HISTORY & Nutopia Bring Jesus’ Story to Life

Premiering on March 25 on HISTORY, the eight-part series Jesus: His Life aims to tell the story of Jesus Christ in a way that has never been seen before: through the eyes of the people closest to him.

From Jane Root’s Nutopia, the series—a lead offering for A+E Networks at NATPE this week—will use a mix of talking heads and scripted elements as it brings Jesus’ story to life. For the first time, his story will be told from the perspectives of Joseph, John the Baptist, Mary, Caiaphas, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, Mary Magdalene and Peter.

“I was having a conversation about a year ago with Amy Savitsky, [the senior VP of development and programming at A&E], and she said that the whole company was looking for a big project on the Bible,” Root, founder and chief executive at Nutopia, tells TV Real about how Jesus: His Life came about. That conversation rekindled an idea that Root and the team at Nutopia had contemplated, but never executed on—to look at the lives of the “individual people in the Bible who knew Jesus, ordinary people who were touched by one of the most extraordinary events in history. What was it like to live your life alongside somebody who people still know 2,000 years later? What kind of special insight do you have into who he was and how he lived?”

For Liz Soriano, the VP of international programming at A+E Networks, the project was perfect for the HISTORY brand. “HISTORY has done other religious-themed programs and shows that have been specifically about Jesus. There was one from a number of years ago that put us on the map, The Bible [from executive producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett]. As Jane says, the story of Jesus is one that really has touched everyone. There’s been excitement [for the series] in every major territory throughout the world. HISTORY has long been a leader in this genre of programming, and we’re just super excited that what’s coming forward is a brand-new and exciting way of telling Jesus’ story.”

Root says Jesus: His Life delivers “the most comprehensive story about Jesus ever told. You see his whole life from birth to death through all the different people whose lives were intertwined with his.”

The project, naturally, required a significant amount of research. “We’re research junkies,” says Root of the team at Nutopia. “We have a panel of consultants who we worked with, and we talked to people across the whole world. And then we dived into finding every detail we could.”

Marking a new direction for the company, Nutopia also enlisted the services of a team of well-regarded drama writers for the scripted portions of Jesus: His Life. “We wanted to convey the real intimacy and emotion in these ordinary people’s lives,” Root says.

The reenactments were filmed at the iconic Atlas Studios, just outside of Ouarzazate, Morocco, which has been used for Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and Game of Thrones, among many other films and TV series. “Ouarzazate is between the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert,” Root says. “We had three languages spoken on-set—English, French and Arabic—a production designer from Israel, actors from America and a Spanish costume designer. It really is a global production.”

Pulled together in less than a year, Jesus: His Life features a seamless mix of experts talking about the people in Jesus’ orbit and scripted scenes that bring that history to life. “They are completely intertwined,” Root notes. “We go back and forth between people talking about what’s happening and immersive, emotional experiences about the moments that you’re in. And we want them to be completely connected. They shed light on each other. They work together. That’s the most important thing for us.”

Soriano says she’s seen interest in these mega-docs on the rise globally. “HISTORY has always done this very well—it’s in our wheelhouse. Mega-docs combine these creative elements of scripted and expert interviews in a way that makes the story very accessible and entertaining to the viewer. The viewer is going to range from our core audience member who is the history enthusiast all the way out to someone who happens to be curious about the program and they get pulled in. What’s amazing about this type of program, this format and this style, is that it helps you appreciate not just the facts, but the emotional aspect of the characters in the story and the time during which they live. That’s why the appeal has been growing—because we’re able to tell stories that you may not have been able to fully appreciate but now you can because it pulls you in in a knowledgeable, but even more importantly, in an emotional way. That’s global; it doesn’t matter where you’re from.”

Root says she was surprised by many of the things she discovered while making Jesus: His Life. “I was amazed that Joseph probably wasn’t just a carpenter, he was a builder, actually building houses. I thought, Wow, why didn’t I know that? And the fact that there was a shockingly low life expectancy at the time of Jesus—25 to 27—mostly as a result of child mortality. Just how dangerous having a baby was, both for the baby and the mother, was shocking. On average, every four births at that time resulted in a death, either of the mother or the child, or both. There are a whole lot of things you find out about people, and personal things as well.”

“This is an undertaking that no one has ever done before,” adds Soriano. “What you’re going to see pop on-screen is Jesus the man, along with the bits of the story that you’ve always known. What viewers will be taken by are the personalities and understanding, to a certain extent, the feelings that all of these others were going through as they were experiencing the life of their son, their friend, their enemy. I don’t think there’s ever been a body of work that has done this before.”