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American Cinematographer Magazine
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Bailey: The shots that single out characters in the crowds - especially as Christ is carrying the cross along the Via Dolorosa, when you cut away to little tableau reactions - are highly individualized. There's no sense that these are generic crowds. Caravaggio was infamous for going out in the streets and casting urchins, prostitutes and beggars to play the saints in his paintings. His models weren't idealized people, they were very specific faces. I had the same feeling about the actors in this film.

Deschanel: You want to look at these people because they have readable faces. Most people think cinematographers are drawn to movies because they give us a vast canvas on which we can create big epics, but I've always been drawn to movies by the actors and the chance to be there at the moment of a great performance. I'm drawn to the human face because it's so powerful.

One of the advantages in this picture is that the dialogue is in Aramaic and Latin. That meant that the casting was not limited to the English-speaking world of actors. The actors are from Bulgaria, Romania, Tunisia, Morocco, Italy, France and other countries, and the ones with dialogue all had to learn Aramaic and Latin. Mel initially didn't want the film to have subtitles, and I do feel that you can understand a phenomenal amount of this movie without understanding the languages. There are subtitles, but the main reason for having them is to reassure the audience that they're perceiving things the way they think they are. But when you're watching Jim Caviezel as Jesus, Maia Morgenstern as Mary or Hristo Shopov as Pontius Pilate, you can understand the characters perfectly through their performances. Most people think of acting as how dialogue is expressed, but so much of it is in faces and body language.

Bailey: Your point is well taken, because when you're dealing with an epic period film, particularly in American cinema, you tend to lose track of individual humanity. But this film isn't like that at all. The close-ups of people in the crowds have the same kind of presence and dignity that the shots of the main actors do.

Deschanel: I think that's important, especially if you're going to show someone being beaten or killed. There are so many movies with big battles that show a bunch of characters you've never met, usually stuntmen, whacking away at each other. I guess that works for an audience on a certain level, but for me, that action is of no interest unless I know who those characters are. If I've been invested with something about their personalities or characters, then their deaths will mean something to me. If it's someone I don't know, it's like reading about some random automobile accident in the newspaper. It's odd, but I think of this movie as being very intimate, but it's still huge. It unfolds on a very grand scale.

Bailey: I'd like to ask you how certain sequences were handled stylistically, starting with the opening scene in the Garden of Gethsemane at night. The first shot is a combination crane/Steadicam shot that starts off fairly high; the camera eventually cranes down and starts to move along behind the solitary, silhouetted figure of Jesus as he walks through the foggy garden. It's an interesting shot because it starts off as an objective establishing shot, but instead of cutting away, the move simply continues. Visually, it really pulls the audience into the experience. It's also a slightly unsettling shot because it's so mysterious.

Deschanel: Mel always imagined the shot that way. You're really reading the body language of this figure as you follow him.† You don't know who it is at first, but you know that he's suffering. We were originally going to film that sequence in some olive gardens in Tivoli. We were up on ladders in the trees, discussing different ways to achieve the sequence, and we eventually decided to put the Steadicam operator, Roberto De Angelis, on a crane and have him step off and continue the shot. We were originally going to come around and show Jesus' face, but it quickly became apparent that you could read everything in Jim's body language from behind him.

We eventually moved the location for that shot to Hadrian's Villa because we had some other scenes to shoot there. But when we went on a scout, it was cold, windy and we were being bitten by all these insects. I said to Steve [McEveety] and Francesco Frigeri, our wonderful production designer, 'We want this scene to take place in the fog, and we're never going to get the effect we want up on this hillside.' Instead, we checked with Cinecittą Studios to see if they had any space available. They had a last-minute cancellation on Stage 5, and we were able to take over the stage and build the garden set. Mel had a terrible cold at the time and thought it was a wonderful idea.

Bailey: The scene is very spare, stylized and disquieting. You don't really see the horizon because it's a night scene, but the background has a light grayish-white feeling. I don't know whether you had a cyclorama enveloping the stage or if you just backlit the fog, but the background doesn't fall off into blackness. It has a sort of floating quality that was enhanced by the use of the Steadicam.

Deschanel: The backing was deep gray, and we lit it to create a feeling of infinity. We had rows and rows of 18Ks, plus a bunch of other lights, to create the feeling of moonlight. The key was the backing, because we didn't want the set to feel as if it had an end. Some scenes in The Patriot were set in a swamp at night, and my gaffer on that show, Colin Campbell, put lights way in the back so we could just light the fog that we'd created. With this garden set, I wanted you to feel that if you looked a bit farther in any direction, there was always something more out there.

Pizzello: How did your choice of the anamorphic widescreen format [2.40:1] affect your artistic choices?

Deschanel: The problem with anamorphic is that you need to shoot with a lot of stop, which can sometimes be hard at night. I was at a stop of at least T3.2 for most of the film, and that's hard to maintain with [Kodak Vision 200T] 5274, a stock that I like a lot. We used [Kodak Vision 500T] 5279 for our huge night scenes, when I really needed the extra stop for anamorphic. Our gaffer, Carlo Vinciguerra, was using these huge, aircraft-type lights that were developed by Vittorio Storaro's gaffer [Pippo Cafolla]. They're basically rows of aircraft lamps in frames. Even with those, it was amazing to me that we could get enough light. Honestly, Mel felt that the picture should be shot anamorphic, and I'm glad we did it. There's something about the discipline of anamorphic that was appropriate for this film.

Bailey: You can't just run wild with it. It forces a certain kind of classical quality on you.

Deschanel: We went through more than 90 anamorphic lenses to find the eight or nine we used on The Passion of the Christ. We just picked out the best lenses - and by 'best' I don't always mean 'sharpest.' I always do tests both with charts and faces, and I find that some lenses just feel more three-dimensional than others. They all have different qualities, especially in terms of how they handle light. Anamorphic Primos are very heavy, but the wider ones are really beautiful; when we went to longer lenses, I'd use the C- or E-Series. We used everything up to 600mm, but in general, the widest we went was 40mm or 50mm.

Pizzello: The period must have dictated a good deal of your approach to the lighting.

Deschanel: We're dealing with a story that took place 2,000 years ago, so our environment at night was either moonlight or firelight. At the Pamphilli Palace in Rome, there is a whole collection of paintings that are [lit by] candlelight. I studied those a lot, and I also went to places where I could examine things under firelight and moonlight. You're not creating reality or naturalism, you're creating the illusion of something, an impression. In that way the film is a metaphor for the time. The olive garden has a mystical quality, but somehow you accept it. It's the same with the firelit scenes - we just wanted to create the illusion that it was real. Surprisingly, there was a lot of [ambient] light in all of those dark scenes. But to create that illusion in anamorphic, we needed a great deal of light. I always wanted to have an understanding in my own mind of where the light was coming from, even if the source wasn't visible. In my mind, I knew where those sources were, and that helped me build that kind of 'film reality.' In some sequences, such as the scene in which Peter denies Jesus three times, there are lanterns and big pots of fire that we could use to justify our sources.

Bailey: One of the most beautifully lit scenes in the film takes places in the quarters where Pontius Pilate lives with his wife, Claudia. It's lit almost in a noir way, with pools and slashes of light. Yet it doesn't seem highly theatrical; it feels very real.

Deschanel: I love that sequence. Pilate is reading an edict as his wife is sleeping in the next room. He hears her having a nightmare, so he goes to her and finds her trembling in bed. Then there's a knock on the door, and a guard is there to tell Pilate that trouble is brewing. I wanted to mix fire- and moonlight, which I also did in the scene where John tells Mary and Mary Magdalene that Jesus has been arrested. In both cases, we mixed blue light from the moon with orange light from the fires, but in the scene involving Pilate, I made the firelight very specific, as though it's coming from holes in a lantern. In a sense, that scene was painted, in that I very specifically aimed cold light coming through the windows and [created] little squares of orange light inside the space. I used a mixture of HMIs for moonlight, making them a little more blue, and then added some warmth to the interior tungsten lights. When Pilate comes to his wife, he's in moonlight and a bit of firelight, but his face is almost totally black except for some rimlighting. My approach was very metaphorical. I'm not sure I can even explain it, but things just felt right at a certain point in the process. Mel felt very strongly about seeing people's eyes or faces in certain scenes, but at other times it's in their body language. I'm sure the choices were inspired subconsciously by all of the visual images we had studied, but I can't say specifically how.

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.