Cyrus Nowrasteh has spent his entire life caught between cultural viewpoints. After his birth in the U.S., his parents moved him back to their native Iran as a boy for several years, and he was drawn to visit again as a young adult.
But it’s in his faith journey and his career as a filmmaker that Nowrasteh, 59, has really found himself caught between worlds. Raised secularly by his Muslim parents, Nowrasteh began a long conversion to Christianity after marrying his wife, a Christian, in 1981.
And as a veteran writer-director, he has managed to upset both conservatives who took issue with his 2001 movie “The Day Reagan Was Shot,” and liberals who expressed umbrage over his 2006 ABC miniseries “The Path to 9/11.” After taking on the brutal madness of radical Islam’s Sharia law in the 2009 film “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” he’s back now with his biggest chance at a success yet: the superb, family-friendly new movie “The Young Messiah,” based on Anne Rice’s smash novel “Christ the Lord,” both of which speculate on what Jesus was like as a child.
“My journey to Christianity was a long one, but it seemed very natural to step up and do this movie when it became possible as an opportunity for us to explore,” says Nowrasteh. “When you do advance test screenings, you learn a lot, and we found that when we named it ‘Christ the Lord,’ people thought it was either about His whole life or as an adult. It didn’t indicate that it’s about Him as a 7-year-old.”
When it was published in 2008, Rice’s novel “Christ the Lord” created a sensation on multiple fronts. Having been known for decades as the author of the erotically charged “Lestat Chronicles” novel series, Rice drew great attention for her announcement that she had re-embraced her faith in Christianity, albeit without a commitment to any particular church. Also, the book was written in the first person voice of Jesus as a boy.
But the speculative fiction struck a chord with believers and non-believers alike, drawing widespread praise and becoming a massive best-seller. She reached out to Nowrasteh to adapt the novel after being impressed with “Soraya,” which recounted the true story of an Iranian woman who was falsely accused of adultery and then brutally stoned to death under Sharia law.
Rice and Nowrasteh were represented by the same agents, and soon a deal was in place for the adaptation. Yet it took eight years for the project to finally hit theaters this Friday, due to several unusual factors including funding fallout in 2013.
“The biggest challenge is you’ve got a multimillion-dollar production balancing on the head of a 7-year-old actor,” says Nowrasteh. The film stars Adam Greaves-Neal in the title role.
Nowrasteh assures those who might be concerned about any speculation on Jesus’ childhood that both Rice’s novel and his movie portray Jesus as “without sin,” and that “a lot of priests and religious people” love the book. He also says that Rice studied Jesus’ story and researched the society he grew up in to the point where “she was almost like a theologian herself.”
Things weren’t nearly as smooth when he co-wrote some segments of “The Path to 9/11” miniseries with his wife and screenwriting partner, Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh. The epic recounting of the events leading up to the 9/11 attacks drew heated complaints from former President Bill Clinton and wife Hillary. The miniseries has never been aired again and has been notoriously unavailable on DVD or any other post-broadcast platform.
The reason for the miniseries’ disappearance has long been the subject of speculation, with many believing that the Clintons had quashed the airing and distribution of “Path” after its initial airing. That controversial allegation is fully endorsed by Nowrasteh, who said the Clintons were upset because the miniseries showed that the president declined several chances to attack and kill the terrorist attack’s mastermind, Osama bin Laden, during his presidency.
“It’s become common knowledge, since that time, that he had multiple chances to take bin Laden out, yet Bill Clinton denied that in the leadup to airing ‘Path,’” recalls Nowrasteh. “I believe the Clintons were responsible for having three minutes removed from even the initial airing, and it was never rebroadcast and never released on DVD. Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, a big friend of Clinton’s, was on the Disney board at the time, and probably reminded them that Clinton helped extend their copyright on Mickey Mouse during his presidency. Clearly, Bill Clinton felt they were indebted to him.
“’Path’ got made because I had incredible documentation backing me up,” he continues. “ABC didn’t have a problem with the miniseries. Its parent company (Disney) did.”
While Nowrasteh is vexed by how “Path” was ultimately treated, he doesn’t feel that he was subjected to any real career damage by his involvement with the controversial project.
As for “Soraya,” there were multiple challenges in making the film, including having to shoot the sad tale in remote areas of Jordan in order to avoid Islamic backlash. The difficult subject matter also made for an emotionally harrowing experience at times, but Nowrasteh is proud of that achievement.
“I constantly run into people who’ve seen it, and it only played on 75 screens as an arthouse release,” says Nowrasteh. “The people who have the biggest problem were the Iranian government, and we smuggled 20,000 copies into Iran and thousands of copies were made from those. It became an underground hit. I think people are more aware of the insanity of some of these groups.”
After that struggle and the bleakness of making “Soraya,” Nowrasteh is happy that “Messiah” has proven to be a positive experience. While it took six years of hard work and negotiations to finally get the greenlight to make the film, he found a major advocate in producer Chris Columbus, who has maintained one of Hollywood’s lucrative careers as the writer or director behind such classic hits as “Gremlins” and “Home Alone.”
“I’ve worked with Chris Columbus developing projects that didn’t get the light of day and he responded immediately and got it funded,” says Nowrasteh. “This is a great opportunity, because it’s a beautiful story, a movie for the whole family, a journey into the light. Or, as Chris likes to say, it’s the greatest story never told.”