An Insider's Look at 'The Passion of
By Belinda Elliott
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.
Yes, it was quite an experience for a young seminarian.
ELLIOTT: So what let you to want to write this book?
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?
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
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?
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?
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
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.
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?
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.
gears a little bit, I’ve heard stories of miracles that happened
on the set during filming. Did you see any of that?
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.
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?
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
ELLIOTT: In the book
you mention a story about Jim Caviezel and his makeup. Tell me a little
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.
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
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
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?
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
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?
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
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.
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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