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Last Days in the Desert Writer/Director on Ewan McGregor, Jesus, & Family
Last Days in the Desert Writer/Director on Ewan McGregor, Jesus, & Family

Last Days in the Desert Writer/Director on Ewan McGregor, Jesus, & Family

By Jacob Sahms

Rodrigo Garcia is the writer/director of Last Days in the Desert, an extra-Biblical account of Jesus’ encounter with the devil from Matthew 4. Garcia’s parents are Columbian, but he grew up in Mexico City, surrounded by writers, screenwriters, and filmmakers. With a love of photography and story, it was only a matter of time until he would be gripped by the desire to write and direct his own films and television shows. Twenty-five years later, Garcia found himself inspired by a story he couldn’t ignore.

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“The idea hit me like a lightning bolt,” he shared. “What came to me was very clear and succinct that in the midst of his wilderness wandering, that Jesus would meet a father and son who lived in the desert, who had a disagreement, and that Jesus would get sucked into it. Later, I went back to find that books that shared different thoughts on Jesus’ experience. Rather than finding that a constraint, it liberated me.”

Garcia’s desire to unwrap what it would have been like to be Jesus led him to focus on the human, grounded side of Jesus. He admits that the divine side can only be partially known or understood, and so he zeroed in on what might have been going through Jesus’ mind at thirty, wandering through the desert for forty days.

“He must have insecurities, fear of the unknown, of death, some inhibition of the size of the mission, some intuition that there will be a grand gesture,” mused Garcia. “Or maybe Jesus had none of that. If I was Jesus, then what? All of these problems come to the fore.”

“What emerges is a Jesus who is adolescent - taking his first few steps into coming back, and submerging himself in Jerusalem and his real ministry. I felt that this was an initial trial where he didn’t reveal himself but was trying to get his feet wet engaging with people, connecting with them, guiding them, and providing answers to bigger questions. It did make me think - it takes you closer to that person, to the ‘other,’ what must his human side have gone through.”

For three days toward the end of his forty days in the desert, Jesus encounters the devil (both of whom are played by Ewan McGregor). In the same sequence of events, Jesus comes across a family of three, Father, Mother, and Son. While the mother lies dying, the father and son quarrel over what their future should look like, slowly drawing Jesus in. And then the devil wagers for the lives of these three, challenging Jesus’ humanity and divinity at the same time.

Garcia specifically chose to formulate the family in a timeless way, beginning with their lack of individual names. “Initially, there is only father and son, but I felt like the table was missing one leg. I wanted the drama to be reduced to bare essentials. There’s a clash of desires. The mother will die soon; the conflicts are powerful but simple. I realized that if I reduce this to bare simplicity, i need a mother. I need an old father who is materialism, with flesh and chemistry; the mother is dying so she’s facing oblivion or the afterlife; the boy is all about the future - me, me, me, all about my life. It is a kind of trinity.”

“The three of them are a unit that is falling apart. I’ve often said that women are glue and lubricant in families. They have historically continued to be the ones who hold families together, to help them negotiate. And this mother is dying.”

On the other side of the equation is Jesus, who recognizes that He is God’s son in a unique way, and the devil, who mourns his expulsion from heaven. “I initially thought of the demon as a fallen brother but in writing and shooting him, I saw there was a kind of brotherhood,” Garcia continued. “Ewan did a good job when they finally say goodbye in showing that they have a sympathy for each other; there’s anger and sadness in the demon that the Father doesn’t pay attention to them anymore. It’s a family drama on both sides.”

“Both sides resonate with me because I want to highlight relationships between people who can’t live without each other but who can’t live with each other.”

Praising McGregor’s performance, Garcia pointed out that devout Christian audiences have raved about how approachable this portrayal of Jesus is. Without disposing of his transcendental personality, McGregor captured the humanity, tender and sympathetic. But the setting for McGregor’s performance, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, is just as significant.

Having scouted out where the film would be shot, Garcia warmed to the discussion of the desert itself. “You want people to feel what it would’ve been like in the desert, a great isolation as well as a great connection to the oneness of the universe, to the infinite nature of time, to the things that are beyond me. Deserts can do that, just like the high oceans can. Deserts are peculiar that way - and people find the reflection there, beautiful and inviting, but it’s ruthless and can kill you as well. It is a very striking facet of the film.”

Shooting the film, Garcia called on longtime friend and Academy Award-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. “He’s one of the great DPs of the world, with a refined eye,” Garcia admitted. “It benefitted us to shoot like a documentary with a small crew, with very little equipment, on handheld. It’s not coincidence because we had decided on time, locations, ahead of time so that it would look as good as it did. We wanted the desert to have an allure, a mystique, a beauty, but not a collection of desert postcards. There needed to be something about it that was menacing.”

The conversation circled back to the script, as we discussed the casting of McGregor. Initially not considered because he was older than Jesus’ thirty-years at the time this story takes place, Garcia said he realized that McGregor projected an energy, an inner life, that relayed his sympathy for ‘the other.’ Whether it was caring for the family he meets in the desert, or showing empathy for the devil, McGregor’s portrayal seals Last Days in the Desert as an epic portrayal of Jesus.

In the end, Garcia’s film is a work of fiction, but one which can challenge us to further appreciate the effort of Jesus in his ministry, and on the way to the cross. Will everyone see that? No film completely satisfies everyone. But it is Garcia’s desire that people would enjoy the story, and be challenged.

“I hope that they will see the themes of fathers and sons, what destiny is for each of us, and the bigger themes of individuals in time.”

Last Days in the Desert is available August 2 on DVD, Digital HD, and On Demand.

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"For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord."
- Romans 6:23

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