Great Writing a Secret Ingredient to 'The Chosen's' Success
MIDLOTHIAN, Texas – A common mantra heard in so many creative circles is that good writing serves as the cornerstone for great communication.
This notion is never more evident than in the entertainment industry. Great lyrics often translate into highly meaningful songs. Thought-provoking prose usually makes the difference between just another book and a New York Times bestseller. And probably most evident is that a fantastic script usually corresponds with a movie or television program that changes lives in a meaningful way.
Yet, despite the vital importance of great writing, screenwriters often take a backseat to actors, directors, cinematography, and even special effects on occasion.
Not so with the most successful crowdfunded series of all time, The Chosen. Gearing up for the Season 3 premiere in theaters on November 18th, show creators realized very early that it was of paramount importance to make sure Scripture and the ability to interweave fictional characters into the greatest story ever told was as tasteful and historically accurate as possible.
On a recent set visit to Texas where The Chosen is filmed, I sat down with show screenwriters Ryan Swanson and Tyler Thompson to discuss how they balance being true to Scripture with taking creative license, what their writing process looks like, and why this particular program has caught on and become a global phenomenon.
It is so critically important that whatever scripts you write for The Chosen be accurate and true to the Word of God. How do you guys balance being true to Scripture with creative license?
Ryan Swanson: We reverse engineer everything. We know where we want to start and where we want to end. And then, we look for moments in Scripture, which we treat as the perfect expression, the perfect impact. We are translating it through the imperfect medium of television to affect emotions in people. So we might curate a storyline to lift people up and then have them experience disappointment. But we’re really sort of trying to bring every moment that we portray to life as we can interpret it. Which is fallible. But to answer your question, we curate the storyline with events that are plausible within the harmonies but not necessarily chronological.
Tyler Thompson: We call it plausible fiction. Because if we call it anything else that would be wrong. It’s like when you’re trying to hang a picture on a wall, and you don’t have a stud finder. You’re knocking on the wall for the resonant spaces. And so I think of the verses and the text as the studs of this building, of this structure. That’s a solid thing. We know that Peter said, or Simon said to Jesus, “Lord, we’ve been fishing all night and we caught nothing.” So, we go back and we knock a little bit, and there’s a hole, there’s a resonance. Why was he out on the water all night? And then, that’s a space where we’re like we can fill that.
What does your creative process look like?
Ryan Swanson: It’s fluid. The process I just described is really just in the conceptual space. Once we’re writing, we are writing over each other and writing into each other. We’re suggesting digressions and editing at the end of the day. We’re all editing too. The process looks extremely fluid, but there is a part where we come up with the broad strokes, the tent pole moments of a season. We’ve already sort of arced out the whole series. We have made it into seven increments. We have seven seasons planned. There we come up with the tent poles and then we start to fill in the gaps between the tent poles to create every episode. We have a single episode arc, and two or three multi episode arcs. And then, of course, the long running arc of the Jesus story is always our driving force.
Your writing team has the benefit of an Editorial Board of theological experts to sort of guide you along if something doesn’t make sense Biblically, culturally, or otherwise. Do you find the Editorial Board to be helpful in the writing process?
Ryan Swanson: Extremely helpful. We’ve iterated enough so that we’ve been able to move anything superfluous out and to hone in on what best practice is for us. I think each of us feels that the other has our backs. These guys have my back theologically. They have my back story-wise. They have my back narratively where I feel like I provide some of that for them. It’s good to know we’ve got this other layer because when you’re writing, a lot of times it is like cutting your own hair without a mirror. You think it’s going great. And then, you look in the mirror.
Tyler Thompson: They’ll catch anachronistic things. We also have researchers on the front end when we don’t know about something, when something’s just unclear, or we don’t have time to do a deep dive into something like the Maccabean Revolt for example. And it affects literal stuff that we’re working on right now. We have researchers who will bring us back a full report. Here’s what happened. Here’s what you need to know. They bring us a bullet point version of what happened.
Do you ever see the process of writing this series kind of daunting to you or intimidating?
Tyler Thompson: I can tell you that I feel complete freedom because of my partners. So, I’ll throw in a helicopter scene and they tell me no, that doesn’t go there. We’ve got to work on those jet suits that fall over it. (Laughs) I feel like the show has a responsibility. And I think my responsibility is to deliver Dallas’ (Jenkins) vision. We are not writing our own franchise of Dallas’ show. So, he is our bumper. He’s our first bumper. This isn’t what I envisioned, this isn’t the tone that we wanted to hit. And so we come back to the center.
We have seen many movies depicting the life of Jesus over the years, some good and others not so good. Why do you think this particular program has caught on and become sort of a worldwide phenomenon?
Tyler Thompson: I think one thing that makes it different is just the amount of time and space. Usually, if it’s a movie they’re trying to cram four gospels and three years worth of events into 120 minutes. With an Easter season miniseries, you’re still taking four books, three years of events and lots of personalities. For us, we have 17 main characters with arcs and personalities. And you can’t squeeze all that into five episodes of a mini-series without it feeling rushed, flat, and just repeated straight from Scripture. It’s fine to do a repeat straight from Scripture. That’s obviously been done. So, we’re doing something new, which is saying, okay, people have done the Gospel according to John word for word. We would like to look in between the lines of Scripture to see what’s going on with these characters. I think that’s what makes it different.
Ryan Swanson: The stuff that I’ve seen in the past, there is a level of reverence where the characters move like “plot bots”. We call them plot bots when there are unmotivated movements and decisions. Characters have to end up in a certain place to be there because that was what was written. As Tyler was talking about, we explore the reasons why they may have made those decisions. We rotate the most basic sense of drama, characters faced with a binary decision of yes or no, stay or go, fight or flee, are they under pressure of life in the context we’ve described? So, if we can understand their life and we know what decision they made, we can find a way to make that dramatic. Dallas has made it okay for us to do that. He’s introduced an idea that audiences can understand that we’re taking faithful movements within the text. We come from a space of complete belief, and we want to do it well. We don’t have ulterior motives.
Episodes 1 and 2 from Season 3 of The Chosen will premiere in movie theaters nationwide on November 18th. For more information on finding a screening near you, please visit: https://www.angel.com/the-chosen-3
Watch a trailer for Season 3 of The Chosen: