Caleb Deschanel

'Passion of the Christ'

Highlights: “Fly Away Home,” “The Right Stuff,” “Being There,” “The Black Stallion”
Laurels: ASC award for “The Patriot” (200), one other ASC nom; National Society of Film Critics award for “Being There” and “The Black Stallion” (1979); four Oscar noms
Dream collaborators: Jean Renoir and John Ford. “The films that inspired me as well were the French New Wave…Hollywood movies felt like they were made with 250 people in a frame and tons of light, whereas the French New Wave made movies in way that felt accessible.”
Tool kit: Panavision Panaflex Platinum cameras, anamorphic. Kodak 5218, 5274 film stocks

When Caleb Deschanel was hired to shoot Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” he decided to throw the book on biblical cinema out the window.

“I looked at a lot those films, talked them over with Mel, and he didn’t feel they were right, probably stemming from his idea of an unrelenting brutality in his movie.”

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While it’s fairly common for a cinematographer to be influenced by another’s work, Deschanel takes his cue from the drama in a given moment. It’s what sets each his films apart visually, whether he’s reflecting the simplicity of Chauncey Gardiner in “Being There” with overcast grays or the athletic talents of Roy Hobbs in “The Natural” with sunrise hues.

Even though Deschanel studied several paintings by Salvador Dali and Caravaggio for “Passion,” the art served more as a historical reference point, giving the d.p. the freedom to make the appropriate visual choices.

The actors’ emotion dictated where the camera, lighting, and film speed was going to be; the crucifixion was the only sequence storyboarded due to its complexity.

“There are scenes when Christ is on trial, and he suddenly speaks quietly, so you move in on him,” says Deschanel. “Jim Caviezel was acting with his eyes and it was important to see them.”

In Christ’s most tortured moments, being implicit was just as effective as being explicit for the d.p.

“If you look at the movie, there’s more violence in your head than there is on the screen,” he says. “When Jesus is being punished by the Romans, Mary is walking and hearing the whipping in the background. Just concentrating on her face is a powerful image because you’re feeling her suffering. You need to find oblique ways of getting something across and sometimes that’s in somebody’s eyes. You use the actors as a way into the mind of the audience.”

Unlike other productions, the weather was a cinematographer’s best friend during the shoot at Matera, Italy and Cinecitta. If the clouds moved in, the crew jumped into lensing the crucifixion scene. The more of the throng’s heads in a viewshot, the better. It was Deschanel’s plan to convey an eyewitness account of the Golgatha atrocity; a feeling typically lost in the ’60s sword and sandal epics.

“We couldn’t feel like we were in present day making something about the past,” says Deschanel about the production. “You see all these movies that have perfect costumes and sets, but you don’t feel like you’re in the moment.”