Behind the Scenes of "The Passion of the Christ"

Interview With Father John Bartunek on Mel Gibson’s Film

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NEW YORK, MARCH 11, 2005 ( A religious who spent nearly two years on the set of «The Passion of the Christ» has written a spiritual analysis of the Mel Gibson film.

Legionary Father John Bartunek, author of «Inside the Passion» (Ascension), shared with ZENIT the many levels of meaning and artistry that went into making the movie, which was re-released today.

Q: Why write a book about the spirituality behind a movie? It seems like an unlikely topic.

Father Bartunek: Actually, the movie itself is an unlikely event when you consider our modern culture. Millions of people saw it. Millions were moved by it. The book helps people understand why.

What was it about this movie that made it so unique? Its subject matter, first of all, and second, its artistry. The book links the two. It both fills in the theological, spiritual and historical background, and explores why Mel made the artistic choices that he did, and why they were so effective.

It’s like a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Millions of tourists visit that remarkable monument, and they are all impressed, moved. But that emotional experience can go a lot deeper if they have a chance to tour the basilica with someone who knows the history of the place, the symbolism of the art and the intentions of those who constructed it. «Inside the Passion» provides that kind of tour for the film.

Q: How did you end up on the set of a movie?

Father Bartunek: I first made my way to the set accompanying a fellow seminarian. A friend of his, who also happens to be a close friend of Jim Caviezel, the actor who played Jesus, was visiting Rome. He invited us to come with him to the set.

After that we simply made friends with people working on the film, as there is a lot of down time on movie sets. It was such a fascinating project that everything else just flowed naturally.

Q: What was a typical day of filming like? Was there a spiritual regimen at work?

Father Bartunek: I’m not sure there was a typical day of filming. And I’m not sure the process, technically speaking, was much different from other films.

In general, they started work early. The technical team had to start preparing the sets and costumes and makeup in the wee hours of the morning. Then while the light was good, they filmed.

They didn’t film it chronologically. It was more like putting together a mosaic, one piece at a time, out of order.

They filmed a scene here, a look there, and then a completely unrelated scene. The actors had to be ready to switch gears at the drop of a hat. Mel and Caleb Deschenel, the director of photography, had very little downtime. If they weren’t filming, they were setting up to film or analyzing takes from the day before.

Spiritually, there was no built-in schedule. Jim Caviezel received Communion daily; he also spent many of the long hours in the makeup trailer praying the rosary. Mel went to Mass as frequently as he could and spent a lot of his precious free time in prayer.

Working on the film boosted their spiritual lives, no doubt about that. It had a similar affect on the other Catholics working on the project. For nonbelievers or members of other religions, the reactions were varied. I don’t think anyone emerged from the work unchanged, however.

Q: What does this book allow the reader to experience?

Father Bartunek: The book transports its readers onto the set of «The Passion of the Christ» with me acting as a sort of tour guide.

A lot has been written and discussed about Mel Gibson’s film. But up to now the discussion has been missing one crucial perspective, that of the director himself.

Since I had the good fortune to be involved in the production of the film and to accompany Mel throughout the process, I was able to spend hours alone with him and ask him questions that no one else asked. The insights that came out of this experience open up surprising levels of meaning and artistry. That’s why I talked to Mel about writing a book.

People who loved the film want to know more; they want to know what went into it, why it was so powerful. «Inside the Passion» provides that perspective, as Mel mentions in the foreword.

Q: For people who feel they have had a profound experience of the film, will your book help them experience the film more deeply? Give us an example.

Father Bartunek: When I was working on the manuscript, I passed it around to different kinds of people for feedback, people who had seen the early version of the film. I gave it to other film directors, to faithful Catholics, to non-Catholic Christians, to agnostics, to all kinds of people.

The reactions were pretty uniform: They all wanted to see the film again after reading the book. They too were amazed, just as I had been, at the many levels of meaning and artistry that went into making this such a powerful cinematic experience.

One example is the character of Judas, and the encounter that he has with Jesus underneath the bridge after Jesus has been arrested. My first reaction to that scene was negative — it seemed like a cheap Hollywood trick. But there was a very specific reason why Mel included it; discovering that reason turned this scene into one of my favorites.

Q: Would you describe this book as deeply meditative?

Father Bartunek: «Inside the Passion» is meditative in the way the film was meditative. Some readers have read the book with the DVD of the film right next to them.

Father Bartunek: «Inside the Passion» is meditative in the way the film was meditative. Some readers have read the book while viewing the DVD.

They read a section of the book describing what went into a particular scene and why, then they go to that scene on the DVD and watch it, and they discover things they didn’t see before, things that surprise and amaze you. It’s really a powerful complement to the film that enhances your experience of it.

Q: This is the only authorized book on «The Passion,» correct? Why do you think Mel Gibson agreed to have you tell this story?

Father Bartunek: Yes, it is the only authorized book on the film. In the foreword Mel himself explains why he approved this project.

People have so many questions about the film. People who loved it, people who were confused by it, people who hated it — they all have questions. And a lot of answers are floating around out there.

This book dispels the confusion and sheds new light on the answers to those questions.

Q: Take us with you to your favorite scene in the film and describe how it moves you.

Father Bartunek: One of the reasons I decided to write the book was because I had so many favorite scenes. I would hate to try to condense those experiences in a line or two.

One of the most surprising things to me was finding out the real reason behind the crow that descends upon the bad thief while he’s hanging on the cross. It left me dumbfounded.

One of the most mesmerizing scenes from my perspective is the very first scene, in the Garden of Gethsemane. So much is going on there, and the reasons behind Mel’s choices were so fascinating.

In general, I think my favorite scenes are the flashbacks, and how they fit in to the Passion, and why Mel chose to include the ones he did. Some of them he added at the last minute. It’s captivating to find out why.

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