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...