A light on a hill: Inside the making of ‘The Chosen’

Director Dallas Jenkins on the Goshen, Utah, set of “The Chosen” Season 2.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Dallas Jenkins stood with his arms crossed, facing the sunrise, a swath of orange clouds brushing the blue-gray mountains and yellow sky. Behind him, an ancient city unfurled. Or rather, a simulacrum of an ancient city. It represented Jerusalem of old, a deconstructed, biblical megalopolis, complete with a Styrofoam-stone dome and wooden beams connecting disparate building facades. On this July morning in 2020, the film set was empty. Dirt roads opened into silent, pillared courtyards. Metal-studded doors were left ajar and pretend fire pits went untended. Positioned on 800 acres in Goshen, Utah, some 60 miles south of Salt Lake City, the set itself spans the size of two football fields. It was the perfect place for Jenkins to film Season 2 of his TV series about the life of Jesus, “The Chosen” — if only he could get permission to shoot there.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which built the set in 2010 for a series of more than 100 Bible videos, had never let any other entity not owned by the church use the property, denying entry to dozens of Hollywood filmmakers. There’s nowhere else like it. Not even in actual Jerusalem can you find a setting like this, a heavily researched representation of the past, untouched by modernity. In the midst of negotiations with the church, the 45-year-old evangelical from Illinois had come to Goshen to contemplate the future of the show, and what would happen if he couldn’t find a place to film the follow-up to his groundbreaking first season.

In 2019, “The Chosen,” the first multi-season TV series about the man from Galilee, broke the film industry’s crowdfunding record with $10 million raised. Supporters were eager to see the story of Jesus told in a new way, with imagined storylines and character development that expand on the events in the New Testament. Jenkins delivered. Eight episodes filmed in Texas have now been viewed by close to 90 million people on “The Chosen” app. But then, the coronavirus stymied plans for Season 2.

Outside the faux city walls, Jenkins, who has intense hazel eyes and a rectangular jawline, gazed over scraggly junipers clinging to a slope of dried grass. He imagined himself somewhere in the Jordan Valley of Israel, but the bovine smell from the nearby church-owned dairy reminded him of his true location. With the funding, the people and the script, the only thing he lacked was a location — and time was ticking if he wanted to complete filming in 2020, before winter cold crept up on actors dressed in Middle Eastern frocks and snow ruined the mirage. For now, Jenkins prayed and waited.

Jenkins consults with a crew member.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Jenkins’ father, prominent evangelical writer Jerry Jenkins, describes his son — who started making films for fun in high school — as gregarious, opinionated and fearless, with an ability to overwhelm. He’s had to learn to rein in his overconfidence, Jerry Jenkins said. Never did that lesson come harder than in 2017, when Dallas Jenkins was proudly awaiting the release of his first Hollywood-produced movie, “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone,” the story of a hardened has-been actor finding faith through a local church theater production. But when the box office numbers rolled in, it was clear the movie was a flop — a career-ending one, Jenkins said. It got a 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with critics calling it “lifeless as a comedy” and “designed for believers.”

In the wake of his biggest failure as a filmmaker, Jenkins was led by a series of smaller projects to connect with Utah-based production company VidAngel, which has since rebranded as Angel Studios. The Latter-day Saint-led business had just been sued by Disney for $62 million because its video-filtering service allegedly violated copyright laws. Without any funding, the unlikely pair — Jenkins and VidAngel’s founders, brothers Neal and Jeff Harmon — set out to raise money for a series they hoped would take viewers on a transformative journey with Jesus as he heals and teaches.

George Harrison Xanthis and Jonathan Roumie between scenes.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“(Jenkins) had been brought to the lowest point in his career,” said Jeff Harmon. “Neal and I were at a very low point in our period, in the grind of fighting out this legal battle, and pretty much everybody assumed VidAngel is dead.”

Beyond the money, there were questions about a partnership between Latter-day Saints and evangelicals. Even Jenkins’ own father was hesitant about his son working with “Mormons,” who many in his religious community say believe in a “different Jesus.” Said the older Jenkins: “I worried mostly about what others might think.”

Some Latter-day Saints also lobbed criticism at the Harmon brothers for working with an evangelical, or at Jenkins for casting a devout Catholic, Jonathan Roumie, as Jesus, not to mention the fact that some cast and crew members weren’t believers at all. Producing a TV series in an unconventional way, the team faced skepticism from all sides.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which built the Goshen, Utah, set in 2010, had never allowed an entity not owned by the church to film there until Dallas Jenkins and “The Chosen” came calling.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

At the end of Season 1, Jesus — who, in the hands of Roumie, is warmer and more humorous than most portrayals — meets Matthew, an outcast because of his job as a tax collector. Across a crowded square, Jesus implores, “Follow me.” The actor Paras Patel plays Matthew as a socially awkward savant, a whiz with numbers who exhibits signs of Asperger’s syndrome (a nod to Jenkins’ daughter who is also on the autism spectrum.) At once, Matthew, wearing a fine green frock — a sign of his wealth — goes to meet the band of sweaty, traveling disciples.

Simon Peter, one of Jesus’ followers, balks at the idea of a Roman employee joining their religious mission. But Jesus quiets him. “Get used to different.”

Now, cast and production members wear the quote printed on T-shirts and sweatshirts. “Get used to different” is a motto etched in the show’s identity, from the unexpected success of its crowdfunding endeavor for Season 1 to the way the show has united different denominations. The philosophy landed Latter-day Saint producer Derral Eves a keynote speaking role at the National Religious Broadcasters meeting, one of the biggest annual conferences for evangelical leaders, and took Neal Harmon to Washington, D.C., to meet with religious leaders from a diversity of faiths. Believers of all stripes, from Coptic Christians in Egypt to Protestants in Africa, have become fans of the show after watching it for free on “The Chosen” app and have donated so others can enjoy the series, too. “The unwritten story of ‘The Chosen’ is the barriers it’s broken down,” said Matthew Faraci, another producer of the show.

Funding in place, and a large fanbase eager to see more, Jenkins just needed the ideal location to continue his epic in the making.

Jonathan Roumie, as Jesus, in the hills of Goshen, Utah, some 60 miles south of Salt Lake City.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

One month after his sunrise visit to Goshen in July 2020, the director and his cast and crew rolled onto the property with trailers of production equipment. Prop specialists decorated the barren streets with period-themed textiles and filled the set’s model of the pool of Bethesda with water. Animal handlers delivered donkeys, goats and chickens to their pens. The humans passed through a COVID-19 testing tent erected at the entrance.

After multiple Latter-day Saint officials told “The Chosen” showrunners “no,” the decision to let them rent the Goshen set went all the way to members of the First Presidency of the church, who were ultimately moved by the mission of the series and its potential to unite different faith groups with a common belief in the New Testament. “Getting into Goshen was a big step to having people’s hearts softened,” says Eves, the Latter-day Saint producer involved in the project.

“The Chosen” extras between scenes.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Within moments of setting foot on set — “really the most extraordinary set I’ve ever been on” — Jenkins began conducting the impossible orchestra, sending hundreds of text messages a day, staying up late and waking up early. He directs every episode himself and writes some of them, too. Colleagues call him “obsessive” and “a gifted communicator.” When the actors are cold in their old-fashioned garments, he takes his jacket off in solidarity with them. When there’s a physical stunt, he does it first to make sure it’s safe.

At Goshen, the director developed another routine. Every morning, as production continued through the summer and fall, Jenkins ran out into an open field, past the spot where he had first watched the sunrise. In the distance, he could see the three crosses raised on a part of the hillside labeled “Golgotha” with a wooden sign. No crosses will be needed until Season 7 though. Away from the bustling set and crew, Jenkins would take a quiet moment to pray and to consider his own journey and that of his protagonist, as another day dawned in ancient Jerusalem.

The second season of “The Chosen” begins streaming on April 4 on “The Chosen” app.

This story appears in the April issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

Extras between scenes on the set of “The Chosen.”
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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