Jul/Aug 2005  •   Fiction

Interview with James Valentine, Director of Passion of the Christ—The Outtakes

by Chris Wilson

Your newest film, "Passion of the Christ—the Outtakes," is going to debut this week, and is already expected to generate quite a controversy. But like your previous films, this one is very uniquely structured. In fact, you've described this project as "somewhere between a documentary and a film." Can you elaborate?

Well, the whole idea... it's a very simple idea, really. We knew—Gordy Turner and I, we produced this film together—we knew we wanted to take on the Passion, but looking back at the various attempts over the past two decades, we thought, well, the problem is it's not really possible to play Christ, or play Pilate or Magdalene or Caiaphas or anyone else. Any go at it, no matter how powerful, fails by definition, because these figures... they're superhuman. So we decided we would shoot this film like normal, but only use the outtakes, the mistakes. We wanted to capture the actors both as these fantastic Biblical figures but also as themselves, as people, playing these characters. You know, I coined a word for this, "depotheosis." The reduction of a god the level of man. That's what this project was about: depotheosis.

But even if you hadn't taken this approach, this would have been a peculiar film. You chose to shoot at a month-long carnival in central Georgia. Why this location?

We had to make a convincing facade for this film, so that the actors wouldn't get suspicious while we were filming. Because it was extremely important they not realize our real motives here, or we would have lost everything. So we sold this film as a post-post-modern telling of the Passion, an experimental film casting Christ in a 21st-century setting. We were also pressed for cash at every turn, so we couldn't afford an entire set or a complete cast. We looked all over the place for a cheap place to film. I had actually originally wanted to film somewhere in South America, but after traveling through Argentina and Peru for a few weeks we realized America was the only place where this film could feasibly be shot. We finally found this one carnival director—I'm still not sure where Gordy dug this guy up—who agreed to let us film at the State Variety Fair in Georgia, for peanuts. It was perfect, really, because we could use a lot of the carnival-goers as extras, mostly playing the part of the crowd.

I was really pleased, actually, with how well they performed. When I say this is half documentary, half film, what I mean is a lot of the footage focuses on how the regular people at the carnival reacted and interfered with the production. That became almost more interesting than the outtakes themselves.

Several scenes in this film depict the crowd demanding for Jesus' crucifixion. It must have been difficult to persuade them to do this, given you were filming in the heart of the Bible Belt.

It really wasn't, believe it or not. But the thing is, Adrian, I think performing comes very naturally to us, even if we're no good at it. When you give a person a chance to do that, you overcome all other convictions. Particularly in a crowd... well, I suppose as long as you give people a role to play, and as long as they think of it as an act, as something foreign to them, then they don't mind stepping right into character. What did Vonnegut say? "Be careful who you pretend to be, lest you become it." Something like that.

Now, you ran into a certain dilemma right at the beginning of this project, judging by the final product, which is the man you cast to play Christ, Samuel Garcia, is a method actor. Did you anticipate this?

No, actually. We ran into all kinds of dilemmas. We only had four weeks before the carnival moved on, and the entire place was in utter disarray when we arrived. Everything was a mess—Charlie hadn't learned any of her lines—Charlie Haupt, she plays Magdalene—and no one had any idea where the hell Sammy was. We had sent a crew ahead about a week before to start construction on the set, but the top dog at the carnival, when he saw the crucifix—you've seen it, it's about twelve feet tall—insisted we move it to where it wouldn't be visible from the highway. That added a day right there. We ended up moving it behind the Ferris wheel, right across from the Jumbotron, where the younger kids hung out.

The next morning, I'm sitting with Gordy and the cinematographer in the mess tent, and who should walk in but Sammy himself, barefoot and in these threadbare robes streaked with dirt and clay, babbling incoherently. Actually, later on I found out he'd been studying Aramaic for about six months, ever since we sent him the script.

But the screenplay is in English.

It is, but you have to understand, Sammy takes his craft very seriously, and I suppose he wanted to channel something of the authenticity of the language into his portrayal of Christ. He's a real classicist, it turns out. None of us realized this when we cast him, but as you can tell the entire process was horribly disorganized. That's how Gordy works. So that put an interesting spin on things from the start.

The fact that Samuel Garcia didn't break from character during the entire filming must have been difficult, given your desire to show him as an actor.

Yes, I don't think any of us foresaw that particular problem. He's a recent phenomenon. We were lucky, in that sense. We cast him before most of the world caught on that he's a genius. Saved us a hell of a lot of money.

But the method acting. You said the purpose of this film is precisely to show the actors in and out of character.

It was a problem. We tried to persuade him to drop the act, but let me tell you, it isn't easy to bargain with Christ. The man is full of conviction. But I had a sense... I guess it's hard to say now, but I'd like to think I had a sense from the beginning that it would all work out beautifully.

Let's talk screenplay for a minute. You wrote the script yourself?

Gordy and I wrote it. And it was terrible, we had a hell of time writing it, knowing 90 percent of it would end up on the cutting room floor. We had a vague sense from the beginning of what scenes we wanted to include in the outtakes, and which parts just didn't fit our concept for the movie. But we had to put together a convincing script. We ended up lifting whole chunks of text straight from the gospels—Luke particularly. That was the real selling point for guys like Sammy. The authenticity of it.

Other than Garcia, most of the actors are new to filmmaking. Was this a problem?

No, no, it was wonderful. Charlie in particular. She comes from soap operas, so she was used to quick execution. She wasn't used to having to film a scene ten, eleven times, which was great, because she started to get real frustrated after the second or third go at it. So we got some amazing footage of her, breaking down on the set. She was a real charm, all the way through.

Judging by the time I spent with you on the set, it seems like the cast became quite attached to the carnival crew during the filming of this movie.

Sure, naturally we spent a lot of time together, and after awhile that line was blurred, because half of them were playing small parts in the movie, and some of our people started hanging around the fair between shoots. Marguerite, I found out later, was moonlighting as an assistant mime, and at one point some of the disciples were operating the Ferris wheel. And that was really great, because it built this wonderful dynamic off the set, which, naturally, became part of the movie.

Some of the tabloids have reported that Charlie Haupt and Samuel Garcia were in a short-lived relationship while filming this movie. I assume this is fabricated?

Christ, they really said that? No, no that's not true. Well, not entirely. I suppose Charlie had a strange fixation for Sammy from the beginning. He wasn't too interested, naturally. Which only made the matter worse. There were some great shots of this, which Gordy really wanted to use, but I put my foot down there.

The film opens with—and often revisits—a series of takes in which you attempt to hoist Garcia onto the crucifix. Why use this as the central image?

This was, to begin with, the most technically difficult task we faced. We had Samuel attached to a harness that would suspend him from the crucifix, but because the crucifix we built was so tall, for visual purposes, we couldn't depict Christ bearing the cross to Golgatha. So this was the ideal place to begin—the actual process by which we strung him to the cross. We probably tried to lift him up 20 or 30 times before we managed to do it without Sammy suffocating.

Garcia is surprisingly docile through this ordeal, given the immense pain he must have been in.

He is, but I think this works extremely well in the context of our project, watching the crew on the set try and communicate with a man who is babbling incoherently. There's a moment there, though, at the end—this is one of the last images in the film—where Samuel breaks out of character. It was one of the hottest days of the month, easily 90 or 100 degrees, and we'd been filming for three or four hours, trying to hoist him up in the harness. Sammy was hanging there, about halfway up the cross, and one of the crew members was bungling one of the pulleys, and he slipped, losing his grip, so that Sammy was suspended there lopsided. He looked at the poor kid working the ropes and said, "Goddammit, I'm up here dying for your sins and you can't even hold on to the fucking rope." It was golden. The savior and Messiah dropping the f-bomb.

Some critics have accused this film of lacking all coherence because of the gaping holes in the story that you left unfilled.

Coherence... but was that ever the goal of this project? I don't think so. The truth is, we never finished shooting this film. Not the way we wanted to. From the beginning we had filmed the movie anachronistically, depending on when we'd netted a particularly responsive crowd. But we only had a month before the carnival moved on, and money was running low, so what we ended up with was a pastiche of images, not in any particular order. And we ran into all sorts of problems. We lost Luke for a week to heat stroke, and these little kids kept running onto the set while we were filming. Which was perfect, really. Exactly what we wanted. But it made it difficult to keep up appearances. At the end of the month we had everything we needed—or at least as much as we were ever going to make sense of in a lifetime... of course, this presented one major problem, which was that eventually we were going to have to reveal to the actors the real goal of the film. It was one of those moments you avoid thinking about because there's only one way to confront it. There was this reigning feeling by the end, among the cast, that things were going horribly wrong. The consensus, I think, was the whole thing was a flop.

But you did finally screen some preliminary takes at the end of the month?

We did. Gordy and I had put together an extremely rough compilation of shots from the first week, just to give everyone some sense of what we were going to put together. It was mostly from the scene where Roman soldiers seize Jesus. So we got together the core cast in the amphitheatre. I think most of them thought we were there to tell them the whole film was a lemon, so I guess they were surprised to see we'd set up a projector. It was raining—it had been raining for the last three days—and just about no one wanted to be there at the moment.

What was Sammy's reaction during all this?

Let me finish here. It's dusty as hell in there, under the tent, and the stream of light from the projector is swarming with little dirt particles—you can picture it. We were using the canvas side of the tent as a screen, which was less than desirable, but it was the best we could put together on short notice. So we fire it up, and there we are: Gordy and I in headsets, standing under the crucifix. Gordy is gesturing wildly to Charlie, who has the incredible look of doubt, which Gordy is oblivious to. In the background a bunch of technicians are nailing supports to the crucifix, which had been threatening to collapse from the start. It was beautiful—even I didn't expect something that beautiful.

But this scene isn't included—

For Christsake, let me finish. There was complete silence for the entire ten or twelve minutes of shots we'd put together. Afterward, we just let the projector spin, for about a minute, you know, to let people digest it. And finally, Charlie gets up—well, she springs up, I should say, like she was stung, does a Marine's about face and marches out of the tent, into the rain. And that sets off the exodus. They just left, every one of them, without saying a word.

Actually, there was one person who didn't leave. Sammy. He was trapped somewhere in the limbo between Jesus Christ and Samuel Garcia. Finally he stands up, slowly, and turns around, right in the middle of the set of chairs, so that the light is projecting onto his chest. "Sammy," I say. "What's going on? You want to go back to the motel?" He shrugs, so I left Gordy to pack up and took Sammy to the pickup. He didn't say much on the drive back, just some babble, mostly unintelligible. But not the same unintelligible as before—there were words I could make out here and there. So we pull into the parking lot, which by now was riddled with these oblong puddles. I was having a hell of a time avoiding them, and Sammy didn't even bother, wading through these ankle-deep lakes like it was nothing. And right in the middle of the parking lot he breaks down. I figure he's just lost it, but when I lean down I realize he's looking at something—this little goldfish swimming around in the puddle. The kind they give away as prizes at the dart game. Or the water guns. I forget which. He's just looking at it, quietly. Finally, he just says, "Jim. Jim, I want to go home."

This is when I knew we had made a great film. I don't want to say much more about this, just that you've only seen the beginning of it. What's the line? "The world itself could not contain the books that would be written."