When cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, ASC received the call that he’d been Oscar-nominated for The Passion of the Christ, the first thing he wanted to know was what other nominations the film had received.“You develop a kind of team spirit,” he observes. “Films live on long after you wrap the last shot and, if it was a good experience, you hope there will be reasons to have a reunion whether it’s on another picture or at an awards event or whatever.”While he was happy to receive the attention, Deschanel was disappointed that Francesco Frigeri, the film’s production designer, didn’t make the Academy Awards short list. The production had been difficult and intense and one senses that Frigeri was someone who made working in the trenches more palatable.“It was like working on an independent film in the sense that you were always looking for some ingenious way of solving a problem because you didn’t have the money to work it out,” he recalls. “The easiest part was deciding how you wanted things to look. Then you had to figure out a way of getting that look.”With director Mel Gibson, Frigeri and costume designer Marizio Millenotti, a color palette favoring earth tones was conceived. In addition to referencing centuries of art depicting Christ, they looked at dozens of films but only Cecil B. DeMille’s silent The King of Kings and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew—both filmed in black and white—proved visually helpful in depicting the drama. Muted colors provided a quality of realism that seemed crucial to telling the last days of Christ to a contemporary audience.One gets the sense that making the film was almost conspiratorial—at least on the production side. The interiors were filmed at Rome’s Cinecitta studios on sets that had previously been used for The Gangs of New York. Deschanel says that as the old sets were redressed and the old layers were stripped away, one could see evidence of past eras that evoked Fellini, Rossellini and DeSica as well as Hercules and other he-man epics of the 1960s. It was akin to an archeological dig and somehow befitting their new exploration into an oft-told story.A location scout for a night sequence set among olive trees provided another bonding experience. The site had manicured groves and was fog shrouded in addition to being windy and cold.“I looked at him and the others and said, ‘don’t you think we could do it better in the studio. It would be so much easier to control the lighting,’ and everyone filled in the blanks,” says Deschanel. “Mel wasn’t there because he was coming down with a cold, so we brought back this alternative as a fait accompli.” The sequence did work out better at Cinecitta, both from a physical standpoint and in the creation of something physically evocative.
Written by Len Klady