In 1993, Bruce Marchiano starred as Jesus in The Visual Bible: Matthew, bringing lightness and humor to a role that many viewers embraced, saying they'd never seen the Lord portrayed in so human a manner in film.

Matthew was supposed to be the first of many films covering all 66 books of the Bible, each using dialogue taken verbatim from Scripture. Acts came a year later, also with Marchiano playing Jesus (and James Brolin as Simon Peter).

Then. Things. Stalled.

Marchiano says that one of the original investors—a group of eight South Africans who put up $800,000 to make Matthew—brought the idea for future films to some North American distributors and investors, first in the U.S. and then in Canada, and eventually, "everything broke loose," he says. "And then [Matthew] got pirated by some Hungarian company, all while I was on the sidelines, hearing about everything second hand. Watching it get kicked around like a can of soup was heartbreaking. It all got very ugly."

As Jesus in 'Matthew'

As Jesus in 'Matthew'

Ownership disputes and lawsuits abounded in a drama far too complex to detail here, and for all intents and purposes, the Visual Bible series idea is dead. But Marchiano never gave up hope of doing another Jesus movie someday, even if he had to do it on his own. And that's just what he plans to do next, with a word-for-word adaptation of the Gospel of John.

He's got a title: Jesus: No Greater Love. He's got a script. He's ready, even at the age of 54, to play the Son of God again, if needed. He just needs money—$45 million, in fact. Marchiano is appealing to regular folk all over the world to join a global community of "producers." He's hoping for 4.5 million people to put up $10 each to fund the film.

So far, he's only raised about $350,000. But Marchiano—like the Jesus in Matthew—remains optimistic. CT recently sat down with him to discuss his new film … and the old one that started it all in the first place.

What are your fondest memories of making Matthew?

My fondest memories are from the actual shoot. We filmed it in such innocence; we were so aware that we were over our heads spiritually and practically. It sounds so childlike, but we would gather every morning on our knees and pray our brains out, and then get out there. And the fruitfulness of it! To this day I hear, "You really spun around my understanding of who Jesus was. You really got me to seeking harder." From Christians and non-Christians, everywhere I go. It's very humbling.

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What do you think you brought to the role that people liked so much?

The love, the passion, and the humanness. It was very intimate, blood, sweat and tears. We went out of our way to make Jesus, if I can put it this way, ugly, very little makeup. The guy never came around and combed my hair. In fact, there were times when he messed up my hair, because we wanted people to see the reality of Jesus.

After Matthew, what came next?

I came back home, and my heart was just upended. I had only been a Christian for a couple of years. Prior to that, my whole life was about winning that Academy Award some day. After Matthew, that didn't mean so much any more. It was a very, very difficult time, a time of soul searching. I tried to get back to work [as an actor], but I started getting these speaking invitations after the movie released. One invitation turned into ten, and that turned into a hundred, and that turned into a year, and then another. Before I knew it, that became a lifestyle and my source of income for a while.

There was an excellent version of The Gospel of John in 2003, starring Henry Ian Cusick (Desmond on Lost) as Jesus. So why do the John movie again?

The answer is simple: That's how the Lord led me, but I had battles with that in my own thinking. You begin to question yourself. You're praying, you're seeking God, and you get a sense of direction. You start to move and something happens that stands in the face of that direction. And you're like, "Really? Did I miss it?" But over time, I got little confirmations here and there.

When did you feel like you were first being led by God to make the John movie?

1996. I was having lunch by myself, and I just began to muse those opening words and what they would look like in a film: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God." I remember scribbling on a napkin, frame for frame of how I would shoot that.

Fourteen years later, I guess there have been discouragements along the way.

A million of them. There have been times when 6.9 days out of seven, I'm like, What am I doing? I don't want to sound like a hero, but in many ways I passed up a lot of life, made a lot of sacrifices. I'm not drawing a dime of salary; every penny goes into production. And I'm not getting any younger. But the Lord would always pick me up and put me back into the game.

Capturing the 'humanness' of Christ

Capturing the 'humanness' of Christ

Were you ever on the verge of giving up?

Yes. In 2003, I had made up my mind, I'm out of here. I just was exhausted, depleted. The other John movie was coming out. The Passion was coming out. I was like, What for? What's the point?

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Long story short: I attended a service at Church on the Way [Jack Hayford's church in Van Nuys, Calif]. I had walked in a bit late, and sat in the back. The pastor was wrapping up his message, and he stepped out in front of the podium and said, "There's a guy in this church that has a vision to put the Gospel of John on film, and I know God's going to fulfill his vision." I had to leave the church, I was so shaken up.

Who was preaching?

Jack Hayford's successor Scott Bauer [who died later that year]. I had been meeting with him on an ongoing basis; he was overseeing me in the script development, and he was a real shepherd. But this came of nowhere. You can't ignore that timing. I went out of the church and just sat in the car and cried. I was like, Okay, Lord, I get the message.

Do you see this film as primarily for believers or primarily evangelistic?

Primarily evangelistic. One of the challenges was to script it without presumption; so many of our Christian films are made presuming people know the story. Probably the best example of that was The Passion—obviously a wonderful movie, but if you don't know the story, it's like, "Who are these guys? Why are they beating up on this man?"

How's the fundraising going?

Slowly. Every once in a while we get glimmers of hope. We have yet to see millions. We need millions. Forty-five million.

After The Passion of The Christ earned half a billion dollars, why can't you find the money to do this? Won't Hollywood bite on something like this?

Hollywood is buying Christian films and distributing them, but they're not funding them. They have a wonderful deal. They can sit on the sidelines and watch us Christians take all the risk and do all the work, and then they earn the money off the distribution. It would be lovely to be able to write that check myself, or to know people who can write that check, but I don't.

But is the idea of getting a million "producers" viable?

I hope so. I'm going to find out. It seems that the "little" people really get it quickly.

But that's a lot of $10 checks.

If just the Christians in one state amassed, we would be pretty close to being there. So it's actually very do-able. I recently blogged about this, asking people why they're not giving, and it seemed that people thought, It's just such a big project. But we saw it with President Obama; he financed his campaign this way. We saw it in Haiti, with tens of millions of dollars [in relief money] in one week, at just ten dollars a pop. So it is very, very do-able. People need to catch a vision for souls and reaching people.

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You've only got about $350,000. You'll never get the movie made at this pace.

No. Something has to break. Something big has to happen.

I'm trying not to be a pessimist here …

You can be a pessimist all you want.

… but it seems that this can't happen without some big investors.

Yeah. If that's the case, I hope they come along. I'm not aggressively pursuing investors. I'm a little leery because my experience with them is they always want creative control, and I want to be free of that.

When's your deadline for getting the $45 million?

I'm hoping that we get the funding by year's end, and we go into production next year and release the film in 2012. That's my goal.

And if you don't have the money by year's end?

Have I set a long-term deadline? No. But I've been pedaling this bike a long time. Cried a lot of tears and sweat a lot of bullets. And every time I got to that point, the Lord just yanked me up in one way or another.

Marchiano today

Marchiano today

How do I say this without sounding like I'm full of myself? It's right. It's just right. The world needs Jesus. "Family values" are wonderful, but the world needs Jesus. At the end of the day we need Jesus. And even the concept of the body coming together to make it happen, as impractical and out-of-the-box it is, there's something kind of right about it.

So for this to happen in 2010, do you have to change your strategy?

I'm ramping it all up. Viral marketing. We're doing everything free we can, because there's nothing worse than asking people for money to make a movie, and then you take that money and just plow it back into fundraising and marketing.

But isn't the old adage true, that you need to spend money to make money?

Last year and the year before we spent a lot of money on publicity, but we didn't do any better than the years when we didn't spend on publicity. The payoff wasn't there. So at the end of 2009 I made a commitment: I'm not going to spend another dollar. I'm going to take every donated dollar and put it in the bucket toward production. Nobody gets paid; if you want to keep working with us, you're welcome to, but it's as a volunteer. This money has to go into production. [Note: One publicity firm is working with Marchiano to promote the film pro bono.]

At the end of the day, it's got to be this grassroots thing from people catching the vision and running with it. If enough people do, we'll get there. And whoa, what a testimony. Can you imagine?

To learn more about the film, go to the official website.