By Christopher Gunty
Accomplished songwriter and music producer Adam Anders and his wife, Nikki, have been writing music together since their first date two decades ago. So when he was visiting his wife’s family in Iowa 17 years ago and trying to find a good Christmas movie to watch, Anders was dismayed that he could not find anything.
And he knows what he’s talking about, having been executive music producer of the TV musical comedy-drama “Glee” and involved in many other television and movie projects.
“Coming from the music side of things, I was like, there’s got to be a musical about the Nativity,” he said. Although it seemed obvious to him, he realized no one had done it.
“I’ve got this brilliant idea that nobody had thought of and I thought honestly, all these years I’ve been trying to make this, I kept thinking somebody’s going to do it before me.” But no one did, so during the COVID shutdown, he finally had time to work only on the project, which became the movie musical, “Journey to Bethlehem,” which opened in theaters Nov. 10.
Originally, Anders planned to co-write the music with Nikki, but then he decided to produce it, too. He figured that was enough, until he completed the work and realized he had to direct it to complete the vision. If that’s not enough, Anders also sings in the choir for some of the songs in the movie.
“I think the initial vision 17 years ago was tattooed on my heart. I couldn’t let it go,” he said in an interview with Catholic Review Radio.
Anders is quick to point out that “Journey to Bethlehem” is not a documentary. The opening credits say, “Inspired by a true story – the greatest story ever told.”
Having worked in TV and movies for 20 years, Anders knows that entertainment needs a love story, some lightness, and good actors and singers.
He “invented” two sisters for Mary, as well as an instance in which Mary (played by Fiona Palomo) and Joseph (Milo Mannheim) meet before their formal betrothal. The magi are more like the Three Stooges than wise men, Anders admits, providing comic relief when the story gets too serious. Part of that seriousness comes from King Herod (Antonio Banderas), the natural villain of the story.
Anders, who is a non-Catholic Christian, said it was perhaps bold to fill in the story outside what Scripture already offers. “What I try to do is live in the in-betweens, as I call it, in between the Scriptures,” he said. “It doesn’t say much. It doesn’t say why Joseph stayed. It doesn’t say how Mary felt, what she said.”
Anders said, “(In) all the great movies, we relate to the characters and that’s what makes you lean in and want to hear more.”
He realized if he tried to make “Journey to Bethlehem” in a way that satisfied everyone, it would satisfy no one.
“But it’s definitely tricky because I know how sacred this text is and how much it means to so many people, including me. … So, I just did the best I could as a believer and as an artist.”
Anders said he did not necessarily look for believers for the cast and crew, though many are. “I started the first day and I told everyone I don’t know where your faith is, but I can tell you your director is a man of faith. And I’m praying for us and I’m praying for you and this movie every day.”
He cannot say whether the movie will become a holiday classic; only time will tell. “My hope and dream, of course, is that this becomes a part of people’s Christmas routine — ‘Let’s watch ‘Journey to Bethlehem!’”
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Christopher Gunty is associate publisher/editor of Catholic review Media, the news outlet for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Listen to the full radio interview with Anders on Catholic Review Radio at https://bit.ly/crradio-110523.