‘Medici,’ ‘Leonardo’ Producer Lux Vide Prepares ‘The Rising,’ Portraying a ‘Human, Secular’ Jesus Christ (EXCLUSIVE)

Stephen Davis, Luca Bernabei, Jan Michelini and Daniel Knauf
Courtesy: Lippin Group

Following on “Medici: Masters of Florence,” with Dustin Hoffman and Richard Madden, and “Leonardo,” starring Aidan Turner, Italy’s Lux Vide is teaming with ex-Hasbro chief content officer Stephen J. Davis (“Transformers”) to produce what may be its most ambitious production yet: “The Rising.” The English-language historical drama series focuses on what it described as the “human, secular story” of Jesus Christ. The creative team will shortly begin pitching potential U.S. partners.

Executive producer of NBC’s “The Blacklist” and creator and showrunner of HBO’s “Carnivàle,” Daniel Knauf is attached as “The Rising’s” showrunner.

Lux Vide CEO Luca Bernabei (“Leonardo,” “Medici: Masters of Florence,” “Devils”) and Davis serve as the series’ producers.

“The Rising” will be directed by Italy’s Jan Michelini, who broke through directing episodes of “Medici: Masters of Florence.” Its composer is Carlos Rafael Rivera, best known for writing the score of Netflix hit “The Queen’s Gambit,” and an Emmy winner with Netflix’s “Godless.”

Fabrizio Ficco is serving as an Old Testament expert on the production.

Knauf is currently writing the series’ bible. A writers’ room will be set up in Los Angeles in one or two months, Bernabei said.

As international drama series are increasingly based on known IPs, “The Rising” turns on arguably the best known and most influential figure in Western world history. “Jesus completely changed the route of Western culture, whether you are a believer or a non-believer. After more than two thousand years, we are still here talking about him. Over two billion people around the world follow his teachings, which are still significant to everyone,” said Bernabei, describing the series as “an entertaining and inspiring show, right for everyone.”

“Especially in this moment and in this world,” Bernabei added. “We need to raise our eyes and souls, following a story that has never been told enough.”

Recent Lux Vide series place their protagonists in a historical context attempting to show how revolutionary they were for their age: How the Medicis ushered in the modern age, popularizing banking; how Leonardo da Vinci broke with the artistic cannons and world view of the Middle Ages.

“The Rising” may be no exception. Conceived as a three-season series, the first turns on Jesus’ preaching. “Jesus said: ‘Love your enemy.’ That was quite revolutionary, clashing with Roman and Jewish culture,” Bernabei noted.

Cast as a “next generation” series, family drama “The Rising” will especially target younger audiences. Season one also sees Jesus choosing his Apostles. Rather than venerable late-life sages, these will appear as a ” ‘band of rogue teenagers’ rebelling against injustices of the time,” Bernabei added.

The series also looks set to drill down on historical context. Davis said: “By taking a contemporary approach to the story of Jesus’s life – set to the backdrop of the nuanced political turmoil that existed in the period – we see the real characters that surrounded Jesus and how their infighting, political intrigue, and gamesmanship ultimately shaped his fate.”

Heading up Lux Vide, which is Italy’s biggest independent production company, producing 1,100 original hours, and the only one with its own studio facilities, Bernabei’s credits take in 2007 RAI, France 2 four-part “War and Peace,” 2013 RAI miniseries “Anna Karenina,” “Devils,” with Patrick Dempsey, and RAI 1 2020 medical drama “DOC.”

While CCO at Hasbro, Davis, an Emmy Award winning producer, oversaw the development and production of “Transformers,” “Power Rangers” and CBS miniseries “Pope John Paul II.”

Knauf also served as executive producer of NBC’s “Dracula” and Nick’s “The Astronauts,” which he also created.

Variety talked to Bernabei about “The Rising,” the next play from one of Europe’s most ambitious and fastest-expanding of production companies.

You say you aim for three seasons. Could you break down the story arcs of the second and third? 

The second charts the week that changed everything, from Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem through the Last Supper, crucifixion, and resurrection. The third charts the fate of the 12 Apostles, so it will have a bigger budget.

Some of your recent series have attempted to explain key but complex figures to broader audiences. Will that be the case for “The Rising”?

Yes. Jesus Christ is one of the most influential people in the Western world, even in the East. The series will not disrespect believers but aims to attract non-believers as well. Even if you’re a non-believer, knowing the life of Jesus can help you lead a better life, and suggests what it means to be a good person as was Jesus, who took into consideration the lives of the people around him.

If the first and third seasons chart the choice and fate of the Apostles, that will allow you to drill down into their characters?

Yes, the choice must have been quite a good one if you believe that these 12 people, just a dozen, spread Jesus’ teachings all over the world. And Jesus didn’t make obvious choices, those with the best academic qualifications as it were. Paul was a cultivated rich Jew, a carpet maker. But Peter was a fisherman from Galilee.

And Judas?

Judas was not a bad person in my opinion. But he was a zealot. He wanted Jesus to be a political leader and wouldn’t follow him if he wasn’t.

You talk of “The Rising’s” combining “deeply-nuanced story-telling with high-production values.” How high will those production values be in terms of budget?

We make shows for broad audiences. It’s difficult to target niche audiences these days. The scale has to be big, especially in the third season. Besides, this show has to be seen worldwide. The budget is €40 million-€50 million [$47 million-$59 million] per season.

“The Rising” can be seen a homage to your father, Ettore Bernabei, who helped produce “The Bible” (“La Bibbia”)….

Yes. This series is very personal and will carry on the company tradition of creating the highest-quality of family drama begun by my late father. “The Bible” was one of the highest-rated and globally-acquired miniseries of all time and involved a groundbreaking international collaboration of producers and all star-cast.

“The Bible” helped launch Lux Vide and was made over 1993-2002. What’s changed in TV production since?

It’s like another geological age. Having a longer series, we can drive deeper into character. And the series will be much faster. Daniel, the showrunner, created and wrote “Carnivàle.” And music is going to be much more important, given it’s so important for a younger generation.

What hasn’t changed is personal passion, making series that come from the heart….

No, that hasn’t changed at all. My father, for example, went to New York to try to persuade Richard Harris to play Abraham in “The Bible.” He hadn’t done TV before and didn’t want to do it. And my father didn’t speak a word of English. But as luck or destiny would have it, there was a snow storm in New York and no taxis so Harris was stuck in his hotel. So my father decided to walk in the snow to his hotel. He was 73 years old!

He still has to convince Harris to do it… 

He waited for him in the lobby and when Harris came down, with somebody translating, he started to tell him the story of Abraham. After a while Harris looked at my father – he came from an Irish Catholic family –  and said: ‘You know you remind me of my grandmother who used to tell me stories from the Bible when she put me to bed. So in honor and respect of my grandmother, I’ll do it.’ I’ve had many maestros in my life, but the first was my father.

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