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Interview: Magaret Koval

Magaret Koval

How did you become interested in making a film about earliest Christianity?

Two years ago, when I was writing The Roman Empire in the First Century, I was scouring ancient sources in search of first-person accounts of life in antiquity. I was delighted to see that so many deeply personal writings had survived but, as is so often the case with pre-modern history, I was a little disheartened that most of the surviving documents were written by elites. It was very hard for me as a filmmaker to give voice to the experiences of anybody but the very wealthy and even harder to animate non-Romans -- people from Gaul, Brittania, or Judea, for example. Saul of Tarsus, best known as Paul, was an eloquent exception to that rule. Not only was Saul/Paul born in modern-day Turkey but he represented one of the empire's most important minorities: the Jews. He traveled extensively and, best of all, left copious writings behind. After all, the "Epistles of Paul" which are now enshrined in the Christian Bible, were actual letters written by Paul as he walked the Roman roads, spreading his vision of the risen Jesus. Those letters are full of Paul's religious teachings, but if you read them carefully, you also get a strong flavor for the times, for his personality -- and a very different view of the early Jesus movement than the one I had learned as a child. I found that fascinating.

What sort of productions have you worked on before?

I have produced several historic documentary series that have aired on PBS. As I mentioned above, I developed and wrote a four-part series on ancient Rome that broadcast in 2001. I also produced three hours of an eight-part series about World War I that originated with KCET in Los Angeles. I've worked on a number of smaller documentaries, too, but before dedicating myself to PBS programming, my career was predominantly spent in broadcast journalism. I did a lot of news and feature work for ABC News -- most particularly the Nightline program.

Were you familiar with this period of history before taking on the job?

Yes. By producing The Roman Empire in the First Century, I became very conversant with the period, but not necessarily the place. Not only was ancient Judea very different from ancient Rome, but ancient Judaism was very different from modern Judaism -- thanks, in large measure, to the events that we document in this series. It took a lot of work to strip away all my modern ideas of religion and assess the historic moment of Peter and Paul on its own terms. But the effort was worth it: the story continually surprised me and offered new and unexpected insights into modern issues.

Through working on the series, have you changed your perceptions or ideas about anything or anyone from the period?

Absolutely. Most people raised within the modern Judeo-Christian tradition are accustomed to hearing that Paul of Tarsus "converted" from Judaism to Christianity after a vision on the road to Damascus. Well, if you read his letters carefully -- and if you talk to scholars who specialize in Pauline studies -- it becomes clear that Paul didn't convert because there was nothing to convert to. Christianity as we understand it today simply did not exist. Paul certainly joined forces with the new sect, but it was very self-consciously a Jewish sect. What Paul did do was become the focal point for a heated debate about who else could join that sect and under what terms. Could non-Jews join? It seems that most said yes. Did they have to convert to Judaism? It was this issue that polarized the early Jesus followers and it is explored at some length in our film.

How did you decide what to leave in and what to leave out?

When we set out to make this film, everyone involved agreed that it was more about history than about theology. Religious ideas and debates, of course, are key to that history -- and the film doesn't shy away from those discussions -- but we chose not to build the film's structure around them. Instead, it is structured around the career of Paul, mostly, and his evolving relationship with fellow Jesus followers such as Peter. That personal journey is our central storyline. It's full of great conflicts and dilemmas that enable the film to introduce other topics which, inevitably, take a back seat to the story of Peter and Paul.

What was the biggest challenge during filming, and why?

The biggest challenge in filming any pre-photographic history is to find historically accurate visuals. This was particularly true for this project. Whereas many monumental buildings and even some towns from ancient Rome have survived, the same is not true in ancient Judea. The Jewish Temple, of course, was burnt to the ground by Roman Troops and much of Jerusalem was destroyed. Villages were made of perishable materials and -- without a volcano like Vesuvius to entomb them -- they simply didn't survive the millennia. And to make things even harder, religious considerations as a rule prevented first century Jews from producing narrative art. It is hard enough to find authentic, period images of people: let alone representations of the poor followers of Jesus. The marble portrait busts of wealthy Romans from the same period were simply not available to us. These constraints led us to embrace a new style that works remarkably well. Borrowing the tools of feature filmmakers, we took our production to the deserts of Morocco and shot in beautiful reconstructions of ancient Middle Eastern cities. The local population was tapped to appear as extras and we brought our art director from Israel to dress the sets with as much authenticity as possible.

What is your favorite part of the series?

In general, my greatest satisfaction comes from watching the series as a whole. The locations we used, as well as the art, props, and sets, convey a remarkably palpable sense of what Peter and Paul's world would have been like. If I had to choose a single scene, though, I would say I'm fondest of the scene towards the end where the Romans burn down the temple of Jerusalem. After watching the full two hours, the carnage implied by that scene really hits home as a history changing moment.

Interview: Pat Aste

Pat Aste

How did you become interested in making a film about earliest Christianity?

I became interested in early Christianity during the course of working on The Roman Empire in the First Century. One of the episodes of the series briefly touched on the Jesus movement that started in the first century. As we explored the history of that era in the Roman Empire as filmmakers, it was a wonder to me how early Christianity could have ever blossomed, under the terribly oppressive rule of Rome.

What sort of productions have you worked on before?

I've been in the television production business for 27 years. My first 10 years were working at PBS stations KCTS and WBGU-TV. The combination of my overall television experience and my language skills led me to work on many international productions.

Through working on the series, have you changed your perceptions or ideas about anything or anyone from the period?

My perception changed a lot about both early Christianity and Peter and Paul. I did not realize how truly amazing it was that the beliefs a small band of people could change the world as we know it. Against all odds, this group of improvished people called the Jesus movement was able to spread the word of Jesus throughout the vast Roman Empire. I also did not realize how controversial and important Paul was to early Christianity. Paul had a revelation that changed the history of the world. I have often wondered how we perceive a man like Paul today.

What was the biggest challenge during filming, and why?

Filming in an international arena is never easy. The biggest challenge we faced during the filming was working in Morocco. Our overall experience in Morocco was wonderful. We found the crew, artisans and extras fabulous. Our Moroccan producer was world class as was our assistant director. Koval Films is a women owned company, and, as such, the basic work environment was sometimes trying. Adjusting to how the Moroccan men negotiate and conduct business with women was not what we were accustomed to. We were also surprisingly challenged in Greece. The Greek archeological authorities denied us our permits to film in Athens at the very last minute. We had to scramble for a plan of action since I had a full crew in place for so many filming dates in Greece

What about the post-production?

The post production of this project went fairly smoothly. The only uncertainty , as in all projects filmed abroad, was getting the film to the lab in another country and go through all the security necessary When we were in Morocco the film had to go to London to get developed. The camera rolls had to get hand carried to Casablanca then freighted overnight to London. We wouldn't get a negative report for more than 3 or 4 days. The developed negative would travel again and get telecined in Los Angeles. There were many opportunities for the film to get damaged. I was never at ease until I saw the material get transferred to tape.

In hindsight, what would you have done differently?

The only thing I would have done differently for this production was to scout Morocco earlier. Margaret and I scouted extensively thru Europe looking for places that could work for us. We started in Malta, where I had found an Italian production company filming a feature and they had built fabulous sets re-creating ancient Rome. Those sets were not available to us, but the Italian company in Malta told us about sets in Morocco recreating ancient Jerusalem. We should have changed our plans and gone straight to Morocco.

What is your favorite part of the series?

I have so many favorite parts of the series. I love all the scenes that are full of extras and the sets look so fabulous. It reminds me of all the hard work we put in order to get such great images. If I had to name two scenes it would be the scenes where Peter thinks he sees Jesus on the shore of Galilee and the Pentecost scene.