By Koraljka Suton
Ever since he was a little boy, director Martin Scorsese wanted to make a movie about the life of Jesus Christ. Being raised Catholic, the former altar boy even contemplated becoming a priest, but his passion for movie-making eventually trumped his initial desire for a clergy career. Nevertheless, his deeply rooted faith and fascination with religion always remained an integral part of who he was and who he would eventually become as a filmmaker, with redemption, guilt, faith and the crisis thereof becoming prevalent themes throughout his work, regardless of the subject matter at hand. Still, his wish to immortalize Jesus on celluloid never abandoned him, but rather started coming to fruition one step at a time. The first seed of what will eventually grow into a controversial, yet highly praised picture that will earn Scorsese his second Academy Award nomination for Best Director (the first one being for Raging Bull in 1980), was planted in 1961, when Scorsese’s fellow NYU student and future Raging Bull assistant editor John Mavros told the director about a 1955 novel entitled The Last Temptation of Christ, written by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis. Although the filmmaker did not read it then, it seems as though he could not escape destiny, for the book re-entered his life in a rather unexpected way a decade later, on the set of Boxcar Bertha. The movie’s female lead Barbara Hershey, who had first read the novel when she was only nineteen, gifted Scorsese a copy and urged him to read it. She told him that he should make it into a film and cast her as Mary Magdalene. Scorsese then read what would eventually become his source material and was, in his own words, “enveloped by the beautiful language of it.”
He went on to option the novel in the late 1970s and wanted his Taxi Driver and Raging Bull screenwriter Paul Schrader, who came from a Calvinist background and minored in theology at a Christian Reformed Church college, to adapt it. The screenplay was finished in 1981 and later revised by TIME magazine’s critic-turned-screenwriter Jay Cocks (who will go on to co-write Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s classic The Age of Innocence in 1993), although he remained uncredited because of contractual obligations, as well as the regulations of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), something Schrader would deem unfair. The project was brought to Paramount in 1983 and the studio was willing to finance it—with a budget of $14 million, shooting was to take place in Israel. In the fall of the same year, Scorsese met with Kazantzakis’ widow Eleni and the late author’s literary executor Patrolcios Strauru to discuss the adaptation, assuring them both of his admiration for the novel and his conviction regarding the subject matter at hand. Both of them ended up giving him their unconditional blessing and support, fully aware of the backlash Scorsese would experience after the movie hit theaters, due to the villainization the Kazantzakis’ went through in their country after the novel was published and subsequently proclaimed blasphemous. But little did Scorsese know that the proverbial hell would break loose much sooner than he anticipated, testing his devotion to and, dare I say, faith in the project itself.
My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.
As word got out that Scorsese was adapting the contested novel, the religious right community decided to take things into their own hands. An organization of Protestant women called the Evangelical Sisterhood distributed a newsletter calling all converts to write protest letters to Paramount’s parent company Gulf+Western in an attempt to sabotage the film’s production. Ultimately, they succeeded. As the corporation started receiving five hundred letters a day and as the budget for the movie started to increase, The Last Temptation of Christ was eventually canceled at the end of 1983. Scorsese’s passion-project had to wait and, in order to “get himself back in shape,” the director went on to make After Hours, a mix of screwball comedy and film noir about a computer word processor who desperately tries to get back home after a night in SoHo, but neither the people he encounters nor the absurd system he falls victim to allow him to do so. The plot of After Hours perfectly mirrored Scorsese’s own frustration with the Kafkaesque situation he found himself in, trapped in a bureaucratic maze, unable to move forward and reach the finish line he so badly craved. After Hours became, in a way, a cathartic and therapeutic experience for him, providing him not only with the creative “workout” he needed, but also with the chance to work through and come to terms with the void that was left after the cancellation of his Jesus movie. He then went on to direct The Color of Money, starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise, in 1986, before Universal Studios gained interest in resurrecting The Last Temptation of Christ, under the condition that Scorsese also make a commercial movie for them, which he ultimately agreed to (Cape Fear in 1991).
When it came to playing the role of Jesus, the very first contender that Scorsese had in mind after the script was finished in 1981 was his go-to actor Robert De Niro. But the actor had almost no interest in religion and could not picture himself portraying a character wearing robes. He respectfully turned down the offer and, contrary to popular belief, the director understood and held no grudges. De Niro even proclaimed that if Scorsese would not be able to find a suitable enough actor or an actor brave enough to tackle the demanding role, he would take it on so as to honor their friendship. There was, ultimately, no need though. The director wanted to cast Christopher Walken, but the studio was unhappy with his choice, so Scorsese set his sights on twenty-four-year-old Aidan Quinn, a decision Paramount agreed with and approved of. Harvey Keitel was set to portray Judas (although Jeff Bridges really wanted the role and personally wrote to Scorsese), Sting was to play the role of Pontius Pilate and Barbara Hershey got the part she had wanted ever since her conversation with the director on the set of Boxcar Bertha—that of Mary Magdalene. But she did so not on account of her being the one to introduce Scorsese to the book in the first place, but rather earned the part fair and square, after undergoing three months of auditions. After the project got canceled and picked up again, only Hershey and Keitel were still game, Sting was replaced by David Bowie and a new Jesus was yet to be found. Willem Dafoe’s identity was, in his own words, “still working day-to-day at the theater,” despite having had some success with several movies up to that point. He was jealous because all of his actor-friends were auditioning for the role of Jesus, but he could not even get an audition, seeing as how he was off the producer’s radar. After he “did a movie in Thailand”, he came back and his agent told him that Scorsese wanted to talk to him about The Last Temptation of Christ. “So they sent me the script, I read it, I loved it, and I met with him [Scorsese], had a short meeting, we talked and that was basically it. There was no big decision, it couldn’t have been more direct. Of course, I would have done anything in that movie, it’s Scorsese,” Dafoe stated in a conversation with EW.
Filming was set for the fall of 1987, in Morocco. Scorsese had offered to shoot the movie in only 58 days, with a budget of $7 million. The difficulties he experienced while filming as well as a tight schedule led to the director developing a minimalist aesthetic. This lack of time resulted in frequent improvisations and shooting without much preparation or rehearsal. Dafoe stated that they were doing merely two or three takes per scene, which is far removed from the notion of Scorsese arguably doing up to a hundred takes for a single scene in New York, New York. Due to a lack of make-up artists, Barbara Hershey was tasked with re-applying her character’s mehndi tattoos time and time again. They discovered that a camera was faulty only after the film was processed, a result of which was the unintentional whiteout at the very moment Jesus died. According to the director, they were working in a state of urgency. But even while working in said state, Scorsese, together with his cast and crew, which included his longtime editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker and German director of photography Michael Ballhaus, managed to create a nuanced and probing cinematic masterpiece that is debated and revered to this day. Too bad not everybody could see it for what it was. Many did not even see it to begin with, yet took it upon themselves to not only judge it as the ultimate act of blasphemy, but also resort to extreme measures for the purpose of voicing their outrage, unwilling to reflect upon why someone else’s perception in the form of fiction is capable of endangering their own allegedly unwavering belief-system.
Several Christian groups took part in organized protests, advocating the movie’s boycott before and upon its release. 600 protesters picketed the headquarters of MCA. Evangelist Bill Bright of the Campus Crusade for Christ asked Universal to burn the negative and, if they declined to do so, offered to buy it from them and destroy it himself. Several theaters decided not to show the film as a result of the growing protests. Italian director Franco Zeffirelli withdrew his movie Young Toscanini from the Venice Film Festival upon finding out that Scorsese’s film was invited for a screening, describing it as “truly horrible and completely deranged” without having seen it. A Catholic nun, founder of Eternal Word Television Network, described Scorsese’s film as “the most blasphemous ridicule of the Eucharist that’s ever been perpetrated in this world” and “a holocaust movie that has the power to destroy souls eternally.” A Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, never having watched it, deemed the film “morally offensive.” In 1988, fire was set to the Parisian Saint Michel cinema while the movie was playing, injuring thirteen people, with four of them ending up severely burned. In countries such as Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Turkey and Greece, the film was banned for several years, while still being banned in Singapore and the Philippines. Due to death threats, Scorsese was accompanied by bodyguards when appearing in public after the film was released.
I was driven to make ‘Last Temptation’ because I wanted to look at questions of faith and penance and redemption within the context of the world right now, with all the formalities stripped away. I’m constantly exploring this question in my pictures and in my life. (…) I was trying to start a dialogue. I didn’t want to just make a picture for people who were secure in their faith. Christ’s teachings are about all of us—the secure and the insecure, the powerful and the powerless, the down and out, the addicts, the people in real pain, the people caught in states of delusion, the ones who feel absolutely hopeless and see no possibility of grace or redemption. Because the afflictions of “the least among us,” as Jesus said, the inner circumstances that lead to their fall, are in everyone. I wanted to make a picture about a historical figure named Jesus, a spiritual guide, but also… a human being, surrounded by other recognizable human beings, as opposed to wax figures. Did I think it would be accepted by everyone? Not necessarily. But I hoped it would. I knew that everyone wouldn’t embrace it, but I thought they just might. And what happened was that the picture was vilified by people who made a cultural show of their vilification, and many of whom not only hadn’t seen it but vowed to never see it. And that saddened me. —Martin Scorsese
It is indeed sad to bear witness to behavior that can and did genuinely harm and cause distress to others, only because a different, more relatable, humane view of a historical figure whose teachings of love, inclusion and compassion the abovementioned groups and individuals claim to revere and adhere to, was brought to life on the silver screen. For what Scorsese did was present us with a Jesus who is struggling with his humanity in order to eventually accept and incorporate his divinity. Scorsese and Kazantzakis’ Jesus is not the perfect, sinless, all-knowing Messiah, but a sad, tormented, temperamental, at times childish and often whimsical human being who hears voices, has hallucinations and feels drawn to fulfill his eventual divine purpose, one that he himself does not fully understand until the very end, therefore adjusting both his teachings and reassessing himself along the way. This Jesus is torn and fragmented, feeling the seductive pull of human desire on the one hand and immense guilt as a result of it on the other. This Jesus declines the love of Mary Magdalene, which ultimately leads to her becoming a prostitute. This Jesus confines mostly in Judas, urging his friend to betray him so that he could make the ultimate sacrifice, thereby accomplishing what is needed. And ultimately, this Jesus faces his last temptation on the cross, living out the life of a normal man in his mind’s eye, having children with Mary Magdalene and two other women, only to arrive at death safely and come to the realization that he wants to be the Messiah after all, a wish that enables him to complete his internal journey of willingly and gladly accepting his proclaimed divinity by releasing resistance to death.
Such a Jesus is absolutely relatable and reflects the process of the human consciousness when it comes to integrating both of its aspects, the human and the divine, without sacrificing the integrity and wholeness of either. But we as a collective have a hard time acknowledging both aspects within us as equally valid and worthy, and an even harder time perceiving that that which we have deemed divine (in this case, Jesus) can at the same time be immensely human. We have been led to perceive spiritual authority figures as merely divine, because we crave divinity, which is nothing more nor less than our inherent capacity for unconditional love, acceptance, compassion and creation, but do not believe we can find it within. It is therefore understandable why making a movie about a poster boy for divinity that paints him so painstakingly human and explores his deepest urges, desires, thoughts, doubts, idiosyncrasies, wants and needs was met with such uproar. We do not want to accept the humanity in Jesus, because perceiving him as “one of us” would imply that we would have to come to terms with the divinity within ourselves. We cannot accept the humanity in Jesus, for it would mean that we would have to stop resisting and shaming everything that makes us human. And such notions are not only scary (many would say blasphemous even) but also imply an immensely high level of not just (self-)awareness, but also personal responsibility towards ourselves and each other.
This inability of ours to perceive that which is beyond our individual level of awareness is perfectly depicted in The Last Temptation of Christ, where Jesus’ followers often misinterpret or outright do not understand what he is trying to convey, with them, for instance, wanting to start rioting and kill the rich after one of his sermons, leaving a perplexed Jesus shouting “Not death… I said love!” after them. For those who never experienced the inability to inflict pain upon another because that pain would, in return, be felt as their own, Jesus’s message of love being the answer and the way can only create a cognitive dissonance and an internal resistance of great magnitude, for the very concept of taking another being as a part of one’s self, which is what love is, runs counter to the way the people he was preaching to were living their lives and acting as a result of it.
What Scorsese does is offer us a complex, layered, respectful and deeply humble insight into internal conflicts that are akin to all mankind. But most of all, he provides a glimpse into his own. Just as After Hours was a movie that enabled him to channel his feeling of being stuck into a creative endeavor that appeased him and proved profitable at the same time, so is The Last Temptation of Christ his attempt at conveying, exploring, rediscovering and redefining his own ongoing, life-long dance with faith. But in doing so, Scorsese did not make a movie only religious people should see and contemplate. The filmmaker goes beyond religious doctrines and lands right into the very heart of what religion devoid of dogma should be about—the practice of love—and of what it means to be human, struggling with the numerous fragmented aspects of one’s individual self. And it is in this regard that Scorsese emerges truly triumphant. If we as viewers were to expand our perceptions wide enough, we could indulge in viewing the movie through various lenses and practice accommodating all of those diverging perspectives that present themselves to us—without the filter of religious conviction and an agreed-upon belief system, The Last Temptation of Christ is a portrait of a man who simultaneously struggles and acts in accordance with conflicting voices in his head and hallucinations that prompt his self-proclaimed enlightened state of being, thereby both verging on what mainstream society in this day and age would deem as insane and managing to inspire an entire movement, while doing inexplicable things in the process. Viewed through the filter of religious teaching, we are witnessing a man who came here to endure tremendous suffering so as to eventually grow into his inherent divinity. In either case, we are presented with a man. And all the struggles and temptations that go along with being one.
Written by Koraljka Suton. Koraljka is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »
“Oh, yes, we are feuding,” Mr. Schrader said cheerfully, “but we’re also talking about doing another movie. We’ve been feuding since we met. We’re both rather bull-headed people.” The option in Mr. Schrader’s Last Temptation contract caused some friction. “There was a period about three years ago when it looked like he was faltering,” Mr. Schrader said of Mr. Scorsese. “And I made some moves to get it. I notified Marty. I said, ‘I hear that your enthusiasm is waning, and there are some people in Egypt and France that might have some money. If you ever slacken I will walk over your back to get this movie done.’ And he wrote me back this long furious letter and said, ‘You will have to pull the script from my dying hands.’” Mr. Schrader went on, “I wrote back, ‘That’s all I wanted to hear—that you are moving.’” Mr. Scorsese, whose office in midtown Manhattan is just down the hall from Mr. Schrader’s, recalled the incident in a telephone interview. “Paul reminded me of that last week,” the director said. “I didn’t appreciate or like it in 1985 when he kept asking if I would give it up, and I kept writing these letters— ‘From the grave I’ll come back to direct it!’ So it caused a little bit of a misunderstanding. But it forced me to control the project, to raise the money to buy all the options so no one else could get it.” As Mr. Schrader had done previously, after he completed his script he stepped back. “It’s time to hand over the baby,” he said. Mr. Scorsese and the writer Jay Cocks then reworked the dialogue, preserving Mr. Schrader’s structure. No one disputes who wrote what—only who should get credit for it on screen. As Mr. Scorsese recalled, he asked Mr. Schrader if his own name could be included; Mr. Schrader said no and suggested taking it to the Writers Guild. Mr. Scorsese let the issue drop. Credit for Mr. Cocks was a more difficult issue. “That first script, with the exception of two scenes, is exactly, scene for scene, the movie that’s on the screen,” said Mr. Schrader, who won sole credit in a Writers Guild abitration. According to the guild rules, Mr. Cocks could not then receive any on-screen credit, not even the thank you Mr. Scorsese wanted to extend. —Paul Schrader talks of Last Temptation and his new film
Screenwriter must-read: Paul Schrader’s screenplay for The Last Temptation of Christ [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection in a new, restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised and approved by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Reworked version of the 3 September 1987 screenplay with handwritten notes by Martin Scorsese.
… And Blood, by Richard Corliss, from Film Comment, September/October 1988.
Two guys, tough guys, sit in the waiting room of Martin Scorsese’s Manhattan offices. Are they auditioning for Scorsese’s forthcoming Mafia movie? Are they a pair of Willem Dafoe’s roustabout apostles? No. They are not even waiting to see the director of The Last Temptation of Christ. They are waiting to see anyone who wants to see Scorsese. Lew Wasserman may have been depicted as a Christ killer, but his company only distributes the movie. Scorsese made it. And have people made threats? In a generous, full-disclosure interview of more than two hours, this is the one question he is reluctant to answer. “Well, let’s say there are a lot of people around. Privacy is gone, and everyone is very careful.” Very careful, and very open. Those attitudes marked both Scorsese’s ballsy adaptation of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel and his conversation with me, a week after The Last Temptation’s opening. ABC News’ Person of the Week was happy to discuss the film with someone who had logged as much time with the priests and nuns as he had. And to explain how personal and universal—how, even, paramount—was his quest to make this picture.
Was your family religious?
My parents grew up Americans, Italian Americans. Their idea was survival; my father went to work when he was nine years old; there was hardly room to sleep; you had to fight, you literally had to fight with your brothers and sisters for food and attention; if you got into trouble, you had to know enough to stay on the streets for two nights. It was survival. And I don’t think the Church figured into their life that much. Italian-Italian Catholics, like my assistant Raffaele Donato, who says, “We’re really pagans. Pagans in the good sense. We enjoy life, we put the Church in a certain perspective.” My parents were able to do that. When the Church wanted to delve into personal lives, how many children they should have, my parents shied away from that. They figured that wasn’t any of the priest’s business. I was the one who took the Church seriously. My grandmother was the one who had the portrait of the Sacred Heart. Also the niche with the statue of the Virgin Mary grinding the snake under her foot. Also the beautiful, gigantic crucifix over the bed, with Jesus in brass and the palms from Palm Sunday draped over the crossbar. And remember when you’d go into church and you’d see Jesus on the cross? And he’s bleeding from the wound on his side? And there’s this angel below him with a cup? And the blood is dripping into the cup? The most precious blood! A great title for a film: Most Precious Blood.
The scene where Jesus returns from his first temptations in the desert to open his robes and pull out his heart is right from that iconography.
Actually, that scene, which was not in the Kazantzakis book, was written by Paul Schrader, a Dutch Calvinist, and it was kind of nudged to me as Catholic. He also wanted to show that the supernatural and the natural exist on the same plane. But we were doing that all along. He wanted to show the angel at the end turning into a gargoyle, and slithering off a table. I leveled that all out. I wanted it to be like when I was growing up, and my grandparents and parents and aunts would tell me stories—ghost stories—that took place right in our apartment. The supernatural and the natural on the same plane. Only here you’re dealing with the Messiah. So if a snake goes by, the snake is going to talk. In voice over. Don’t even try to do Francis the Talking Mule. Or Leo the Talking Lion. Forget it! It’s Harvey Keitel’s voice, or mine, saying, “Do you recognize me? I’m your heart.” So when we got to do the Sacred Heart scene, here’s what I thought was more important. You have these guys bickering all the time, just like in the Gospels. It’s all there: “I’m the one, I’m the one, I’m gonna sit next to him when the Kingdom of Heaven comes. I’ll be at his right hand.” “No, I’m gonna be at his right hand!” Hysterical stuff! So they’re all bickering, and Judas is being a pain, as usual. And then Jesus shows up, and it’s party solidarity. It’s the Democratic convention, everybody getting together. Unity. And his presence is shining so strong at that moment that they have to be unified behind him. Then again, you could say that the apostles are seeing him just back from the desert, with the light from the campfire, and the music around, and the glow behind his head, just a little touch of DeMille. It could be mass hallucination, mass hypnosis. We don’t know. It’s a symbol to bring them all together—especially Judas, who kisses his feet and says, “Adonai!” All of a sudden Jesus is God? Wait a second! Yes—Judas needs this. So do the others, to be convinced that this is the man.
Is this Jesus God, or a man who thinks he’s God?
He’s God. He’s not deluded. I think Kazantzakis thought that, I think the movie says that, and I know I believe that. The beauty of Kazantzakis’s concept is that Jesus has to put up with everything we go through, all the doubts and fears and anger. He made me feel like he’s sinning—but he’s not sinning, he’s just human. As well as divine. And he has to deal with all this double, triple guilt on the cross. That’s the way I directed it, and that’s what I wanted, because my own religious feelings are the same. I do a lot of thinking about it, a lot of questioning, a lot of doubting, and then some good feeling. A lot of good feeling. And then a lot more questioning, thinking, doubting!
This Jesus is also a mortifier of the flesh, like the medieval flagellants and mystics.
I think mortification of the flesh is important. I don’t mean that you have to go around whipping yourself, but disciplining is important. This kind of movie, on a $6 million budget, that’s a discipline. When you’re in Morocco, and the sun’s going down, and the generator’s breaking, and the actor’s wig is coming off, and you know you don’t have $26 million and the ten thousand extras like Bertolucci—that’s discipline. You design it another kind of way. Except that, as [cinematographer] Michael Ballhaus would tell me whenever I got depressed, “That’s the way this picture has to be made.” You know, the Roman soldiers who surround the temple, at the end? Just five. Same five guys. They were also the guys who were rioting when Jesus starts throwing things. And they were the Levites who come down the stairs, and also the guys who go up the stairs against the Levites! Five guys from Italy. We had twelve uniforms, but we couldn’t afford the other seven stunt men. So it’s a strong punishment.
And the “fantasy” or “hallucination” that Jesus has at the end of the film, it’s really a diabolical temptation?
Exactly. You know, the one sexual thing the priest told Catholic boys they could not be held responsible for was nocturnal emission. It was like an involuntary fantasy. And with Jesus it’s the same thing. How can you hold him responsible for this fantasy? Of course, Catholic boys were taught that, if you entertained fantasy for a while, it became an occasion of sin. That’s another good title for a movie: Occasion of Sin!
Your apostles, they don’t speak like the holy figures we’ve heard in other biblical epics. They speak like characters from a Martin Scorsese picture.
Schrader said this to me: “Unless you have them speaking in ancient Aramaic with subtitles, whoever stands behind the camera is going to be doing his ‘wrong’ idea of the dialogue of the time. You’ll do your wrong idea. I’d do my wrong idea. Twenty years ago George Stevens did his wrong idea.” And he’s right. But I did want to break away from the sound of the old biblical epics, to make the dialogue plainer, more contemporary. That’s mainly what Jay Cocks and I did the last six drafts of the script. We rewrote 80 percent of the dialogue, arguing over every word. Jesus says to Judas, “You have the harder job.” “Job?” Is that the right word, the simplest, the most effective? Make it more immediate, so people have a sense of who these guys were, not out of a book or a painting, but as if they lived and spoke right now. The accents do that too. The apostles, most of them, were tough guys who worked with their hands. Peter, the fisherman, was like a rough guy from the docks; he had a Brooklyn accent. Vic Argo, who played Peter, would walk around the set with a cigar in his mouth all the time. And when it was time to shoot, he’d say to me, “I have to lose the cigar, right?”
And the bad guys, Satan and the Romans, they have British accents.
Anyone from the outside is going to sound different. And anyone in authority should have a British accent. It sounds authoritative to American ears. Just as any British actor is supposed to be better than any American actor. Don’t they tend to win the Oscars, just for sounding British? I love British actors, and I love American actors, but there’s a reverse-snobbism thing there. Also, the British Empire was a lot like the Roman Empire. They occupied America, and a lot of other places, just like the Romans occupied Judaea.
When people in theaters hear these accents, do they giggle at the wrong time?
Some critics called the movie unintentionally funny, but Jay and I don’t think so. Sometimes what’s said is serious, sometimes it’s ironic, and sometimes it’s meant to be funny. One of the elements we kept from the book is that Lazarus never quite heals properly. I mean, the guy’s been dead for three days. Forget it, he’s a little dull! That’s why Harry Dean Stanton [Saul] says, “How’re ya feelin’?” It’s all done with a sense of humor. And if you see it with an audience, they’re going with it. They’re laughing hysterically at the cast-the-first-stone scene with Zebedee, where Jesus says, “Take this rock—mine’s bigger.” An audience picks up on it. They pick up on it as a story. As a movie. Jay Cocks went to the first public showing at the Ziegfeld in New York, and there were two black ladies behind him saying, “Hallelujah!” and “That’s the way He said it!” And when the last temptation comes on, they say, “Oh my God, no! No!” And when he gets back on the cross: “It was a dream! It was a dream!” Which is exactly the way it should be.
The film has certainly made a lot of people think, for the first time in a long time, about Jesus and his message of love. You didn’t mean to be, primarily, a bringer of the Word.
No, but I’ve always taken that Word—the idea of love—very seriously. It may not be a stylish thing these days to say you’re a believer, especially to say it so often in the papers, as I’ve been saying it. But I really think Jesus had the right idea. I don’t know how you do it. I guess it has to start with you, and then your children, your wife, your parents, friends, business associates—you start branching out a little bit, it starts to spread, until you create a kind of conglomerate of love. But it’s hard. That’s why Judas’s line in the movie gets a great laugh: “The other day you said, ‘A man slaps you, turn the other cheek.’ I don’t like that!” Who does!? We agree with you, Judas. How do you do it?
Barbara Hershey, who plays Magdalene, gave you a copy of The Last Temptation of Christ in 1972. Did you read it then and know immediately you wanted to make a movie of it?
No! It took me six years to finish it! I’d pick it up, put it down, reread it, be enveloped by the beautiful language of it, then realize I couldn’t shoot the language. I read most of it after Taxi Driver [in ’76] and then finished it while I was visiting the Taviani Brothers on the set of The Meadow in October 1978. And that’s when I realized that this was for me. I’d often thought about doing a documentary on the Gospels—but Pasolini did that. Paul wrote two drafts of the script, and Paramount backed us. Boris Leven, the production designer, made a trip to Morocco and Israel, scouting locations, working out a look for the film—all those arches!—and making beautiful sketches. It was great, because he was one of the first people who made me conscious of design in films when I was a kid. My family didn’t go to the theater, so I’d never seen theater design. Then I saw The Silver Chalice in 1954, and it was the first time I’d seen a movie presentation of theatrical design, something that wasn’t supposed to be quite real. I’d seen movies with dream sequences, but nothing like this, where the whole film was done in an obvious style. And here we were thirty years later making another biblical epic. It’s such a shame Boris died before Last Temptation got made, but a lot of what he did survives in the film. By now it’s 1983. And the budget is starting to climb from $12 million to 13 to 16, and the shooting schedule is getting longer, and we’re going to shoot in Israel, where we’re a day-and-a-half’s flight from Hollywood if anything goes wrong, and they’re not exactly crazy about the casting—Aidan Quinn they could accept as Jesus, but some of the others made them nervous. And then the religious protests started, and a theater chain said it wouldn’t show the movie. Well, if you have a picture that’s pretty expensive by now, and you’re not sure it’s going to be profitable, and you can’t show it in a lot of theaters, and you’re getting flak from organized groups. So they dropped it. Then Jack Lang, the French Minister of Culture, tried to help finance it with government money. And there was a big storm over that, over there. Meanwhile, my agent, Harry Ufland, kept shopping it around to other studios. He kept the idea alive, he kept my hope alive, for three years. That’s why he’s listed on the credits as executive producer. He was great. But he was involved with other projects. Then I got Mike Ovitz in January of 1987, and within three months we had a deal at Universal.
Kind of ironic, since Universal has this rep as the black suits and black hearts of the movie business.
I never thought I could make a movie like this for a place like Universal. They represented a certain kind of filmmaking. But from the moment I met Tom Pollock and Sid Sheinberg, I felt a new attitude, a new openness. I’ve never felt such support from any studio. They never said change one thing. They made suggestions; everybody made suggestions. And they knew it was a hard sell. But from the very first screening of the three-hour cut, they were moved, they were teary-eyed, they just loved it. I just hope they get through everything. But the toughness you used to hear about Universal against filmmakers, that’s how tough they’re being in defense of this movie. The more they get slapped, the more they hit back.
Maybe they fought harder because of the charge that the film would fan the flames of anti-Semitism.
Of all the things that come out: anti-Semitic! I was totally shocked by this turn. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, if they have problems with a businessman trying to make money, then he’s a “businessman”! He’s not “Jewish.” It’s disgusting. Obviously it just shows them for what they are. And even Rev. Hymers later apologized for his tactics. But the whole point of the movie is that nobody is to blame, not even the Romans. It’s all part of the plan. Otherwise, it’s insane. I mean, the Jewish people give us God, and we persecute them for two thousand years for it!
At least the controversy helped bring your film to a wider audience.
I do hope the controversy doesn’t keep this movie from being shown on cable. When even Bravo, the very best cable channel, buckles under to thirty or forty protest letters and withdraws Godard’s Hail Mary from its schedule, you have to be concerned about the life of your movie. You have to be concerned about a lot of things when that happens.
Between 1983, when Paramount passed on the project, and ’87, when Universal said go, you made two other films that might be called commissioned projects.
After The Last Temptation was cancelled in ’83, I had to get myself back in shape. Work out. And this was working out. First After Hours, on a small scale. The idea was that I should be able, if Last Temptation ever came along again, to make it like After Hours, because that’s all the money I’m gonna get for it. Then the question was: Are you going to survive as a Hollywood filmmaker? Because even though I live in New York, I’m a “Hollywood director.” Then again, even when I try to make a Hollywood film, there’s something in me that says, “Go the other way.” With The Color of Money, working with two big stars, we tried to make a Hollywood movie. Or rather, I tried to make one of my pictures, but with a Hollywood star: Paul Newman. That was mainly making a film about an American icon. That’s what I zeroed in on. I’m mean, Paul’s face! You know, I’m always trying to get the camera to move fast enough into an actor’s face—a combination of zoom and fast track—without killing him! Well, in The Color of Money there’s the first time Paul sees Tom Cruise and says, “That kid’s got a dynamite break,” and turns around and the camera comes flying into his face. Anyway, that night, we looked at the rushes and saw four takes of this and said, “That man’s gonna go places! He’s got a face!” But it was always Work in Progress, to try to get to make Last Temptation. And now that Last Temptation is finally done, I’ll be doing another movie about the difficulty of defining love. It’s one of three New York Stories; Francis Coppola and Woody Allen are doing the other two. Richard Price has written the script for me, based on something I’ve been thinking about for maybe about fifteen years. It tells the end of an affair between a famous painter, about fifty, and his young assistant, whom he uses as a subject for his work. It’s based on the diaries of Anna Polina, one of Dostoyevsky’s students. It begins at the end of the affair and goes to the very end of the affair. The dialogue is very snappy, because Richard has that touch, but basically it’s about a guy’s relationship to his work and the people around him. Is he able to love? Is he a loving person? Is this his idea of love? And if so, is it valid? And then I’ll do a gangster picture, Wise Guy. I’ll be going back to my roots—it’s a real assault on these two guys living it up. And I’ll be working on style again. The breaking up of style, the breaking up of structure—of that traditional structure of movies. I like to look at that kind of movie; I don’t like to do them. I get bored.
In a way, it must be hard not to get bored, now that you’ve achieved this film that has obsessed you for so long.
I’d like to take a year off from my more personal projects and do a Hollywood genre film, with a good script, some wonderful actors. You learn craft. Every time you go on the set, even though you plan everything before, you realize how little you know. Or maybe I’ve just forgotten! The guys on the set ask, “What do we do now? Should we pan him over?” “I don’t know, I’ll probably lose it in the cutting anyway.” So what I’m doing now is thinking fast—I’ve always talked fast, but now I’m thinking fast. Always editing in my head: compression, compression, compression. Of course, I’ve just made a movie that’s two hours and forty minutes! I get stuck in between the European films of the forties, fifties, and early sixties and the American films. And I don’t know. I don’t know if I belong anywhere. I just try what appeals to me. And to get the money from America—which is very hard to do and stay within the system. I’m so glad Last Temptation was financed in Hollywood, that it’s an American movie, that an American studio was willing to take the flak. And I would like to do a movie with widescreen and a couple thousand extras, if I could keep my interest going. My everyday interest. Because I don’t enjoy shooting movies. There’s too many people around, too many things to go wrong, too many personalities, and you have to be very… rational. I don’t like being rational. I don’t like being held back.
Answer a few points of contention, if you will. Some people, seeing the early scene in Mary Magdalene’s brothel, think that Jesus is watching Magdalene perform in a sex show.
Jesus and the other men are not voyeurs. They’re waiting, they’re not really watching. Some of them are playing games; two black guys are talking; Jesus is waiting. Magdala was a major crossroads for caravans, merchants would meet there. And when you were in Magdala, the thing do to was to go see Mary. But the point of the scene was to show the proximity of sexuality to Jesus, the occasion of sin. Jesus must have seen a naked woman—must have. So why couldn’t we show that? And I wanted to show the barbarism of the time, the degradation to Mary. It’s better that the door is open. Better there is no door. The scene isn’t done for titillation; it’s to show the pain on her face, the compassion Jesus has for her as he fights his sexual desire for her. He’s always wanted her.
At the last supper, Jesus says, “Take this and drink this, because this is my blood.” And when the cup is passed to Peter, he tastes blood.
That’s the miracle of transubstantiation. And in a movie you have to see it. Blood is very important in the Church. Blood is the life force, the essence, the sacrifice. And in a movie you have to see it. In practically every culture, human sacrifice is very important, very widespread. When I was in Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, the mayor, showed me the Valley of Gehenna, where the Philistines sacrificed their children.
The last temptation is one of a long, normal, and still basically sinless life. Except that Jesus commits adultery with Mary’s sister Martha.
I don’t know that it’s adultery. It might have been polygamy. There is some evidence of a Hebrew law at the time regarding polygamy for the sake of propagation of the race. But remember again, this is the Devil doing fancy footwork. “You can have whatever you want. And look, I’m sorry about what happened to Mary Magdalene. Really sorry, won’t happen again. In fact, this time, take two! You need more than one—take two!”
In the Gospels, does Jesus know from the beginning that he’s God?
Maybe, maybe not. There are hints both ways. In Matthew, the first time you see Jesus, he’s being baptized by John; and God’s voice comes out and says, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” But I think that was more to emphasize Jesus over John the Baptist. Because John was the one getting all the attention. I mean, this man had a presentation! He knew how to draw the crowds. But except in Luke’s gospel, where the twelve-year-old Jesus is presented to the elders, the question of when Jesus knew he was divine is cloaked in mystery. So we’re not saying this is the truth, we’re just saying it’s fascinating, it’s so dramatic, to have the guy make a choice. As if he could make a choice—I mean, if he’s two natures in one, he has no choice. But the beauty is that it gives the impression of choice. And eventually he has to say, “Take me back, Father.” It’s wonderful.
The final words of the movie—Jesus’s final words—have baffled translators for centuries. How did you decide which words to use?
Very hard to translate and get the power and the meaning. “It is finished.” “It is completed.” “It’s over.” Can’t use that—too Roy Orbison. What was the translation we were taught in Catholic school? “It is consummated.” The Kazantzakis book used “It is accomplished.” Because Jesus had accomplished a task, accomplished a goal. I shot three different versions. What I wanted was a sense of Jesus at the end of the temptation begging his Father, “Please, if it isn’t too late, if the train hasn’t left, please, can I get back on, I wanna get on!” And now he’s made it back on the cross and he’s sort of jumping up and down saying, “We did it! We did it! I thought for one second I wasn’t gonna make it—but I did it I did it I did it!”
So how do you feel after a decade of trying to get this temptation on film?
I thought for one second I wasn’t gonna make it. But I did it I did it I did it!
Martin Scorsese on The Last Temptation of Christ.
Martin Scorsese provides insight into the two greats in his life—spirituality and film—with a look into films like The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, and Mean Streets.
Scene 37: Jesus in the desert. Shooting notes by Martin Scorsese, The Last Temptation of Christ.
Scorsese’s notes and sketch for a shot from The Last Temptation of Christ, courtesy of Will McCrabb.
Contact sheet from The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese directs David Bowie and Willem Dafoe.
Filming the crucifixion.
Below, the film’s star Willem Dafoe (who played Jesus) reminisces in his own words about meeting with Scorsese for the first time, working on the “most demanding” role of his career, and the controversy that’s followed the flick for two decades, as told to EW.com.
Joining this movie was so simple, but it’s an interesting story, I think. All my friends, all the actors that I knew, were going in on this movie. Even though I had made some movies and had some success with them, my identity [at the time] was still working day-to-day at the theater. But I was jealous because I wasn’t even asked to be seen. I couldn’t even get an audition. I was off their radar. Then I did a movie in Thailand, came back, and got a call from my agent and he said, you know, Martin Scorsese wants to talk to you. He said he’s got this project, The Last Temptation of Christ. I said, I know I’ve been trying to get an audition! So they sent me the script, I read it, I loved it, and I met with him [Scorsese], had a short meeting, we talked and that was basically it. There was no big decision, it couldn’t have been more direct. Of course, I would have done anything in that movie, it’s Scorsese. But the fact that the role was Jesus was better—it was clear that he wanted to tell the story from the human side of Jesus, he didn’t want it all jazzed up. He wanted to bring it back into the body of a man and I felt like I was ready to do that.
I have so many memories from filming because it’s vivid in my imagination, still—I can remember very specific scenes and sensations because it was one of the most demanding roles, physically, for me. It was full-on. [The hardest part] was being on the cross. Regardless of your religious upbringing, you have a strong association of what that is, and then when you take it onto your body it’s very powerful. I was on this big hill in rural Morocco and could see for miles and the sky was blue, blue, blue. We were based in Marrakech a lot of the time, but we would go out to the countryside. Hollywood was far away, New York was far away. I did nothing but be on the set, which, if you know the movie, is a lot. What people forget is that it was a low-budget movie, so we had to work very fast, which wasn’t a bad way to do it because Martin Scorsese had it very clearly in his head. He had a great director of photography in the late Michael Ballhaus. We had very limited crew and resources, but I think that disciplined us not to get distracted and helped our very essential approach to the story. There was no off time, basically, I’d go home and read the Bible, read the text, I’d go to sleep.
And the atmosphere was that there were no trailers—I would arrive and I’d simply put on my clothes. There was minimal makeup and we were out in the weather, you know? There was no place to hang out or wait. Which I loved because it made things very fluid, I was always in the camera and I was always in the story. I come from the theater and I’m still a theater actor, so I’m used to working down and dirty. I remember when it was about to be released they started feeling that there was going to be pressure, some sort of controversy. We showed it in Venice [at the Venice International Film Festival] and they rushed it out to release so they could get the movie seen before the controversy would bury it. That’s my memory of it. And when it came out, the press tour was very blunt because the distribution was under fire, particularly in more rural areas there was a lot of pressure not to distribute the movie. The choice to see it wasn’t made available to people because there were threats against the movie, both physical and in terms of boycotting.
The one thing I do remember is a lot of the opposition to the film [came from people who] hadn’t even seen the film, so they basically didn’t like the idea of it. But I think that was a time also that the religious right—not necessarily the catholic church, but the political right—really saw this as a moment to attack Hollywood. It was a moment that they exploited to make a political move. I thought it was disappointing because it’s a beautiful movie. This was the strongest reaction to any film that I’ve been in, that I can think of. Movie releases are so strange because you deeply feel that how movies are received, or how they’re marketed, has so many factors—everything from what’s in the news to what happens to the people in the movies. They’re not judged solely on the content, there’s nothing objective. There are movies like Antichrist, which is a great movie but got a distorted reception, critically, when it came out. Some people tried to exploit its extremeness to try to make news. There have been movies where I thought they haven’t had their day in court, but I guess that happens all the time.
Audio commentary with Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Jay Cocks and Willem Dafoe.
MICHAEL BALLHAUS, ASC, BVK (1935-2017)
In 1988, Ballhaus and Scorsese reteamed on The Last Temptation of Christ, which had been resurrected with a much smaller budget and a tight 60-day schedule. Shooting on location amid the soft, dusty light of Morocco, Ballhaus and the crew worked very long days to help Scorsese achieve his passion project. “It was tough, and we all worked really hard, but we did it for Marty because he wanted to make the movie so badly. There was a great atmosphere on the set. Every morning we started rolling with the first light, and we were still shooting when the sun went down.” Scorsese noted that he and Ballhaus relied on faith to capture one of the film’s most memorable shots, which approximates Christ’s point of view as he is raised up on the cross. “I designed that shot on paper, but then we had to figure out how to do it with the actual cross,” said the director. “Once we determined the best way to mount the camera, we had to hope for the best, because we didn’t have video assist and no one could look through the lens while we were doing it. I originally had around 75 setups planned for the crucifixion scene, but we only had two days to shoot it. When I sat down with Michael to discuss it, he said, ‘You’ve got to start thinking about what your most essential shots are. We can do it if we start exactly as the sun is coming up and if we assign a precise amount of time to each shot. If we find that a shot requires five minutes and we’re still shooting after seven or eight, we’ll have to abandon the shot and move on.’ We blocked out about 45 minutes for the longest shot, and the others ranged from five minutes to 20. Michael based this approach on what he’d done with Fassbinder, and he helped me cut 75 setups down to 50.” —Stephen Pizzello, American Cinematographer
“The footage wasn’t even developed yet because there were no labs over there at that point,” she recalls. “At least on Kundun it wasn’t quite so bad, also shot in Morocco. But it was quite moving for me because the landscape of Morocco, just the red of the soil, seemed to be about the blood of Christ that is so important in the movie. I started crying in dailies. That hardly ever happens.” Scorsese was having trouble reaching his editor by phone in those days from his location shoot, eager to know whether he was getting what he needed or not. When he finally got through, Schoonmaker just broke down and wept. “I couldn’t talk to him about it,” she confides. “He said, ‘Well, what’s the matter? Is it ruined?’ And I just kept saying, ‘It’s so moving! It’s so moving!’ And I wasn’t the only person crying in dailies; his development person was also crying. Finally I said, ‘No, no it’s very beautiful.’” “It’s such a religious movie,” Schoonmaker says. “And then we were attacked by the fundamentalists. We begged them to come see the movie. Everybody else came. Catholics, Episcopalians, the Bishop of New York supported us completely—the Episcopalian Bishop of New York. But the fundamentalists would not come. We had to have bodyguards for Marty. It was terrible. And we had to rush the movie out to defend itself. Then, you know, it just sort of died.” While the release of the film was a difficult experience, the actual production itself was no picnic either. “He had five stuntmen from Italy and they had to play the Romans and the Jews,” Schoonmaker explains. “So he would shoot, first, the Jews jumping down and then he would change them into the Romans. It was horrendous. And when they shot the crucifixion, there were weather problems and wild dogs running around. The guys who were playing the thieves were dancers from Casablanca and they were so grateful to have the part that they kept throwing kisses to Marty as he was trying to shoot the movie. And then they almost didn’t get it because the sun was going down. It was a nightmare.” “Marty just wanted to show that Christ was human and, you know, didn’t want the job,” Schoonmaker says. “I think that’s such a beautiful idea. ‘Not me! No, no, no! Get somebody else!’ And that wonderful moment when he says to Judas, ‘I’m gonna have to die’—what a realization. It was just a wonderful experience, to watch it all evolve.” —Thelma Schoonmaker recalls the heated controversy and moving testament of ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’
Cinéma, de notre temps: The Scorsese Machine—produced for German television, it follows Scorsese as he puts together his segment from the omnibus New York Stories, works with longtime collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and more. And it’s all capped off with a visit to the director’s always entertaining parents, who weigh in on their favorite films by their son.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Photographed by Mario Tursi © Universal Pictures, Cineplex Odeon Films. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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