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Mormons building 'little Jerusalem' in rural Utah

Published August 4, 2011 6:11 pm

Movie set • Filming for video scripture library shorts about Jesus' life is scheduled to begin next week.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Goshen • He'll turn water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana.

He'll pray in the Garden of Gethsemane.

He'll heal a lame man at the pool of Bethesda.

And he — the actor slated to play Jesus Christ — will do it all in rural Utah.

After months of construction, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will begin filming 55 educational vignettes about Jesus' life next week on a new movie set modeled mainly after biblical Jerusalem. The set — roughly a football-field-by-a-football-field in size near Goshen, south of Utah Lake — has been painstakingly erected by hundreds of workers in hope of bringing the holy city to life.

A thick, gnarled fake olive tree, for Jesus to pray beside, sits at the end of a pathway in the replicated Garden of Gethsemane. Large, faux stone walls line a maze of city streets, crafted to look rough and weather-beaten. A dozen heavy steps lead up to Solomon's Porch outside the Temple complex, which will be filled with 30-foot-high columns mimicking the actual 100-foot ones that stood in the ancient city.

"The goal of the church is to help people have a better understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ," said Scott Smiley, producer of the project. "To do that, the most realistic appearance helps someone be able to transport [himself] to that time period, and understand what his life was like, what the lives of those around him were like and have a better understanding of his mission."

Construction started in October after church leaders ordered it to be built to film a series of New Testament stories for a sort of scripture video library to be used for purposes such as seminary classes, kiosks in visitor centers, general conference or by missionaries. The Salt Lake City-based faith already has a movie studio in Provo, but officials thought it would be handy to have something more permanent. Plus, the church already owned the land, which sits near a church dairy.

Producers expect the set to last for decades and be used for future church projects as well.

To achieve a lasting realism, creators consulted experts at Brigham Young University.

"A lot of study went into the architectural and archaeological findings," Smiley said.

They strived to get the details right, such as creating dozens of Corinthian capitals to sit atop columns based on those excavated in Jerusalem from the time of Jesus.

They situated the set, Smiley noted, so they could film from any angle with only the "almost Galilean hills" to the west in the background while avoiding the rockier mountains to the east.

Set designers also incorporated a bit of modern LDS history in the set. A tall, charred-looking post, for example, is visible along the wall of a curved street meant to represent a typical Jerusalem thoroughfare. The post is one of several salvaged from the Provo Tabernacle, which was destroyed in a fire last year.

"There's poetry in that," Smiley said.

Still, the producers know the ultimate proof of their work will stretch far beyond the sum of all those details.

"In a weird way, I hope they [movie viewers] don't think about the background at all," said John Uibel, executive producer and production designer. "I hope they walk away from this media with an increased understanding of Jesus Christ the Savior and his ministry."

Ultimately, the vignettes will feature about 65 actors and a couple of thousand extras, who have been working on sprouting beards and growing out their "missionary haircuts" to look more authentic, Smiley joked. He declined to name who will play Jesus Christ, saying only that he's an actor from New York.

It's not the only part of the project the church is keeping a mystery — for now. The set is closed to the public.

Wendy Smith, postmaster at the small post office in nearby Elberta, said there is a lot of curiosity about the project in town. Everyone knows about it, but not many have visited it. Sometimes two or three people a day stop by her office to ask about the set, which despite its size, is invisible from the nearest road. Smith simply tells them, "They're just building little Jerusalem."

lschencker@sltrib.com

More photos online

O To view a photo gallery of the LDS Church's Jerusalem movie set, go to sltrib.com