Sundance Film Festival 2015
Last Days in the Desert
Ewan McGregor is mesmerizing as he takes on two of history’s most complicated and misunderstood characters: Jesus Christ and the Devil.
Director Rodrigo Garcia reimagines Christ’s last days of fasting in the desert as he walks back to civilization. In the midst of the harsh landscape, fatigued and hallucinating, Christ is met by the Devil, who is eager to test and tempt the weary traveler. Their profound ruminations on faith and truth demonstrate Garcia’s power as a screenwriter, and McGregor’s determination to portray Jesus in a different light. By focusing on Christ's fallibility and innocence, new dimensions of the prophet and the man create a fascinating character study. But Christ’s real test comes when he befriends a family on his travels and is caught up in a dispute that forces a powerful confrontation with his own fate.
Exquisite cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, 2013) not only submerges us into a classic cinematic metaphor for confrontation with the self, but also transforms the desert into a formidable psychological adversary.
Garcia makes the most of minimalism in this thought-provoking piece that incorporates biblical motifs and iconography to creatively blend fable, drama, and spiritual quest while exploring the nature of enlightenment and perception. -- Hussain Currimbhoy, Sundance Film Festival
- Ewan McGregorYeshua/The Demon
- Ciarán HindsThe Father
- Ayelet ZurerThe Mother
- Tye SheridanThe Boy
- Writer/DirectorRodrigo Garcia
- ProducersJulie Lynn, Bonnie Curtis, Wicks Walker
- Co-ProducersBerj Bannayan, Paul Jaconi-Biery, Allan Magled
- Associate ProducersAllison Avery Jordan, John McKeown, Amy Lynn Quinn
- Director of PhotographyEmmanuel Lubezki
- EditorMatt Maddox
- ComposersDanny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans
- Production DesignerJeannine Oppewall
- Costume DesignerJudianna Makovsky
"a smart and beautiful meditation of fathers and sons"
"As an artwork about a man with a calling, the rich, hazy time spent in the desert certainly inspires."
"deeply moving, curious and openhearted"
"a provacative exploration about coming to terms with one's fate"
"A powerfully meditative experience"
"attuned to the riddles of existence in a way that few films are"
"Ewan McGregor's dual performance as Jesus and his demonic tormentor ensures the Last Days in the Desert never loses track of its grace and humility"
"Garcia has touched upon something stirring and true here... the most singularly gorgeous piece of filmmaking of his career"
"captivating and remarkably beautiful"
"McGregor gives a performance of grave tenderness and humility"
"the crystalline beauty of the cinematography... Lubezki works his usual miracles... the sun itself could be positioning itself according to Lubezki's exacting instructions"
"the decision to have McGregor play both roles, which he does superbly... turns out to be an inspired stroke"
"One of my favorite films of the festival... a casting coup... an oasis of visual-spiritual poetry."
"a film that captures the imagination and challenges the mind"
"Garcia's story is universal enough to work as a timeless parable but specific enough to carry an enture film, and the sumptuous cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) tells that story in a classical, appropriately reverent fashion."
"Last Days in the Desert skillfully depicts the complexities of the human spirit within a very simple, yet intensely engaging storyline. That would have been enough, but it finally concludes with a quiet moment that either raises a great many questions or answers all of the questions, forever."
"Last Days in the Desert achieves greatness."
"early Sundace reviews confirm that this is the real deal"
"a character-driven meditation on family and mortality, haunting and spare"
"a warm, generous, and unexpected story"
"Garcia succeeds in offering up a unique portrait of [Jesus] that is neither defamatory nor overly reverent"
"not like any Jesus you've ever seen before on film"
"Praise the Sundance Film Festival programmers for including Ewan McGregor in 'Last Days in the Desert'!"
"Shot with aching beauty by Emmanuel Lubezki"
"'Love God above all things,' Jesus says near the end, then adds, 'Love life.' For this haunting, beautiful movie, the two are one and the same."
"All four lead actors are absolutely wonderful"
"The conflict between filial duty and obligation on the one hand and the freedom and liberty to find your path gives Last Days in the Desert not just an emotional resonance, but a universal one beyond a particular set of religious beliefs. A succession of striking visual images, courtesy of Oscar-winning Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity, Tree of Life), help to elevate an already elevated script, as do unsurprisingly rounded, nuanced performances from the entire cast."
"McGregor delivers a stand-out performance"
"it should be no surprise that one of the hottest tickets here at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival was the premiere of 'Last Days in the Desert'"
"The waitlist was full, tickets sold out, and the theater packed. And it was worth it."
"Epic is not usually a term associated with films coming out of the Sundance Film Festival, which makes director Rodrigo Garcia's imagined story of Jesus's journey through the desert even more striking."
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION In his audaciously rendered character study, Last Days in the Desert, writer-director Rodrigo García imagines several days in the life of Jesus as he returns from wandering in the wilderness and finds himself entangled in an ordinary family’s distinctly human conflicts. "I’m taking the figure of Jesus and exploring the human dimension of his life,” García explains. “I cannot know what the divine side feels like, so I decided to treat Jesus and his predicaments and problems the same way I would treat a regular person.” Last Days in the Desert marks a radical shift from García’s previous projects, including Mother and Child, Nine Lives and the HBO series “In Treatment.” “Most of the movies I’ve written are about middle-class women and their problems, so this film was a departure for me,” he says. Though García had never set a story in ancient times, the fictional encounter between Jesus and a family in crisis popped into his head as a fully formed premise. “I grew up in a Catholic world and of course I’m familiar with the story of Jesus,” he says. “Jesus returns from meditating in the desert for 40 days and nights, and on his way back to Galilee he runs into a family and gets embroiled in their domestic drama,” García continues. “The mother is dying. The father wants the boy to stay with him in the desert even after the mother’s death. The boy wants to leave and make his way in the world. So Jesus decides to stay and help.” As García fleshed out the family dynamics at the heart of the film, he decided to raise the stakes by adding one additional character: the Devil. “In the Bible it says the Devil tempted and challenged Jesus in the desert,” García says. “I chose to make the Devil appear to Jesus in his own guise. The Devil questions whether Jesus can solve the problem of this family to everyone’s satisfaction. That’s when I knew I had enough elements to start writing a script.”
THE “DESERT” THINK TANK When García completed the screenplay, he brought the project to Bonnie Curtis and Julie Lynn at Mockingbird Pictures. “There are so many producers out there who know one or two areas of filmmaking, whereas Bonnie and Julie are good at development, they’re good at script, they’re good with budgets and physical production—and they have people skills,” García says. “And then, the fact that they went out there and were able to raise the money is amazing.” Mockingbird, which also produced García’s earlier movies Albert Nobbs, Mother and Child and Nine Lives, attracted backers from its own equity pool as well as Wicks Walker of Division Films (Spring Breakers,The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby) who found his way to the project after meeting McGregor at a charity event. Walker immediately responded to the metaphorical power of García’s script, noting that rather than attempting to offer a factual account of Jesus in the wilderness, Last Days in the Desert dramatizes timeless human themes through an imagined moment in Jesus' life. “It’s not a literal telling or teaching,” says Walker, “but still the film leaves you with this feeling of incredible goodness coming from a character based one of the most important figures in human history.” Walker brought the project to Nicolas Gonda (Tree of Life) and Ryan Rettig of Ironwood Films, who teamed up with him to complete the financing for the picture, with Ironwood also attracting the team from Aspiration Media, Different Drummer (Tree of Life, Life of Pi) as well as New Balloon to complete the film’s financing and marketing group. “We couldn’t imagine a more perfect ‘think tank’ to surround our beloved project,” Lynn says. “We wanted to make sure that this film’s journey into the world was handled with the utmost care and wisdom,” adds Curtis.
FAMILY DYNAMICS After casting McGregor, García assembled an international ensemble of A-list character actors to portray the conflicted family members encountered by Jesus in the middle of the desert. In the pivotal role of the couple’s discontented son, García recruited fast-rising American actor Tye Sheridan. The Texas teenager first caught the director’s eye with his quiet performance in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. “Tye hardly had any dialogue but he was very natural,” says García. “Then I saw him in Mud and he was also very good. Tye’s able to project intelligence and a sense of inner complication. He also has the ability to be in the moment.” Sheridan found it easy to relate to his character, if not his circumstances. “He is your typical teenage kid—except back during the time of Jesus,” he says. “The boy wants to go out and explore and go to Jerusalem but his father wants him to stay home and live 30 feet from their tent. He doesn’t quite have the courage to stand up to his father. It’s more about a family being interrupted by this man Yeshua than it is about Jesus wandering through the desert.” Getting into costume helped the young actor immerse himself in the story’s setting. “I wasn’t quite able to really figure out who this guy was until I had the long hair extensions and the turban and the tunic and all the dirt,” Tye recalls. “Then it all felt very real and believable.” For the ailing mother character, García picked Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer, who starred in the original Israeli TV series “Be Tipul,” which he later produced as “In Treatment” for HBO. “Ayelet brings something very earthy to the film,” García says. “The mother is a very interesting role because it’s the portrait of a woman on her death bed whose only wish is to make sure her son is not stuck behind,” says Zurer. “It was personal for me because I watched somebody dying about a year before we started on this film.” Irish actor Ciarán Hinds plays the boy’s father. García reached out to Hinds after watching his performances in Munich and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. “There’s something about Ciarán that’s masculine and rough in an interesting, sensitive way,” García explains. “I believe him as this character who is bullheaded enough to make a life for himself and his family in this very inhospitable place.”
FIVE WEEKS IN THE DESERT While Last Days in the Desert takes place in the parched wilderness outside of Jerusalem, the production was actually filmed in Southern California. “There was a moment where we were going to shoot the movie in Israel, but that would have tested our budget,” García explains. “I looked at everything from Qatar to Morocco.” One day while surfing the Internet in search of locations, García discovered a website for the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park located a couple of hours east of San Diego, California. “It was super interesting looking, especially the view from Font’s Point,” he says. “The location was stunning, but part of me said, ‘Am I really going to shoot this film about Jesus four hours outside of Los Angeles? It can’t possibly work.’” Over the course of six weeks, García and first assistant director John McKeown took car trips to the region, where they scoped out the rugged terrain. “We combed a great deal of the park and particularly liked this long ridge called Font’s Point where we wound up building the tent.” García says. “Further down the ridge is where they look for the Jasper stone. It’s rare to find a single location that pretty much sums up your movie, but this one did. It really gives you a view of the planet, a view of creation.”
GIFTED COLLABORATORS García is quick to acknowledge that the stark location was brought to life by his outstanding collaborators, including four-time Oscar®-nominated production designer Jeannine Oppewall (Seabiscuit), who came up with the idea of building tents based on ancient Bedouin shelters; three-time Oscar-nominated costume designer Judianna Makovsky (The Hunger Games) whom García met while working as a camera operator on Alfonso Cuaron’s Great Expectations; editor Matt Maddox, who helped cut García’s 2011 Glenn Close star vehicle Albert Nobbs; composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (Martha Marcy May Marlene); and four-time Oscar-nominated sound mixer Peter Devlin. “Peter has done all these big action movies like Transformers and Iron Man 3, so it was great to see him doing this super quiet movie, walking up hills in the desert carrying his own equipment,” says the director. On location during the five-week shoot, García’s key ally proved to be Oscar-winning director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki. The Mexican cinematographer, nicknamed Chivo, earned an Academy Award® earlier this year for Gravity and picked up five other nominations for films including Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. “I’ve known Chivo for a long time,” says García. “I used to be his camera operator, and he photographed the first movie I directed, Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her. He’s quite plainly one of the great cameramen of the world.” Because of Last Days in the Desert’s modest budget, Lubezki suggested using natural light whenever possible. “Chivo told me, ‘To go out there with a full team of grips and electrical equipment you’d need so much manpower and so many weeks of shooting to move the equipment that it would be ridiculous,’” explains García. “So we made a pact. Chivo would shoot the film without lights. That was his commitment. And my commitment was that I would always stage things when and where the light was good. Chivo is resourceful, imaginative and a great perfectionist, so the movie looks great.” McGregor savored the spontaneous spirit of collaboration fostered by García and Lubezki. “In this film, Chivo’s painting with the sunlight, so it was wonderful to see the way he and Rodrigo would position us against or underneath the sun. On a couple of occasions we’d be driving to a location and the convoy of four cars would screech to a halt because Rodrigo and Chivo saw something they liked. Suddenly everyone’s getting out of the cars and the Steadicam operator’s getting his camera on or they put the camera on sticks and then we’ll make something up. ‘Okay, Ewan, walk here.’ That instant creativity was enormously satisfying.”
CLIFF HANGER As it turned out, the location also posed a unique challenge. Last Days in the Desert builds from its series of quiet interactions to an action-driven climax when the father volunteers to be lowered down the side of the cliff on a rope to dig out the valuable Jasper stone. For Hinds, there was just one problem: he’s afraid of heights. “I was very touched by the script, but I told Rodrigo over the phone that I suffered from a serious vertigo problem,” Hinds says. Once he arrived on location, his nerves only got worse. “For three days we had all kinds of wires and contraptions and stuntmen trying to make this happen over the cliff while I’m hanging there in a harness,” Hinds recalls. “I had been thinking that maybe doing this scene would help me get over the vertigo but it didn’t help at all. I’m over a cliff, which is crumbling a bit because it’s made of dry mud, and while I’m waiting for them to set up the cameras and get the right shot, I just had to grit my teeth, breathe deep and not completely panic.” “When we lowered Ciarán down the side of the mountain, he suffered like a dog,” García says. “He suffered less when the camera was rolling because he was acting. But there were many moments between takes where Ciarán was suspended over his worst nightmare.”
THE DEVIL DOUBLE Last Days in the Desert also posed fresh challenges for McGregor, who had previously played dual roles when he portrayed a clone of himself in sci-fi blockbuster The Island. This time the actor recommended Australian stunt man Nash Edgerton for the scenes between Jesus and the look-alike Devil. “He’s doubled me for me in Moulin Rouge and Star Wars so we asked him if he would play the opposite side of these scenes with me,” explains McGregor. “Nash plays the Devil when I’m playing Yeshua, and he’s watching what I’m doing in that role. Then we’d switch and I’d react to Nash saying these lines as if I’m hearing them for the first time. I’m always reacting to what I did in my shot as the other character.” To complete the Yeshua-Devil scenes, the team at Soho VFX digitally stitched McGregor’s performances into a seamless whole. While McGregor agonized about how to approach his characterization of Yeshua, he found the Devil persona to be a relatively straightforward proposition. “Most of my thoughts were taken up with Yeshua,” he says. “I felt like the Devil would be easier to play in that he’s quite cheeky and angry and oftentimes quite funny. But underneath that, you’ve got hate and anger and spite. Those things are harder to dredge up.”
FATHER-SON CREATION STORY Unlike some recent faith-based films, Last Days in the Desert was not designed to deliver a specific religious message. “The character I’m playing is Jesus but we’re not making a movie about the Gospels,” McGregor emphasizes. “We’re making a movie about fathers and sons. We’re using Jesus Christ and his time in the desert as a sort of background for the exploration of that subject.” García envisions the Biblical account of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness as an opportunity to infuse a coming-of-age story with questions about the primal power of storytelling. “Two main themes interested me,” García says. “One had to do with how a boy becomes a man with or without his father’s help or permission. “The second theme,” he continues, “had to do with the idea of creation: The world is a story that God tells us and rewrites over and over again. You could argue that in this film, Jesus is trying to rewrite the story of this family. And as the author, I myself am interpreting the story of Jesus by taking him as a literary character and imagining a new part of his story.”
DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT I am not a devout person, so I began “Last Days in the Desert” very much in the dark about what was compelling me so forcefully to write it. The story itself came to me in one piece: upon returning from his time of fasting and praying in the desert, Jesus becomes entangled in the life of a family living in isolation. In the midst of a momentous spiritual journey he encounters a father, a mother and a son at odds with each other. It was essentially a clash between the higher calling of the soul and an individual’s hunger for personal self-realization.
My main interest became the relationships between sons and their fathers, and the things that must often transpire in order for a boy to become his own man. Jesus, arguably the most famous of sons, must make the difficult decision whether or not to play a role in the tug of war between this particular father and son. The task is complicated by his own shadow, a demon attempting to confuse and torment him along the way.
Finally, I had to embrace the fact that any story with Jesus of Nazareth, even when it takes great liberties with plot or with the source material, inevitably becomes an invitation for the audience to consider him and his circumstance, whatever their beliefs may be.