The builders and set designers for the new NBC series “A.D. The Bible Continues” did such a fine job re-creating the Holy Land that even actor Juan Pablo Di Pace, who plays Jesus, felt he had traveled back in time during the filming of the crucifixion scene.
“One very powerful moment was to be up on the cross, and I’m looking down and the extras all look like first-century people," the 35-year-old Argentina native said in an interview with NBC affiliate KSL-TV Channel 5. "Then I looked out at this valley of rock and sand, (and) I didn’t have to imagine very much because it was all there. That made it easier for me to be in that moment.”
Recreating the Jerusalem of the era was a key element in the production of “A.D.,” producers and actors agree. And it's a task with which many in Utah are familiar. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints designed and built a film studio based on the Holy Land in rural Utah in order to create a library of videos based on stories from the Bible.
"A.D." is a 12-part series that premieres Easter Sunday, April 5, at 8 p.m. on NBC. Produced by Roma Downey, Mark Burnett and LightWorkers Media, creators of "The Bible" miniseries on History Channel and the theatrical release "Son of God," "A.D." continues the story of Christianity following the crucifixion.
The set for "A.D." is located in Morocco. While giving a media tour, Downey pointed out a table of paint supplies and other building materials. Moving a few items aside, she pulled out a small tea set.
“We’ve had up to 500 crew members and builders on this set working seven days a week, 24 hours a day, to get this built on schedule,” Downey said, smiling at the camera. “We broke ground in the middle of May. It’s now the middle of September. That’s about 30,000 square feet in three months. They worked around the clock, even through Ramadan. You can’t even describe how epic this is.”
When the dust cleared, the team had re-created the Holy Land in a desert landscape with beautiful vistas, just what co-executive producers and husband-wife team Downey and Burnett wanted for their new television series. KSL-TV Channel 5 will be airing a special on the making of the series, called “Finding Faith in Primetime,” at 4 p.m. on Easter Sunday following LDS general conference.
With the wind blowing in her face, Downey described the buzz among the crew and cast.
"We’re going to have hundreds and hundreds of people in here, costumes," she said. "The streets will be teeming with markets, animals; the whole ambiance of the place will be alive. The scale of this is what is so impressive. The height of the doors, the enormity of it. It’s going to be great."
The same location was used to film "The Bible" and "Son of God." As a result, Downey knew to be prepared for the dry climate.
“It’s lovely, although I have learned having spent months in the desert that I’m going to bring a big bag of moisturizer,” said Downey, former star of “Touched by an Angel.” “It’s incredible. We’ve been able to get the most extraordinary looks, and we have built a set there that rivals no other. It’s like a small city. To experience Jerusalem it’s really a whole other world we have created.”
The same area of Morocco was the setting for the films “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005), “Gladiator” (2000) and “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962).
“It’s a great place to shoot,” Burnett said during the press tour. “The desert backdrops are amazing. It’s perfect.”
Johannes Haukur Johannesson, who plays the apostle Thomas, said he appreciates the research and historical accuracy that went into designing the set.
"(The series is) very true to the scriptures, to the authenticity of what happened," Johannesson said. "The costumes and the set reflect that as well. When we got in there to see all the attention to detail, they are doing some amazing stuff, also with stuff you will never see on camera. It looks like it’s hundreds of years old, and that’s amazing."
Accuracy was also a high priority for the LDS Church in producing scriptural-themed videos and images, beginning with the New Testament. The task was given to the church's Publishing Services Department, and the goal was to create digital content that could be shared freely, said John Uibel, the executive producer and production designer on the project.
Uibel said a group toured biblical sets in Morocco and other locations, but ultimately was directed to create its own version of Jerusalem on rural church-owned property at the southwestern corner of Utah Lake, near the small communities of Goshen and Elberta.
The property had everything the project needed, including hills, valleys, sand dunes, juniper trees and even a small river. The land had remained undisturbed for about 20 years, Uibel said.
“The challenge was we needed to create a place where all the stories of the New Testament could be re-created, including synagogues, the temple, backstreets and alleys, houses, courtyards, gardens and tombs,” Uibel said. “This property had all we needed.”
Those involved in the project wanted to be as accurate to the scriptures as possible, Uibel said. They did research and consulted with Bible scholars in preparing the blueprints, then started construction in October 2010. With the help of hundreds of volunteers and generous donations by artisans and craftsmen, they began filming nine months later.
“People put their heart and soul into this in the winter of 2010-11, which included lots of late nights and early mornings during record-breaking cold temperatures, snow and rain,” Uibel said. “... But everything was hand-carved and detailed, according to research. We were told we got a lot of things right.”
Uibel said the project was aided by generous people and small miracles.
One man of Jewish descent had dreamed of working on just such a project and was thrilled to create carefully crafted capitals for each column on the set.
Local cherry farmers donated twigs that were lashed together for roofs.
When the Provo Tabernacle burned down, permission was granted to use some of the burned-out lumber, which not only saved money but also added a more authentic look to the mini-Jerusalem.
Much of Jerusalem is constructed of white limestone, but the creators of the LDS set realized it would be too expensive to import to Utah. However, one day a man approached the set and asked if the crew might be interested in eight free truckloads of white limestone from his nearby quarry. “Oh yes,” they replied. They put the rock to good use around the set, including at the makeshift Golgotha and other necessary spots, Uibel said.
Another day, a man in Goshen asked if a flock of doves would enhance the filming. A flock had just settled in his backyard.
“He had checked around, and they didn’t belong to anyone, ” Uibel said. “During production they would fly around the set and fly back to his house. He would go get them and return in 15 minutes.”
The crew was grateful to receive extra rain in the days prior to filming the scene of Jesus’ baptism in Current Creek, which eliminated the need to use a backhoe to deepen the river.
Uibel was also able to track down the research and design specs of an ancient fishing boat discovered in the mud along the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee in 1986, in order to create three boats for the church's filming purposes. These scenes were filmed in Sicily.
“As far as I know, we’re the first ones to build this boat — a boat that Jesus would have been around and seen,” Uibel said.
To see the Bible videos, visit LDS.org.
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