EXCLUSIVE: As Darren Aronofsky’s Noah gets ready to set sail and iconic directors Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg forge ahead with epics about Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, faithful Biblical epics are flourishing in Hollywood. It looks like there is even room for one that takes the most controversial look at the life of Jesus Christ since Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ.
I’m told that Muse Productions’ Chris Hanley, whose credits include American Psycho, has stepped up to finance development of a film about Christ. It will be based on Jesus Of Nazareth, a book that director Paul Verhoeven co-wrote after immersing himself in the history and researching the subject for nearly two decades. Verhoeven plans to direct the film, which will be written by Roger Avary. Avary shared the Academy Award for Best Original Script with Quentin Tarantino for Pulp Fiction.
Verhoeven’s take on the life of Jesus Christ discounts all the miracles that inform the New Testament. That includes the virgin birth and the resurrection. Verhoeven doesn’t believe any of them happened. I wrote about Verhoeven’s ambitions in spring 2011, as he and his reps at ICM first tried to find funding — no small feat given some of the theories he put forth in the book.The most controversial: that Jesus might have been the product of his mother being raped by a Roman soldier, which Verhoeven said was commonplace at the time, and that Jesus was a radical prophet who performed exorcisms and was convinced he would find the kingdom of Heaven on earth, and did not know he would be sentenced to die on the cross by Pontius Pilate. That, and the discounting of the miracles that pepper the New Testament, has made this a daunting project to set up. But while Verhoeven’s film credits include Showgirls (as well as hits like Robocop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct), he isn’t trying to tantalize here. He is fixated on Christ not for the miracles depicted in the blockbuster film The Passion Of The Christ, but rather in the enduring power of the message Christ preached which has kept him first and foremost in the minds of Christians for 2000 years. Verhoeven feels too many take Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins as a free pass to misbehave, because they think they don’t have to take responsibility for their actions. He feels that the value of Christ’s journey is the opportunity to emulate his life and the values he held dear, like forgiveness.
“If you look at the man, it’s clear you have a person who was completely innovative in the field of ethics,” Verhoeven told me last year. “My own passion for Jesus came when I started to realize that. It’s not about miracles, it’s about a new set of ethics, an openness towards the world, which was anathema in a Roman-dominated world. I believe he was crucified because they felt that politically, he was a dangerous person whose following was getting bigger and bigger. Jesus’ ideals are about the utopia of human behavior, about how we should treat each other, how we should step into the shoes of our enemy.”
Elsewhere on the movie Bible belt, Prometheus director Scott and his Scott Free have become attached to Exodus, a project that had already been set at Fox with Chernin Entertainment. It’s from a script by Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, the Tower Heist scribes who reinvented themselves with this project and a version of Moby Dick that Timur Bekmambetov has been developing.
That puts Fox and Warner Bros in competition on Moses movies, as Steven Spielberg continues to circle Gods And Kings, the Stuart Hazeldine- and Michael Green-scripted epic. Now, both directors have more films than they know what to do with, but I’m told this has become a real race. Scott is prepping his next film The Counselor, the Cormac McCarthy-scripted drama with Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz for Fox. Spielberg, who is in post production on Lincoln, is readying Robopocalypse at DreamWorks as his next film. There seems a great opportunity to update The Ten Commandments, but I doubt there is room for more than one.
The other major ancient religious-themed project, the film about Judah Macabee that Mel Gibson set at Warner Bros with the intention of directing a Braveheart-style film about the events that are commemorated at Hanukkah, seems to have imploded because of discord between Gibson and the screenwriter he hired, Joe Eszterhas. They had a falling out, one I’ve heard stemmed from Eszterhas showing up without having put in the work to transfer Gibson’s ideas for the movie to the page. Eszterhas, in turn, taped Gibson getting angry and yelling at him, and the formerly highly paid scribe has turned the controversy into what seems like a plea for attention, even publishing an e-book about his experiences with Gibson. But if Gibson said even a portion of the things Eszterhas claims he said about Jews, Gibson should find another subject for his next directing assignment because he is missing a sensitivity chip, along with more than a few marbles.
Verhoeven doesn’t have that kind of baggage coming into the Jesus Christ project, but he is treading on territory that Christians universally would label as blasphemous. The film seems to have landed in the appropriate place, as a gritty and controversial independent film. Both Verhoeven and Avary are repped by ICM Partners, which did not comment, nor did Hanley return my call.