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.
"You have no idea what it took to get the Jerusalem white limestone color right," Uibel said.
The result is stunning, with walls and columns that are lined and cracked, detailed rosettes with carved patterns ("straight out of research," Uibel said) that look appropriately time-worn, and steps made of "stones" that are perfectly imperfect – rough and uneven – just as they would have been in Jesus' Jerusalem.
"We've had a lot of people working very hard for a long time, through all kinds of weather, to make this facility truly realistic, and worthy of the message of the life of Jesus Christ," Uibel said.
Although the set is not scheduled for completion until later this fall, enough of the facility is complete that shooting can begin on the life of Christ vignettes next week.
"We've been planning for this for so long, it's a little overwhelming to think that we're almost ready to start shooting," Uibel said. "Our cast is set, the extras have been lined up, the director and cinematographer are here on-site looking at locations. This is really going to happen."
Uibel said shooting on the 35 vignettes should wrap by the first of October. Then next year production focus will shift to another series of vignettes on the life and mission of the New Testament apostle Paul.
"There's so much that we can do here," Uibel said as he stood on a hill overlooking the set. "With just a few little tweaks we can do Old Testament stories, Book of Mormon stories, anything that needs this ancient look and feel."
With this set in place, "even a short Mormon Message can be shot here inexpensively."
And what if Hollywood hears about this unique new film-making facility?
"They've heard," Uibel said. "Word has leaked. And there has been interest. But right now we have only one mission here: to create a body of work that we can draw from that absolutely speaks to every aspect of Jesus' life."
"We follow the teachings of Jesus Christ," said Elder Lynn G. Robbins, an LDS Church general authority and executive director of the Media Services Department. "One of the main purposes for constructing the Jerusalem Motion Picture Set is to help the world better understand the life and ministry of the Savior Jesus Christ."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company