Where Angels Fear to Tread: Writing a TV Show About Jesus

Ryan Swanson and Tyler Thompson, along with director Dallas Jenkins, write the hit show The Chosen, a drama about Jesus’ life through the eyes of his disciples that has millions of views and has been translated into more than 50 languages. The show’s third season premieres November 18, with four more seasons planned.

Jenkins is usually the public face of the show, but CT spoke with Swanson and Thompson at the show’s production location in Midlothian, Texas, this summer when they were shooting their version of the biblical story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 for season 3. The thousands of extras were all fans of the show who contributed to the crowdfunded show or who won a raffle.

You have some experience in Hollywood. How does it make you feel that the Hollywood gatekeepers like Variety haven’t acknowledged the show much?

Tyler Thompson: I don’t take it personally that they haven’t. They have good reason to be suspicious of it, because it doesn’t really make sense—the whole business model, the app of it all. It hasn’t been a large acknowledgment in the Hollywood press, but we do know it’s being discussed in the boardrooms.

Ryan Swanson: If it was blowing up, it doesn’t feel like it would hit us for a while.

Tyler Thompson: Yeah, there’s the show, and then there’s all the noise around the show. The Bible study booklets, calendars, and documentaries—we stay isolated from the social media hype.

Ryan Swanson: It has been nice in a lot of ways to grow at our own pace.

Tyler Thompson: We have our very tight writers’ room of three. And there are many outside forces speaking into it, but it’s really just us.

So you have shielded yourselves a little bit from the Christian industrial complex?

Tyler Thompson: We don’t cater to that complex. We just make what we think is a good show with professional actors who are Middle Eastern and people of color, and we hire professional [directors of photography] and professional crew.

Evangelicals are arguing all the time, but it seems like you have been able to mostly avoid being the center of controversy—if you don’t read the comments section.

Tyler Thompson: The world is a great place if you never read the comments.

Ryan Swanson: I don’t know how these [evangelical] arguments go. I grew up in a Swedish Lutheran house: We go to church and we do church bazaars and sell cube steaks. And then I went to work in Hollywood. But the show revolves around events from the Bible, and we don’t take a didactic approach.

Tyler Thompson: Right, it’s not preaching. You can extract meaning. People can sense when they’re being manipulated or told to believe a certain thing. The Chosen, it’s just entertainment. It’s about character and plot and story.

Ryan Swanson: It’s never our organizing principle: How can we do this differently, how can we turn Christianity on its head? The source material, it’s immovable.

Tyler Thompson: And it’s not pushing a particular theology. If there’s any theology that we’re trying to amplify, I would say it’s a less-heightened Christology.

Some people have this very high Christology, like, there’s no way Jesus would have prepared for a sermon. But I’m here to emphasize Jesus’ humanity. We’ve portrayed Jesus as a very relatable character who cracks jokes, makes fart noises to entertain kids. And most people love that, but some people think that that’s irreverent. We just want to portray something that was very human.

I did notice Jesus laughs a lot in the show.

Tyler Thompson: We’re not telling people this is what happened. But if we’re talking about someone who’s fully God and fully man, then all these emotions are there. He displayed all these other emotions: fear in the Garden of Gethsemane, saying, Let this cup pass from me. He’s effectively saying, I don’t want to do this, is there another way? That’s a very human emotion. He expresses disappointment in his friends: You couldn’t wait up and watch with me one hour.

Ryan Swanson: He cursed a tree because he was angry.

What made you want to bring a more human Christology to the show?

Tyler Thompson: I think our hatred of Superman. We all agree that Superman is the worst superhero—

Ryan Swanson: —to write, as writers! He always needs a proxy to suffer. So Lois has to be in trouble, or Metropolis.

At the end of the day, we’re setting up the scripts to service Dallas’s vision. And although we write as a team, Dallas does run the show.

How do you approach character development?

Ryan Swanson: What do we know that might suggest or insinuate some motive: fear, vulnerability, or strength? In the case of Philip, who had previously followed John the Baptist, we started to imagine, “Okay, he’s done this before. He’s probably seen some of the hairier stuff than what these disciples have seen. He’ll be an old hand.” What we know from Scripture, we’re limited.

Ryan Swanson: [To Thompson] Do you remember that document that Dallas had sent us early on?

Tyler Thompson: A document with what we know about each disciple. Peter was so directly called by Jesus, and then you have somebody like Simon the Zealot about whom three words are written and those words are “Simon the Zealot.”

When you’re thinking about character development, we know that all our Jewish characters grew up with their necks under the boot of Rome. They have generations of trauma in Judaism that needs no explanation: Egypt and the slavery and the exile in Babylon. So we don’t have to make up a trauma backstory, because it’s generational. And it’s very much passed down in their liturgy.

Does it cut off any career opportunities for you to work on a Christian show?

Ryan Swanson: Maybe. At the beginning it was unknown; there was risk for everybody involved. Every working [Hollywood] professional is branded as something.

It sounds cheesy, but this has felt like home. Dallas has never strung me along. He introduced me to Tyler, who’s been a better writing partner than I could have ever imagined.

I’ve put my faith in the people who are behind the project. Even when I had no idea how the marketing was gonna work, how this app was going to work—every time, it’s been proven to me that everybody does their job better than me. Except my job, that is the only job I’m qualified to do.

Tyler Thompson: Someone asked me the other day how it’s funded. And I was like, I don’t know. I don’t understand the funding model.

Speaking of which, you’re surrounded by people who donated to the show right now. What’s it like to be on set with thousands of fans?

Ryan Swanson: I can walk through here; no one knows who I am.

Tyler Thompson: That’s the best part about being a writer, is that you get to do your creative work in solitude. And people don’t conflate you with your work. Those actors, they’re recognizable all over the world now. And people can conflate Matthew and Paras [Patel] or Jonathan [Roumie] and Jesus. People don’t scrutinize our lives the way that the actors are scrutinized.

Do you have a favorite episode you worked on?

Ryan Swanson: It’s actually the same episode for both of us: season 1, episode 2. We realized we were both seeing the same movie in our heads—that final coda, where we check in with all the characters, all the Shabbat dinners.

It’s one thing to crank out a spec script, where you might have a bunch of ideas and the promise of a series. This episode, we had to buck up and write a series based on the pilot we introduced. And so that one felt like, “Hey, we can do this.” We found that every season since, that episode 2 is a kind of place where the storylines get galvanized.

Tyler Thompson: In our life, it’s been infamously always the hardest one to write. Six is really hard. So two and six.

Ryan Swanson: If it’s eight episodes, the second one is the end of act 1, and then episode 6 is the end of act 2. So you have to start to wrap something up, a choice is made, the road behind them closes off, point of no return is reached.

How do the three of you write together?

Ryan Swanson: We’re an assembly line. We plot out the whole season at a retreat, and then parse that out to eight increments. And then I peel off and do an outline.

Tyler Thompson: Then I write a first draft off the outline. I hand off to Ryan, and he works on it, and then it gets handed off to Dallas. Meanwhile, as soon as I hand off episode 2 to Ryan, then I’m working on episode 3. And Dallas is working on episode 1.

Ryan Swanson: And by Dallas’s pass, there’s words from all three of us.

Tyler Thompson: After Dallas, the drafts go to our three biblical consultants. And then we get back pages and pages and pages of notes!

What feedback do you get from your biblical consultants?

Ryan Swanson: Divine pronoun!

Tyler Thompson: A lot of capitalizing His. The scripts eventually are used in the subtitling process. And there’s a huge swath of Americans still hanging onto the divine pronoun. And when they watch it with the subtitles on, people have screenshots: “So proud of The Chosen for using the divine pronoun.” It’s a whole thing.

Ryan Swanson: The bigger notes—sometimes they’re great. These are all learned scholars, and well-intended notes. But we don’t always use them.

Tyler Thompson: Sometimes we’re like, “Great, thank you. We’ll fix it.” And then other times, you’re like, “Thanks for pointing that out; this is a plausible fiction. So we’re going to put this town 10 miles north of where you’re saying it should be.” They point out geographical problems with roads and north, south, east, west stuff. We do our best with that.

We’re not a church, we’re not a ministry, we’re not a Bible study. We’re just entertainment. If they send a note that’s like, “This is blatantly so unbiblical,” we would really pay attention to that. But we’ve never really gotten into much trouble, because we’re so careful.

Ryan Swanson: We’re certainly never ill-intentioned but ignorance can do as much harm as bad intentions if we don’t at least try to understand. So that’s why we bring the scholars in.

Sometimes you have to say, “We made a choice for a show.” We can’t have the intention that, this line is going to save somebody or it’s going to lift somebody up at their lowest moment, which is feedback we have heard.

Tyler Thompson: Ryan always says the answer can never be “Because God.” There has to be some very human and plot-related things that lead characters to their decisions.

Reporting from Christianity Today.