On Set of ‘The Passion of the Christ’

by James Barrows

JPCatholic household Theta Chi Rho paid homage to The Passion of Christ over the past week with a talk from Father John Bartunek, a priest who was on set for the movie.

Father Bartunek was studying in Italy to be a priest while The Passion of the Christ was being filmed. His friend brought him to the set of the film, and he became a frequent visitor. His time on set included a lot of impromptu spiritual direction, spiritual experiences of the film set itself, and revelations about the business of film, which he shared with the audience.

Father Bartunek said, of his observation of the spiritual experience on set, “[the crew] felt constantly that they were in the middle of a spiritual battle. Almost everything they tried to do they ran into obstacles…The pattern was that everything felt harder than it should be.” According to Father Bartunek, Mel Gibson would get confession as many times as he could, to keep himself “squeaky clean”. Fr. Bartunek admitted that Mel had even confessed in a bathroom. Jim Caveazel, who played the part of Jesus, would receive communion before going in front of the camera. During the scene which depicts the Last Supper, Caveazel wanted Father Bill to stand in front of him with the Eucharist while he was acting scenes. Fr. Bartunek said, “He wanted help from Jesus to get this scene right…It changed his performance. And he got it. It brings it to life in such a powerful way.” He added, “Our relationship with Christ is what is going to release all of our potential…whatever gifts he gives you, they’re not going to be able to flourish unless they are united with Him.”


This was especially true of Mel Gibson, said Fr Bartunek. Gibson grew up Catholic but was lost spiritually and even suicidal at some points in his life. He rediscovered the faith through the Passion of Christ. Fr. Bartunek said, “When he [Mel Gibson] felt the transformation in his own heart…he said ‘I want to tell this story. I want to share this with others.’ Which is beautiful because we want to share our love of God with others. And we do that the best we can.”

Father Bartunek, from his experience, found that the set wasn’t all about spirituality. This set made him realize how important the business side of show business is.“It was so important…so crucial,” he said. “At least half the time and energy went into that.” Mel Gibson and his team had to find ways to promote and distribute their low-budget film. They could not expect a miracle at every turn. Bartunek said, “They travelled around to a lot of religious groups- Protestant, Catholic…and they just ran the compaign.” There was buzz about anti-semitism and Mel Gibson’s bad intentions, and the team used it for publicity. He added, “If this movie still has the record for the largest opening day during the week, that was due to the fact that they had to hustle and support the film without the support of distributors.”

The atmosphere on set, according to Fr. Bartunek, was good and supportive, even though it was stressful at times, just like any other movie set.  Mel Gibson was particularly good at creating this atmosphere by giving the people on set “freedom to experiment and have a good time”. Father Bartunek added, “The way that Mel worked with the different actors- It was as if he was a different director when he worked with the different actors. He seemed to have an instinct to know what would help each actor, and it was different…he never would give up. He really believed in the actors.”

Fr. Bartunek discussed the difficulties of the movies’ production, but emphasized the beauty that it resulted in. He expressed that even though the movie was about Jesus, that didn’t mean that the movie had no challenges. In fact, there may have been more. “Almost everything they tried to do they ran into obstacles…and then things out of the blue like the film getting stolen.” The crew’s dedication to representing Christ’s passion properly allowed the audience, as well as the crew themselves, to be changed by the powerful movie. “Catholics, protestants, buddhists, athiests, fallen away…they were staring at Jesus for 14 hours a day. Things happened in people’s hearts.”