Our Interview with JoBe Cerny
The Word of Promise Audio Bible production was directed by JoBe Cerny. JoBe is an actor, writer, producer and president of the award-winning Cerny/American Creative Studios.
Christianbook.com: Thousands of hours have been invested in this project. Your production company, Cerny American, created all of the audio post and sound design for this production. How did this Bible project vary from some of your other award-winning film and audio creations?
JoBe Cerny: Well, we always approach projects to maximize them at the highest level we possibly can because we’re a production company frequently our concern is not, not how much time it takes to do something. We do whatever it takes to make it the best it can be. We kinda go at things a little differently than a company that would be for hire. We have a vested interest in making sure all of our products are absolutely at the highest levels of sound that can be created. What was a little different about this one is that we had a world famous composer, Maestro Stephano Mainetti actually scoring the music for this with a major European orchestra. There were many world class opera singers who did not sing words but sang, but were all vocal instruments that added some great interest to this after we had done our sound design and I had done the direction and so that was something that was an unbelievably wonderful addition to what we do. I felt we were very much in sync, I have to say that we thought alike on the project in terms of the feel of each one of the themes and I felt the end result turned out to be quite beautiful and quite moving. Christianbook.com: Was the project in completion what you envisioned? JoBe Cerny: It was beyond what I thought we could achieve. I think the objective as a director and what a producer’s vision was too, and that was one of the reasons why I was so interested in the project, we decided to go back and try to capture the actual moment in time when people first heard these words. You hear these words in church, year in, year out, in an entire lifetime but you have to remember that none of these concepts existed up until this moment in time. We tried to actually put all of the actors back into that moment and take away the standard way we hear people read it. This is not a narrated Bible as such. These are people like Matthew tells us his story. He doesn’t read his story. We’re with Matthew and he explains what he saw. Mark is you know is traditionally thought of as a young man that grew up around all these surroundings and he was like an outside observer, almost like a third party reporter, one who would see these things unfold and was almost like a reporter in that he has a great amount of enthusiasm about how to relate to the story. Luke, who is Chris McDonald in this, I had him approach this as a man who was what he was; a doctor, a surgeon, a person who was on ships throughout the area of that time acting as a physician and taking care of people. His explanation of how the events unfolded definitely has a doctor’s perspective on it. John, you know, is a blue collar kind of a guy, he was a fisherman. Again, this has a unique kind of perspective and it is a very loving perspective of a man who became Jesus’ best friend, probably and he loved him and it is one of the easiest gospels to listen to because it is so filled with love.
Christianbook.com: How did you/your company become involved in this production? Was it difficult to envision so large a task?
JoBe Cerny: Well, it’s a very interesting story. I was going to be a Lutheran minister and I went to Valparaiso University, well as many students go, you have an interest and then I ended up being a speech and drama major and my career led me to writing and acting, as opposed to someone who’d become a minister in a church and I always thought that that was something that I could do with my writing and acting and choosing projects that were appropriate. Well anyway, my church is a Lutheran church in Deerfield, Illinois, and they were celebrating their 125th anniversary and I was asked to do a presentation. It was a big event because it was the 125th anniversary and the pastors asked me if I could do something that could hold the crowd’s interest as a big event as many people that were with the church for many years would be invited back and it was going to be an interesting presentation. I decided that I wanted to make it something that would be a very fine event and something that everyone would have a good time and I just happened to do this thing it went very successfully and it touched people and there was a great amount of fun. I went back and traced the 125 year church history. Anyway, one of the people who happened to be one of the church members was a pretty famous casting director, who knew that the producer was producing this project. So she kind of put the two of us together. What are the odds of that? As soon as Carl Amari, one of the producers of the project, told me what he wanted to do, I thought that was one of the greatest ideas I had ever heard as an approach to do a version of the New Testament. Traditionally, most of the products that have been out there have been famous people or people with great voices basically just reading them reading the words of the Bible as opposed to doing an actual dramatization of the Bible. So the script was created, which allowed us not to present it not as a single person talking to the audience like a speech and reading, but we found creative ways to take the same words of the Bible but let the characters say them. In the New Testament pretty much every Bible puts Jesus’ words in red and Jesus speaks in the first person and talks to people. And what we did with this, we made some slight adjustments and broke it out into a much bigger cast. Many people are quoted in the Bible like Pontius Pilate and his wife and many, many people have lines in the Bible and it worked very, very well breaking it out this way. So this is actually the New Kings Version of the Bible but it’s performed by actors. I directed the actors in a way that I did the things the kind of notes every director gives actors back where I asked the actors to ask the questions they would normally ask. Where am I? What is going on here? What are my emotional attachments to this? What does this mean in terms of the overall context of the story? As a result, I think it is a very strong telling of the Bible that makes people hear some of these words in a way they’ve never heard them before.
Christianbook.com: Speaking of the cast, how did you decide on the actors? How were they selected? And as an actor yourself, did you do any cameo work in addition to directing the production?
JoBe Cerny: I play Timothy, that’s who I am and this project was a great project to work on because we had lots and lots of choices. Lots of people wanted to do this and virtually the majority of the people were just thrilled to be working on the project because they all considered it a great opportunity to deliver a great message. That’s pretty different why actors do things. As we looked at the characters as I started breaking them down, I had to do historical research and as different people started to appear that were interested in doing different parts, we fit them into the appropriate parts. That’s kind of how it came about. There were quite a few people interested in doing this. There was no shortage of people that wanted to do it which was great. Our selections were great and I feel a lot of our castings, actually all of our castings were quite good.
Christianbook.com: Was it a difficult task fitting people into their specific roles the way you had imagined or did the actors just seem to naturally fit?
JoBe Cerny: Virtually they all fit. It is a daunting task though. It is not simple to read these parts on the level they were read at. It took a lot of research. Fortunately since I was a pre-sem major, I took quite a few courses, I had great interest in the New Testament. I studied Latin for four years and any time you direct something that was written in another language, when a translation is done, you have to understand it on several levels. The first level is what is the person trying to say and sometimes things are awkward in translation and hard to translate. As a result we had to create a style of language that allowed that the actors to become part of the same world and that were done by the people that originally translated it. The language is derived from another language so it becomes a language of its own. Because people just read this and is not actually performed. Having it performed really, really brings it to life. I think it makes the message much, much clearer.
Christianbook.com: Now having been a pre-seminary major in college and having an extensive language background, how did this project and your participation affect your reading or understanding of the NT? JoBe Cerny: It allowed me to focus on answering the actor’s questions more easily as I had a lot of back round having spent a lot of time translating things back and forth between different languages. It allowed me to explain what some of the sentences which were quite complex meant. I also had an English degree, I also have a master’s degree in theater so the things I spent my life studying I was able to really, really put towards good use in this project. It was like a coming together of everything that I’ve done for the last 50 years of my life preparing for this.
Christianbook.com: As an actor, and of course the voice of the Pillsbury Dough Boy, how do you live out your faith in Hollywood, and is that a difficult task?
JoBe Cerny: Oh, I live in Chicago! (laughing). I am myself everyday. I have my beliefs and I live my beliefs. I do things as far as projects go that I believe in and like and are proud of. This was just a very unique opportunity for me to do something that I’ve wanted to do and always felt the opportunity would surface and it did. Seems like a miracle now but it did.
Christianbook.com: Can you give us your perspective on The Word of Promise compared to Inspired by...The Bible Experience? What are the main differences from your view?
JoBe Cerny: One thing that I did, that I think was very important, I didn’t go out and listen to other products. As an artist everything I do I bring my own artistic touch to it, so I have not listened to the other Bibles specifically or all the way through. I listened to them but they had no real influence on what I was doing. I let the word of this Bible, the NKJV, play out depending on what the words told me to say in terms of both research, in what I believed in, and my history of Bible experience. But just like any script, sometimes people would say to me, “What about the church tradition of this or that or the other?” I always let the words tell the story. I didn’t add words to this project, or delete words from this project, this is the Bible. These are the words of the Bible past down from generation to generation and generations. As a director, you look at the words, and the words tell the story. You don’t tell the words what story to tell, you let the words tell the story. There are verbs, adjectives, adverbs to describe what is happening, and the intensity level that it is happening at. All those words are there for you and I paid attention to that. When they make descriptions, the adjectives explain how the person is feeling…if they’re happy or if they’re sad, if they’re tortured. All those things are there for you. And what you try to do, you try to tell that story that way. One thing people would say is, “Did you see the movie? Well Pilate was this way in the movie” and I’d be like “well that’s interesting and that’s good for that telling” but the man that I chose to play Pilate was a man that I went to Northwestern with and he is a very devout Christian and he directs something in Chicago each year in Zion, Illinois called the Passion Play and he’s very involved and we had a very similar understanding of Pilate. I really think and people would say that Pilate didn’t care and the both of us, we sat down and looked very hard at it and it was pretty obvious that he was not going to declare that an innocent man was guilty and he washes his hand of it. His wife tells him that it’s something you should get involved with and we played it as the words dictated it. We didn’t look at a movie that somebody did in the 1960’s and this is how they played Pilate in that one. Roger and I talked about it and he approached Pilate as a man and I think his performance is magnificent in it. Another very interesting character, one of my favorite performances in this is Brandon Neals who played John the Baptist. I don’t know if you’ve heard his scenes, but when he says something as simple as “brood of vipers”…when he says that he is not a man who hates, he is a man who wants to change the world for the better. I thought it was one of the most interesting characterizations that we created in the New Testament and I think it’s just so spot on. His scenes with Jim Caviezel are so wonderful where he’s a man who is so humble with Jesus standing in front of him that this man who is a bit erasable who is a wild man living out in the middle of an area and eating locusts and honey, he becomes a very interesting and loving character in this and who a lot of people will be touched by it.
Christianbook.com: It seems this is a perfect time for this type of production, due to younger generations and the emerging church models setting a high priority on the narrative/oral mode of teaching.
JoBe Cerny: I agree and there seems to be a real revival and these are very difficult times where the country has been at war for a long period of time, financially many people are in trouble. This is a perfect time for something like this to come out. I think a lot of people will find comfort and wisdom with many of these words.
Christianbook.com: This project also offers a message of hope, a new message for those familiar with the Bible stories over the years, but have not heard the bible in this fashion before? For them, it is like reading a whole new Bible.
JoBe Cerny: In a way it is. All the words have always been there but sometimes the times and the situations that we live in make some of the words much more relevant than they are at other times. In times of plenty, we might not have reacted this way. We didn’t need it as much as we need it now.
Christianbook.com: It seems people identify with the themes of suffering and passion within the text.
JoBe Cerny: I think so. As I said, as a director, I didn’t veer from my original vision to let the words tell the story and not to go back to other things. I didn’t go look at the Sistine Chapel and say that’s how it happened. That’s another person’s interpretation. The Pieta, that’s another person’s interpretation. All these things are different artists that have a vision and this was my vision that I shared with the producer, Carl Amari, and we attacked this in a way that I think turned out in a way, time will tell, I think people will enjoy this and will find it enlightening.
Christianbook.com: Now that the Old Testament project is underway, what factors are the same as recording the New Testament? What factors are different besides the obvious task of a much larger text? JoBe Cerny: That is definitely true. One thing that is very different about the Old Testament is that the story is linear. As the New Testament, you have tellings of the same story form different perspectives. Matthew tells the story that Mark, Luke and John do and then when you look at Acts in a way that story is told again. In a sense you’re having the same story told from different view points. In the Old Testament it starts out and continues forwards through generations and generations and generations of people and it ends with the Prophets predicting what will come next. So in other words it has a very different progression. The other thing is we’re definitely working with a different kind of language. This was not translated from an advanced language like the New Testament was. The NT was like the people that told the story was basically passed down where it was under control in the languages it was put down originally. It was an advanced language; you had Aramaic you had Greek you had Latin, as a result was a little more poetic. What I am finding, as I’m working on the OT, we’re working on a more primitive language because we’re dealing with something much earlier in time. AS a result what we find is, as a reiteration, as people are trying to explain something to make it more understandable. So it’s a little bit different. Genesis is written in a very, very simple language. It is very basic but it is very graphic. There are some amazing things that happen here.
As we started to record, in a way, it’s a little bit easier to go through the sentence structures. That’s something that I’ve noted as someone who’s worked on translations and things like that. It’s a little bit easier language to understand in a lot of the places especially in the beginning. In Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. As we progress, I haven’t really started working a lot on the latter portions with the actors, but it does seem that the language changes slightly as we go forward in time. There are eras that we go through and we’re dealing with a long period of time whereas the NT we’re dealing with a short period of time. That’s a significant difference also. There are many, many, many more characters situations and stories to deal with. That’s something I think is very interesting. Again, I’m finding it compelling just like the NT. The stories are very, very interesting. A lot of these stories you don’t regularly hear in church. The OT when you normally go through your church year and you’re doing your sermons and everything you have a passage from the OT and you stop and think you have a 52 week church year there are certain stories that are told over and over again but there are stories that you never hear. This is an opportunity to make these stories come alive and doing a little bit more research that I have to do myself, a little bit more research than I had to do for the NT. Fortunately there are theologians that work with me when I have questions, that are there for me. Before I start sessions we look very closely at the scripts before we start recording. This is like directing. With the NT it was like directing a feature film a month. This is going to be much more daunting than that but I did start the research a little earlier and did start working on the script earlier and things like that so that I able to shape some things a little bit more. With the writers I was able to go back and say I think we should make this better if we move things around a bit in terms of who says what and some of the scenes have turned out much more fun. I don’t know if fun is the right word. They’ll be clearer.
Christianbook.com: The Psalms should be quite an undertaking. JoBe Cerny: That’s going to be a very interesting project. I had an idea for that and I suggested it and they bought it. They are going to be partially done musically. What we talked about is having an ancient orchestra do that portion of it where we take ancient instruments instead of using modern instruments. It would have a different feel to it. That I think is going to be very interesting. That is going to be a better way of doing it. I think people will enjoy it more. The other thing is that once you add the music to it it becomes a little bit more memorable. Sometimes the music is so grand and so large that it’s not the kind of thing people can go around humming and singing. Hopefully this will be simple memorable and moving. That’s going to be a little different.
Christianbook.com: Throughout this project, did you have an overall theme or overarching motivation?
JoBe Cerny: Yeah! Save everyone in the world! I mean to get a message out there that people could relate to that is not anymore than what it is and what is meant to be. I tried to keep it honest and true with what was there. Like I said, I did not want to have an agenda that was a personal agenda. I let the words be the agenda and I was true to the words. There were times I discovered things myself where I said, “Never thought of it that way.” But that the way it lays out on the page and sometimes unless you’ve gone to an actual seminary and studied every single day most people don’t ever get to that point but by the time that we finished the NT and the amount of times that I’ve heard it in a very short period of time would have been beyond doing that. We really had to hammer at it really hard to get it done within the period of time that they wanted it. It was a pretty daunting task.
Christianbook.com: Currently, your company is reproducing the Twilight Zone episodes in audio theater and you are creating the Word of Promise Old Testament. Do you have any other projects right now?
JoBe Cerny: We’re always doing things at the studio. This particular project we really did have to take most of our staff and concentrate on that right now. We’re always doing commercials and occasionally films come in that we work on but the Twilight Zone is what we’ve been concentrating on primarily. We’ve started developing other scripts for other projects but a lot of it will depend on how much time the OT is going to take out of our schedule. I’m kinda projecting that it will take somewhere between 9000 hours over the next 2 years or so. It may take less but realistically it could take up to that long. It’s a lot of man hours. This project, for example as compared to a read Bible, read by a narrator from beginning to the end, I think that the NT and the Word of Promise is generally about six hours longer. I think most of them come out to about 14-16 hours, whereas ours came out to be about 20. I wanted to do something that was fresh and original and came from my belief in the Word, the Word itself. Ironically that is what the title is, the Word of Promise so I put focus on the word.
Christianbook.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?
JoBe Cerny: I just hope people enjoy it. I think it makes it easier to listen to the Bible this way. I hope people will agree. We did what we could with it and I was pretty please with the way it turned out and I hope it helps people.
Christianbook.com: Thank you so much for your time.