GOSHEN, Utah County — Scott Smiley leans against a 3-year-old wall that looks positively ancient, created by skilled craftsmen in Central Utah to have the look and feel of old Jerusalem.
“My favorite thing,” he says, glancing around the unique movie set over which he has presided for most of the past two years, “is to walk around here and say, ‘That’s where the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary.' ‘Here’s where Jesus cleansed the temple.’ ‘This is where Peter preached.’
“Of course, I know this isn’t where those things actually happened,” Smiley continued, smiling. “But being a part of this has given me an opportunity to feel like I was there.”
The thing of which Smiley has been a part is the Life of Jesus Christ Bible Videos series produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Smiley is director of the church’s Film and Video Division, which is wrapping up a three-year project that has resulted in close to 100 short videos taken directly from the pages of the King James Version of the New Testament.
The Bible Videos series is not like the History Channel’s recent, acclaimed and popular "The Bible" miniseries, which wove Bible stories together with interpretive long-form storytelling. The Bible Videos are precisely that: short videos — some less than a minute long, others as long as seven minutes — that tell Bible stories as vignettes, not as a continuous movie. There is no interpretive explanation, no speculative dialogue to advance the story or make it more accessible to modern audiences. It simply dramatizes what is in the King James Bible, with no dialogue except the dialogue that was written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
“We’ve tried hard not to make interpretations,” Smiley said. “We want it to be as straightforward and accurate as it can possibly be.”
The videos were originally intended to serve instructional and illustrative purposes in the teaching organizations of the LDS Church. But when church leaders saw the beauty and value of the videos that were being produced, they offered them as a gift to the world.
“We’ve had a lot of responses from people who have watched them and used them in their own church congregations,” Smiley said. “We are delighted for people of all faiths to use them to convey the good news of the gospels.”
To create this gospel gift the LDS Church has constructed an unusual movie set on land that was once part of a church-owned dairy farm in rural Central Utah. The area has some useful features, including rolling hills and a winding river that are at least vaguely reminiscent of the hills of Judea and the Jordan River.
“We did a little excavating to make sure our set was low enough so you can’t see the ‘Jerusalem Rockies’ in the background,” Smile said, chuckling. “That wouldn’t be right.”
The set is unusual in that it has been built to last.
“We built it like you would build a home,” Smiley said. “Most movie sets are built with taking them down in mind. So you build it so it can be taken apart easily. This set was built to last for 30 years. We’re not taking it down. It’s here to stay.”
From a distance the set looks like one big old building, with the monolithic form of an ancient temple or palace. But as you roam through the structure you see that rather than one building it is many buildings all interwoven into one, with streets, alleys, temples, palaces, marketplaces, wells and individual dwellings. Every angle becomes a different setting. You can stand in one place and, by rotating slightly, see several completely different locations.
And all of it is carefully researched and historically accurate.
“We have created some structural elements here that haven’t been seen in construction in 2,000 years,” Smiley said. As an example, he referred to the pillars in the Court of Women, which include a combination of Ionic and Corinthian elements that existed at the time of Christ, but haven’t existed since.
“The set has exceeded our expectations,” Smiley said. “There is no feeling of, ‘We should have done this thing differently.’”
One of those charged with creating and maintaining such strict authenticity in the Bible Videos series is Dr. S. Kent Brown, a professor of ancient scripture and director of ancient studies at Brigham Young University, who has worked as a technical adviser on the video series. Brown’s academic specialties include the New Testament gospels and early Egyptian Christianity, and he has a working knowledge of Greek, Hebrew and Coptic. In fact, he has a Greek translation of the New Testament on his laptop, which he consults on the set from time to time.
“When they want to add certain details to the filming, I check to be sure it is in the text,” Brown said.
Earlier this week, while the cast and crew were preparing to film a scene involving the apostle Paul (the series has been expanded to include a few scenes involving the apostles Peter and Paul from the New Testament's Book of Acts), costumers wondered how to dress some of the actors.
“I pointed out that this scene took place during a festival, and that many of the people who were there had come from great distances to spend the week there,” Brown said. “So that meant they could afford to travel, which indicates they were pretty well off, so they probably dressed pretty well.”
“Little things like that make a difference,” Smiley said.
Being on the set and watching the videos being made has also made a difference for Brown, who is currently writing a commentary on the Gospel of Luke.
“It has been thrilling to watch these scenes played out before me,” Brown said. “I’m watching all of these things that I’m studying come to life, to see little details manifest themselves that I’d never before considered. For a scholar, it’s a rare and unique opportunity.”
And now, that opportunity is coming to a close. Smiley said the final scenes will be shot Friday, and after that … who knows?
“Right now, we’re not sure what will be next out here,” he said. “We could do Old Testament stories or Book of Mormon stories with just a few tweaks here and there.”
There has also been some interest expressed by outside production companies in using the set. In fact, actress Roma Downey, who was both a producer and a star in the History Channel’s “The Bible,” inquired about the use of the set for that miniseries. "We decided that before we start renting it out to other folks we want to be sure we’re done with it," Smiley said.
But for those who have been involved with the project, the Bible Videos series and its landmark set in Goshen will remain a meaningful experience in their lives. “One actress told me that for the rest of her career, this will be her ‘happy place,’” Smiley said. “She said whenever things got tough on another set, she will remember this place and how we all felt here.”
Alex Greenfield, who plays Joseph in the Bible Videos series, put it more simply.
“This set,” he said, “has been blessed.”