stepping right into Jewish culture in Israel thousands of years ago.”
Besides conducting extensive research, the show relies on a panel of advisers from the faith community, including Rabbi Jason Sobel, a popular figure with Christians and co-author of the best-selling book with Kathy Lee Gifford The Rock, the Road, and the Rabbi; New Testament scholar Doug Huffman from Biola University; and the highly respected Father David Guffey of Family Theater Productions.
The Heart of God Revealed Through Character Development
“The number one goal of the show — the reason that it exists — is to make Jesus known,” Jenkins shared. But The Chosen takes a nontraditional approach. It reveals Him through how He changed lives. “I think part of the thing that’s unique about this series,” said Rabbi Sobel “is that with so many of the traditional biblical Jesus films and content that’s created, the focus is on Jesus, but here a lot of the focus is about how the lives of the people who encounter Him are transformed. It really does a lot with character development. It makes the characters very real, very engaging.
“In one episode you see Jesus laughing with children, and there is something very powerful about that. Yes, He’s God made manifest in the flesh, but He’s also a real person who really cares and has real relationships and cares about those relationships with people. When you look at who He chose as His disciples, you have these individuals who are far from ideal, far from perfect, far from being saints, and we see in the early episodes how they have these real struggles.
The Actors’ Perspective
The cast shares a deep reverence for their mission, and that translates into an incredible camaraderie. “The whole vibe on the set is wonderful,” said Noah James, who plays Andrew. “Everyone is trying to do their best work while also enjoying each other. Dallas is an amazing leader for the project, and the shoot’s great energy starts at the top with him and filters through to every aspect of the show.”
“I think this series is going to be an incredible way to draw people and introduce people to Jesus, to the Bible, to the disciples, that is historically faithful and that is in the spirit of the Scriptures.”
The show is so powerful that it’s transforming the actors as much as the audience. Paras Patel (Matthew) said, “The fact that this show is resonating with so many people around the world has made a profound impact on me. Such an intricate story like this with a layer of such real human and raw emotion is captivating.”
Before Elizabeth Tabish (Mary Magdalene) landed her role, she was on the verge of quitting her acting career after experiencing years of disappointment. “I told my agent to stop submitting me. Ignoring this request (thank God), he submitted me to audition for Lilith/Mary. I received the audition scenes and was hit with this very powerful feeling. I was emotional but also almost shaking with excitement. It was too good to be true, a dream role, perfectly written in a way that spoke deeply to me and, after so many years of rejection, I was nervous. I went to the audition and remember sitting in the hallway before I went in, thinking If I don’t book this, at least I get to do these scenes right now. That’s how beautiful the writing is. And I can’t describe the level of joy I had when I got news of the booking. It has changed everything for me.
“From the first read, I connected to the role in a way that I can’t explain,” she said. “My life isn’t specifically similar to Lilith’s, but I have struggled with despair, depression, grief, and a deep cynicism about the human condition.
Tabish went on to explain the impact on her of Jesus freeing Lilith from demon possession and calling her by her redeemed name, Mary. “When I first read that final scene of Episode 1, I broke down as if it was happening right then and there. Being given this opportunity to play such a beautifully written character, based in redemption and transformation, I feel myself changed with a renewed sense of optimism and hope.”
It’s obvious to those on the set that God is orchestrating what’s happening there: “So many times during a scene” said Tabish, “I’m overcome with an intense presence of something much bigger than us. So many times I’ve turned to the other actors and we just know that there is something really special going on here.”
Tabish is astounded at how the script brings the Bible to life. “I’ve read the Bible, but playing it is something else,” she said. “It has always been so stoic and proper in my mind, with this elevated speech and formalities. But man, the gospels are wild! Can you even imagine seeing these miracles and healings and a complete spiritual revolution like this? I think it’s a good time for us to revisit what Jesus was really teaching because there’s real love in it, and real love can really heal hearts, and healed hearts can heal minds, and healed minds can make this world a much better place to live.”
Shahar Isaac (Simon Peter) was also transfixed by the script as soon as he read it. “I was flown from New York to Los Angeles to meet our director, Dallas Jenkins. By then I had already sent a tape and felt a strong connection to the character. I had read the episodes before the meeting and was completely hooked.”
One thing that surprised Isaac is the natural flow of the dialogue. “When I read the script for the first time, I was surprised by how contemporary the language is. The characters speak like normal people today,” he said. “Before I digested this fact, I was already lost in their stories, so it’s really surprising how it really works so seamlessly and effortlessly
“I think people should expect to see into the lives of these people in a way they’ve never seen before,” he added. “They’re not about to see simple re-enactments of familiar stories. They’ll get to live in the skin of these characters. See where they live. See who they love. Meet the things that made these people who they are. People. Human beings. Not religious entities. But a fisherman. A tax collector. A religious leader. A woman seeing her husband abandoning his value system. A woman dealing with losing a father at a young age. I think the stories of these people are written in such a masterful way that anyone can get lost and relate in this nuanced world. And the challenges that these people faced can feel close to everyone’s heart.”
So What’s It Like to Portray the Savior of the World?
Jonathan Roumie is humbled by the incredible responsibility he carries playing Jesus. “The most challenging part of my role,” he said, “is not being overwhelmed by the fact that I’m donning the sandals of the most important person in human history. I constantly strive to ‘empty out’ as much of myself as possible in order to let the Holy Spirit work through me via the script I’ve been given and the behavior I portray onscreen.”
Roumie explained that preparing for his part involved “a good bit of reading and rereading the source material. But most of my prep was in the spiritual department. Lots of prayer, meditation, and receiving the Eucharist. This was probably the most important step in my spiritual prep, personally essential to my putting on ‘the full armor of God.’
“The divine influence on every aspect of producing this show has been quite a revelation of just how meaningful this project is and the potential impact on the culture it stands to make.
People should watch The Chosen,” Roumie said, “because it has the absolute possibility of changing people’s lives. It has already accomplished this for so many who have written in. Just look at some of the comments on any Facebook post [@InsideTheChosen]
“God is using this project as a vessel to reach people at a time where so many are lost and searching for meaning in their lives. The truth of who Jesus was is being reintroduced in a way that has never been done before, and I’m just so honored to be a small part of it.”
A Peek Behind the Scenes
Because this is a crowdfunded show without Hollywood’s deep pockets, the production team has to be very frugal and creative. But they have the right director to pull it off. “Dallas has this incredible skill of squeezing every penny out of the budget,” Faraci said. “When Dallas sent the Christmas pilot to me, I asked him, ‘How much did you make that for?’ Then when he told me, I said, ‘No, you did not.’ I just didn’t believe him because I know production budgets. How does one do that? This is Dallas’ passion project. He feels this whole life has led up to this moment. This is his purpose on earth, and it’s why God put him here.”
Yet even with budget limitations, the team has gotten phenomenal results. “The footage that we’ve seen has been jaw dropping,” Jenkins said. “We’ve had people visit the set and cast and crew and they’re looking in the monitors and saying, ‘Oh, my goodness, this show so far is going way better than we deserve.’ And so we just hope that people check out the behind-the-scenes videos that we’re releasing, and of course, watch that pilot episode.”
Production Designer James Cunningham has the overall responsibility for all visual aspects of the show, including sets and costumes. “We really wanted to portray as close as possible how life was in the first century because I think so many people idealize life back then,” he said. “It was a pretty tough world in first-century Judea and Rome. So we wanted to portray that as much as we could because I think a lot of times films make things look too pretty and too nice in period films and we wanted that dirty, gritty look.”
Cunningham noted an example of a challenge with set lighting, He had to balance authenticity with the demands of filming effectively. “All the lighting has to come from fire sources, and so we researched a lot about that and we found that oil lamps were king in that day because they had lots of olive oil at the time, although there was some candle use in the first century. We found that we had to take some artistic liberty, because candles produce better light and more light.”
Cunningham also described how they determined Peter’s house would look. “Some biblical scholars and historians have quite a few articles about Capernaum,” he said. “They have the footprint of Peter’s house. He actually had a pretty big house, which was surprising. And we modeled a little part of his house for the main living area of the set for Peter’s home because in the next few episodes is where they’re going to be having church. So we wanted to make the house big enough so down the road we could fit a lot of people in there. So we modeled his house around the real house of Peter.
“I think one of our biggest obstacles was just trying to acquire all that stuff with a small budget. We used a lot of stuff over and over again,” he explained. “Then there’s a lot of the miracles — like the miracle of the fish was a huge challenge. At first we going to use real fish, but then we found out we couldn’t because of restrictions with animals and then we ended up having to do CGI [Computer Generated Imagery] for it.
“And then coming up, we have the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The good thing is that we have a lot of the effects with CGI now, which can help us out with those, but some of them we have to do practically. There are more scenes coming up like Jesus walking on the water. That will be an interesting one to figure out. So there are a lot of definite challenges ahead. But it’s exciting at the same time.”
Cunningham hires experts to create the items they need for filming. They’re truly tops in their field. Costume designer Paméla Incardona, for example, has a master’s degree in costume design and has been working in the industry for 22 years. She spent weeks researching designs and fabrics, but found that there really isn’t as much certainty about clothing from that period as one might expect, simply because relatively little has survived the centuries. “Pottery can be verified. Bone. Things that lasted through time, but fabric doesn’t last,” she said.
Incardona has faced other challenges as well. Challenges that the average viewer wouldn’t even think about. To create an effective scene, for instance, there must be variety in the colors and textures of fabrics among the actors. So she had to carefully plan that by assigning different color palettes to each of the principal actors.
Incardona also had to take into consideration the various economic levels of the characters, so tunics had to be different lengths. The common people wore shorter tunics because more fabric cost more money. And the costume colors are limited by the dyes available at the time, such as pomegranate. To simulate wear, she washed cloth repeatedly, sanded it, and frayed it. Because of the tight production schedule and the fact that she was the only costume designer — and for most of the time, the only seamstress as well — she was under constant time pressure, often working 18 hours or more per day. “It was running and gunning throughout the entire show,” she said.
In spite of the incredible pressures and demands of shooting on a deadline, it’s a labor of love for the crew because they know the eternal purpose behind it. “If we can help the audience encounter Jesus through the eyes of those who actually met Him, the audience can perhaps be impacted in the same way that they were,” Jenkins said. “The light of the silver screen is one of the key ways to be a light to the world,” Rabbi Sobel commented.
Follow The Chosen on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. Pastors can make arrangements to show The Chosen to their churches for free by filling out this request form http://bit.ly/TheChosen-FreeChurchScreening.
VidAngel’s Supporting Role
VidAngel (www.vidangel.com) is a subscription-based, $9.99 per month TV filtering service that allows users to mute or skip objectionable content from network-produced shows and movies distributed through streaming devices. In addition, a division of the company, VidAngel Studios, produces original content such as clean comedy. VidAngel was inspired by the vision behind The Chosen and enthusiastically took on the project. But without Hollywood’s huge budgets, it had to do fundraising to underwrite the enormous expenses involved in bringing a show to the air. The Chosen has seen tremendous success in finding support, becoming the No. 1 crowdfunded media project in history. “I think doing this as a crowdfunding enterprise by people who truly believe in it is the way to go. So we need finances, we need prayer,” Jenkins said. “We just hope that people will watch the pilot episode and spread it and share it to continue the impact.” The show is funded by everyday people investing in the production with a minimum $100 investment. Round 1 of fundraising brought in over $11 million from more than 15,000 people. For more information, visit the website and FAQ page.