Caleb Deschanel, ASC photographs The Passion
of the Christ, Mel Gibson's controversial film about the final
hours of Jesus Christ.
IInterview by John Bailey, ASC and Stephen Pizzello
Edited by Stephen Pizzello and Rachael K. Bosley
Unit photography by Philippe Antonello
Director Mel Gibson has taken his share of hits for daring to
tackle the death of Jesus Christ on film, but so far he has escaped
the wrath of religious watchdogs for a minor "act of heresy" that
has somehow eluded their scrutiny: hiring a Quaker to serve as
his cinematographer. "It's true, I was brought up as a Quaker," admits
director of photography Caleb Deschanel, ASC. "The Quaker
religion does not have priests or people in charge. Basically,
everybody is equal, and you believe in the supreme being of your
own thought process - whatever your own invention is. You just
sort of let your conscience be your guide."
Although he "really didn't have a background in Catholicism
at all," Deschanel nonetheless found Gibson's The Passion
of the Christ to be an intellectually, emotionally and artistically
compelling project, and he lent the picture an outsider's eye for
detail. "I've always been fascinated by religions because
of the rituals, the ceremonies and the imagery. I find places of
worship to be very beautiful and inspiring, whether they're churches,
synagogues, mosques or temples. I'm drawn to those places because
they offer images that have a certain power and majesty. When you
go to St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome, you can't help but be awed
by it. The biggest problem I have with religions is that they inevitably
become politicized, but I do find religion's symbolism, imagery
and metaphors to be really attractive and interesting."
Deschanel had worked with Gibson on Roland Emmerich's The Patriot,
which earned the cinematographer an ASC Award and an Academy Award
nomination (see AC June '01). Deschanel was working in Montreal
when Gibson and producer Steve McEveety sent him the script for The
Passion of the Christ. "I thought the script was amazing," he
recalls. "I gave it to my wife, who was brought up Catholic,
and she was really moved by it as well. I subsequently had long
talks with Mel and Steve about how the film would be done, and
they asked me to do it."
The result is a unique and powerful film that depicts the events
of the Passion with uncompromising rawness and intensity. The viewer
is thrust directly into the drama via perspectives that have the
intimacy of cinema verite, but the film also depicts the tale's
most famous moments in compositions that evoke the spirit of great
During a break in his current project, National Treasure,
Deschanel agreed to discuss The Passion of the Christ with
fellow ASC member John Bailey and AC executive editor Stephen Pizzello
at the ASC Clubhouse.
John Bailey, ASC: I attended a screening of the film with
several other people at the Icon Productions offices in Santa Monica,
and when the lights came up, nobody moved for about 90 seconds.
We were immobilized. I finally stood up and kind of slithered out
of the room. I was so far beyond thinking of it as a movie because
I was raised as a strict Catholic, and watching this film was like
having all of those weekly examinations of conscience and confession,
as well as the whole Passion week and Easter rite, come to life
before my eyes. I felt like I was seeing the iconography of my
childhood - all of the representations that I eventually came to
know as art - unfold onscreen in an excoriating way. I was totally
unprepared for something that would cause such a visceral reaction
in me. Virtually none of the films made about the life of Christ
or the Passion have been as raw as this one.
Caleb Deschanel, ASC: That's also true of much of the art
that's been passed down through the years, even the works that
were commissioned by the Catholic Church. None of it really depicts
[details] of the flagellation and the other violence that was done.
I did a lot of research going into this film, and I didn't find
much imagery like that. There are things in the film that you can
find in certain artistic representations, but it's rare to see
images of Christ with severe wounds from the flagellation. One
Caravaggio painting shows him with faint marks on his body, but
most of the images that represent the later stages of his story
do not show those wounds clearly.
Bailey: Well, Caravaggio's representations are more refined,
but you see a lot more of the flagellation in Spanish and southern
Deschanel: In art that was made prior to the 13th century,
too, you see a lot more representations of that, but at some point
the images became cleansed. The way the story has been represented
is very interesting.
Bailey: Something you said to me on the phone struck me
as very interesting, especially coming from your perspective as
a humanist rather than as an adherent to some branch of Christianity.
If I understood you correctly, you didn't approach this film so
much in terms of the religiosity or spirituality of the story,
but more in terms of the human Christ. I believe you referred to
him as a revolutionary - an outcast and a controversial political
figure. The thing I find so fascinating about the film is that
it doesn't create any sense of this imminent religious and supernatural
being; its treatment of the story is incredibly human, even more
so than Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew.
Deschanel: I really did read the script as a dramatic story,
and I thought about how it would work as a film. Certainly, Christians
know the story of Christ, and most others do because it's hard
to escape - at least in the United States - during particular times
of the year. But while I knew Christ was condemned and crucified,
I didn't really understand the ultimate message of the story.
Viewing it as a dramatic film, I found the story to be the antithesis
of your average Hollywood film. In the typical American film about
someone who is oppressed by tyranny, there's a clear-cut formula:
the hero will escape and rally his friends, and then they'll gather
weapons and go kill the bad guys. The catharsis for the audience
[comes] when the horrible villain is finally killed.
Christ's story, on the other hand, is about someone who recognizes
that his fate is predetermined - that he's going to be condemned
and killed - and totally accepts it. And once he accepts it, he
views everyone who comes into his life as someone to forgive. In
doing so, he imparts this understanding to everyone around him
- his mother, the apostles, Mary Magdalene - in a way that makes
them accept the trials that he has to endure. It's a phenomenal
concept, which is probably why Christianity has survived for all
of these years. Christianity may have lost its way during the Crusades,
the Reformation and all of the horrible scandals of today, but
it still has that amazing story at its core.
Of course, the story in this film is really pre-religion; it inspired
a religion, but it's not a religious story. It's the story of a
person whose power comes from forgiveness. Ultimately, if the movie
works, that will be the reason, because it's a violent and brutal
picture in so many ways. Violence can be hard to take in many types
of films, but the main character in this film is not condemning
the people who are doing these terrible things to him, and this
fact tends to soften the horrible violence.
Bailey: The way you photographed the film makes it more
visceral and difficult to watch, but also more compelling. I felt
a constant tension throughout the movie, this sense of being pulled
into the action because of the way the camera is used. I also felt
repelled and horrified because I felt so close to what was happening
onscreen. In most of the films I've seen about this subject, you
really sense the proscenium; there's a sense that the scenes are
being reenacted out there, amid grand settings, in front of you,
sitting here, as a member of the audience. You didn't use a handheld
camera the way Pasolini did, but I still felt very close to the
action. I felt like I was in the arena when Pilate hands Christ
over to the Roman soldiers, who later tie him down and really tear
him apart. I felt so close to these things, so present, that it
was just horrifying. Can you talk a bit about your inspirations
for the look of the film?
Deschanel: There's been a lot of talk about Caravaggio
inspiring the look because Mel and I both really like his work.
In Rome, where we were shooting, there are at least 16 Caravaggios;
there were three [each depicting scenes from the life of St. Matthew]
hanging in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, which is near
where I was living in Rome, and there were a couple more in the
immediate vicinity. Unlike Girl With a Pearl Earring, though,
we weren't really trying to reenact specific paintings. Caravaggio's
work inspired the film as much in terms of the faces he used in
those paintings as it did in terms of the lighting and composition.
Those faces probably inspired the casting of the film. I keep looking
at all the faces that were found by Mel and the casting director,
Shaila Rubin, and they're really quite extraordinary.
The look was also inspired by Gericault, Raphael and other artists.
I studied art history in school, and I've been to a lot of museums,
and the paintings that really interest me are the ones that feature
good performances. I'm drawn to that element even more than I am
to the graphics or the lighting. What I took from the paintings
was not so much a specific way of representing light or creating
compositions, but more emotional content. For example, Gericault's The
Raft of the Medusa has a certain motion toward defeat and inevitable
death. Mel's desire to capture that type of emotion is what made
us go right in close with the characters and try to make the story
intimate and real.