This story first appeared in the March 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
There still are a few days before the crucifixion. It’s the last week of October in the scorching Moroccan desert, and the 36-day shoot for National Geographic Channel’s Killing Jesus is winding down. Making his way through a dingy temple set atop a steep hillside, Jesus Christ (actor Haaz Sleiman) hurls prop coins at snickering extras and rattles a cage full of live chickens before flipping a table like he’s gunning for his own reality show. The crowd gathered in the forgiving shade of video village remains transfixed, even during this umpteenth take, but his larger audience of goats seems downright blase in the sun.
This is what producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey hath wrought. The record-breaking 13.2 million viewers who tuned in to their 2013 History miniseries The Bible opened the floodgates to Christian-themed projects across film and television — everything from big-budget theatrical epics (Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings) to documentaries (CNN’s Finding Jesus) to event TV programming. Burnett and Downey’s own 12-part A.D.: The Bible Continues, which debuts April 5 (Easter) on NBC, is shooting just across the desert here in Ouarzazate, Morocco, a small studio town that has become a booming Jesus-flick factory. Nat Geo’s entry into the Christian canon, Killing Jesus (March 29 — Palm Sunday), is a potentially controversial telepic that casts the titular figure as more political agitator than passive religious icon.
With a $12 million budget, ‘Killing Jesus’ employed nearly 4,500 extras in Ouarzazate, Morocco, about 80 miles from Marrakech. “When you go through customs, don’t mention how close you got to the goats,” says one production assistant. “It will only cause you trouble.”
Killing Jesus also marks the network’s third collaboration with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who has sold more than 10 million books as a historical biographer with co-author Martin Dugard. But now, that association has added a new layer of intrigue around the project as O’Reilly has come under fire for claims he made about his time covering the Falklands War in 1982. Nothing factual in Killing Jesus has been challenged, but the allegations of inaccuracies have touched another O’Reilly book, Killing Kennedy, which has been accused of falsely stating that O’Reilly was present at the 1977 suicide of Lee Harvey Oswald‘s friend George de Mohrenschildt. O’Reilly has denounced the claims on his show; publisher Henry Holt and Co. stands by its author and says it has “no plans to look into this matter.”
Nat Geo execs privately hope the controversy actually will help its Killing Jesus ratings just as it has boosted O’Reilly’s Fox News tune-in. The previous Killing pics already rank as the No. 1 and No. 2 telecasts in Nat Geo history, with about 3.4 million viewers apiece. At a time when cable-ratings erosion has prompted identity crises for competitors A&E and History, the potential rewards for Nat Geo are compelling. Scripted television nearly always brings in new viewers. It can put a network in the awards conversation and commands significantly higher ad rates (in this case, as much as double that of Nat Geo’s usual unscripted fare). “It’s just drawing that right combination of new and existing viewers to that one night,” says Nat Geo Channels CEO Courteney Monroe. “These movies give us the opportunity to tackle the same subjects we do all year in what, I would argue, is a more entertaining way.”
Sitting beside an oasis tucked between the Atlas Mountains and the northwestern edge of the Sahara desert, Ouarzazate has been a production hub for everything from Martin Scorsese‘s The Last Temptation of Christ to Spike TV’s upcoming King Tut miniseries. “I’ve killed many Jesuses,” says Killing Jesus costumer Maurizio Torti, adjusting one priest’s headpiece. “Most of them in Ouarzazate.” In addition to the aesthetics, it helps that massive sets such as the one erected for Killing Jesus producers Scott Free Productions’ own $130 million Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven (2005) all still stand. Morocco’s film commission generally asks productions to leave sets intact in an effort to draw other projects with smaller budgets. “Ridley [Scott] shot four films there already,” says David W. Zucker, Scott Free’s president of television. “It’s the hands-down choice for something like this.”
Ouarzazate now plays host to three to five productions in the cooler months of the year, and, with few exceptions, castmembers almost exclusively stay at the only well-appointed hotel in town: Le Berbere Palace. The poolside scene looks like MTV Spring Break: Bethlehem, where attractive actors are liberated from their mornings and afternoons spent in ripe, unwashed robes, sharing sets with livestock. A few bronzed apostles from Killing Jesus are eager to talk about the swimsuit contest held just a few weeks earlier, when they faced off against the cast of A.D., the two actresses playing Mary Magdalene ultimately going head-to-head. “Actors have been sitting around the pool here for 30 or 40 years,” says Kelsey Grammer, who plays King Herod in Killing Jesus. “Sir Ben Kingsley is here doing something, and he tells me he was filming here 30 years ago at this same hotel.”
Disciples from the dueling Jesus projects typically gather by the pool for drinks before heading to one of the nearby French restaurants. “There’s a lot of incest between the two casts,” jokes Jesus himself, actor Sleiman, 38, who counts A.D.‘s Mary Magdalene (Chipo Chung) as one of his closest friends. “This material can weigh on you, though. Sometimes I just need to be alone in my hotel room and drink some wine.”
Ouarzazate did not become a hub because of its convenience. There typically are two flights in and out a day. Marrakech, the nearest big city, is a mere 80 miles away, but the drive between can clock in at a harrowing five hours through the mountains. Still, tax incentives, discount labor (like Killing Jesus‘ 4,500 extras) and the lack of neighboring conflict make it more appealing than Israel at the moment. Even if fall’s Ebola crisis in West Africa and the ensuing travel restrictions cast a bit of a pall for those who came in on flights from other African airports, it was the local water that proved to be the only real challenge. “We didn’t have one day where one member of the crew wasn’t out ill,” says Jesus director Christopher Menaul. “We had to replace a lot of people.”
Killing Jesus is the most expensive Nat Geo movie ever made. Its $12 million budget for a three-hour telepic is nearly 10 times the cost of its typical offering (original unscripted cable programming generally runs between $375,000 and $475,000 an hour). But despite the 21st Century Fox-co-owned network’s relationship with O’Reilly, Nat Geo had to fight to land the project. CNN tried to throw a reported $2.5 million at O’Reilly before former Nat Geo president Howard T. Owens lured him back. (Owens and former Nat Geo Channels CEO David Lyle both left in 2014 during a messy regime change that saw Monroe rise to CEO and David Hill assume the role of chairman.)
Like O’Reilly’s previous books and their film treatments, Killing Jesus examines a famous assassination with a narrative focusing on every player caught up in the inevitable conclusion. The history of Jesus is, of course, murkier than that of dead presidents, so O’Reilly and Dugard relied largely on the Bible and other religious texts when they pieced the story together. “The book is a good read; it’s an airplane read,” says Killing Jesus screenwriter Walon Green. But is it history? “Well, the gospels themselves aren’t really history. What I found appealing was that this wasn’t Son of God, it’s something political.”
Son of God, the abridged theatrical version of Burnett and Downey’s The Bible, grossed $67 million worldwide last year. That’s the power of the Christian audience when it backs a project. But that audience is fickle, as producers of the big-budget Exodus learned in the fall with a $65 million domestic gross, far below projections. Christian advocacy group Faith Driven Consumer claims 41 million Americans, who collectively spend $2 trillion annually, take religion into consideration before choosing what content they watch. The downside is that religious watchdogs can rally against films they deem posers. “This audience has a very distinct expectation,” says FDC founder Chris Stone, who also has urged his members to support the politics of Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby and launched the petition to reinstate Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson when he was suspended by A&E for likening homosexuality to bestiality. “Content creators’ ability to craft a story compatible with that expectation will be in direct proportion to their success.”
Three weeks before its premiere, Killing Jesus is just starting to screen for the media, Christian and otherwise, but its intentional avoidance of the miracles depicted in the New Testament certainly promises to rankle some religious audiences. And one scene presents a not-so-subtle sexual tension between the chaste son of God and his reformed prostitute pal Mary Magdalene. “It’s always tricky and provocative when you approach religion,” says executive producer Teri Weinberg, who also worked on Killing Lincoln and the Emmy-nominated Killing Kennedy. “But we want to be respectful and tell a human story.”
Nat Geo has courted Christian viewers at many points during the process. Different Drummer, a boutique marketing firm that tackles “aspirational” projects (the preferred term for faith-friendly film and TV) and worked on Exodus, was involved in script notes, Christian press visits to the set and the execution of the advertising campaign. “It’s not just to avoid any pitfalls — we want to identify where there are opportunities,” says Monroe, outwardly confident that Killing Jesus will be endorsed by the Christian crowd.
The project had its first run-in with drama during casting. Sleiman is the first Muslim-born actor to tackle the role in a project of this scope, a fact that riled more than a few Internet trolls. But casting a Middle Eastern man — Sleiman hails from Lebanon — was part of the authenticity producers sought. “We don’t want Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings,” says O’Reilly, referring to the white actor who starred as Jesus in the 1961 film. “That would be ridiculous and insulting. What would Jesus do if he was the casting agent? Would he say, ‘No Muslims’?”
O’Reilly’s role in the Killing films includes input on script, casting and edits. He declined to be interviewed again to address the recent accusations involving his credibility. Regardless of the controversy, this likely is the last collaboration between O’Reilly and Nat Geo for the foreseeable future. Sources say that despite interest from several networks, O’Reilly actively is pitching his latest tome and the fastest selling yet, Killing Patton, about the World War II general, as a feature film.
For now, though, Nat Geo executives believe that the various controversies and the man at the center of them (and his 3 million-plus nightly Fox News viewers) are only helping bring attention to the project. “Bill has been a terrific partner through the entire production of the Killing franchise,” says Monroe. “His passion for these projects is unwavering, and one of the reasons for their success is his commitment to working with us in all efforts to promote the films.”