Film & TV

Interview: Garth Davis

Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara

Garth Davis discusses his new film Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene is the latest project by  Oscar-nominated director Garth Davis. It explores the story of Jesus from the unique perspective of his only female disciple,  Mary Magdalene. The film is scheduled for release on March 22nd. Garth kindly took some time to chat to Glam,  to give us his insights into this distinctive project.

What started your interest in the figure that is Mary Magdalene?

Well I was finishing Lion and the producers of Lion, Emile Sherman and Iian Canning had called me and told me, “Garth we’ve worked out the next year and half of your life”. They gave me the script for Mary Magdalene. At first I was cautions, I wouldn’t ordinarily look to do a biblical film. Well I read it and it discovered it was not biblical movie. It’s an incredible spiritual story of this very remarkable woman who I later understood that her story hadn’t really been told and that the Mary Magdalene that we understand as the fallen woman is an invention by Pope Gregory in 591 AD. So I just became fascinated with the whole subject.

How does this film compare to other biblical movies that have seen a major release?

I think it is different as it’s the first time this story has been told from a woman’s point of view. Our version of the movie is very humanistic. You can get under the skin of the characters. We’re celebrating Mary’s contribution to Jesus’s ministry and the theme of unconditional love.

Working with Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix how did they come together to create this film?

Well I just finished working with Rooney on Lion and in working with her I discovered that there was someone really special here. She has such a unique interacting, internal other world. When I was reading Mary Magdalene I kept thinking of Rooney because Mary has a very strong spiritual calling which isn’t understood by those around her and she struggles to find a way to express that and I saw a lot of parallels with Rooney. It took a while to get her over the line but she really engaged with the spirituality of it.

I had to find her companion, her mirror, a kindred spirit. I kept leaning towards Joaquin Phoenix because he has such a visceral quality of performances and he has a deep spirituality and compassion.

Did the cast have the same faith and belief on set?

What was unique about the experience is that everyone came from different faiths and beliefs but they all found a way to connect with their characters and create a dialog about their connection to God and faith. It was interesting to compare their notes.

How did you go about researching this film considering this story hasn’t been told in this way?

When I got the script it already had 4 years of development behind it already and the writers, Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, had a lot of access to lots of different researchers, academics and religious experts and all of that flowed into their journey. They were inspired by the Gospel of Mark and a recently discovered Gospel of Mary. That’s what they drew from and being woman writers they wanted to celebrate her and they wanted a story completely from her point of view.


What were the main things you took away from the story?

For me, it celebrating that God is within us and the kingdom is within us. If we can embrace unconditional love we can overcome everything in some ways. Forgiveness, faith, love all those things come through and it’s fascinating in the film how we explore the concept of people always forecasting what Jesus is going to bring into the world when in fact it’s much simpler concepts. We need to live with more compassion, forgiveness and love.

What’s the main thing you want your audience to take away from Mary Magdalene?

“I want them to be reminded of the beauty and power of their own humanity. And hopefully consider the power of unconditional love. Hopefully they reflect on this moment of history with more of an open mind and realisation that woman played more of a part in Jesus’s ministry.”

Are the themes in Mary Magdalene going to inspire any future work?

I’ve always gravitated towards those kind of movies. Lion is really a celebration of unconditional love and mothers. All my favourite films are about female protagonists, about woman breaking away. About these beautiful spirits struggling to express themselves in a patriarchal society or one that doesn’t understand them. Metaphorically I’m kind of attracted to that. Even being a man I think it’s a duty to try and create a balance and a fair way to look at life.

Were there any struggles or difficulties is filming Mary Magdalene that you haven’t encountered before?

There’s a huge responsibility approaching religious material. Practicalities of shooting. We had a much larger ensemble then I’m used to, staging things outside with the elements and recreating 1st century in a way that felt real took a lot of work and detail. It’s easy to fall into a CGI world and make some bad choices in costuming. We worked very hard to bring to life the culture of that time and the domesticity of it.

What kind of pressure is there making this kind of film?

Great care was taken in getting advice and responses to what we were doing. If there was a controversial element we as group would discuss if we would stick to our guns or whether we should adjust. So we were constantly accessing that as we went along but always trying to be true to Mary and true to our instincts based on the research material given to us. It was a very respectful and deep process.  

I think this is a film that people who are not religious can enjoy as well. I think it’s a film that relates to our times. It celebrates what it is to be a human being. It celebrates unconditional love. It’s a fascinating and immersive experience of this history through a woman’s eyes. There are so many ways to enjoy this movie

Mary Magdalene opens on March 22nd.

Check out the website here.

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