I reviewed 40 Nights, the first entry in DJ Perry's The Quest Trilogy, last month and Perry was kind enough to do me an interview to share with you all. Whilst he's clearly motivated by his faith it's good to read a Christian filmmaker discuss his work without feeling he's using God as the key element in a sales pitch.
BFB: When did you first start dreaming about this project and how did it start to come together?
I've always had a natural relationship with God from a very young age. There are so many amazing, breathtaking things in our vast known universe that the idea of God is an easy fit for most to understand. But Jesus? For me I've always been fascinated by Jesus, also realizing that everything we know has been subject to the flaws of memory, translation and additions and deletions meant to serve the human agenda. As a child of five, I recall looking deep into people's eyes who said they KNEW Jesus and I realized that for many, they were just words. It would be like, I KNOW GEORGE WASHINGTON, but they don't. They might know some words he spoke and actions he took but do they KNOW him? Now add a few thousand years or so and Jesus becomes more myth than man. Could a story about the humble beginnings of this man change that? Could people feel like they KNOW Jesus? I've always said, if Jesus came back the medium of film for storytelling (entertain and educate) might be something he would use to spread his message.
I had played Benjamin in "The Book of Ruth, Journey of Faith" and many remarked on my look, it was reminding people of Jesus. I was also chosen from a 27 country search to play Jesus in a major studio release that put the entire Jesus story in the modern day. I had agreements in place and things looked good for the epic but it went south and was put into turn around. (Studio kill) My studies into the man kept bringing me back to the 40 nights in the wilderness. It was before all the grand stories we all know. I felt the conflict and weight that he must have felt, that sacrifice would bring. The inspiration to actually put the story to the page just came to me. I like to use the story of Noah as an example. If God came and told Noah to build a boat you don't question, you just do. So we built our "40 Nights" boat and just hope it floats. It lacks the mega P&A money for a wide theatrical release but it does play wonderful on the BIG SCREEN. Lightworx Distribution/Randy Maricle was the last piece of the puzzle that made it all come together. They are handling distribution our QUEST TRILOGY.
BFB: What was the budget for the project and how did you go about getting it together?
This film and actually all three in the trilogy are made for a modest amount of money. I felt these films NEEDED to be made and not sit in development hell for a decade. I've done much larger films but everyone cast and crew worked for a modest wage. For actors it was scale across the board and people came on board because of the love of the story. Let's just say that everyone who knows the budget is amazed at the end product. We also pride ourselves at staying on schedule and on budget which we continue to do. All the money came from private investors and we often have to turn investors away. I don't want to have more money just to have more money. But all our budgets are coming from private investors who really feel the power in our scripts/stories.
BFB: I like that there's a bit more steel about this Jesus. Satan says at one point "I like this anger in you Jesus it shows that you are human". How much of this is because essentially what we're seeing is spiritual/internal or will this continue into the other films? Have you had much reaction to that?
I've had so many people while filming and after viewing our movie shake my hand and tell me how much they appreciate the strong take on Jesus. He has been painted as this character floating through - a victim of circumstance. This is a man who worked with his hands and walked great distances. His intensity was showcased in the temple when he was flipping tables. He is weakened by choice to know what human weakness is. Our film does show Jesus in a stronger light versus many other films. The reaction to the choice has been extremely positive.
BFB: With you being producer, writer and star I'm really interested in how your working relationship with Jessie Low functioned?
My relationship with all directors is one of respect. They respect the business of what we are doing and I try to provide as much creative freedom within those lines. I was more hands on in this trilogy since they are all part of a greater vision. The camera work and music are two things that remain true throughout the three films. The directors will all likely be different. Jesse Low directed "40 Nights" and Bret Miller directed "Chasing the Star" and "The Christ Slayer" is TBD.
BFB: (Was he (Jesse) someone you brought in once the wheels were in motion, or was he there from the earliest stage, did it have to be him, or was he a choice from a few options.
I interviewed many directors to find the one who shared my approach for the trilogy. The wheels were in motion first as a Collective Development Inc. development project but once Jesse was brought in we spent weeks going over every scene, line and moment. Once we worked through that process he was given a lot of freedom.
BFB: Where did the lines lie with artistic vision etc? Were there any choices he wanted to make and you weren't sure but deferred to him?
If the choice did not affect the "business" I tried to defer to him. The producers and our director (Jesse) as a team worked through casting, crew, locations and such. Once I've signed off on the script I like to direct all creative questions towards the director. I also try to protect the subjective and creative "lines" making the choices of our director Larry weight once he is in motion. A few words and phrases, scenes changed and Jesse's visual stylistic choices are all over the film. Jesse Aragon our director of photography also worked great with our overall vision.
BFB: The experience of going without food and water felt very much more real in your film than the other Jesus films. Is this something that you and the team have much experience of (method-acting? or as part of your faith?)
I am very method in my approach to acting. That said, I did not truly fast while filming but being in the Yuma desert gives you that real stimulus. I did find myself NOT drinking as often on set to create that thirst in your eyes. I really did travel that harsh place in robe and sandals bleeding daily to get our scenes. This is a good place to bring up one funny question. People have said, I thought Jesus's robe would be longer. I'm sure Jesus has short, medium and long robes and a heavy goat coat for when it was cold. When you ACTUALLY walk through the desert your robe hikes up and anything past the knees will trip you up. You would be tearing the robe off at a certain point to allow free travel. I think that is the result of too many Jesus actors walking around on sets versus in the actual harsh desert. So functional is the word when it comes to robes in the wilderness.
BFB: 40 days is the first of three films, so what made you decide to do it that way?
I wanted to participate in some long format story telling with is why Netflix, Amazon, Hulu opening studios is exciting because I think TV series might be in our future. I was also greatly inspired by the Star Wars original trilogy. I love the look and the dramatic impact of the characters. That can be seen in our films. So if you want to see biblical stories told with a Star Wars twist take a watch. You can see the influence in there I'm sure.
BFB: Which parts of the story are you going to cover in the next two films?
The next film now in editing is "Chasing the Star" and is about the quest of the magi seeking the newborn Jesus. All three films share topics of sacrifice and the personal quest within them. The last installment entitled "The Christ Slayer," is a beautiful story that combines two events from the bible into a deep and moving conclusion to our trilogy. We're talking with directors and a few actors - many who are seeking us out upon hearing what we're doing.
BFB: The film everyone will want to compare this with is Ewan McGregor's "Last Days in the Desert". Have you seen it? If so what did you think/If not do you plan to? (I haven't yet). Do you think it helps your film or might reduce your audience? Did Ewan call up for tips?
I have heard about but I've not seen Ewan McGregor's film. I will likely watch it on Netflix or such when it comes to TV. I think it can only help and I believe the films to be different. As I understand it - their story fictionalizes a side story as Jesus is leaving the desert. I would love to have a beer with Ewan and talk about our shared experiences playing Jesus. Call me Ewan:)
BFB: Anything else to add?
I'm proud of the people who worked so hard on this film and hope it will be around for many years. I hope people take away a better understanding of the man and are inspired to be better people overall. I think the film has something for everyone and it doesn't require you to be a Christian to get the message. It challenges us to be better. I will accept that challenge.