Jerusalem West: Ancient Israel comes to Goshen

LDS Church film set brings Jerusalem to Utah desert

Published: Monday, Aug. 1 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

Skyler Hamilton, left, and Gabe Casdorph place rocks on Golgotha at the New Testament movie set of the LDS Church in Goshen.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

GOSHEN, UTAH — A little slice of ancient Israel is being created by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in southern Utah County, in a vast, open agricultural area that is dotted with communities like Goshen, Elberta, Genola and Eureka.

At the center of the development is a thoroughly researched, painstakingly designed movie set that replicates various elements of the ancient city of Jerusalem. In the immediate area surrounding the set there are locations that can, with just a touch of movie-making magic, serve nicely as the site of the garden tomb, the Garden of Gethsemane, the hill Calvary, the Judean desert, the Jordan River and other places that are important in telling the story of the life of Jesus Christ.

"It's an incredible spot, with so many possibilities located so close to each other," said John Uibel, director of creative story development in the LDS Church's Media Services Department. "We looked all over Utah, from St. George to Logan, for a place that had hills and mountains and gullies and grass and desert. Miraculously, we found this place, literally just sitting here, not being used for anything — just waiting for us."

What the unused hilltop farmland was apparently waiting for is to be turned into the primary filming location for the LDS Church's upcoming effort to provide a movie version of 35 different stories or vignettes from the King James version of the Bible on the life of Christ. These vignettes will be used in LDS Sunday School, missionary efforts, visitors' centers and in the Church Educational System.

"These are not 'dramatizations' in the classic sense," said Uibel, who will also serve as executive producer of the film series. "We're not adding a lot of extraneous dialogue or anything like that. These vignettes will be lifted directly from the pages of the Bible, and we will stay as close to the scriptures as we possibly can."

Actors and extras are being cast in the vignettes largely according to their Mediterranean looks. Egyptian sheep, Old World goats and grey donkeys have been acquired so even the animals have a real, true to life look and feeling about them.

"We're doing everything we can to get this right," Uibel said. "Of course, our primary focus is on the scriptural message, and the spirit we are trying to communicate. But we don't want there to be any visual distractions that get in the way of what we're trying to say."

That is why such care has been taken to find the right location, and to design and build this elaborate — and permanent — set.

"We expect this to be in place for at least 20 years," Uibel said. "So we wanted to build something that would last and be useful through many film projects."

They also wanted to build a set that would be as compact and utilitarian as possible. So rather than simply reconstruct the ancient city of Jerusalem, Uibel designed a set that has important elements that are combined in such a way that the same spot can serve as many different places, depending on camera angles and set dressings.

"If you stand right here and point your camera in one direction, this is the Pool of Bethesda," the producer/designer said, standing in the center of a large plaza area completely surrounded by two- and three-story structures. He indicated different areas surrounding the plaza as he continued: "Point the camera over there, and it's the balcony where Pilate stood and told the Jews he could find no fault in Jesus. Point the camera over there, and it's the arch through which Christ passes as he makes his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Point it over there, and it's the home where Jesus raised Jairus' daughter from the dead."

Walking through the set, one can't help but notice the careful craftsmanship being used to create this re-creation. Although most of the structures are built of fiber-reinforced Styrofoam blocks, they have been carved and sculpted to look like stone. Then they are covered with five micro-layers of stucco, with each layer textured by skilled artisans.

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