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The gospel according to Mel

Guest column

The script for “The Passion of the Christ” was written by Benedict Fitzgerald and Mel Gibson, with dialogue translated into Aramaic and Latin by Father William Fulco. Screenwriter John Leone recently sat down with Fitzgerald and in a wide-ranging interview talked about his work on the project. An excerpt of the interview runs in print in Daily Variety on the Perspectives page, Wednesday April 7, 2004. Below is the full text of the interview.

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“The Passion of the Christ” is poised to become one of the most successful films ever made. The improbability of this outcome has surprised the whole world, but the movie industry in particular, and has understandably aroused passions of its own of in many differently interested groups.

Fitzgerald has requested that this interview be prefaced by the following statement:

“I deplore and condemn all forms of bigotry, as preached or practiced by any race against any other race, whether it be open or hidden. Anti-Semitism is a wretched mental disease that has resulted in terrible suffering for Jews for all recorded history. It is the most unjust and lowest of human emotions to scapegoat a race for anything at all, much less the death of the Messiah. It is in fact contrary to the spirit of Christianity, which is fed by the faith of all Christians. Racial bigotry is a sin against humanity, a mortal sin, and it is neither the intent nor, I believe, the effect, of ‘The Passion of the Christ’ to promote any such reaction in the viewers of the film. I detest and reject it in all its forms, and would not have written the film had I thought it would increase or inflame any collection of prejudices, particularly the abomination of anti-Semitism. I do not believe it does; I believe that the viewer will leave the theater feeling compassion for suffering and sorrow at the world’s wrong, which wrong excludes no one.”

He has further requested that the following quotation from Saint Francis of Assisi be shown with his endorsement:

“We must regard as guilty all those who continue to relapse into their sins. Since our sins made the Lord Christ suffer the torment of the cross, those who plunge themselves into disorders and crimes crucify the Son of God anew in their hearts (for he is in them) and hold Him up to contempt. And it can be seen that our crime in this case is greater in us than in the Jews. As for them, according to the witness of the Apostle, ‘none of the rulers of this age understood this;’ for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory. We, however, profess to know Him. It was neither demons nor Jews who crucified Him: it is you who crucified Him, and crucify Him still, when you delight in your vices and sins.” — St. Francis of Assisi

The interview was conducted during the week of the release of “The Passion” by John Leone, a Harvard classmate, writer and director, and friend of the Fitzgerald family, pere et fils, for nearly forty years.

Michael, Ben’s brother, has worked on three films with Leone: “The Last Days of Elvis Presley,” “Jedgar & Clyde” (with Sean Penn), and “Father Urban,” from JF Powers’ National Book Award winning novel “Morte D’Urban,” which will be produced next year. Leone is currently finishing a new script.

John Leone: Would you care to comment on the creation of a foreign language film by two English speakers? [laughter]
Benedict Fitzgerald: You’re assuming Mel and I speak English! I have to credit Mel with having an intuitive genius about these things. It was intended to be a testament, a witnessing, and there’s no testament if you’re not going to see it and hear it as it happened. They spoke Aramaic and street Latin, and that’s what we should see and hear.

JL: Ben, where did you grow up, and where did you go to school?
BF: I was born in New York, but my parents moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut, soon afterward. In 1953, my parents had produced five of their six children. My father’s great ambition [poet-translator Robert Fitzgerald, who had translated Sophocles’ “The Oedipus Cycle” with Dudley Fitts] was to translate Homer’s “The Odyssey” from Greek into ‘American verse,’ as he would say. He was teaching at Sarah Lawrence, and wanted to translate “The Odyssey.” He couldn’t do that if he had to teach to support us, so he sold the house, sold the car, got a Guggenheim, and advances against royalties from time to time from Doubleday. During the whole time he translated “The Odyssey” he taught very little. Italy was ideal for a number of reasons. Remember in ’53, Italy was in a period of heavy reconstruction after the War, a decade before the Boom, a war-torn country where it was possible for a family of seven to rent an enormous villa, and hire two or three local girls to help, all for a hundred fifty dollars a month. They did this for years, kept going, from one place to the next. Moved first to the Tyrol, where Ezra Pound’s daughter Mary lived, and we stayed with her for the summer; then moved to Florence for a year. My first school was there. First of many.

JL: Was it a state school, or a religious one?
BF: Well…all schools in Italy at the time were run by nuns. They were essentially parish schools, though nominally controlled by the State, but everything was a parish, these were small towns, little fishing towns whose lives revolved around the Church, and we moved from one to another, along the Ligurian Coast. We finally ended up in a town called Levanto, where we spent a number of years. Then they sent me to school in Switzerland. I was ten. I discovered myself in a Catholic school in Geneva, which, as well all know, is the heart of Calvinism. [laughter] Every evening we sat at a table of six, and there was a bottle of wine, divided up among the little boys, that gave us about a glass of wine each, which they thought very healthy. On the other hand, the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books was still in effect — this was 1960 — and if you were caught reading James Joyce, you were summarily thrown out of school. So, I was at school in Switzerland. At age ten. I was famous for running away from school. I was well known to the Geneva police, because an uncle was Consul General in Geneva at the time, which was why they chose to send me there. I eventually won first prize in Religious Studies, but at first I didn’t want to be in a school where I didn’t understand a thing that was going on because they were all talking in French! A bunch of French monks, and French kids! [laughter] I would choose my moment, whenever it was raining, and I would don my galoshes and raincoat and put on my head whatever I could find, and run like hell! And the police always knew where to find me. In the private plane section of the Geneva Airport. I was innocent enough to go up to Arabs who had their private jets, you know, and ask them in Italian to fly me to Rome. [laughter] And inevitably somebody’d say “Oh yes my boy!” and I had no idea I was skirting real danger. But they’d immediately call the cops, who’d come get me. Call my uncle, who would take me back to school. French schools, I think to this day, are the best in the world. The Italian state schools used to be wonderful, but no more. Four years later, my father suddenly realized that not one of his children spoke English! [laughter]

JL: Though both parents were fully American, and you were born in New York!
BF: Fully American, and they had had to learn Italian to keep up with us. Six against two! We had the advantage, and we took it. And so it was decided that I should go to school in America, and ended up at a very good school in Rhode Island run by Benedictine monks, Portsmouth Priory. I was meant to go to Andover, because Dudley Fitts taught there, but my father thought, correctly I think now, that I should go to a smaller place. There were only fifty boys in a class. I learned how to sail, and to speak English, at age fourteen. Which was all to the good. But! You could read anything there, including James Joyce, in fact they would have put you in advanced classes if you did that independently. But if you drank a drop, a single drop of wine, you would be tossed out of school. I learned early that I had to make up my own mind as to what was culturally correct and what was not. [laughter] And I discovered that drinking wine and reading James Joyce together were very good occupations, and a good way to spend my time. Then I went to Harvard from there, where we met. Class of ’71. I took a year off during that time, because I’d fallen madly in love with a girl, a Radcliffe girl who knew what she wanted to do, and she went to Paris, and so I followed. And I had no idea what I was going to do in Paris while she went about her serious business. And I would spend my time reading and going to the theatre. Until she got back from her serious business. And on one occasion we went to see Marcel Marceau. And the next day, you know — impetuouso — the gutsy spirit which we have when we’re nineteen — I called the theatre where we’d seen him perform. And he answered the phone! [laughter]

JL: Marcel Marceau spoke to you on the phone?
BF: The famous mime answered the phone in this very high-pitched voice: “Oui?” I told him that I’d seen his show the night before and that I was baffled. He invited me to come over to the theatre. La Theatre de la Gaité Lyrique in Paree…so I went over and he said, “Wal, you are about my size. Shoe size, about my size! Here, try these on!” Well, I tried his shoes on, and spent the rest of that winter doing pantomime.

JL: With Marceau!
BF: With Marceau. And at night, I would study with Maximilien Decroux, whose father Etienne trained Jean-Luis Barrault as the great Baptiste, in the film by Marcel Carne, “Les Enfants de Paradis.” So I spent a wonderful parenthesis in the middle of my Harvard years learning about theatre. And complete silence. And control of the body. Fencing! Which I can still do, to some extent. And I had a great time learning that. It was a fascinating time, because I had to learn to think without the rational mind, which of course was the only thing that mattered at Harvard. I could actually let my spirit and my body express…whatever it was. I booked myself into a small Parisian theatre at the end of the year, on the Rue Mouffetard — well you know, you lived there — made famous by Hemingway, where he’d lived, and there are a number of little café-concert places, where you’d go to watch somebody play the flute, or, in my case, come onstage, a tiny stage, in whiteface, and perform. And I thought “I can’t have studied this daily for eight months and not actually perform,” so I booked myself, for 15 francs and two beers, that was my pay, and performed as a pantomime. [laughter] When I came back to Harvard, I ingratiated myself to the people at the Loeb Theatre by suggesting they could use some training [laughter] on how to move about the stage.

JL: They must have been delighted to hear that!
BF: The students were, actually. They wanted to do it, but the faculty didn’t. After all, diction was the only thing that mattered. It has always been my contention that Harvard, much as I love and admire it, misses an awful lot.

JL: Difficult for a mime to get much attention. [laughter] Speak up!
BF: I was interested not in so much an intellectual, as a truly thespian discipline. I’ve always been staggered by actors who can sustain a performance night after night. And each performance is different. The persistence of this powerful spirit that moves the great ones.

JL: I’ve always felt that good acting was a form of writing. Different performances rewriting, until it is perfected.
BF: Absolutely. Oh, definitely!
JL: The word made flesh.
[A short discussion follows about why his brother Michael (“Wise Blood,” “Under the Volcano,” “The Pledge,” and the upcoming “Colour Me Kubrick”) became a film producer instead of a writer.]

JL: My impression was always that Michael became a producer because of the example of the lives of American writers, though not your father. Usually those who pursued a serious literary life, in the history of American literature, had come to a very bad end.
BF: Without doubt. The reason I write screenplays, in fact, instead of anything else, and I refuse to write anything else, is that I think of almost every other form of writing as text. There’s something frightening, to me at least, about competing with text, which is of course where my father excelled, and all of his friends, and all of the people who lived that life…

JL: All the pains taken to perfect a text. The endless solitude of writing. No wonder writers are so grateful for company!
BF: One of the people I admire the most is James Agee, as an American writer, and how can you compete with “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men?” or “The Morning Watch” or “A Death in the Family?” [Agee and his father were close friends from Harvard and worked together at Time Magazine and Fortune]. Agee liked to tell you what his next novel was going to be, and of course by the time he was finished telling you, he was already thinking about his next novel. My father told me that if he’d spent less time telling you his novels, and more time writing them, he’d have a body of work that would be astonishing.

JL: There were always lots of literary lights shining at your house.
BF: Well. His best friends: Cal Lowell, Robert Lowell. Delmore Schwartz, wonderful stories about Schwartz, his manic genius, and John Berryman. And of course Flannery O’Connor, who wrote in our house in Connecticut. James Agee. Peter Taylor, the best American short story writer ever. These were people he saw regularly, was in touch with. They were also people who were around Flannery O’Connor, of course. Some of them he met at Harvard, some in New York in the early 30’s, when he went to work as a reporter for the Herald Tribune. For $18 a week! And one day, he said, marveling at the great city as he crossed the street, he realized someone had bumped him, and lifted his wallet! All $18 gone! He later went to work for Naval Intelligence, where he met my mother, and worked on the decryption of the messages of the submarine fleet of Admiral Doenitz.

JL: Your mother was a distinguished editor in her own right.
BF: I think she was one of the best, as her work with Flannery O’Connor demonstrates. And it is clear that my father’s work on “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” would not have been as beautiful as it was had she not been at his side. I remember him reading to us when he was finished with Book Ten, trying it out on his children. We would all sit around the fireplace and he would read his latest book of this great classic, and it was one of the great rituals of our life. Our life was literary on all sides. What came out of it was primarily a sense of excellence. I considered him a friend of mine, as well as my father, and he gave me the sense that if you’re going to go into an enterprise, keep excellence as your goal. At all times. And that other people’s judgment is not as important as what you honestly know and feel you’ve done.

JL: Do you feel that the aesthetics imparted to you at the family table and in your education, not to oversimplify, were Catholic or Classical?
BF: Well: Classical Catholicism.

JL: More than Homer, more than Vergil?
BF: Like my father, I think I’m a Thomist. That is, Aquinas. There is an aesthetic involved, with reference back to Aristotle.

JL: So there is a classical foundation.
BF: Filtered through a Catholic education. No, distilled. [laughter] Because the better you distill, the better the brandy. Classical Catholicism infused everything with its peculiar radiance, the rhythm of life, the focus of mind and spirit, the struggle for and reliance on faith. I’m grateful to my parents for giving me a sense of the sacred. The mystery of it, which drives one towards the light.

JL: How does one impart a sense of the sacred today to one’s children?
BF: By behaving as though everything is. That’s how you do it. I try to do that. In a sense, it’s the Thomist aesthetic. If one can actually transform something into a state of beauty, one is doing something sacred.

JL: An activity of the human mind…
BF: And spirit…

JL: And spirit on the world.
BF: Yes. And that’s when you are working with God. In a way, it’s an act of obedience as well. To what is integral to what we all have. Everyone who is born can obey that instinct to reveal the spiritual instead of the bestial aspect of humanity.

JL: So there was immersion in both Classical and Catholic literature and esthetics?
BF: Yes. At Portsmouth Priory, particularly, and it had a profound effect , though I’m not sure how to reckon the balance. I met a number of men there who seemed true and good to me, and I developed a lifelong respect and love for monks. This is true of Father Bill Fulco, who did the translations from my English into Aramaic and Latin for “The Passion.”

JL: What did you study at Harvard?
BF: I changed majors I think four times. [laughter] I studied Russian History and Literature with Daniel Pipes loud exclamation from Leone and that wonderful little man who inspired the character in Nabokov’s “Pnin.” Whose name I’m sure I’ll remember some day. [laughter] Fine arts, French, Comparative Lit, History. The education of a young man largely consists in following that which interests him. I was also interested in Astronomy, and Owen Gingerich, one of the great Harvard astronomers, told me that though he was moved by my enthusiasm, my grasp of mathematics was so minimal, while so essential to the study of astronomy, that I would never be an astronomer. Well, I ended up working with a different kind of star. Who was it who defined living in Malibu as “lying on the sand looking at the stars, or vice-versa?” [laughter]

JL: Did you get any inklings about your eventual career?
BF: I was one of the founders of the Kirkland House Film Society at Harvard. We’d get these French films, Godard, for $12 bucks, and then charge $5 apiece for people to come watch. And then we’d all go to Locke-Obers for a feast, with fine wines. So I knew I liked at least some things about the movies. [laughter] I knew I was drawn to the theatre, and I wanted to do that. I would stop at the plays in bookstores. My father’s father had actually acted with Walter Huston in a traveling company. So I think performance, as well as poetry, was in my blood.

JL: How did you begin screenwriting? Was “Wise Blood” your first screenplay?
BF: Actually, my first script, not a very good one, was about an incident involving Alan Dershowitz’s defense of the Jewish Defense League, who’d been accused of a smoke bombing, a political protest that resulted in a death in New York. Alan had given me the transcript because he wanted this to be a movie. I thought it was a wonderful idea, but just as soon as I’d finished it Patty Hearst was kidnapped. [laughter] My L.A. agent said there wasn’t a prayer of this getting made in the political atmosphere of the time, and so I returned to New York to work one odd job after another to keep body and soul together.
I was working at Magnum Photo Co-op in New York, that had been founded in the Second World War by Robert Capa, after graduation. I was living with some friends who were film editors on the West Side. And I got the idea to do a screen adaptation of “Wise Blood,” and with the brashness of youth, and the egging on of my brother Michael, I wrote it at night after looking at photographs all day under a magnifying glass. And every night I wrote, until eight months later I had what I considered to be a screenplay, And Michael and I, with our characteristic brashness, sent it off to John Huston — not to his agent, who would of course have thrown it away, but to John himself in Mexico, with a note, asking him to consider reading it, and [laughter] if he ever got around to it, to let us know what he thought. We’d be grateful for any advice. And John called three days later, the unmistakable voice of Huston on the telephone, “I’m calling from Puerto Vallarta. Just read your screenplay, and I’d like to direct it!” So that changed my life.

JL: Now, did you have any connection to Huston?
BF: None at all. Actually, Terry Malick, at the time, had expressed an interest in it, but both Michael and I felt that though we both liked Terry, and still do, that he was too close to the underlying spirit of the film, which is about grace, to bring the sort of comic astringency we needed. We were thinking of Chaplin, and it seemed John was closer to that style.

JL: Huston agreed to do it. Then what happened?
BF: Well, then Michael’s job was to go raise the money. My job was to go down to Puerto Vallarta to where John had a house, a cabin, really, where he’d gone into semi-retirement. He wasn’t insurable at the time, his emphysema had asserted itself already. He was very sick; they’d operated on his heart. In fact, we ended up making the film with him without insurance. We had a backup plan that if he were to die during the filming, Terry Malick would replace him. I worked very hard on the script with John, and he taught me a lot about writing film. There was nothing pedagogical about it. It was essentially: [Huston imitation] “Let’s do it again, Ben! Try a littler harder!” And I’d go back to my room and pick my nose, and think again. It’s always good to think again. He taught me wonderful things about the business. I remember one time sitting with him after working all day. And I said to him, “You’ve made some of the truly great films in the history of motion pictures, starting with your first one, “Maltese Falcon.” And “African Queen,” “Key Largo,” “The Misfits,” and many others. But you’ve also made some real dogs.” And he just looked at me with that simian knowledge that he had, and he said: “I’ll make them as bad as they want ’em. It’ll just cost ’em a little more!” [Laughter.] He taught me a lot about staying power. If you just hang in there, eventually somebody’ll make a good film with you, and he made the first one for me, for us. Robbie Lantz wanted to sign me, saying [German accent] “You are the best writer I know about obsession!” [laughter] I signed with him, and proceeded to write a great deal of junk. I was too young, and I wanted the money. I didn’t know you should think hard about what you write next, in a career sense, and do only that which deeply appeals to you. I was just happy to get a chance to make a living! But then things changed. I remember getting an offer to do a film about some guy who dresses up like Santa Claus and kills children. [laughter] And I told them, no, I wouldn’t do it. And they said, Well, somebody else will! And they’ll get the money you need right now. But I said, let whoever he is do it! I’m not going to do this, and that’s that. I went through a lot of difficult times financially, after I’d finally realized that if you’re going to do anything worthwhile, you really must take your life in your hands and do your best, and forget the short buck. What really launched me was another job with Huston later, when John and I wanted to do “Under the Volcano” with Richard Burton. We would all play backgammon together. I was the only one who could drink, neither of them could touch a drop at the time, and they’d ply me with booze just to watch. They were like the old general in the Howard Hawks’ movie Faulkner wrote, “The Big Sleep,” who just wants to watch Bogie drink for him. They would just sit there and laugh at me getting completely stoned on tequila and anything else, and in the middle of all this they’d ask me to speak intelligibly about “Volcano.” I wrote what I thought was a good script, but I had a different conception from the way it finally ended up.

JL: Whose idea was it to do a film of the Passion, and how did you get involved?
BF: It was Mel Gibson’s idea. He called me because Steve McEveety had suggested me. And Eveleen Bandy who works for Icon and I had worked before on a film, and I had met Mel on that occasion, but never thought I’d end up working with him. But Steve met with me at Eveleen’s suggestion, and we were talking about something altogether different. When Mel told him he had decided to do this film, Steve told him there’s only one writer I’d recommend you talk to. But by then I was living in Perugia. He told Mel that he thought if he could get along with me, I’d be the right person to write it.

JL: Because of your knobbly personality?
BF: No, no. Mel Gibson is a person who’s lived at the height of stardom for so long now, that how he judges people, gets along with people, deals with the world, is not in any sense how you and I fully experience. And Mel is also a complex and very gifted man, very gifted, and I think one of his more powerful gifts is the gift of faith, which is genuine. He’d been thinking about “The Passion” for 10 years. He’d made “Braveheart,” in which some people claim to see some antecedents to this, and when he called me in Perugia, I picked up the telephone, and again the unmistakable voice of someone you’d recognize almost instantly: “How ya doin’ Ben? This is Mel Gibson. How do you feel about the idea?” He told me right off the bat that this was his own enterprise. He told me then that this was going to be in Aramaic. Right away. That I would write the screenplay in English, it would be translated into Aramaic, and the actors would learn the lines in that language. [laughter] Now…everybody, everybody has the same reaction. And my reaction was to think that this was a highly unusual request. [laughter] A highly unusual concept. Or conceit, the old literary term. There was a side of me, like everybody else, including Mel, that laughed at the idea. But he said, this is what I mean to do. Then I started thinking about Gillo Pontecorvo.

JL: The best.
BF: And some of the other people who wanted to make real some event in the past — “Battle of Algiers.” And I thought about it on the plane, because he immediately flew me over to the States, to Paso Robles, where they were making “We Were Soldiers.” And I think he was…restless during that shoot. We spent a lot of time together, because the demands of that picture were not…he was thinking of other things. He had other fish to fry, and this was a big one. The ten days I spent in Paso Robles was I think was a great test, not just on his part, but on others’, McEveety was there, you know, and they had to determine whether this Irish-American kid living in Italy could meet the match. Meet the man and come up with something.

JL: What did you discuss? What was said? You’ve said the Aramaic was decided from the beginning. How about form?
BF: He said: I want to start in the Garden of Gethsemane. And I want to end it on the Cross. And my reaction to that was that I felt it was truly necessary to do the Resurrection. And that it was possible to do.

JL: Without angels and violins and sopranos singing.
BF: Yes. When I went back to Florence I saw the Andrea Del Sarto, and I sent a picture of that beautiful fresco of the Resurrection to Mel, and I think it changed his mind. He was very interested in the great paintings on the subject, in fact, when he came to Rome, we visited museums, saw as much Caravaggio as we could. He loves Caravaggio. And I can see why. Caravaggio, as complex and perverse as he is, has the same anger and restlessness that Mel has. Suffering. They both enjoy life, but with a good deal of suffering.

In Paso Robles, we wanted to get to know each other. We talked about a lot of things having to do with faith, and why it would be “The Passion,” rather than “The Life Of,” the Public Life of Jesus, and why the sacramental aspect, to him one of the most sacred moments of the Gospels, occurs during this Passion. And that was the idea. So it was two Catholic boys, brought up Catholic, who’d had much the same experience, of pre-Vatican Council masses, for example, of an age. Mel’s younger by six years.

They were uneasy, but interesting discussions. He was very restless, unhappy with what he was working on, talking to someone whose experience in life had been in many ways a very privileged one. Though of course we never had any money, but still it’s undeniable. And our work methods are different. He’s not a disciplined writer, he would never start working, sit down, and four hours later take a break. That’s not how he works. He was looking to find out the true sense of the sacred in me. And I think he just found it there. That it was true, and it was there. I think that my background has drawn me to the sacred. I feel that much of theatre is sacred, much of what happens onstage is in a sense sacred, because it intends to create beauty from the moment. And church is a great spectacle, at the heart of which is something extremely sacred. And unless you’re capable or willing to accept that, then you have to consider it in a secular way. And that is a shame, a misunderstanding, and a loss.

JL: So you discussed faith with him?
BF: I remember we spent one hilarious night — he can’t drink at all, so he doesn’t — but we were in a bar. In Paso Robles! With all these cowboys and cowgirls, just having a ball, talking until 2 in the morning about faith! He had a 5 o’clock call. He’d rented a house outside of town, and one time he booked a room in the motel I was staying, and stayed there, so we could talk, and go out, and have dinner. And at two in the morning, I just looked at him and said: All right, time to go home and go to bed. And he just followed me. [laughter] So I gave up and went to the set with him. And they were about to shoot a scene in which a number of his soldiers are dead, and he’s the officer in the field, and he has to say something over them, their bodies. He turned to me and asked: What should I say? And I said, look at the Psalms. So we got out a book of the Psalms, and we’re going through them, and found something that he could say. So he went out and without telling Randy Wallace started talking, Randy Wallace was surprised! [laughter] And that was in the movie. At the end of that odd sort of dance, that minuet, trying to get to know each other, to see whether in fact we could work together, he asked me to go and write the first draft.

JL: What did you have in hand? That is, had you discussed scenes with him?
BF: No. What had been discussed…what he asked was that I find a way to put down a first draft. And I did, a very long one. After all, this is fifteen hours, and I had to condense it to two. Find a way of thinking about it…find a form for it, starting in Gethsemane, arriving at the Crucifixion, add — because you are insisting on it — the Resurrection. But let’s think about the main thrust of the story as Gethsemane through the Death. And the taking down from the Cross, the Pieta. And I had the Gospels as sources. I knew that it was three acts, because it had to be: there was night, there was morning, and there was afternoon. And I needed to start thinking in terms of time. In other words, right away, we were involved in Aristotelian notions of beginning, middle, and end as fundamental form, and the unities of action, time, character, et cetera.

And I began the script — this is very Italian — with the sound of night insects. I remember sitting outside on the terrace in Perugia, and I heard the screech of an owl catching a mouse. And I began that way. The first sentence is “The whiz of night insects.” And you’re in an olive grove. I was lucky, because there was an olive grove right next to where I was living, where I could walk. And they’re the same as they were in antiquity. Because it was on a hill, the tree around which the disciples slept was visible to Jesus, who was undergoing temptation…One thing that we did talk about that I applied right away was that, whereas in only one of the Gospels the Devil comes into Gethsemane, but not in the others, it made sense to me that, given the foreknowledge of what was going to happen to Him, which terrifies this man, he should also be tempted. Because at the end of his forty days and forty nights in the desert, where He was first tempted, before his public life, the Devil having failed, told Him he would come back at a more opportune time. And this was the most opportune time, when Jesus as a man was in human terror.

I had the growing realization that what I was working with had always been both an enchantment and a sacred mystery to me. I knew I’d better pray while I worked. The Benedictines’ motto was filtering through me, past all the years of disregard: “Ora et Labora.” Here’s where I finally understood how necessarily synchronized the two activities must become, in order to flourish. In addition to which I had to find a way to reduce all dialogue to a bare minimum. The power, Mel and I had agreed, would have to reside in the careful progression of images more than in the spoken words. Mel had told me that there would be no subtitles! I don’t know if he truly believed he could pull this off, but the challenge, for the screenwriter, lay in making that possible. I frankly didn’t believe it could be done. There were too many moments an audience would have to understand intellectually for the rest to work on the emotional, dramatic, and spiritual level Mel intended.

JL: The Gospels present not a history or a biography, but a portrait of Jesus — though you cannot know everything He did, you can come to know Him: and the Gospel of John is traditionally considered the gospel of Jesus as God and Son of God, as opposed to Matthew, Jesus as King; Mark, Jesus as son of Man; and Luke, Jesus as Teacher. Why John?
BF: The reason we relied most heavily on John was that only John went through the entire Passion, by His side. Being there and witnessing. And the testament is what we’re talking about, the New Testament is apostolic, in all of those senses, teacher, king, Son of Man, and Son of God.

JL: Jesus in the Garden is suffering the passion of manhood — the Son of God may not be tempted of the Devil, only the Son of Man may be tempted of the Devil — and Jesus, in the passion of manhood, and in suffering as a man, was transcending in the film before our eyes, from the very first moments. We see that he is leaving the ministry and the life of works and entering the life of perfect grace, through suffering.
BF: John is the most concerned with the sacred in the man. And by that I mean that: if you will be obedient to your Father — you are being sacred. You are applying everything in your nature that is sacred. And the minute you disobey, you relapse into something bestial. Now, I always thought: this is the one man who never sinned. My faith says that. I also thought: you must realize that Satan has no idea that he is in the presence of God. He can’t know God, or be in the presence of God; all he knows is Man. He knows his weakness. Thus the androgynous beauty of Satan, and the attraction repulsion he/she stimulates.

JL: This is fascinating. You didn’t copy the Gospel so much as re-imagine it.
BF: Well, I didn’t stray that far.

JL: Imaginative extrapolation, such as Satan’s androgyny.
BF: Yes. But then there is Jesus going to the apostles, distraught, and waking them up in dismay and anger: how dare you? He seems to say. And he is a man, acting very human, it’s a side of him we all recognize; but on the other hand, no one can find any fault with him from the very beginning of his life! Though he was human, still the Devil could find no fault in him. Just as later Pilate could find no fault, neither could the Apostles. Just as no one else could find fault. Very important, this. Because the gradual serenity that comes over him, as his body is destroyed physically, the more he is torn, the more serene in that way he becomes. Even to the point when they are nailing him to the Cross and he shouts out in pain: “Oh! Father forgive them! They don’t know!” This is not in the Gospel. But we have to know it. And we’re addressing ourselves, too. We’ve lost touch with an awful lot that we need to bring back.

JL: Can you give an example of a scene’s development from conversation, to page, to film?
BF: Once I was done with my first draft, then the filmmaker came in. And Mel is a quintessential filmmaker. He said to me without any arrogance: “I know how to do this.”

JL: The mastery of the filmmaking is evident, even to its detractors.
BF: And the people he involved! The mastery of filmmaking, in large part, is the mastery of building a kind of a family. Truly a family environment around you, where everybody is devoted to the same thing.

JL: How long did it take to write the first draft?
BF: About eight months. And it was way too long, as I said. I sent it to Mel, who was busy on a number of other projects, and never got around to reading it, so, on my own, having not heard from him – didn’t hear a word for six weeks, I began to cut it down. To something more …plausible! [laughter] And eliminated a lot of the stuff that came out of the people I’d read, extra-canonical things.

JL: What sort of stuff?
BF: Many visions of many kinds inspired by the Passion. Some documentary horrors, really violent things about Roman punishment and execution. And I cut out most of it, and I returned to California, and I let them know I was in town. And Mel read the new, shorter version. And he called me and said: “It made me cry. Let’s go to work.”

Then we began to meet. And he was working on other stuff, and I was focused on this. But we would meet at ten o’clock in the morning at his house, and just go through lunch. I was in a state of serious jetlag. By five in the afternoon it was five in the morning for me and and I was going, “You know, Mel…” [laughter] But it was a very, very interesting process, because I began to see the film emerge. He was editing the movie. You know that wonderful sense you have that something is actually coming to life! [laughter

JL: And how long did that process take?
BF: Well, that was over months and months.

JL: So you were out here…
BF: No, no, I would come here and then I would take everything we had talked about, I was jotting down notes, jotting down silences! Because much of our discussions were, I have to say, beautifully quiet. I remember one time, after half an hour of dead silence, we were both staring at the table, and I would start to say something, and he’d stop me and say: “No no no, I’m still on Judas.” I’d moved on to some other aspect of the progression of the story, and he would be still thinking about Judas. And he’d suddenly say: “I know how to do this! I know how to do this!” And that’s how he, for instance, came up with the idea that the demons that are plaguing Judas are children.

JL: That was brilliant. These demon familiars. That tell his whole psychology. Chasing and tormenting him in his betrayal.
BF: That’s Mel. He is brilliant.

JL: Did you have a series of scenes you’d agreed to write with Mel? Or was it less formal than that?
BF: It was less formal than that. I think that by the time we’d finished meeting, and talking generally about the subject, we had a consensus.

JL: On tone, on structure?
BF: Well, if you were to ask Mel this, he would simply say: He got it. The first draft was a structural exercise. There were three times in the day that governed how to go about it, and it would limit the imagination from taking off. There’s a way one could write a whole play about the Garden of Gethsemane, for example.

JL: And there have been.
BF: And there have been. I spent too much time in the Garden at first, then cut it down, and Mel and I cut it down further, into something extremely precise in terms of what the temptation was to be and how it was to be done. I was working with the idea that if I can do…he told me he didn’t want a screenplay much longer than 85 pages. If you can get it down there, then we’ve got it in the structure that we want. And the rest is really up to the filmmaker. Much as I was a thorn in Mel’s side, by championing the conventional point of view during composition, it would inspire him to come up with something not conventional, that could then become something to which we could add to together.

JL: When was the script locked?
BF: I remember going down to the set just before the end of the picture, and Mel said: You know what we haven’t done? We haven’t found a way for the figure with which we begin the film to react? How does Satan react to the Crucifixion?

JL: He disappears.
BF: Ah! I said to him: Rage. Defeat. And he goes into the abyss. It’s like Golgotha in reverse, a sort of negative of Jesus. And I wrote in the script: The Rage of Satan. But the actual shot was imagined by the special effects crew.

JL: That’s a remarkable shot.
BF: Very strange. But very effective. It’s like the drop falling. I remember him saying he wanted to end this segment with a drop falling. It’s a beautiful conceit, a moment of sorrow, the sky itself cries.

JL: A scene I’ve seen in ten movies of the week, and virtually all New Testament epics, was the woman taken in adultery. And your version was by far the most efficient and dramatically economical and powerful I’ve ever seen.
BF: To go back to the notion of dialogue: this was a scene where we knew we had to make something purely cinematic. Not poetic, not literary: purely cinematic.

JL: So dialogue was supplanted by pure cinema.
BF: Yes. In that case, the scene was shot as written. A finger draws a line in the sand, stands up; people drop their stones. She reaches out, he reaches down for her. And later, I love the way Mel directs Monica Bellucci, when she sees that the Cross has fallen into an indentation preventing Jesus from being crushed. There is the discovery of faith in her, which before has always been a matter of devotion. She sees something else. And it’s the same thing when Simon of Cyrene gets to Golgotha, drops the Cross, and kneels down before Jesus and looks at him, withdraws, and begins to sob, on his way back to his children. We see he’s forever changed. And Mel shows that over and over again, throughout, the profound effect this is having on the observers, and of course on us.

JL: Both transcendence and transubstantiation have to do with the motion of the spirit beyond the body, and I think the film affects the viewer that way, as well. That same wrenching spiritual metamorphosis.

JL: I’m fascinated by the transformation from the Gospel text into a shot. How far away is the camera? Angles? Make-up, does the camera move?
BF: This was all Mel, and the various artists around him.

JL: The choice of dialogue, for example, in a scene.
BF: That’s a complicated question you’re asking, because the choice of dialogue, that’s a large question.

JL: You’ve told me that the first line of this script is something out of your imagination, it’s not canonical…
BF: Oh, of course! This is a picture. This is a work of art. This was not going to be a Gospel.

JL: Nor a transcription of one.
BF: It was going to be more like a Mass. It was, however, a testament, but in the form of a film.

JL: A celebration.
BF: Yes. It is a celebration of something, the most sacred and mysterious of all things we experience as humans. The gift of the Christ to mankind.

JL: So the ultimate result would be a dramatic revelation, as opposed to theological exposition.
BF: Absolutely. And the difficulties in lifting up a script are concentrated in that ambition. To make what is mysterious and epic appear to be inevitable and intimate. A difficult high-wire act to sustain. This was going to be a film in a language that was long dead, except in a few Syrian villages; and there’s some question as to whether the language spoken there was the same as that spoken in Jesus’ Palestine; no one really knows. So: dialogue! This is not a film about the teachings of Jesus. It is a film about the establishment the most sacred of all the Sacraments, the one that feeds our faith. In that sense it truly is a Mass.

JL: An explanation of why the Mass is the way it is, as well as a demonstration of it?
BF: Only a demonstration. That’s all film can do, it cannot, should never, become a theological or any other kind of expository lecture. That’s not the nature of the craft. One should come away agreeing with Flannery O’Connor’s sharp remark about the Eucharist: that if it’s just a symbol, the hell with it.

JL: There must be real transubstantiation, not just the idea of it. It’s an actual transubstantiation.
BF: It’s an actual transubstantiation. And this is so mysterious that it touches something archetypal. That we can say by the end of the picture, we have witnessed, in the religious sense, through John’s progressive revelations. It fills me with admiration that Mel not only pulled this off, but magnificently.

JL: You come out of the film feeling the opposite of violent.
BF: Exactly! After I had finished the first draft I returned to Los Angeles. Mel and I sat for long hours every day, almost in a state of contemplation at times, refining the work, simplifying it, drawing up what would look in the end like a very simple blueprint within which the actors and everyone else could find inspiration for their work What a great team of actors! And Caleb Deschanel and his crew, Francesco Frigeri and his remarkable ensemble of Italian designers and engineers, etc. Mel Gibson’s a brilliant filmmaker. He’s a very gifted man in many important ways, and faith is his greatest gift. It was illuminating to work with him. He is my brother in Christ. There was a genuine communion between writer, director, photographer, designers, actors, and editor. It’s impossible to read a paragraph in a screenplay and realize the full poetry of it- that’s the wonder of the cinema. The writer, in this instance, is not the poet, but oddly enough what he’s always looking for himself: the muse, who evokes in all these other artists inspiration for their contributions. By the time the others are choreographing or lighting a shot, the writer’s role is over. I was occasionally called upon to make changes in the script, and it was always at the suggestion of this collaborative group of artists, and I was happy to do that.

JL: Each department contributes to the collective imagination.
BF: But as writer, I was very fortunate in the initial collaboration with the director. To be involved with the director from the beginning, in the fashion of the Italian Neo-Realists, was a great advantage. Because, as you know only too well, studios will too often hire a writer with no idea who’s going to direct, or indeed if the film’s going to be made. That I was lucky to know. I knew who was going to be making it.

JL: You were always working on a film, and not just an idea for a film.
BF: Yes, and of course we were all aware that it was more than that. Here I can say that I was thinking of that wonderful definition of faith that Augustine has: which is: to have faith is to believe in that which you cannot see, the reward for which is that you can see what you believe. So if you’re going to see something in a picture, it better be something that touches you, the most profound and authentic part of you. I genuinely think that the reason this film is doing as well as it is, is because we succeeded.

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