The first live-action musical movie based on the Christmas nativity story has opened at cinemas around Australia. Journey to Bethlehem is described as “a unique re-imagining of the story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Christ,” featuring the Three Wise Men and King Herod’s attempts to hunt down the baby Jesus.
The Sony-AFFIRM movie stars Antonio Banderas as King Herod, Fiona Palomo as Mary, Milo Manheim as Joseph and Lecrae as Gabriel. Australian Joel Smallbone of for KING & COUNTRY fame plays King Herod’s son Antipater, while his singer wife Moriah plays Mary’s older sister, Deborah.
The musical was written, directed, composed and produced by multi-award winning Sweden-born Christian musician and film and TV producer Adam Anders. His production incorporates drama, song, dance and humour. He revealed to Vision Radio in an extended interview how making the movie impacted on his cast and crew; why he took some creative licence with one particular scene; and how it took him nearly half his life from the first idea to the final cut.
“It has been a long journey. No pun intended. It was 17 years ago, believe it or not, when I first had this idea and it really just came about because I was visiting my wife’s family for Christmas and couldn’t find a musical that told this story. And I thought, there’s all these great movies that are really great movies, colourful, vibrant for the whole family, fun and beautifully done. But none of them actually talk about Christmas and why we celebrate Christmas. So I wanted to change that. And that started this long, long journey for me and a lot of failures. And finally, I think I figured it out. And here we are. It’s pretty amazing.”
Adam believes he’s produced the first genuine Biblical musical: “I made one called The Passion. It was a live musical. Some people say Jesus Christ Superstar, but that’s not really from the perspective, I guess, of a Christian per se. So I think this is probably the first of its kind, definitely the first that has told the story of Mary and Joseph, the journey and the birth of Christ versus the Easter story.”
“What’s funny is I’ve been trying to make this movie in Hollywood, so I wasn’t really pitching it to Christians. I was pitching it to Hollywood studios, and that was really tough sledding. It has everything that they DON’T want to do. Disney makes great movies, but they won’t touch religion. The same is true with most studios. They just don’t go there. And then on top of that, it’s a musical, which is usually a tough sell for many studios, even though they’ve been making a comeback since I started doing this. And on top of that, I was a first-time director.”
“I wanted to make a musical or even just a movie about the nativity that my kids can watch and enjoy. I would say I was inspired more by movies like Fiddler on the Roof — amazing, classic family musicals. And then, of course, my faith inspired me to tell this story.”
“I think there’s kind of a new revolution of really good filmmakers making faith-based movies that, frankly, if we’re honest, most of them had not been very good historically. Obviously, Ben-Hur and the Ten Commandments, those were incredibly impactful for me. So I don’t even call those faith based movies. They’re just amazing movies.”
“I don’t like to say Journey to Bethlehem is a Christian movie. I like to say this is a musical, a Christmas musical. It’s not a Christian Christmas musical. It’s just a musical that tells the story about Christmas.”
When asked by Vision Radio whether making the movie had impacted on his Christian faith, Adam Anders replied: “100%. You know, I like to say this is creatively the best year of my life. The most fulfilling. Also, the hardest year in my life. I moved away for six months to Spain from my family. Left my kids behind and my wife. It was extremely difficult, a huge sacrifice for the family and the kids. And so what you do in those times, you lean on your faith. And there were a lot of hard times.”
“Alone in my apartment in Madrid or in the hotel in the south of Spain. Hard, hard days, wanting to see my family, to talk to them. And what I had was my relationship with God. I haven’t done this in my life before, but I started every day on my knees praying, not just praying, but just submitting because otherwise it’s not worth it, you know? It’s just too hard. Yeah. So my faith definitely grew stronger.”
“I would say the whole crew felt that as well. Almost 400 people gathered to make this. They’re not all Christians, but they all felt something different going on, no doubt about it. A lot of people were moved by the making of this film. I’ll give you an example. I was doing the tech scout, as we call it, for the nativity scene, which is where I have all the heads of departments there and I’m showing them what I’m going to do. When I turned on the music for that scene I’m telling them what we’re going to see on screen. And as I finished, I looked around and everybody was crying. And these are not all believers. So it was a really powerful moment. And I knew this is different.”
The director emphasised that while the movie is inspired by a true story, it is not a documentary — a note the filmmakers include in the production. He explained his approach to the creative process was prayerful, seeking divine guidance on when to stay true to Scripture and when to fill in the gaps with imagination.
Vision Radio asked Adam Anders to explain a scene in the movie that isn’t in the Bible about the son of Herod, Antipater, coming in and having an interaction with Jesus’s family.
“That’s a great question. I needed to have a character that was all of us. That was the gospel story, ‘the first Christian’ if you will. I really needed somebody to have a big transformation when coming into contact with Christ. So if we take some creative licence here and say, okay, they were in Bethlehem for three years and all kinds of people visited them. We don’t know if he [Antipater] also came. But I only have so much time in the story. You know, I have to make a good movie, too.”
“That’s why I say in the beginning of the movie, this isn’t a documentary. I say this is inspired by a true story. So it is a musical. People did not break into song and dance to pop music. I know that. I don’t think Antipater visited Mary and Jesus on the night he was born. But just for creative licence, that was the only time I could have him show up.”
“It was very, very important for me to have a character that represents what all of us are looking for — for meaning; for a reason to be here; for true hope; to who do we serve? Do we serve the world or a true King? From my research, Herod’s first son was named Antipater and he was killed by his father, Herod. The year Jesus was born, he stood up to his father and said ‘You’re unfit to rule’ and the King killed him for it.”
“It’s my favourite scene in the movie just because of what it represents. It’s all of us coming to the foot of Christ and I think it’s beautiful and I know it’s creative licence, but, you know, the Three Wise Men weren’t there when Jesus was born either. But we’ve accepted that as the nativity scene from all the great artists throughout history who have been inspired to create the greatest paintings in the world. We’ve been okay with that because of the symbolism, what it represents. So I felt like I could take some licence since it is a musical and not a documentary. And I wanted somebody like Joel, who’s a Christian, to play that role so he could really portray that in the right way.”
You can listen to the full interview with Adam Anders by clicking on the link below: