Philippe Antonello/Newmarket Films
February 20, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

One day last November in L.A., a group of Hollywood stars and nonindustry civilians gathered at Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions for a screening of the Braveheart Oscar winner’s controversial new film, The Passion of the Christ. The movie’s Jesus, James Caviezel, was there. So was Gibson’s frequent costar Rene Russo. The director, alas, was absent. It was a frantic day at Icon: That morning, a print of the film had gone missing. (Days later, a pirated copy of The Passion would turn up at the New York Post.) As Icon staffers attended to the crisis, the group was left alone to view the work in progress.

Two hours later, the small audience was left stunned. ”There was a real sense of quiet. It felt like a challenge to stand up,” recalls Dana Sanders, 34, an administrator at Santa Barbara’s Westmont College who’d got into the screening with ridiculous ease: He simply wrote Icon a letter and asked nicely.

Discussion began. Impressions were exchanged. So were fears. Russo told the group that the film was such a political hot potato that friends advised her not to speak out about it. Caviezel had an equally provocative anecdote. While shooting The Passion in late 2002, Gibson hounded the actor like Satan tempting Christ in the wilderness: You don’t have to do this. You can quit. Caviezel tolerated his director’s doubts at first, but eventually broke. This is what I was made for, said the devoutly Catholic actor. Why do you keep bugging me? But Caviezel had misunderstood. Gibson wasn’t doubting him — he was warning him. After you finish this film, Gibson explained, you may never work in Hollywood again.

From the very start, Mel Gibson knew he was courting danger when he decided to make his $25 million passion project, which opens Feb. 25 — Ash Wednesday — on 2,000 screens nationwide. A violent, self-funded chronicle of Christ’s final hours, literally if selectively adapted from New Testament sources, and augmented with material from extra-biblical writings long accused of containing anti-Semitic content — really, how difficult could it have been for Gibson to see trouble on the horizon? EW was denied a screening of the film, as well as interviews with Gibson, Caviezel, and the rest of the Passion team. But according to over two dozen industry executives and others who have seen the movie or are close to Gibson, The Passion is deeply polarizing. And the question that will haunt Gibson long after the furor over the film is this: Did it really need to be?

In Hollywood, cautious deliberations have begun. Many who think favorably of both film and filmmaker were willing to go on the record; detractors preferred anonymity, particularly those who might have to work with Gibson again. ”I think it’s a masterpiece,” raves Dean Devlin, who produced Gibson’s The Patriot. ”I am going to try very hard never to work with him again,” says one studio executive. ”If the film is anti-Semitic, I guarantee you it’s inadvertent,” says Gibson’s six-time director Richard Donner. ”He has driven his career right to the edge of a cliff,” says another studio executive. ”One more false move, it goes right over.”

Read the full cover story in the February 20, 2004, issue of Entertainment Weekly.

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