Caleb Deschanel

"Christ's story, on the other hand, is about someone who recognizes that his fate is predetermined - that he's going to be condemned and killed - and totally accepts it. And once he accepts it, he views everyone who comes into his life as someone to forgive. In doing so, he imparts this understanding to everyone around him - his mother, the apostles, Mary Magdalene - in a way that makes them accept the trials that he has to endure. It's a phenomenal concept, which is probably why Christianity has survived for all of these years. Of course, the story in this film is really pre-religion; it inspired a religion, but it's not a religious story. It's the story of a person whose power comes from forgiveness


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Caleb Deschanel works with James Caviezel on location in Italy

Caleb Deschanel photographs The Passion of the Christ
Interview by John Bailey, ASC and Stephen Pizzello

Director Mel Gibson has taken his share of hits for daring to tackle the death of Jesus Christ on film, but so far he has escaped the wrath of religious watchdogs for a minor "act of heresy" that has somehow eluded their scrutiny: hiring a Quaker to serve as his cinematographer. "It's true, I was brought up as a Quaker," admits director of photography Caleb Deschanel, ASC. "The Quaker religion does not have priests or people in charge. Basically, everybody is equal, and you believe in the supreme being of your own thought process - whatever your own invention is. You just sort of let your conscience be your guide."

Although he "really didn't have a background in Catholicism at all," Deschanel nonetheless found Gibson's The Passion of the Christ to be an intellectually, emotionally and artistically compelling project, and he lent the picture an outsider's eye for detail. "I've always been fascinated by religions because of the rituals, the ceremonies and the imagery. I find places of worship to be very beautiful and inspiring, whether they're churches, synagogues, mosques or temples. I'm drawn to those places because they offer images that have a certain power and majesty. When you go to St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome, you can't help but be awed by it. The biggest problem I have with religions is that they inevitably become politicized, but I do find religion's symbolism, imagery and metaphors to be really attractive and interesting."

Deschanel had worked with Gibson on Roland Emmerich's The Patriot, which earned the cinematographer an ASC Award and an Academy Award nomination. Deschanel was working in Montreal when Gibson and producer Steve McEveety sent him the script for The Passion of the Christ. "I thought the script was amazing," he recalls. "I gave it to my wife, who was brought up Catholic, and she was really moved by it as well. I subsequently had long talks with Mel and Steve about how the film would be done, and they asked me to do it."

The result is a unique and powerful film that depicts the events of the Passion with uncompromising rawness and intensity. The viewer is thrust directly into the drama via perspectives that have the intimacy of cinema verite, but the film also depicts the tale's most famous moments in compositions that evoke the spirit of great religious paintings.

Deschanel took time to discuss The Passion of the Christ with fellow ASC member John Bailey and American Cinematographer executive editor Stephen Pizzello at the ASC Clubhouse.

John Bailey, ASC: I attended a screening of the film with several other people at the Icon Productions offices in Santa Monica, and when the lights came up, nobody moved for about 90 seconds. We were immobilized. I finally stood up and kind of slithered out of the room. I was so far beyond thinking of it as a movie because I was raised as a strict Catholic, and watching this film was like having all of those weekly examinations of conscience and confession, as well as the whole Passion week and Easter rite, come to life before my eyes. I felt like I was seeing the iconography of my childhood - all of the representations that I eventually came to know as art - unfold onscreen in an excoriating way. I was totally unprepared for something that would cause such a visceral reaction in me. Virtually none of the films made about the life of Christ or the Passion have been as raw as this one.

Caleb Deschanel, ASC: That's also true of much of the art that's been passed down through the years, even the works that were commissioned by the Catholic Church. None of it really depicts [details] of the flagellation and the other violence that was done. I did a lot of research going into this film, and I didn't find much imagery like that. There are things in the film that you can find in certain artistic representations, but it's rare to see images of Christ with severe wounds from the flagellation. One Caravaggio painting shows him with faint marks on his body, but most of the images that represent the later stages of his story do not show those wounds clearly.

Bailey: Well, Caravaggio's representations are more refined, but you see a lot more of the flagellation in Spanish and southern Italian art.

Deschanel: In art that was made prior to the 13th century, too, you see a lot more representations of that, but at some point the images became cleansed. The way the story has been represented is very interesting.

Bailey: Something you said to me on the phone struck me as very interesting, especially coming from your perspective as a humanist rather than as an adherent to some branch of Christianity. If I understood you correctly, you didn't approach this film so much in terms of the religiosity or spirituality of the story, but more in terms of the human Christ. I believe you referred to him as a revolutionary - an outcast and a controversial political figure. The thing I find so fascinating about the film is that it doesn't create any sense of this imminent religious and supernatural being; its treatment of the story is incredibly human, even more so than Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew.

Deschanel: I really did read the script as a dramatic story, and I thought about how it would work as a film. Certainly, Christians know the story of Christ, and most others do because it's hard to escape - at least in the United States - during particular times of the year. But while I knew Christ was condemned and crucified, I didn't really understand the ultimate message of the story.

Viewing it as a dramatic film, I found the story to be the antithesis of your average Hollywood film. In the typical American film about someone who is oppressed by tyranny, there's a clear-cut formula: the hero will escape and rally his friends, and then they'll gather weapons and go kill the bad guys. The catharsis for the audience [comes] when the horrible villain is finally killed.

Christ's story, on the other hand, is about someone who recognizes that his fate is predetermined - that he's going to be condemned and killed - and totally accepts it. And once he accepts it, he views everyone who comes into his life as someone to forgive. In doing so, he imparts this understanding to everyone around him - his mother, the apostles, Mary Magdalene - in a way that makes them accept the trials that he has to endure. It's a phenomenal concept, which is probably why Christianity has survived for all of these years. Christianity may have lost its way during the Crusades, the Reformation and all of the horrible scandals of today, but it still has that amazing story at its core.

Of course, the story in this film is really pre-religion; it inspired a religion, but it's not a religious story. It's the story of a person whose power comes from forgiveness. Ultimately, if the movie works, that will be the reason, because it's a violent and brutal picture in so many ways. Violence can be hard to take in many types of films, but the main character in this film is not condemning the people who are doing these terrible things to him, and this fact tends to soften the horrible violence.

Bailey: The way you photographed the film makes it more visceral and difficult to watch, but also more compelling. I felt a constant tension throughout the movie, this sense of being pulled into the action because of the way the camera is used. I also felt repelled and horrified because I felt so close to what was happening onscreen. In most of the films I've seen about this subject, you really sense the proscenium; there's a sense that the scenes are being reenacted out there, amid grand settings, in front of you, sitting here, as a member of the audience. You didn't use a handheld camera the way Pasolini did, but I still felt very close to the action. I felt like I was in the arena when Pilate hands Christ over to the Roman soldiers, who later tie him down and really tear him apart. I felt so close to these things, so present, that it was just horrifying. Can you talk a bit about your inspirations for the look of the film?

Deschanel: There's been a lot of talk about Caravaggio inspiring the look because Mel and I both really like his work. In Rome, where we were shooting, there are at least 16 Caravaggios; there were three [each depicting scenes from the life of St. Matthew] hanging in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, which is near where I was living in Rome, and there were a couple more in the immediate vicinity. Unlike Girl With a Pearl Earring, though, we weren't really trying to reenact specific paintings. Caravaggio's work inspired the film as much in terms of the faces he used in those paintings as it did in terms of the lighting and composition. Those faces probably inspired the casting of the film. I keep looking at all the faces that were found by Mel and the casting director, Shaila Rubin, and they're really quite extraordinary.

The look was also inspired by Gericault, Raphael and other artists. I studied art history in school, and I've been to a lot of museums, and the paintings that really interest me are the ones that feature good performances. I'm drawn to that element even more than I am to the graphics or the lighting. What I took from the paintings was not so much a specific way of representing light or creating compositions, but more emotional content. For example, Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa has a certain motion toward defeat and inevitable death. Mel's desire to capture that type of emotion is what made us go right in close with the characters and try to make the story intimate and real.

Bailey: The shots that single out characters in the crowds - especially as Christ is carrying the cross along the Via Dolorosa, when you cut away to little tableau reactions - are highly individualized. There's no sense that these are generic crowds. Caravaggio was infamous for going out in the streets and casting urchins, prostitutes and beggars to play the saints in his paintings. His models weren't idealized people, they were very specific faces. I had the same feeling about the actors in this film.

Deschanel: You want to look at these people because they have readable faces. Most people think cinematographers are drawn to movies because they give us a vast canvas on which we can create big epics, but I've always been drawn to movies by the actors and the chance to be there at the moment of a great performance. I'm drawn to the human face because it's so powerful.

One of the advantages in this picture is that the dialogue is in Aramaic and Latin. That meant that the casting was not limited to the English-speaking world of actors. The actors are from Bulgaria, Romania, Tunisia, Morocco, Italy, France and other countries, and the ones with dialogue all had to learn Aramaic and Latin. Mel initially didn't want the film to have subtitles, and I do feel that you can understand a phenomenal amount of this movie without understanding the languages. There are subtitles, but the main reason for having them is to reassure the audience that they're perceiving things the way they think they are. But when you're watching Jim Caviezel as Jesus, Maia Morgenstern as Mary or Hristo Shopov as Pontius Pilate, you can understand the characters perfectly through their performances. Most people think of acting as how dialogue is expressed, but so much of it is in faces and body language.

Bailey: Your point is well taken, because when you're dealing with an epic period film, particularly in American cinema, you tend to lose track of individual humanity. But this film isn't like that at all. The close-ups of people in the crowds have the same kind of presence and dignity that the shots of the main actors do.

Deschanel: I think that's important, especially if you're going to show someone being beaten or killed. There are so many movies with big battles that show a bunch of characters you've never met, usually stuntmen, whacking away at each other. I guess that works for an audience on a certain level, but for me, that action is of no interest unless I know who those characters are. If I've been invested with something about their personalities or characters, then their deaths will mean something to me. If it's someone I don't know, it's like reading about some random automobile accident in the newspaper. It's odd, but I think of this movie as being very intimate, but it's still huge. It unfolds on a very grand scale.

Bailey: I'd like to ask you how certain sequences were handled stylistically, starting with the opening scene in the Garden of Gethsemane at night. The first shot is a combination crane/Steadicam shot that starts off fairly high; the camera eventually cranes down and starts to move along behind the solitary, silhouetted figure of Jesus as he walks through the foggy garden. It's an interesting shot because it starts off as an objective establishing shot, but instead of cutting away, the move simply continues. Visually, it really pulls the audience into the experience. It's also a slightly unsettling shot because it's so mysterious.

Deschanel: Mel always imagined the shot that way. You're really reading the body language of this figure as you follow him. You don't know who it is at first, but you know that he's suffering. We were originally going to film that sequence in some olive gardens in Tivoli. We were up on ladders in the trees, discussing different ways to achieve the sequence, and we eventually decided to put the Steadicam operator, Roberto De Angelis, on a crane and have him step off and continue the shot. We were originally going to come around and show Jesus' face, but it quickly became apparent that you could read everything in Jim's body language from behind him.

We eventually moved the location for that shot to Hadrian's Villa because we had some other scenes to shoot there. But when we went on a scout, it was cold, windy and we were being bitten by all these insects. I said to Steve [McEveety] and Francesco Frigeri, our wonderful production designer, 'We want this scene to take place in the fog, and we're never going to get the effect we want up on this hillside.' Instead, we checked with Cinecitta Studios to see if they had any space available. They had a last-minute cancellation on Stage 5, and we were able to take over the stage and build the garden set. Mel had a terrible cold at the time and thought it was a wonderful idea.

Bailey: The scene is very spare, stylized and disquieting. You don't really see the horizon because it's a night scene, but the background has a light grayish-white feeling. I don't know whether you had a cyclorama enveloping the stage or if you just backlit the fog, but the background doesn't fall off into blackness. It has a sort of floating quality that was enhanced by the use of the Steadicam.

Deschanel: The backing was deep gray, and we lit it to create a feeling of infinity. We had rows and rows of 18Ks, plus a bunch of other lights, to create the feeling of moonlight. The key was the backing, because we didn't want the set to feel as if it had an end. Some scenes in The Patriot were set in a swamp at night, and my gaffer on that show, Colin Campbell, put lights way in the back so we could just light the fog that we'd created. With this garden set, I wanted you to feel that if you looked a bit farther in any direction, there was always something more out there.

Pizzello: How did your choice of the anamorphic widescreen format [2.40:1] affect your artistic choices?

Deschanel: The problem with anamorphic is that you need to shoot with a lot of stop, which can sometimes be hard at night. I was at a stop of at least T3.2 for most of the film, and that's hard to maintain with [Kodak Vision 200T] 5274, a stock that I like a lot. We used [Kodak Vision 500T] 5279 for our huge night scenes, when I really needed the extra stop for anamorphic. Our gaffer, Carlo Vinciguerra, was using these huge, aircraft-type lights that were developed by Vittorio Storaro's gaffer [Pippo Cafolla]. They're basically rows of aircraft lamps in frames. Even with those, it was amazing to me that we could get enough light. Honestly, Mel felt that the picture should be shot anamorphic, and I'm glad we did it. There's something about the discipline of anamorphic that was appropriate for this film.

Bailey: You can't just run wild with it. It forces a certain kind of classical quality on you.

Deschanel: We went through more than 90 anamorphic lenses to find the eight or nine we used on The Passion of the Christ. We just picked out the best lenses - and by 'best' I don't always mean 'sharpest.' I always do tests both with charts and faces, and I find that some lenses just feel more three-dimensional than others. They all have different qualities, especially in terms of how they handle light. Anamorphic Primos are very heavy, but the wider ones are really beautiful; when we went to longer lenses, I'd use the C- or E-Series. We used everything up to 600mm, but in general, the widest we went was 40mm or 50mm.

Pizzello: The period must have dictated a good deal of your approach to the lighting.

Deschanel: We're dealing with a story that took place 2,000 years ago, so our environment at night was either moonlight or firelight. At the Pamphilli Palace in Rome, there is a whole collection of paintings that are [lit by] candlelight. I studied those a lot, and I also went to places where I could examine things under firelight and moonlight. You're not creating reality or naturalism, you're creating the illusion of something, an impression. In that way the film is a metaphor for the time. The olive garden has a mystical quality, but somehow you accept it. It's the same with the firelit scenes - we just wanted to create the illusion that it was real. Surprisingly, there was a lot of [ambient] light in all of those dark scenes. But to create that illusion in anamorphic, we needed a great deal of light. I always wanted to have an understanding in my own mind of where the light was coming from, even if the source wasn't visible. In my mind, I knew where those sources were, and that helped me build that kind of 'film reality.' In some sequences, such as the scene in which Peter denies Jesus three times, there are lanterns and big pots of fire that we could use to justify our sources.

Bailey: One of the most beautifully lit scenes in the film takes places in the quarters where Pontius Pilate lives with his wife, Claudia. It's lit almost in a noir way, with pools and slashes of light. Yet it doesn't seem highly theatrical; it feels very real.

Deschanel: I love that sequence. Pilate is reading an edict as his wife is sleeping in the next room. He hears her having a nightmare, so he goes to her and finds her trembling in bed. Then there's a knock on the door, and a guard is there to tell Pilate that trouble is brewing. I wanted to mix fire- and moonlight, which I also did in the scene where John tells Mary and Mary Magdalene that Jesus has been arrested. In both cases, we mixed blue light from the moon with orange light from the fires, but in the scene involving Pilate, I made the firelight very specific, as though it's coming from holes in a lantern. In a sense, that scene was painted, in that I very specifically aimed cold light coming through the windows and [created] little squares of orange light inside the space. I used a mixture of HMIs for moonlight, making them a little more blue, and then added some warmth to the interior tungsten lights. When Pilate comes to his wife, he's in moonlight and a bit of firelight, but his face is almost totally black except for some rimlighting. My approach was very metaphorical. I'm not sure I can even explain it, but things just felt right at a certain point in the process. Mel felt very strongly about seeing people's eyes or faces in certain scenes, but at other times it's in their body language. I'm sure the choices were inspired subconsciously by all of the visual images we had studied, but I can't say specifically how.

Bailey: People often think there's a massive blueprint for what we do because there's so much equipment and personnel involved in filmmaking. Some cinematographers may work that way, but I think many essentially deal with emotion, character and drama - things that you can't really quantify. And the process of executing those things is intuitive and organic. I think that's something that a lot of beginning cinematographers need to think about more.

Deschanel: You need to be versed in the technical aspects of cinematography to do your job well, but at some point, you have to get past all of that. It's like being inspired by paintings; you can either copy them or use them to find your own inspiration and metaphors. If you copy them, you're going to be limited to what you copy. The same thinking applies to the equipment we use; you need to be familiar enough with the equipment that you can move beyond those considerations and into the philosophical aspects of storytelling.

At any rate, the answers are incomplete until you get on the set with the actors. You can sit there with an empty set and figure out how it should be lit, but your plans will often change when the actors arrive. The power that a great actor can bring to a setting is just phenomenal. When an actor is on the set, the presence of the character he or she is creating suddenly brings something else to the scene, and a cinematographer has to respond to that. It's easy to say, 'Okay, you've gotta hit this mark,' but the actors are ultimately going to determine what you do, and they're going to be your best friends in terms of telling the story.

Bailey: I've heard certain cinematographers or students talking about actors as though they're the obstacle rather than the instrument. Their attitude is that the actors are trying to subvert their vision. But as you point out, you can't have a real vision until you're committed to going through the process with the actors.

Deschanel: You can't tell a story without characters. How many films have you seen that are beautifully photographed but completely lifeless? You can sit there and say, 'Well, at least I got a great review,' but ultimately that's not very satisfying.

Bailey: I'd like to talk about the 'Ecce homo' scene, in which Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd after he's been severely beaten by the Roman soldiers. Pilate and Jesus are standing on a parapet above the crowd, and many of the shots are aimed up at them from very low angles. Even when you're close on them, the perspective feels removed. The irony is that you can feel the whole weight of the Roman authority personified by Pilate, who is actually completely helpless in this situation.

Deschanel: That was an outdoor set, and [production designer] Francesco Frigeri positioned it to face north so it was always in shadow. The low angles reflect the crowd's point of view, but I also feel that they recall those great ceiling paintings, where you're always looking up at these historical figures. The angles did help to create a floating sensation that conveys both Pilate's power and his helplessness. He's in an incredible proscenium, but his dilemma is palpable. Along with Jesus and Mary, I've always found Pilate to be one of the most fascinating characters in this drama. We started out letting that scene play out from down below, and as we worked our way up, we decided to stay low rather than get level with the actors.

Bailey: The Via Dolorosa sequence, when Christ is carrying the cross, features a lot of very hot, contrasty sunlight. Jesus takes three falls, and it's the most agonizing and painful part of the movie. Among the great central liturgies of the Catholic Church are the 14 Stations of the Cross; each depicts a specific moment, and each of the three falls is documented. I was absolutely mesmerized by the way you were able to keep a sense of the momentum of that journey up to the crucifixion site, yet still have each of the Stations fully realized.

Deschanel: I think one of film's most moving moments is when Simone of Cyrene is ordered to help Jesus carry the cross. He does it very reluctantly, but then he begins exchanging really meaningful looks with Jesus along the way. The beginning of that scene, when they leave Pilate and start off with the cross, was shot on the backlot at Cinecitta, and that footage ties together with material we shot in the town of Matera in southern Italy. Matera was founded 5,000 years ago, and it has white stone cliffs that have houses dug into their sides. It was a great place to film because we didn't really need to change much. The top part of the town was modern, but the bottom was ancient.

We shot the Via Dolorosa sequence with a combination of dolly, handheld and Steadicam work. We did a lot of Steadicam shots that moved in very close to the actors, and we also used some slow motion. For Jesus' first two falls, we dug holes in the ground to get the camera low enough for some of the angles we wanted. But our approach for the third fall was the complete opposite: we shot it from a crane up above. Mel had the idea that Jesus would be falling and spinning at the same time. It wound up being a very powerful image.

Bailey: I have to ask you about the crucifixion itself, and the difficulty you may have had controlling the gathering clouds and the wind.

Deschanel: We had laid everything out so that if we got weather, we could just move along to that particular part of the story. We knew we were finishing the picture digitally, so we filmed even with clouds. I lit that sequence as much as I could, but we're still working in post to get the skies to look the way we want. We've been darkening them, but we're still debating about how far we should go. Jim was virtually naked during those scenes, which were shot in Matera in November. He was up there on the cross with the wind blowing, in the cold and rain. A lot of that wind was real. Our biggest problem was that the crosses kept swaying and shaking, even though they were sunk into the ground. Mel didn't want to use most of the footage that showed the crosses moving, even though some of it looked great in terms of weather.

Bailey: Let me ask about the descent from the cross, when you recreate the Pieta with Mary holding Jesus in her arms. The Pieta is one of the great images in Western art. How did you approach that moment?

Deschanel: We were aware of the Michelangelos and dozens of other representations of that scene, but most of them tend to be much moodier than what we did. Mel wanted Jim in a very specific position, and we also had to deal with the Roman soldiers who bring Jesus down from the cross, so we played with the composition a bit. As it turned out, we did a shot from a wide position and completed that before moving in for a closer shot on Mary and a pullback. We did one take with a dolly and another with a Technocrane. We used the Technocrane a lot during that sequence - for overheads of the cross, images of the cross being raised and then falling, and shots of Jesus being brought down.

One shot of the Romans nailing Jesus' feet was inspired by a crucifixion scene painted by Salvador Dali. That painting has a perspective that's almost floating above the cross, and it's really amazing. Our image doesn't necessarily resemble the painting, but Dali's work did inspire our approach.

Bailey: The film's epilogue, which shows the resurrection, has a transcendent feel. Visually it's very ambiguous, but you get the sense of a stone rolling back and the light coming into a tomb and causing these moving shadows. As the move continues, you see the burial shroud on the slab and then a portion of Jesus' hand, which has a hole in it. I found that shot fascinating, because it's totally unlike anything else in the film.

Deschanel: It is totally unlike anything else in the film. We shot that sequence on a set with a painted backdrop. The shroud actually collapses, as if the body is disappearing, and then the camera arrives on Jesus sitting next to the slab. The shot didn't really work when we put the light in one place, so we put it on both a crane and a dolly; the light was actually moving up and down and dollying at the same time. We rolled the stone that was covering the tomb and then moved the light around until it arrived on Jim. For me, that's the moment when the film becomes religious.

about Caleb Deschanel
Acclaimed as a superior color cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel began his career shooting the stunning John Cassavetes film "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974). The Philadelphia native studied at USC and the American Film Institute and with Gordon Willis before embarking on his career. While working as a director of photography, Deschanel also shot several short films (including the prize-winning "Trains" 1976), documentaries and TV commercials. He received widespread acclaim for two 1979 features, Carroll Ballard's "The Black Stallion" and Hal Ashby's "Being There".

The Passion of the Christ Director of Photography, 2004
The Hunted Director of Photography, 2003
Timeline Director of Photography, 2003
The Patriot Director of Photography, 2000
Message in a Bottle Director of Photography, 1999
Eric Clapton - Clapton Chronicles: The Best of Eric Clapton Director, 1999
Anna and the King Director of Photography, 1999
Hope Floats Director of Photography, 1998
Fly Away Home Director of Photography, 1996
Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography Interviewee, 1992
Twin Peaks, Ep. 6 Director, 1990
Crusoe Director, 1989
Let's Spend the Night Together Director of Photography, 1982
Escape Artist Director, 1980
Being There Cinematographer, 1979
The Black Stallion Director of Photography, 1979
More American Graffiti Cinematographer, 1979

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