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HomeAwardsAwards Portfolio: Caleb Deschanel/Passion of the Christ

Awards Portfolio: Caleb Deschanel/Passion of the Christ

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“We tend to think of religious painting in terms of an enormous body of work that was created during the Renaissance,” says cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. “But there’s a lot of other stuff that’s worth seeing—mosaics from the time of Constantine, frescos from the 4th and 5th centuries and all kinds of work through the mid 19th century when secular art started to become dominant.”Deschanel found researching the way Christ has been depicted in art invaluable preparation for filming The Passion of the Christ. Raised a Quaker, he says his grasp of the bible was tenuous and when director Mel Gibson sent him the script, he vetted it through his Catholic wife. She confirmed that the script told the story the way she had been taught it in Sunday school. Deschanel said he was drawn to the material as a wonderful pacifist saga, a quality engendered by his Quaker education.In addition to the paintings, he screened dozens of films but found only the 1927 version of King of Kings and Pasolini’s Gospel According to St. Matthew—both filmed in black and white—visually instructive. The production wound up filming in many of the same locations Pasolini had shot four decades earlier as well as at the Cinecitta studios in Rome where the modest $25 million movie wound up re-dressing sets that had been used for The Gangs of New York.“We wanted the film grounded in realism, so the palette is dominated by earth tones,” says Deschanel. “The color was desaturated to make it several stages removed from the type of Technicolor candy box you find in the popular biblical epics of the 1950s.”The decision, he believes, intensified the film’s more fantastic elements. The character portraying the devil glides or floats through the film thanks to a carefully masked dolly, and a number of scenes that were planned for location were reconceived for the studio. One, set in an olive grove, was scrapped when the trees proved too uniform and the winds made it ineffective to employ fog machines. So several gnarled, twisted trees were installed at Cinecitta, and Deschanel feels they were able to fool the audience with a credible and dramatic sequence.Deschanel recently completed Ask the Dust for writer-director Robert Towne based upon John Fante’s novel set in Los Angeles of the 1920s. It was filmed in South Africa.

Written by Len Klady

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