Christ On The Screen

Jim Caveizel and Mel Gibson on set for The Passion of The Christ

“Therefore, behold, the days come, that I will do judgment upon the graven images of Babylon.” -Jeremiah 51:47

A strange thing happened during the mid-course of cinema history. It used to be that if you were to make a movie that featured Jesus Christ as a character the film was elevated to realm of classic just for that reason alone (The Robe, King of Kings, The Bible, The Ten Commandments) – but then, it seemed that, as in other genres like the western, those filmmakers with the guts and gumption to try tackling Christ have done so in a decidedly revisionist manner, and have had to weather fierce storms of controversy that were damn near indefensible. But what Mel Gibson has done with The Passion of The Christ could accurately be described as brilliant. He has turned blistering controversy and attacks on him personally into a movie event the likes of which has not been seen in many years. When talking about the film Gibson has remained steadfastly limited in his descriptions. He talks of the film being twelve years in the making and something that came to him as an idea when he was at a very low point in his life. He had unbelievable professional success but was being crushed by the weight of alcohol, drugs, and depression. When I chatted briefly with Gibson about the film you could tell he was committed deeply to it, in terms of the physical production of the movie and the message he was trying to convey.

I remember being in my early twenties and following with great interest the passionate development of Martin Scorcese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ (based on a novel by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis). Scorcese, a devout Catholic and someone who once attended a seminary to train to be a Catholic priest, wanted badly to make a film that dealt with his feelings towards the story of Jesus Christ and its relevance in today’s world. He chose the Kazantzakis novel because it was a telling of the story from a speculative point of view, a fictional point of view. Scorcese deemed it the safest and most appropriate way to filter his passions to the screen. And boy did he take an ass kicking for it. When I saw the film I was struck by the protests out in front of the theatre in Toronto, but what struck me even deeper was what I overheard one Catholic priest telling a reporter – “No, I haven’t seen the film and I will not see the film, this kind of presentation is wrong and it is damaging.” And just how did he know that if he had not seen it and was not willing to see it?

As a movie I think The Last Temptation of Christ is a near masterpiece. Visually stunning, eccentrically cast, a terrific score from Peter Gabriel, the screenplay (by Paul Schrader) was tough and thoughtful. The current Criterion edition DVD is a wonderful way to see the movie, it is not the big screen experience, but a great presentation.

Before Scorsese put himself through the media meat grinder with The Last Temptation of Christ, the Monty Python guys stirred the pot with The Life of Brian…a kind of comedy of mistaken identity in which the Three Wise Men went to the wrong place and thus anointed little Brian Cohen as the savior, Brian of Nazareth. There was an outcry from the religious right about this one too, but, as Terry Gilliam told me, “We just said, hey, it is meant as a joke! If you don’t like it, or don’t get it, or don’t find it funny, well…too bad.”

And now another firestorm of controversy and media banter about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ. Again born out of deep religious beliefs (Gibson is a devout practicing Catholic) and consummate cinematic passion and commitment the likes of which is rarely seen – by that I mean the film’s budget was $25 million and Gibson paid for it out of his own pocket. And Gibson has taken his commitment a step further by shooting the film in the language of Christ’s time, the all but forgotten Aramaic. Gibson has been taking it from all sides on his depiction. Many Jewish anti-defamation groups are calling the film inflammatory because it portrays them as the heartless killers of Christ. Other people of various religious persuasions have shuddered at the gory, bloody accuracy of the visuals (it is interesting that if you portray World War 2 battle scenes in all their horrifying gore it is called “realism” – in a film about Jesus Christ, the same gore and unflinching violence is called “blasphemous and disrespectful.”). To his credit Gibson has steadfastly adhered to the point of view that he made this film because he had to. What follows are some thoughts for those involved in the two most controversial films on the life of Christ ever to hit the big screen.

I have had the opportunity of asking actor Willem Dafoe, who played Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ about his experience, of asking actor Aidan Quinn about almost playing Jesus in an early attempt to make The Last Temptation of Christ about his motivation and preparation, of asking screenwriter Paul Schrader about writing The Last Temptation of Christ, and of asking actor Jim Caveizel, while he was in Toronto making the thriller The Highwayman about his preparations to play Jesus for Mel Gibson in The Passion of the Christ, and a chat with Mel Gibson about this very personal journey that has turned into the most public of events.

Christopher Heard: Did it give you pause when you were thinking about making The Passion in the sense that you were hanging your deeply personal beliefs out there to be sniped at from all sides?

Mel Gibson: I never really thought of it that way, as a negative thing, I saw this film as a way of working my way out of something I was going through at the time…I saw this project as nothing but a positive, a work of pure love and devotion from all involved.

CH: Was self-financing the movie always part of the plan.

MG: It was the ONLY way really. To have absolute control, or at least as much control as one has on a movie set, I needed to be the last line in the decision making process. Also, the way I wanted to tell this story, I doubt I could have found anyone to back it anyway.

CH: The graphic nature of the visual depiction of the crucifixion, not just the crucifixion, but also the torture leading up to it, how did you come to the decision that it was necessary to be that brutally graphic?

MG: Well…I think anything less would have been to diminish the truth of it. And if you tell someone about great suffering and hardship that is one thing, but if you show them, really show them in an unflinching manner just how horrible his suffering and pain was…then you pull your audience in even deeper and that makes the message of his sacrifice even more resonant.

CH: In terms of the actual physical making of the movie, what it what you expected?

MG: It was a profoundly moving experience. I am so very proud of all of the cast and crew that made this journey with me. I asked them all to go through something with me, something that was very personal to me, and every person to a one, delivered everything I could ever have expected of them and more.

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Christopher Heard: Is playing Jesus Christ the most difficult role an actor can ever assume?

Jim Caveizel: I would have to say that it is the most complex role, there is no one on earth who hasn’t formed some idea of who or what Jesus Christ was. As an actor I then have to decide who and what he is to me using the script and the intentions of filmmaker Mel Gibson.

CH: Do you have to try to humanize that thing, that huge idea that Jesus Christ represents?

JC: If that is what the film requires, sure. My preparation involves trying to understand, to fathom, what that philosopher known as Jesus Christ was saying, what he was trying to do in the thirty three years he walked this earth. I have to go in to this equipped with as much information and as many points of view as I can possible absorb.

Actor Willem Dafoe, who eventually played Christ for Martin Scorcese was actually the third choice. Robert DeNiro was Scorcese’s choice when he first conceived the project but it just never came together. Then when it appeared the film was actually going to be made DeNiro was no longer willing nor was he physically available to play the role. Scorcese next chose Aidan Quinn to play Christ, but then the financing for that fell apart as well. I asked Quinn about that…

Christopher Heard: You came close to playing Jesus for Scorcese in an early incarnation of Last Temptation of Christ. How did you approach that?

Aidan Quinn: I really wanted to do that film and was quite disappointed when it didn’t come together. I thought that was the opportunity of a career…one of the greatest challenges and actor can ever have.

CH: Was the prospect of playing Christ intimidating…daunting?

AQ: Not daunting, no…not at all…it was awesome, and I am using that word in its correct definition…the idea of playing Jesus Christ filled me with awe.

CH: How did you prepare?

AQ: I read a lot, read the novel (by Nicos Kazantzakis), talked to a lot of people, and then just thought about it, quietly thought about it.

Willem Dafoe is a terrific actor, but the idea of him playing Christ struck some as odd. I asked him about the experience.

Christopher Heard: I read years ago that when it was announced you were going to play Jesus a televangelist said that it was absurd because you “look nothing like Christ”.

Willem Dafoe: (Laughs) Yeah, man, the reactions to that film, both during the making and after it came out, came in so many shades of irrationality that it was hard to keep track of.

CH: Was it a tough role to wrap your head around? Was it a hard character to let go?

WD: Well you have to remember that we weren’t making a film based on scriptures; we made a film adapted from a novel that struck a very personal and resonant chord in Martin Scorcese. I was playing Jesus Christ as written by Kazantzakis…so that sort of made it easier for me, it made the whole notion of playing Christ less…huge. As for letting him go…actually, man, there is a part of me that hoped I would retain some of him…he is a beautiful character to play because of what he represented.

CH: When you were making the film, was it like making any other film, or was there a tone of respect or reverence…

WD: I know what you are asking…and honestly, what we were doing was trying to make the film…period. Martin Scorcese was given a very limited budget, way less than was needed…and we were energized by Scorcese’s passion for what he was doing, he deep passion for this material…so we were all very committed to what we were doing, to getting the film made properly and telling a very important and vital story.

Writer-director Paul Schrader has collaborated with Martin Scorcese on some of his most celebrated films, Schrader wrote Taxi Driver, he wrote Raging Bull, and he was trusted to write the screenplay for the most cherished of Martin Scorcese’s film projects, The Last Temptation of Christ. I asked him about it…

Christopher Heard: Did you approach the adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ with any trepidation given the fact that the novel was controversial and the film was bound to be even more so?

Paul Schrader: Not at all, not at all, I relished it. And let me tell you, controversy, I think controversy is good, great, it inspires debate and conversation and thought.

CH: But you are telling a story that touches millions and millions of people and touches them very deeply…

PS: And we have every right to tell that story in our way, don’t we? Marty and I were both come from very religious upbringings, different religious persuasions but very religious just the same, we didn’t just decide one day, “Hey let’s make a movie about Jesus”. We both had lots of unresolved religious feelings, questions that we were seeking answers to. Let me tell you, we went into this more committed and more knowledgeable and thoughtful than a good percentage of the idiots who were out there saying we had no right to make that film.

CH: What did you think of the finished film?

PS: I thought it was wonderful.

CH: What did you think of the casting?

PS: What do you mean?

CH: Like the casting of hardcore New York kind of actors like Harvey Keitel as Judas, and Victor Argo…

PS: What you have to understand is that this was a very personal project for Marty, one that had come together and fallen apart a few times, he went with the actors and crew people that stuck with him. Both those guys are great actors. I thought everyone did a great job.

CH: I thought David Bowie was very good as Pontius Pilate.

PS: Yeah, and he was only in one scene…

CH: Did you anticipate that the film would be received as it was?

PS: Not really, not as vicious as it was. The book was pretty controversial so we assumed that there would be a bit of a flap, but we were okay with that, as artists we have to take those risks, we have to be willing to explore what our passions lead it into exploring, or we aren’t artists.

Jim Caviezel first drew major attention when he was selected by the brilliant director Terence Malick when he was about to make his first film in twenty years, The Thin Red Line, in the case of The Passion of the Christ, Caviezel was kind of buffaloed into the project. He was asked to attend a meeting about what he was told was a movie about surfing when Mel Gibson showed up and told him what he really had in mind. Caviezel is also a practicing devout Catholic, and strangely enough he had been asked to play Jesus Christ before but turned the project down. When I chatted with Caviezel he had not yet begun work on The Passion of The Christ and was not allowed to discuss the project in any detail at all, but I tried him anyway….

Christopher Heard: In preparing to play Jesus Christ what is the biggest psychological challenge facing you?

Jim Caviezel: Well, doing the film in the Aramaic language, partly in Latin, is a big challenge…but keeping the portrayal pure is something I want to be conscious of at all times.

CH: Pure…..

JC: In the sense that I want to celebrate his life and make the audience feel the suffering and feel the sacrifice.

CH: Does the enormity of the story being told, the character you are playing…does it scare you?

JC: (Pause) No, it doesn’t scare me. If I were afraid of the task I wouldn’t have agreed to do it because I wouldn’t be able to do it right if I went into it in fear. I’m deeply humbled by this.

Where The Passion of the Christ is concerned it almost became the most expensive home movie in history, as no distributor would touch it. But as the controversy grew, so did the notion that this may be one of the biggest PR coups in the history of the movies. A movie that was supposed to go out into 2000 theatres was increased to 2800 (Released in Canada by Equinoxe Films) theatres to accommodate the demand. A film that was being described as a career killer for Mel Gibson (nonsense! Gibson is smarter than that, he is scheduled next to reprise his role as Mad Max in Mad Max 4: Fury Road) may very well turn out to be one of his most successful films ever. And whether you agree with his vision and point of view, whether or not you agree with his depiction of the events, you have to give him credit for being that rare example of a Hollywood A-list movie star who is willing to risk a considerable chunk of his own money and his own reputation on a work of passion and devotion. This movie is one that actually does qualify as a work of art.

“Why doth this generation seek after a sign? Verily I say unto you, There shall be no sign given unto this generation.” -Mark 8:12

Photos Courtesy:
Mel Gibson – The Passion Of The Christ – Philippe Antonello.
Willem Dafoe – Tom & Viv – Buena Vista.
Paul Schrader – Auto Focus – Rubin Holland.
Jim Caviezel – The Highwayman – New Line Cinema.

Christopher Heard
Christopher Heard built his career out of a lifetime love of movie history and culture. His first screenplay was optioned at 21, he wrote a twice weekly movie column in a local newspaper that lead to a long, Gemini Award winning stint on the CBC show On The Arts and the creation and co-hosting role on Reel to Real for nine years. Since then Christopher has written books on a number of filmmakers, including Johnny Depp.