GOSHEN, Utah County — Scott Smiley recalls "one of the fun stories" connected with construction of the new Jerusalem Motion Picture Set just being completed in the midst of open cattle rangeland just south of this small community near the southern tip of Utah Lake.
Stucco was being poured over a Styrofoam carving, eventually to be painted to simulate the limestone bricks, rocks and surfaces of the Holy City.
"When they poured it, they got out the trowels and things to smooth it over," recalled Smiley, producer of the project to create a film library of New Testament vignettes for use by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in its instructional curricula.
"Our art director came out and said, 'No, no no!' He grabbed a shovel and started just making a mess of it, throwing rocks in it. "
Workers exclaimed, "Oh, OK. Now we see what you're after."
The story illustrates the pains craftsmen have taken to construct a visual replica of Jerusalem at the time of Christ. Filming is just beginning off site and will soon move to the newly constructed set. Initially, 55 short depictions will be shot covering the life of Christ from his birth in the stable at Bethlehem to his crucifixion on Golgotha.
Beyond that, the new set is meant to last for generations as a cost-effective alternative to filming on location, similar to what the church has done for many years in Provo. At that facility — a sister to the new motion picture set — are several permanent structures that replicate buildings in such LDS history sites as Nauvoo, Ill.
Though formed from polystyrene, the Jerusalem set has been built to withstand the ravages of the at times capricious Utah climate.
"It's just like your stucco house in South Jordan," Smiley said, conducting visitors on a tour of the set. "In fact it's a little thicker than that stuff. The church's building code is actually a little bit stronger than the county's, so we've beefed everything up to make sure it withstands the weather. And, as you can see, we're open to the elements, so it has to be strong."
Indeed, most of the set has no roof, including a Jerusalem alley way, the spacious Court of the Gentiles outside Herod's temple, the inn where Mary and Joseph seek shelter prior to the birth of the Christ child, and the courtyard wherein will be depicted the scourging inflicted upon Jesus prior to his crucifixion.
The openness of the set facilitates aerial or sweeping crane shots, but necessitates robust construction. And it means a limited, six-month shooting season, probably from mid-April to mid-October.
"There's an extreme amount of anxiety to make sure we're representing things truthfully," Smiley said. "So if it happens to be rainy, well, thank heaven we're in Utah, where it will only be rainy for about 20 minutes."