Tales from the 'Killing Jesus' set: Babel, Jeselfies and more
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...
LOGISTICS, PART I. Ouarzazate isn't the easiest place to get to, but it isn't hard. The Aeroport de Ouarzazate is serviced by Royal Air Maroc, an airline that absolutely, positively is capable of getting you to the location you need to get to. End praise.
Aeroport de Ouarzazate has several daily flights to and from Casablanca, with small planes that treat the airport like a bus stop, pausing on the tarmac long enough to hope you've noticed this is your stop, causing a frazzled disembarkation process as you realize how close you came to ending up at the next stop on the route, no doubt a nice place, but probably not home to production on a string of Hollywood Biblical epics.
My exposure to Casablanca comes at six in the morning after a regular-length flight from LA-to-JFK and a much longer red-eye. Taxiing across the Casablanca airfield with dawn yet to break, I make a joke about this being the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Nobody laughs.
John Rhys-Davies is a veteran of the sort of movies and TV shows that are filmed in and around Morocco and he has a history with Ouarzazate.
"A little town like Ouarzazate, which is just booming, you should have seen it when I came here first about 20, 30 years ago and then even 10, 15 years ago," Rhys-Davies says. "There are new buildings going up. Probably 60 to 80 percent of the town's wealth, employment derives one way or another from the film industry and in their heart of hearts, they must be terrified, because they know that The Beast is coming."
Ominous words, but Ouarzazate is becoming a fairly modern city. Voyeuristic stories about the Middle East often refer to people who "look like they stepped out of the Bible" and I guess there's some of that, but there's also steady traffic and the rooftops are dotted with satellite dishes. Maybe what Rhys-Davies means when he talks about The Beast is Western commercial interests. Ouarzazate may host hordes from the entertainment industry, but it's blissfully Starbucks-free, which cannot be said of Marrakech, for example.
Rhys-Davies traces the transformation from the Ouarzazate he knew years ago, to the Ouarzazate he now sees.
"The people were just as wonderful," he says. "The poverty was more apparent. The fields still brought their crop of stones every year. What film's brought here is a real sense of modernism, of being part of the modern, civil world. It's brought prosperity it's brought these people the sense of belonging to an international community. You look at this cast and the crew? They are from all nations, all religions. And our job is to get on and make things happen, make it work."