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The writer and director of 'Mary Magdalene' discuss spirituality, race-blind casting, and Malala Yousefsai

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Mary Magdalene (2018) is a retelling of Jesus’ life story through the eyes of the forgotten Apostle: Mary Magdalene, who is often wrongly cited to have been a prostitute. We caught up with director Garth Davis and writer Philippa Goslett, who revealed all on the process behind making this deeply spiritual and feminist film.

Nobody knows a lot about these characters, and the accounts are contradictory sometimes, so how do you create a past for Mary, for example? How do you choose what to incorporate?

Philippa: In terms of Mary, we know very little of her. From the Bible we know that she was in all likelihood from Magdala, and she was a woman from whom Jesus cast seven demons or seven devils. And so from there it was really a question of thinking about Magdala, which was a fishing community, so therefore its likely she would have been part of a fishing family. And thinking about what that could mean: the idea of casting out seven devils, because in those days, demonic possession was a term that was used for symptoms that we’d now think of as medical conditions, or mental illness, or simply when someone was different, when someone didn’t fit the mould. And that’s really where we went with Mary - what would it have mean to be different in that kind of society? 

In terms of other characters, there are some clues in the Bible. With Peter, it’s clear that he’s a character that thinks a lot, he’s very practical. With the character of Matthew, we knew that he was a tax collector. We knew that some of the other disciples had been with John the Baptist at the River Jordan, and that Herod had executed John the Baptist and that Matthew had worked for Herod, so what would that dynamic have been like? So it was really about taking the clues that were there in the text and then immersing ourselves in this journey of character.

The interpretations of Judas and Peter were so interesting and different - how did you come to that softer Judas and almost antagonistic Peter?

Philippa: With Judas, it’s very interesting, in Mark’s gospel it tells us that Judas decided to betray Jesus, and then after the fact he’s offered money. Somebody who’d spent all that time around Jesus, and in the Jesus movement, with its emphasis on lack of attachment - the idea that he would be motivated by money didn’t really ring true. So then it was a question of everyone around Jesus having a different view of what the kingdom of God was going to be, and there was definitely the view at the time that when the kingdom of God came that the dead would literally rise. So it was a combination of those factors to give Judas a motivation what wasn’t anything as easily dismissed as financial greed, but might come out of misguided love.

And with Peter - such an interesting arc for that character, because he’s a very vulnerable character in many ways. He talks about how his life was shattered by the arrival of Jesus, and he's always trying to do his best to support Jesus and be practical, and at the same time deal with this new element in the group, which is the presence of a woman. At one point in the film he really comes to accept her as his equal. And so really the tragedy for Peter at the end is that he’s so deep in his pain and his grief that he reacts to Mary in that way. With all the characters we just tried to make them as human and empathetic as possible. And in a way, all the characters are acting from love. 

Did you worry that religious people would criticise your interpretation and your way of making those connections?

Philippa: I think we felt there was nothing particularly controversial in the story that we’re telling, unless it’s controversial to tell the story from a female point of view. We also had a lot of advisors on the project. We had priests, Catholic, Protestant, other denominations, we had Rabbis, we had Jewish historians, archaeologists, we had every kind of expert it’s possible to have: all of them disagreed with each other. One thing they were all very clear on is that Mary should be considered a disciple apostle of Jesus. 

Garth: Well, I find it more controversial that the story hasn't been told. So there will be controversy, but we have to trust that our celebration of love and forgiveness is worth it. It's very special. 

Maybe the audience is expecting an epic like previous biblical films, maybe they are expecting a romance between Mary and Jesus, but the film is actually very simple.

Garth: That's what struck me about the opportunity to make this: to create a very relatable world that was very human, to get under the skin of all those characters. In biblical films before us, you feel very removed from these people, and Jesus is always a a placed on a very high pedestal. I feel like we have created a world which people can relate to, and even the family life and the domesticity is very engaging and people can relate to that. 

So I think that's very exciting thing, and it is a very simple message at the end of the day: that's true liberation and freedom comes from love. And so I think that's the whole point, that the disciples are expecting a different outcome, and they are always politicising and complicating the situation when Mary just always honoured the moment and was open to what was going to happen, and found spiritual truth through her relationship with Jesus. 

And so that is the whole point in the simplicity there is something very powerful.

What went into the decision to have it come up on screen at the end of the film that Mary was never a prostitute, and that Pope Gregory fabricated that? Because a lot of audiences would probably be expecting that story.

Philippa: In 1969 the Catholic Church amended the Roman calendar to separate out the conflation of all the figures of Mary that Pope Gregory made, and to separate Mary Magdalene from the idea of the sinful woman who appears in Luke. And yet that hasn't really trickled down to public consciousness in the way that you would expect it to. And what’s really interesting is that either in the public mind Mary is a prostitute, or the idea that she was Jesus’ lover or his wife. It’s time for us to see Mary as she’s portrayed in the gospels: as a spiritual figure in her own right, outside of those sexual gender stereotypes.

What made you choose your cast?

Garth: I felt this was a great opportunity to create a very human and relatable telling of the story, and because the film is saying that the kingdom is within us and in our love, that required some really amazing performances that were so real and emotional  and spiritual, so I had to find some very special actors to do that. There’s not many on the planet that can do it. Rooney [Mara] I’ve worked with before, and I think she’s such a unique actress, and she has this otherworldliness that I thought was great for Mary, because Mary did have this otherworldliness, she had this spiritual calling, this connection to something greater. 

And with Joaquin [Phoenix], we needed to have a Jesus that was both human and divine, and thats a complicated thing to pull off in a performance. Joaquin is the only actor I know that has this amazing sensitivity — he's almost like an emotional portal — he channels up this deep spirituality in his work. So I thought that they were the qualities that were really interesting. 

Did you have in mind the fact that, in many of the movies and art about this period, everyone is blonde and blue eyed?

Garth: Absolutely. There is a lot of diversity in the cast, but really my responsibility is to be emotionally true to the characters, and make sure that those characters represent that in a very powerful way, so I just had to serve that in the best possible way. So I felt that Rooney and Joaquin would bring to life those characters in the most powerful way, so that’s why I chose them. In the same way that I chose Tahar Rahim to play Judas, and Chiwetel Ejiofor to play Peter. It was their emotionality and their instincts that we need for the characters. 

I heard that you actually looked at Malala Yousefsai for inspiration — can you elaborate on that?

Garth: Before I read the script I was very moved by Malala — I think she's someone that shines a very beautiful light towards what our attitudes should be in life. When she gave that speech at the Nobel Peace Prize, how she forgave the Taliban? I thought it was incredible. She said something to her father along the lines of “Thank you for treating me as a person and not as a woman or a daughter.” And I think there was great courage and risk that they took to respect each other as human beings. And for me, I just found all of that i this script. That exact love and compassion is in this script. So I thought this felt very contemporary and timely. 

When Jesus talks about the mustard seed, I had a revelation in that moment: if everyone found that love within themselves, imagine what the world would be like! It would be a beautiful kingdom. It’s not just within you - the world would be such an amazing place if we could find that unconditional love with ourselves and with our neighbours. So I think it’s a beautiful concept regardless of your faith. 

Mary Magdalene arrives in cinemas on March 16th.

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