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Now that The Passion of the Christ is being released in a PG-13 version, are you more likely to take your kids to see the movie?
 
INTERVIEW

An Insider's Look at 'The Passion of the Christ'

By Belinda Elliott
CBN.com Producer

CBN.com – Father John Bartunek was privileged to be on the set during the filming of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. He also accompanied Gibson during the post-production editing of the film and traveled with him on promotional tours for the movie.

In his book, Inside The Passion: An Insiders Look at The Passion of The Christ, Bartunek takes readers behind the scenes of the movie and provides biblical, historical, and theological insights gleaned from the time he spent with the film's crew and actors. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Father Bartunek about his time on the set of the film. I had many questions to ask him, and his answers were very interesting. The entire transcript of the interview follows below, or click on the questions that interest you most:

 

BELINDA ELLIOTT: How did you come to be involved with the movie? Did you know Mel Gibson beforehand?

FATHER JOHN BARTUNEK: It was completely providential. I was living and studying theology in Rome when they came to Rome to film the movie. And a friend of a friend knew someone working on the film, so we visited the set, and that’s how it all started. I met Mel, I met Stephen McEveety the producer, I met Jim Caviezel. I just kind of struck up some friendships and before I knew it I was kind of swept into a two-year, behind-the-scenes experience where I was working on the film on the set and then accompanied Mel in the post-production and accompanied him on his promotional tour as well.

ELLIOTT: Wow, that’s awesome.

BARTUNEK: Yes, it was quite an experience for a young seminarian.

ELLIOTT: So what let you to want to write this book?

BARTUNEK: You know, there was so much that was written about The Passion of the Christ, and so much that was talked about. There were so many different views, that I felt that the perspective that I was blessed to have, being behind the scenes, would add a perspective no one else had been able to add. There was so much that went into the movie, so many decisions that Mel made that made, to make the movie as great as it was. And the more you know about that -- the more you know about why he did this or how he got that scene right, why he included this scene, and where he got that idea -- the more you know about all those things, the more you get out of the movie and the more you understand why The Passion of The Christ was such a powerful cinematic experience. So that’s why I asked Mel, “Why don’t we do a book on it?” and that is where it came from.

ELLIOTT: Was there any particular scene in the movie that was your favorite to write about?

BARTUNEK: Well, one of the reasons that I wrote the book was because there were so many of the scenes that were very interesting. Each one has its own history. It’s really remarkable.

One scene where the actual filming of it that really struck me was the scene were Judas has been driven out of the city, he is on the verge of despair, and he takes a look at that rotting donkey carcass. He sees it, and he begins to cry. He falls into despair, and then he commits suicide. They filmed that over and over again trying to get the right look of Judas and they couldn’t get it. And finally, Mel told Judas, “When you see that rotting donkey” -- which is, interestingly enough, with the rotting maggots and the clenched teeth of that carcass, it’s an image of hell where you gnash your teeth and the where the worm dies not. So Mel gave the direction to the actor of Judas, an Italian man named Luca Lionello, Mel said, “Luca when you see that carcass, I want you to think, ‘My soul is in worse condition than that.’” That was the direction. And the very next take they took, Judas turned around and he started to cry. It was the perfect look, and they kept the take.

But the amazing thing is, and this is why I wrote the book, each scene has its own history – the meaning behind it, and then how they actually filmed it, and the little details that Mel changed on the set. He even added some scenes while they were filming. So I talk about that in the book. I explain why he added some and why he took some out. Its just fascinating to know that kind of background.

ELLIOTT: It’s interesting how some of the scenes in particular really captured the audience. I remember when we first started to cover the film on our Web site, we got a lot of email from readers asking about how the devil was portrayed in the movie and also about the “ugly baby” in the movie. What were the motivations behind those particular scenes?

BARTUNEK: First of all, the concept of including the devil as a character, as a persona in the film, was kind of a new thing to do really for this type of movie. But Mel really wanted to do it because it was important to show who was behind all of this suffering and all of this evil.

And then, it’s fascinating to know how he chose to depict the devil the way he did. The actress who played the devil is a woman in her 30s, a very beautiful woman. And he wanted to make sure that the devil was in a certain sense attractive, in a certain sense seductive, because that’s what temptation is. The devil doesn’t appear to us with horns and a pitchfork and flaming fire; that would scare us away. He wants to seduce us. But every time he gives a temptation, evil is never purely good. There is always this distortion of something good. So when they filmed the devil, they filmed the actress at a different film speed so she comes across as kind of odd. They shaved her eyebrows. When she spoke, they dubbed a male voice over her. They shaved her hair. So it is something in itself, a person who is very beautiful, but it’s distorted a little bit. And that’s what evil is. That’s what the devil does. And that was an important concept to communicate in the film.

And the different scenes in which the devil appears – I kind of go into them in detail in the book – but there is always something that is being distorted, something good that is being distorted.

ELLIOTT: And what about that strange baby?

BARTUNEK: Well, there were kind of two levels of intent there, and I explore them in depth in the book because it is such a memorable image. It’s kind of a haunting image. You see the devil appear with what looks a like a baby, maybe it’s a sign of hope, and then you realize, “Wait a minute; it’s not a normal baby. What’s going on? Oh no, it’s all wrong!” And you have that experience of it. It’s really interesting.

There are two levels of intent: one is artistic and one is theological. You put that in there artistically at that moment because if you remember, when that image appears they have just turned Jesus over onto His back during the flagellation scene, and they are beginning to scourge Him on His chest. So it is an intensification of His suffering. Mel wanted to show that because that’s the kind of thing they did. Flagellation was a horrible punishment. And he wanted to be able to show that, but he knew that if he just showed that without any other images, you just wouldn’t be able to watch it. So by giving this strange image of the devil appearing again with that strange baby, he was giving the imagination somewhere else to go. And he did that a lot. He also had a flashback during that sequence. He went to Mary Magdalene during that sequence in order to make it watchable. It was a brilliant tactic. He said he can show the brutality, but he can actually make it watchable because the imagination has places to go.

The other level was really theological. At the moment when the manifestation of evil, Christ’s suffering, was intensifying -- because they were scourging Him on His chest and going way overboard – when you see the devil at that point, you have to see an intensification of the devil’s own evilness. And when the devil mocks the most beautiful thing in the human experience, a mother with her child -- that’s one of the most powerful icons of goodness, of beauty and purity – when the devil mocks it, it is an intensification of the devil’s own distortion of what is good, which corresponds to the intensification of the suffering that Christ is experiencing.

ELLIOTT: You’ve mentioned the brutality of the film, and the new version of the film that Mel Gibson is releasing has less violence. When they were first filming the movie, was the violence in the film an issue that was greatly debated on the set?

BARTUNEK: Actually, it’s funny that when you make a movie, and this was kind of news for me, you don’t really get an impression of the whole movie at all while you are making it. You just do little bits and pieces here and there. The whole flagellation scene took hours; the filming of it extended over days. They would do 20 seconds, then they would do a minute, then they would change everything around. So even the actors and people who were working on it didn’t get an impression of what it was going to look like on film. So they didn’t really talk about it. It wasn’t really an issue. But after they saw the initial presentation of the film, even the actors themselves were shaken by how powerful it was. So on the set, there wasn’t really much discussion of it, and everyone really had a lot of confidence in Mel. The discussion really came afterwards. A lot of the critics of the film accused the film of being too violent.

But the way I look at it is, if you understand – and this is one of the themes in the book that really comes out -- when you understand why Mel decided first of all to make the movie, and how he decided to put it together and what went into each scene. One of the key things for him, and he talked about this at various times, was that he wanted to make this as realistic as possible. Because so many times we’ve become so used to seeing crucifixes and talking about flagellation, but we really don’t know what it was like. To understand the intensity of Christ’s love we really need to understand the intensity of His suffering. And through the ages Christians have drawn strength from that. So Mel really wanted to communicate that; and the film does a great job of communicating that. That’s why it was rated R, because Christ really did suffer a lot. So there is meaning behind the violence.

But on the other hand, it is important to realize that the meaning behind the violence isn’t just the violence itself. The difference between this movie and other violent movies – there are many other movies that are much more violent – the difference is that this movie shows not only the violence, but also the suffering that goes with the violence. That’s what makes everyone uncomfortable. That’s why the critics were so concerned and so critical. They said, “That’s so violent” because they felt uncomfortable because they saw the suffering. And you know, I think, that’s a symptom of maybe a non-healthy tendency in our own society where our highest value is comfort and ease. And we are afraid of self-sacrifice and fidelity and the sacrifice that it causes. So I really think the distinction between violence and suffering helps us understand that issue in The Passion of The Christ.

ELLIOTT: Switching gears a little bit, I’ve heard stories of miracles that happened on the set during filming. Did you see any of that?

BARTUNEK: Well, there was a lot going on at different levels during the filming process. I go into some of these experiences and give some background of them in the book. But the way I looked at, there were really two types of miracles that were happening all throughout the filming. One was the supernatural manifestations where there were shocking occurrences that no one really knew how to explain. There was a real atmosphere of openness about spiritual things, and people felt very comfortable talking about those things. So even when someone mentioned that there was a problem in the family, or a relative was sick, people would pray. There were some people who were healed, some people who had been really sick and came back. So there was that kind of miracle. There were also those two lightning strikes that were so famous where the same young man was struck twice by lightning and he wasn’t injured at all. You can kind of read that either way…but everyone on the set said, “Something is going on. This movie is a little more than your normal movie.” So I go into the details of that in the book and explain things that happened.

But there is another category of miracles that, personally, I think are much more powerful. And that has to do with the changes of hearts. Everyone who worked on the film was changed. Everyone was touched. They were all brought into this powerful meditation on Jesus Christ. They were all looking at this image of Christ day in and day out, and contemplating it and trying to understand it. Everyone was changed by that.

I remember speaking to the woman who played Veronica. You might remember the scene; it’s a very spiritual moment when Jesus is carrying His cross. He falls and Veronica comes to wipe His face and offer Him something to drink, and they have an exchange in the middle of all the chaos and the soldiers and the melee, and she looks into His face and He looks into her face. Do you know what the actress said after that scene? She was reflecting on it, and she said that during that moment she was able to believe in Jesus – something that she had never been able to do before. She said, "I believed. For a I believed." And it really gave her hope. That kind of thing, to me, that’s the real miracle. And that kind of thing happened a lot.

ELLIOTT: You mentioned that a lot of people would pray for each other, were there any kind of spiritual regimens on the set where maybe they would start off each day with prayer or anything like that?

BARTUNEK: No, there was nothing official, nothing formal. There were so many different types of people working on the film from different faith backgrounds. There were atheists and agnostics and all kinds of people representing different religions, and I think Mel and the other members of the team were very respectful. So there was never anything where anyone had to do something together, or they all went to mass at the beginning, or they went to a worship service afterwards. However, as I mentioned, the atmosphere was very open, and being on the set myself as a clergymen, it was for me just kind of a non-stop series of spiritual conversations. Everyone felt very comfortable speaking about those things. Of course Mel and Jim themselves, as men of faith, made a point of making sure they got their prayer time in each day. And other people did as well, but there was nothing formal.

ELLIOTT: In the book you mention a story about Jim Caviezel and his makeup. Tell me a little about that.

BARTUNEK: It was very interesting. It was one of the anecdotes that I think was a little more humorous. Basically, the first time that Jim came out in his flagellation makeup no one had seen it before, and when he came out people were literally shocked. The people who were working on the set did a double take, and they stepped back and kind of tried to get away from him because it was so realistic. It was so shocking. Even when he wasn’t in his flagellation makeup, he had to get there very early in the morning just so they could reconstruct his face because they wanted him to look like a Jewish man in the prime of his life back in the time of Christ. So they had to reconstruct his entire facial structure. And because of that he had some very moving experiences where some people would look at him and they would want to go up and give him a hug and ask for his blessing. But he also had some of the opposite reactions. When he was walking to the trailer people who might not have been so intimately connected to the movie would see him and they would laugh at him and that kind of thing. For him, it helped him reflect on the role and realize that these are the different reactions that people have had to Christ through the centuries. So it helped him deepen his own reflection on the role he was playing.

ELLIOTT: Before the film was released there was a considerable amount of controversy about it and some people said it was anti-Semitic. How did you feel about that?

BARTUNEK: Well, on the one hand I was glad that the issue was raised when the film came out because the relations between Christians and Jews through the centuries have not always been good. I think it was something to raise the issue, to remind us and purify the memory a little bit and say, “Yes, at times, Christians have not behaved very well toward Jews; and at other times Jews haven’t behaved very well toward Christians.” That’s a fact of history and we shouldn’t ignore that. So I was glad the Jewish community raised the issue. I found it very instructive however, that after the movie came out those criticisms simply evaporated as everyone realized that the movie simply wasn’t anti-Semitic. So my hope is that this conversation helped our current generation of Jews and Christians understand each other better. I think the film itself actually gave us a chance to talk to each other, and get to know each other better, and understand one another’s faith and position. So the proof is in the pudding; the film is not anti-Semitic at all. The focus on Christ and on His forgiveness and His mercy is just the opposite of anti-Semitism. And also the focus in the movie is on the personal encounters with Christ, how Jesus has very one-on-one personal encounters, and everyone reacts differently. It doesn’t matter what race you are, and that really comes across. That’s the heart of the film I think, that personal encounter with Christ.

ELLIOTT: What effect do you think this film has had on our culture and on their understanding of Christianity?

BARTUNEK: I think The Passion of The Christ has been a real “bomb” in the culture. A bomb, not in the sense of being a failure, but that it exploded. It touched a nerve in today’s society that hasn’t been touched in a long time, and it made the world jump. I hope -- and one of my reasons behind writing the book -- is that we can keep that alive because the film combined two things that our society has been trying to keep separate for the last 50 or 60 years, which is mainstream media and entertainment and deep religious faith. For the last few decades they have been desperately trying to separate those two things. And here you have a film from one of the most influential movie stars in Hollywood that is one of the most successful films of the decade, not just in the states but in the world, and it’s all about religious faith and God’s mercy and the message of Christ. So these two things, you have the popular culture, and the secularized culture, and religious faith come together in The Passion of the Christ, and the world didn’t know what to do about it. So my hope is that we as believers can keep that alive, and that can be kind of like a beachhead in the battle to really bring Christian values back into society.

ELLIOTT: Do you think the film opened doors in Hollywood for more movies to be made that explore religion or faith?

BARTUNEK: I think it has. You have the recent movie that came out, Constantine. And even in talking with other screenwriters and people in other production companies, there is this flood of new screenplays dealing with spiritual things that is happening in Hollywood. Then you have this fascinating project by Walden Media, the C.S. Lewis books, The Chronicles of Narnia, they are putting those on film. That’s a huge, very expensive and very mainstream project. So I really think that the Holy Spirit might be behind this in a certain sense, and there might be a real renewal. But we need to help. And that’s why I think it is so important for us to try to become experts in this film. If we can become experts in The Passion of the Christ, if we can know what went into it, why it made such a splash and why it had such an impact, then we can further that impact. We can be agents of change. That’s one of the things that I hope my book is able to do, to help people really become experts in this film so we can extend the influence of it.

ELLIOTT: As you know this year’s Oscars Awards was held recently, and The Passion of the Christ was passed over by the Academy. What do you think about that?

BARTUNEK: Well, personally, I wasn’t surprised. But I was disappointed. I wasn’t surprised because this movie is in a completely different category than what the mainstream Hollywood people are used to. And I can imagine that they don’t even know where this fits. This is a movie in Latin and Aramaic. It’s about Jesus Christ. It’s like, “Where does this fit?” So I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t include it. But I was disappointed because sheerly from an artistic standpoint it was an absolutely triumph. I mean think about this movie. Everybody already knows the story, first of all. Other movies have been made about it before. This one wasn’t even in English. It had subtitles, and it was in Latin and Aramaic. And yet, Mel Gibson was able to find the right combination artistically to make this the third highest grossing film of the year. And we are still talking about it. It’s still on the main TV shows. It is still controversial. It is still moving people. And then it was the highest selling action DVD in history. So you have this strange combination. The fact that he was able to do that is quite an achievement. And the fact that is wasn’t recognized even with a nomination for Best Director was a little bit disappointing. I think it was also a little revealing maybe. I don’t know who is on the Academy, but let’s hope that maybe in the future they will be a little more open to considering these types of movies.

ELLIOTT: I’m curious, when you were on the set I’m sure there was an attitude everyone involved wanted to make the best move they possibly could, but was there any idea that it would be as big as it was?

BARTUNEK: There really wasn’t a general attitude like that. Everyone was excited to be working with such a great team – one of the best directors of photography in Hollywood and Mel Gibson of course -- everyone was excited about that, so they knew it was going to be a movie that people took note of. But there was no sense that it was going to have such an impact worldwide, that it would be such a phenomenon, at least at the beginning. As the controversy began to brew then I think the sense grew that, “Oh, wait, this is a big deal. This movie is more than your average film.” But most of all, I think the attitude on the set of the actors and the crew members, the production assistants, and everyone, was that this was something special. Everyone had a sense that this was something special. They didn’t know exactly why or what was going to happen, but everyone knew this was something special. And it created a real sense of family for all the people working on the film. I was pleasantly surprised to find that. There was a real bond, and people are still in contact with each other. That bond has lasted.

ELLIOTT: Anything else you would like our readers to know?

BARTUNEK: I would just like to say that the concept of the book, Inside the Passion, is really like getting a tour of a cathedral or a great work of art from someone who was lucky enough to be in the workshop when the artist was making it. And it really enhances your experience of the film. So I hope that people who have read it have already found that, and I hope that people get a chance to find that because it is really worth becoming an expert in this film.

ELLIOTT: The book truly does help you understand the movie better. Thank you so much for talking with me today.

BARTUNEK: I appreciate it. Thank you.


Inside The Passion: An Insiders Look at The Passion of The Christ is published by Ascension Press. For more information, visit www.insidethepassion.com.

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