Journey to Bethlehem: celebrating the birth of Jesus

Journey to Bethlehem is a movie out in cinemas now telling the biblical story of the birth of Jesus. The live-action Christmas musical is a directorial debut for Swedish music producer Adam Anders, whose credits include the High School Musical franchise and US television series Glee.

Christian Today spoke with Adam to hear about his experience of making the film and what he hopes audiences will take away from it.

Why the nativity story as your directorial debut?

I wanted to watch something at Christmas and there was no movie that actually told the story of Christmas, especially as a musical. I wrote an 11-page treatment for this movie and it took me 17 years to make it. I feel that my whole career has been film school and preparing to make this movie. I've actually been asked to direct before and I said no because it's such a huge commitment from a time standpoint and I've always had too many projects on at the same time. During Covid, however, I had nothing to do for six months so I sat down and finally had the time to polish the script and figure out what I wanted to do with it. I felt very strongly that this was my time to switch careers and get into directing. We had several versions of the script over the years, it's been such a roller coaster emotionally!

Why did you wish to venture into directing?

I've always been a storyteller, even as a songwriter I love telling stories through a song. I started as a bass player, then a songwriter and then a producer. I was always very grateful for the success I have had. My career has been great in many aspects, but there was always something missing for me. It was not until I was directing this movie that I realised this is my calling, this is what I have been looking for. It has fulfilled me creatively and it used all my talents. The process was incredibly rewarding and also very difficult. It was probably the hardest thing I've ever done.

What research did you do for the film?

There is so much that goes into it and obviously the Bible is the first place to start - Matthew one and two and Luke one and two. There is not much detail in the nativity story so although these two books were my basis for the movie, I had to fill in the blanks. I had to 'live in between' the scripture verses and uncover what Mary was thinking when this happened, what Joseph was thinking when she told him the news, and what her parents were doing. I tried to put myself in their shoes and researched what it was like to live back then. I also researched Herod and his sons and chose one son to focus on as the villain.

What aspects of the biblical story interested you the most?

I grew up with this story and I love Christmas. My wife and I love it, it is our favourite time of year and a very joyous time for us. There's not many stories in the Bible that I think you can frame in this way, that can be a celebration and so joyous, fun and colourful. If you want a good family movie you need a love story, a villain, and some comic relief. I looked at the story and I thought I have those things; I have my 3 stooges in the wise men to make us laugh when we need to, I have my love story in Mary and Joseph, and I have my villain with Herod. Those three poles of the story were there and for me this is a story that makes me want to celebrate Jesus' coming in the first place. It's a celebration, it's not a time to be sad and mourn. This is amazing and it should fill us with joy.

As the director, how did you go about retelling a story that has been told so many times? Was it a challenge?

It's always hard to tell a story when everyone knows how it ends. That's your first challenge to overcome. We know that Jesus was born, we know Mary and Joseph ended up together, but we don't know if it was for love or for duty, or what their journey was like. There was so much to dive into that I felt like I could make this interesting and compelling. Even if you know how it ends, you're coming along this journey with us. It's challenging to make a movie compelling when people already know the ending, but I think we were able to do it.

What does the Nativity story mean to you personally?

It means I have hope. For me personally I can't imagine life without my faith. Through hard times, even this year, the story has become more real for me as I've been telling it. It has been really interesting and I've grown closer to God, not further away, as busy as I have been. Through this process it's been a really tough period, and moving away from my family for six months to make the movie was brutal so I had to lean into my faith. This story is the beginning of our faith, this is where it all begins so it's been incredibly personal for me. I've seen the movie maybe a thousand times now through the entire production process and every time we get to the nativity I still cry! I don't think it's because I made such an incredible movie, I think it's because of the power of that moment and what it means to me.

Where did filming take place?

We filmed in the south of Spain, on the Mediterranean. It looks very much like Israel!

What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

A deep joy, and I hope they feel better than they did before they watched it. That's really important to me. The holidays are a tough time in the world and I feel like this movie can be a light in the darkness. I really hope families will go together and see this. It was made for my family. My wife and I wrote the songs, my boys were such a big part of it. I hope the whole family can go to see what Christmas is about and feel the joy and hope that comes from that story and want to watch it over and over again.

Journey to Bethlehem is out now in cinemas across the UK and Ireland.