Interview: Director David Batty on “The Gospel of Mark”

Posted on March 23, 2017 at 3:40 pm

Copyright LionsGate 2016
Copyright LionsGate 2016

Director David Batty is best known for documentaries, but he also made four simultaneous films about the life of Jesus (played by Selva Rasalingam) with every word from each of the gospels. I spoke to him about “The Gospel of Mark,” now available on DVD.

What is the most important thing you look for when you’re casting someone to play the role of Jesus?

Well, it’s somebody who looks and feels like Jesus. That’s the sort of silly, obvious thing. I think itm means somebody who has a presence. There are two things that for me you need to have for Jesus: one, he’s got to have physical presence so that if he’s in a room or a large scene with a lot of people you know immediately who Jesus is. And secondly, you’ve got to have a bit of a spiritual presence and that comes from being a good actor I think. I think the other thing actually which is important as well is the one thing that has always bugged me about other films about Jesus is that you often go for a sort of very Aryan white guys. There’s a sort of perception that Jesus was born in Europe or America. Well, he wasn’t. He was Jewish and he was Middle Eastern and so I wanted somebody who felt Middle Eastern. Bizarrely the actor that we used, Selva Rasalingam, who has now become a good friend of mine actually, he’s British but his background is actually Tamil. I think his father was Tamil, his mother was English or the other way around, but he has that Semitic feel to him, Selva, Semitic being Jewish, Middle East and that was very important to me.

How is the Gospel of Mark different from the other Gospels?

This is one film of four. What sort of fascinated me about the gospels is that it’s probably the only time in history where you have four full biographies of the same guy. They’ve all got similarities but they’ve all got differences and that’s what makes them interesting. The way I’ve always looked at it is a bit like four witnesses to an accident. If you ask four people who witnessed an accident to describe it they would all describe it in a slightly different way because they’ve each got a different angle and that’s what makes it interesting because you then get four different takes on the same life.

Now when we come specifically to Mark — it is obviously the shortest of the Gospels, it’s the first that’s generally thought by scholars to be the earliest although we always say “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,” it should actually Mark first and John the latest. Mark for me is sort of “action man Jesus.” It’s the sort of Jesus as superhero if you like because it’s a very quite breathless gospel. Things just happen bang, bang, bang, bang, one after another. It has its own pace. It’s got a lot of detail about his ministry but it keeps the story really quite short and sharp. I think that’s really what distinguishes it from the others. It was quite refreshing doing it from the others because it was so short and sharp because you know some of the others, they can get quite long and because parts of the ethos of the project that we were doing was that we could not take anything out. We have to do everything. With some of the longer ones after a while it gets a little tough but I think Mark was nice to come to because it was just woof, straight off, go.

Mark has a lot of focus on the miracles and not much on the origin story, isn’t that right?

That’s true; that’s what I mean when I say He is sort of an action man. He’s constantly going from one miracle, one event, to another; it’s like a series of very short sharp events building up this character who is a miracle worker.

Tell me a little bit about some of the research you did to ground it in history as well as in the text.

My background is documentaries and I’ve done a lot of films about the history of the Bible and such like so I knew the territory quite well. Our aim was always we wanted to be as authentic as we possibly could, hence when we were choosing the locations and so forth, one of the big things was “Where do you shoot this to be as authentic as possible?” A lot of people say, “Why don’t you shoot it in Israel itself? Well, Israel is quite a small country, very much a modern country now, a lot of the sites are sort of polluted by modern stuff. We looked through other countries that looked very similar. North Africa had a very similar vibe to Israel and we eventually hit home Morocco. A lot of Bible films have been shot there so there were a lot of sets that were already built. That was handy for us but more importantly I think the landscape really does look like what most people say first century Palestine looked like. It’s dusty and hot but it still has got olive groves. A lot of the villages particularly when you get out to the wilder parts of Morocco are still mud built, very simple. And also the people there looked very Biblical.

Everybody else apart from Selva was cast in Morocco and one worry I had was that we would bring an outside actor in and he would stick out like a sore thumb, he just wouldn’t feel like part of this community but they felt very much like he looked and because Morocco is not a Western country, a lot of the people look very natural, not polished. They have blemishes, bad teeth, they have sort of little tics and things that you’d spend a lot of time trying to create but they were already there. That was very nice.

The other big thing in terms of research that I wanted to do — as I understood it all the gospels originally were oral documents. They were passed down orally and then they were written down fairly late, some of them 100 years after the events and the more I talk to experts they say the reason why they were passed down orally is they were actually performed. People would have a story of a miracle or healing or something and around the campfire they would sit down and they would tell the story and it would be performed. And so, what I wanted to do was sort of bring that sense to it, trying to make it as authentic as possible. That is the way we should consume the Bible, as a performance not as a sort of read document. It’s something that needs to be done in public and experienced. And that was one of the things I would have in my mind when I was making the film.

Did you film all four at once?

We made a decision early on that we weren’t going to do four separate shoots. Jesus only had one life but it was four different perspectives on that life. So, what I didn’t want to do was to take each event and then film it four times.

We would film it once and some of the times we would have two cameras because that is the nature of how movies are made with multiple takes until you’ve got the particular one you wanted. I tried to replicate takes so that when I came to edit I would always have slightly different views depending on which gospel we were telling. So I re-cut each piece slightly differently, to make the scene shorter, longer, maybe try and alter the angle at which we see something happen just to sort of give that sense that the point of view that you were getting whether you were watching Matthew Mark Luke or John was slightly different, because presumably that is what happened with Jesus supposedly based on first-hand witnesses who were supposedly at these events but it was not the same one for each.

Tell me what you wanted from the music.

It was all composed. We tried to give it a different feel, with Mark because Mark has a sort of pacier feel to it and the music should add that. If you’ve got John which was sort of a much more cerebral character study, it’s sort of slower and bigger and maybe grander music. I think that was always my thinking on each of them, is that what we decided from the beginning — what’s the character of this gospel? Well then each of the elements needs to conform to that character.

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