The movie Risen, released in theaters by Sony on February 19, 2016, harkens back to the days of the great religious filmmaking of the 1950s, but it feels fresh and is much more intriguing. Risen succeeds most by causing the viewer to want to know more.
Set at the time just before Christ’s side is pierced, Risen is about a Roman soldier named Tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) who Pontius Pilot delegates to investigate what happened to Christ’s missing body. Tribune Clavius saw Jesus die upon the cross, so he rationally knows that the “King of the Jews” is deceased. Nevertheless he interrogates witnesses and searches until he is confronted with the impossible—the resurrected Christ.
Catholic Digest talked with one of its producers, Pete Shilaimon, about Risen, being Catholic, and how he and his family escaped Iraq when he was a child because of war and religious persecution.
What was it about the Risen script that made you want to produce it?
We talk so much about the crucifixion, which is such a horrific and sad event. I wanted to make a movie that would be uplifting and make people hope. I loved that the film was from the point of view of a nonbeliever, Clavius, because there are so many unbelievers out there.
Does your Catholic faith influence what films you decide to produce?
I’m Iraqi, so I’m a Chaldean Catholic. I grew up in a very strict Catholic home; my mom and dad exposed us to all the incredible Catholic teachings. In the past when I would make a horror movie or a movie I wasn’t passionate about, my mom would always tell me, “Pete, you’ve got to make movies that matter.”
Making Risen was an epiphany moment for me; it changed my life regarding the kind of movies I want to make. While being at the crucifixion site and some of the other sites, I heard something inside of me saying, “Make movies that matter—about love, hope, and all of those wonderful things that make us human; make movies that speak to people on all levels.”
You must feel good now that you’re making edifying movies that please your mom.
Let me tell you, she came to visit me on set and she had a smile from ear to ear. It was so incredible. My mom and dad risked their lives to get us from Iraq to America for political reasons, but also for religious reasons. They sacrificed everything so they could practice Catholicism and not be shunned for it. To give the gift of this movie to her and so many other people out there was the biggest God-moment I’ve ever experienced; it means a lot to me.
Some producers are involved in all aspects of making a film. In what ways were you involved in the making of Risen?
I was involved in every single aspect. From every draft to every note, the producers [including Mickey Liddell and Patrick Aiello] on the project worked day and night to bring this movie to the screen. I was the only producer who stayed on for the entire production, which started in Malta and ended in Spain, with the post-production completed in London and Toronto. I had my hand in everything from costumes and visuals to the location. To tell a story like this, you have to throw yourself in 100 percent or you won’t do the movie justice.
After I got past Jesus not looking like Jim Caviezel (The Passion of The Christ), I thought Cliff Curtis was an excellent and convincing choice. Will you say a little about the casting process for this film and why you cast Curtis in the role of Jesus?
It was one of the toughest roles to cast. Like you, I thought, How can anyone do the role justice like Jim did? For us the question was, do we try to find another Jim to play Jesus or do we go completely opposite? We decided to go for another look. It might have been risky, but we’ve heard from our screenings that people really like our choice.
Cliff Curtis actually reached out to us. He told us that Jesus was the one role that he always wanted to portray. Cliff is the most passionate actor I have ever known. To fit into the role, he went on a drastic diet because he had gained a lot of weight for a previous role. He also took a vow of silence—which was incredible. He didn’t talk to anyone, including his wife and children, for a month before filming started. While he was on the set with us, he spoke to nobody. All he did was smile and nod. The only communication he had with the director or producers was with paper and pen. He wanted to stay silent to feel the role, so the only time we heard him speak was when he spoke as Jesus in the movie.
Joseph Fiennes is riveting in the role of Tribune Clavius. What’s the backstory behind casting Fiennes?
As soon as Joseph heard about the script, he reached out to us. He said, “I love this role. What do I have to do to get it?” He was cast one hour after our director met with him.
He did a lot of studying and came prepared. He even went to boot camp training to learn how to be a Roman soldier.
Was it important to you that the movie be faithful to the Bible?
Yes, absolutely, or I would not have made it. With religion, you can take very little creative license, and you have to be careful not to hurt anyone in the process. It’s a disgrace if you take full creative license when dealing with biblical subject matter.
In which scenes do you think you took the most creative license?
There’s a scene in the movie where Jesus heals a leper. The healing was supposed to have been more of a spiritual healing rather than a physical healing. It was one of those moments where I thought I would be cheating people if the movie didn’t portray a full physical healing. It’s one of my favorite scenes.
Hollywood has begun to make more religious films. Why do you think this is—money or faith?
I think you have to approach it both ways. If we make a good amount of money on Risen, I want to do Risen II and other Bible stories. I made Risen for myself, for my mother, and for all the Claviuses out there. I would like to make more religious movies for people who are questioning.
In one of the screenings we had in Dallas, a 14-year-old girl was on the 20-person panel who stayed behind to discuss the film. She said she had no clue what this movie was going to be about—except that it was going to be about the resurrection—but she felt the movie was so powerful that she was going to go home that day and get on Google and research what she saw portrayed. This says to me that people are hungry.
Non-believers who attended screenings of Risen said they would recommend the film to their friends.
On a personal note, can you say a little bit more about escaping Iraq with your family?
I was born in 1971, and we left in 1980 during the Iraq-Iran war when the two countries began attacking each other. We got on a boat and fled Iraq to Greece to wait for our green cards to America. My father literally lost everything he had. We left our home and our family. He knew that if we didn’t leave, my older brothers, ages 13 and 11, and I would probably have ended up dead. It also was becoming more and more difficult to practice our Catholic faith in Iraq.
Considering that you were a refugee, what do you think of the current plight of the Christian refugees?
I can’t even talk about it without feeling such pain.
Around five or six years ago, my cousin fled Iraq, and on her way into Turkey, her boat sank and she, her husband, and four children all drowned. My paternal uncle fled his home in Mosul, Iraq, about two years ago. He’s now living in Turkey. My maternal uncle also fled and is currently living in Germany. He found a notice on his door that basically said, “You need to flee, or you need to join our Muslim faith.” When you join the Muslim faith, you then must pay taxes to become a Muslim. If you choose not join, you’ll be killed. Both sides of my family have all been displaced; we no longer have any family left in Iraq.
When I see all that is going on now, I don’t even know what to make of it. I just pray and hope and send money when I can.