Mel Gibson, right, directed Jim Caviezel, center, and Caviezel’s stunt double, left, on the set of “The Passion” last year.

Mel Gibson's passion

After much criticism, the controversial
film is set to open, and its creator reveals
some of the comments hurt him personally

Editor's note: Star-Bulletin reporter Tim Ryan was one of only seven journalists selected nationwide to travel to Los Angeles to interview Mel Gibson, director of the controversial "The Passion of the Christ," which opens Wednesday.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. >> Mel Gibson is on his knees on the floor of his Four Seasons Hotel suite. "Is this your subtle way of asking the news media to take it easy on you," jokes the reporter who's gained access to Gibson's sanctum from the public relations people and security guards guarding the privacy of "The Passion of the Christ" director.

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The Academy Award-winning director looks up, craning his head above a stack of "The Passion of the Christ" movie posters he's been signing. He stares for a moment to evaluate the interruption, then hops up, smiling.

"Hi, I'm Mel," he says, reaching out for a handshake. "Thanks for coming."

Then again, Gibson's focus changes, and he mentions the controversy over his film depicting the last 12 hours of Jesus' life. Some groups have accused the film and director of anti-Semitism that may incite violence against Jews.

"I think the worst is over," Gibson says. "People just have to see the film to understand what it's about."

Gibson, a devout Catholic, has confronted the anti-Semitic issue head on. He's met with religious groups, done test screenings of rough cuts of the two-hour film, and taken part in discussions with religious leaders and critics.

"I'm a Christian and to be racist would be completely against my faith," says Gibson, who is anxious to discuss the issues even more than the trials involved in filming "Passion."

"Some people got hold of early versions of the script, or saw rough-cut scenes," he said. "Movie making is an evolving work in process so what some people saw back then likely is not in there now. The concerns were out of context."

The "Passion" screenplay is a composite account of the Biblical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Gibson is up to his blue eyeballs in details for the film's opening just a few days away. The 30-minute interview flies by with Gibson emphasizing the importance of his religious beliefs and the film's purpose. Box office success seems secondary.

When Gibson finally stops to take a breath, he realizes he and the reporter are still standing.

"Oh, sorry," he says. "Sit here, or there. Well, anywhere is OK. Where do you want to sit?"

GIBSON HUNKERS down at a dining table stacked with more posters and commemorative books on the making of "Passion." He grabs a blank sheet of paper and a Sharpie and starts drawing a rectangle.

"I can handle criticism; I've been used to it for years professionally," he said. "But a lot of it has been very, very personal, not nice. Some of it has gone after my father, my father!"

It's difficult to imagine the action-adventure hero of films like "Mad Max," "Lethal Weapon," "The Patriot" and "Braveheart" being affected by any criticism. Gibson leans across the table.

"I am telling you that it hurt me a lot," Gibson says, eyes misting from sadness or rage. "My intentions to do this film were very personal. There was no agenda other than to tell 'The Passion' the best, most honest way I could; I'm a filmmaker, it's what I do.

"This is not about who did what to whom or who is the enemy. We're all enemies ... because we are all sinners. This film is about compassion, forgiveness, redemption."

Gibson started thinking about making the film 12 years ago when he was in spiritual crisis and "disgusted" with his life.

"I started to re-examine my own faith, which I had pretty much put aside," he said. "I meditated on the nature of suffering, pain, forgiveness, redemption.

"I didn't like who I was or what I was doing. I had fame, wealth ... every worldly thing people think makes life worth living. My life felt meaningless."

It got to the point, Gibson says, "that I contemplated ending things." He points to a large, open window with an expansive view of the City of Angels.

"There was a moment when I thought that it would be easy to end my unhappiness. Poof, right out a window and it would be over in a second," he said.

Instead, the filmmaker put his art where his heart resided.

"My intention was to create a lasting work of art and to stimulate serious thought and reflection among diverse audiences of all backgrounds," says Gibson. "My ultimate hope is that the story's message of tremendous courage and sacrifice might inspire tolerance, love and forgiveness."

GIBSON IS NO babe in Hollywood Babylon so he knew he was going into largely unexplored artistic territory where art, storytelling and personal devotion meet. He also knew that religious themes and box office success rarely linked. Several studios rejected a financing partnership with him, so Gibson put his wallet where his passion was. He financed the film himself for a reported $30 million.

"When you tackle a story that is so widely known and has so many different preconceptions, the only thing you can do is remain as true as possible to the story and your own way of expressing it creatively," Gibson says. "I understood what I needed to do spiritually with my life and what I could do artistically."

Gibson says he took some artistic license in the drama, but not with scripture. "Our depiction of Satan and Jesus crushing the serpent in the Garden of Gethsemane are two examples," he said. "But everything else is historically accurate."

That includes the other major controversy: The graphic violence of Jesus' scourging and crucifixion. Gibson didn't hold back except for shortening the whipping scene to about 18 minutes.

"Yes, it's intense; it has to be," Gibson says. "If that sort of thing bothers you, don't see this film. If you have to leave the theater, I understand. But remember that what's on the screen is what Jesus endured.

"I had to show the hugeness of his sacrifice, as well as the horror of it," he said.

The director had the makeup effects team devise methods to graphically show the nails being driven through Christ's hands. When the first nail is pounded through Jesus' open left palm, it's Gibson's hand you see holding the nail.

Why did he choose to do that?

Gibson answers the question with a question, "Why do you think I did it?"

Then he walks to the window, looking peaceful for the moment.

The mood is broken when he's asked what his next action film will be.

"Maybe never another one," he says, breaking into the widest smile of the afternoon. "Jesus really is the ultimate action hero."


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