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A Hollywood conversion story: The making of ‘Paul, Apostle of Christ’

Paul, Apostle of Christ

Affirm Films

John Burger - published on 03/24/18

Movie starring Jim Caviezel and James Faulkner was steeped in prayer from inception

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Actor James Faulkner, perhaps best known for his roles in Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, had just returned from a “difficult” shoot in the English countryside and was relaxing with a glass of whisky in his London home. It was near midnight when the phone rang.

“It’s my manager from L.A.,” he recounted in a recent interview. “‘What’s your availability, James?’ ‘Well, as of five hours ago, you have me.’ He said, ‘Great, don’t move, I’ll get back to you in 10 minutes.’

“He calls me back in 10 minutes and says, ‘In three days time you’re going to Malta. There’s a script on your email. I want you to read it and get straight back to me. It’s a wonderful script. It’s something I’ve had in mind for you for several months, and it’s finally open.'”

Faulkner said he was “very moved” by what he read.

“I called him straight back and said, ‘Look I have to play this part.’ It’s a wonderful part,” he said. “It’s an important film for its time, for the Christian faith to reassert itself.”

The script came from the hand of Andrew Hyatt, 35, who previously wrote Full of Grace, a 2016 film about the final days of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But his latest effort, Paul, Apostle of Christ, is a result of a prayer-filled collaboration with other professionals and many supporters as much as it is a product of creative genius. The film’s early crafting took place in a retreat house outside Chicago, and its development was lifted up in the prayers of many supporters.

Long before Faulkner was tapped to portray St. Paul, and Jim Caviezel St. Luke, Hyatt was meeting with producers Eric Groth and Terence “T.J.” Berden at Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House in Barrington, Illinois. Jesuit Fr. J. Michael Sparough, who is on the ministry team there, knew Berden from his days directing campus ministry at Loyola University in Chicago.

“He was the most talented actor in the acting program at Loyola at the time,” said Fr. Sparough, who studied theater directing at Yale and was founder of the Fountain Square Fools Christian theater company. “So I recruited him to act in a number of the productions that I would regularly use. Part of my own way of presenting the Gospel message is to use drama, dance, mime and music as a way to dramatize biblical stories in the context of days of prayer or retreats. T.J. was highly involved in the young adult ministry and acted in a number of days of prayer.”

The two kept in touch after Berden’s graduation. Berden began developing movies for ODB Films, a Catholic production company headed by Eric Groth. Berden collaborated with Hyatt on Full of Grace and other films exploring the biblical genre from an artistic and human point of view.

More to read: Jim Caviezel talks about his spiritual preparation for ‘Paul, Apostle of Christ’

In an interview, Hyatt said that Full of Grace was his “attempt to kind of find what I felt like I had never really been exposed to in a lot of my faith experiences, which is the humanity behind these individuals. … Now we’re kind of exploring Paul. So that’s where the writing started, in asking ‘How can I give audiences a glimpse of the humanity of this amazing man?'”

He added that Paul’s story resonated in him, as he himself had had a “very powerful reconversion back to the faith—very much a Saul moment.”

As he considered how to dramatize St. Paul’s life, he kept wondering, “Where is the moment we’re going to experience who this guy really is?”

“And it kind of kept coming up that I was fascinated by the idea, ‘Who is Paul at the end of his life? Who is this guy that says at the end of his life, ‘I’ve fought the good fight, I’ve finished the race, I’ve kept the faith?’… So it kind of became, ‘Okay let’s focus it there, and let Paul speak. … At the end of his life, how would he speak, what would he be saying?'”

Berden sent Fr. Sparough early versions of the script, which had the working title “Chief of Sinners.” The retreat master/spiritual director is not a scripture scholar, but he felt he had something to offer, not only from his own background in theater but also from his experience leading pilgrimages to Greece and Turkey “in the footsteps of St. Paul.” Sparough met with Hyatt to give him feedback on the script, and in time the group got together for a retreat to discuss the script and “seek the Lord’s blessing on the project,” the priest said. The team wanted to “immerse themselves in prayer,” he added, “to tap into their own deepest instincts as storytellers but also to seek spiritual protection.”

“So they came out here one December, and it was the first read-through of the entire script—the first time it was read aloud. Andrew asked me to read St. Paul so he could sit back and hear the words read aloud.”

Why would the group “seek spiritual protection”?

In an interview, Fr. Sparough reflected on what he sees as a “strong spiritual component to the artistic process,” explaining: “You’re trying to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, and there’s spiritual warfare, spiritual opposition that comes against it, and I was very impressed that just before they started, after they had signed the contract [with Sony], before they went over to Malta for shooting, they gathered together a prayer support team of people who had been supporters—some financial, many of them spiritual supporters, prayer warriors, if you will.” At one point, Bishop David Malloy of Rockford, Illinois, presided at a Mass for the group, which dedicated the film to Our Lady Star of the New Evangelization.

“There was this team of people who were regularly praying for the film before the production, during the production and after the production,” Fr. Sparough said.

“One of the things I really admire about ODB is that they’re dedicated to the highest standards of filmmaking and doing that as Catholic Christians,” the priest continued. “So, not compromising in any way the artistic integrity but bringing a deep faith to the project. Given the fact that T.J. and Eric are devout Catholics and Andrew a more recent convert, the Catholic imagination is less literal than the evangelical Christian imagination when it comes to filmmaking. They didn’t want a film on St. Paul that was going to hit people over the head with message, message message, but that there would be a compelling story and the characters would really come to life. And that was the struggle in writing the script all along, in how do you balance a film in not making it heavy handed but really a compelling dramatic story?”

Of his experience filming in Malta, Hyatt said, “The best experience was just watching this cast and crew care so much about Paul’s story. And this was not a Church-made movie or a Christian crew, but to see how even the people who had never heard the Gospel before, never heard Paul’s words before, how impacted they were. By watching James [Faulkner] perform and watching these beautiful intimate moments between the Christian community [in the story]—that was pretty special. I looked around and I would see people in tears, in certain very emotional moments with Paul and the early Christian Church, to look around and see an entire cast and crew in tears, that was very special.”

It helped that Malta was one of the places St. Paul had visited on his evangelizing journeys around the Mediterranean 2,000 years ago.

Faulkner, who describes himself as a “lightly practicing” Anglican, recalled the Christian education he received growing up. “You are taught to turn the other cheek and love your fellow man. But playing Paul brought that home to me very very strongly—a man who suffered hugely throughout his life. I have not had to go through what Paul went through. Very few people do,” he said. “The physical exigencies of his life—the traveling, the constant persecution, the floggings, the beatings, the hardships he went through, he was still able to love his fellow man and find redemption and still preach to them redemption. The fact that it was never too late for them to change their ways, I think, is so clear from the script.”

Paul, Apostle of Christ opens in theaters on March 23.

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