An Interview with Pete Shilaimon, Executive Producer of Risen (and refugee from Iraq)
“A day without death” is the quest of the Roman military tribune Clavius, protagonist of the movie Risen. His desire resonates deeply with Pete Shilaimon, executive producer of the film. He is a refugee from Iraq who has made it to Hollywood.
“Our company and all of the studios live by making a good product, but you also want people in the seats because then you can make other movies. And we do want to make more Bible films,” says Pete, looking to the future. About his faith he confesses proudly: “I never shy away from saying I am Catholic.” He talked to Inside the Vatican after he met Pope Francis in Rome in early February.
On your Rome trip for the screening of Risen, you had the opportunity to attend a general audience and meet Pope Francis. What did it mean to you?
Pete Shilaimon: Everything. It was incredible. The Pope, to my family, is very symbolic. It’s about faith and hope. Meeting him and being so close to him while I had the chance to kiss his ring twice, and him saying “Pray for me,” was the best thing that happened. If I died today, I would be completely okay. When you are so close to someone who represents hope and faith for you, you cannot be not touched by the experience. I think even if you are a non-believer and you are standing in his presence, you feel something.
Can you see any parallel between this papacy and the message of Risen?
Shilaimon: I was a refugee. I was an immigrant from Iraq to Greece and then to America. The Apostles felt like they were all refugees, searching for something — and it really hit something with me. We, as immigrants, we, as refugees, run away from something to find hope. And I think this is what Pope Francis does. And that is what the movie does. You are in search of something, and a non-believer who is face to face with Yeshua is forced to look at himself in a way he has never had to before.
In the movie we hear the protagonist hoping for “a day without death.” How does it resonate with you, who come from a war-stricken region?
Shilaimon: It was my father. He took his family out of an area that was going through war with Iran. Also, he wanted my mother and the family to be able to practice their faith and not to be ashamed of it. So I think, for my father, a day without death was something special because he was seeing death all around him.
You know, Saddam was a ruthless human being on so many levels. Death was all around him and my father saw way too much of it, so he had to get us out. When I am asked these personal questions and what the story means to me, I always say I am Clavius on that rock in the movie. Unlike Clavius, I am a believer, but I am also a believer who had many doubts. I questioned: Why did we leave our country? Why did my father die so young? Why did my sister die? There were so many questions I wanted answered.
Can you tell us about how your family escaped?
Shilaimon: It was exactly what you see going on today, except that the refugees today are walking across, while we were lucky enough to get into Greece under political asylum… We lived on government housing programs, welfare, for almost four years, and then we moved to America where we were still on welfare and government housing and hand-outs, knocking at the door of “middle class.” That was my father’s life, hoping that he would get us to the middle class… They left their parents, brothers and sisters behind and they never saw them again. My mother went back to Iraq before her mother died, before this last war, and that was it. But myself, my brothers and sister, we never got to see our family. We left so early that I don’t know who my uncles are. As a child I was so close to my grandmother, I was so much in love with her and I never got to see her again (tears in his eyes). You leave, everything is destroyed and you have to start life all over again… How do you do that? That’s why I think you need to show mercy and compassion. And people need hope, they need it right now…
How does mercy manifest in the film?
Shilaimon: So, how do you connect the film and mercy when there is so much hatred and animosity out there? How do you bring people together and make it be about love and not war? I know it sounds cheesy to say, but it really is the truth. How do you bring cultures and people together and make it be about something that is greater than hate, which is ultimate love? I pray that Pope Francis and others of his stature can move the world that way. That is what I hope for. I hope people who are non-believers go see Risen because it is really not only an epic story but a beautiful movie, told from a non-believer’s point of view.
I imagine, when making this film, you entered into the world of 2000 years ago and you re-lived it. What was the experience like?
Shilaimon: I can tell you, this never came off my body (he shows his necklace with a crucifix on it). There were many times I would hold on to it very tight because there were so many moments in that movie that could have gone wrong, whether it was that the script wasn’t right or some action didn’t look right… So for me it almost felt like that once a week I would have that big “come to Jesus conversation” that I need help because I don’t know which way to go.
It seems quite unusual that Sony in Hollywood took on a religious story…
Shilaimon: The company that was responsible for making the film was LD Entertainment. Sony has been the most incredible team to work with. You couldn’t have asked for a better partner. But it was Mickey Liddell (founder of LD Entertainment) who decided to put in the money and basically say, “I’m gonna make this movie. It’s my calling to do this. I want to do a movie about hope. I want to give a powerful message because I think it is time. I’m gonna get the money somehow.” And he did. And Sony jumped on. They saw clips of the movie and they loved what they saw. How can you not love a Kevin Reynolds movie?
Who was your target audience?
Shilaimon: We tell the story from the perspective of a non-believer to grab everyone’s attention. We never thought about bringing people to the movie theater to convert them. We just wanted to tell a great story from a non-believer’s point of view. How would he see Yeshua and the resurrection? And this non-believer was there at the crucifixion. It was just one of those scenes when we said: Why don’t we just play with the idea? Why not take the risk? If you are going to tell the story, you could do it in the old-fashioned way, which is very much by the book, which is powerful enough. Or you could turn the story upside down a bit and tell it from the eyes of someone who is a bit different. And that’s what we chose to do. If we can get everyone in the movie theaters to give it a chance, it would be great because I do think most people would walk out saying, “I was surprised.”
Our company and all of the studios live by making a good product, but you also want people in the seats because then you can make other movies. And we do want to make more Bible films. Right now we are talking about some projects that are very exciting to us and we are waiting to see how Risen performs and if people are hungry for films like this. So let’s hope!
Do you think you can get stigmatized in Hollywood because you are religious?
Shilaimon: When people ask me what I am, I never shy away from saying I am Catholic. The highlight of my life is that I was next to Pope Francis. No, I am not ashamed. I have friends of various religions, Jewish, Muslim, and there is none of that.
For me, if a script comes in my direction and it is about Mary Magdalen or Paul, and if I like the script and if it speaks to me, I would do it. I would not shy away from it at all. I would work on anything that I feel I could bring a part of who I am, a part of my voice into the project.
So what is next?
Shilaimon: We have some incredible stuff coming up for LD Entertainment. We have been working on several movies. And I would really like to make another Biblical film… We are kind of playing around with the idea of maybe Circus Maximus. I can’t tell you more. We have four projects, which are Biblical-themed, that we are very excited about.
So all roads lead to Rome?
Shilaimon: I love it. Is it how we end this? All roads lead to Rome! (laughs)
Risen: A Beautiful, Subtle, Intense film
This impressive film, directed by Kevin Reynolds from a screenplay he co-wrote with Paul Aiello, is the story of the crucifixion of Christ told through the eyes of the Roman centurion Clavius, well portrayed by Joseph Fiennes (from Shakespeare in Love), Ralph Fiennes’ younger brother. After witnessing the crucifixion, then seeing the risen Christ, he has to reconcile what he’s seen with what his mind tells him: that it is impossible.
Frankly, I wasn’t really looking forward to this picture because I was perceiving it as another attempt by Hollywood to cash in on the Christian market, which the industry only took notice of (in recent years) after the astounding success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
What I found was a well-made film, beautifully cast, with an attention to detail I found most impressive: the way the birds in the sky react when Christ is present after the Resurrection; the way no fish can be caught on the Sea of Galilee until Christ is spotted walking on the shore; the unexplained way Christ just disappears and then reappears when needed. And then there is His beautiful interchange with His apostles and Mary Magdalene, redefining what it means to be in love.
One of the most impressive scenes is when Jesus heals a leper near the end of the picture, but most important is the way Clavius is changed from a tormented man to one at peace with himself.
The scene of the crucifixion after Christ has died, with Clavius having been sent by Pontius Pilate to confirm the death, is truly frightening. There is absolutely no doubt the man is dead, so when He is seen by Clavius a short time later, it is jaw-dropping in its intensity and the subtle way it was shot. It was almost like being there.
The special effects are impressive but not overdone as is so often the case in this age of CGI (computer generated imagery), thus giving the picture a feel of reality in the most peculiar of situations. As I have experienced things in my life that cannot be explained, I have often found the most powerful of circumstances to be a relatively quiet thing.
I also liked the way the filmmakers opted to use the ancient Hebrew term for Jesus Christ, Yeshua, helping to recreate a time that will never be experienced by anyone again, except with faith.
The impressive cast includes Tom Felton (from the Harry Potter films) as Lucius, Peter Firth as Pontius Pilate, Maria Botto as Mary Magdalene and, most impressively, Cliff Curtis as Yeshua. Rating: **** 4 STARS