The Passion

Facing some giant lessons

Like millions of other American kids, Alex Kendrick couldn't believe his eyes the first time he saw "Star Wars."

"I remember sitting in that theater, looking up at that big screen and thinking, 'I want to do that. I have to do that. If it's the last thing I ever do, I'm going to make movies,' " said Kendrick, the writer, director and actor whose low-budget "Facing the Giants" football flick has made headlines.

The evangelistic indie movie cost $100,000 to make and, showing on 418 screens in faith-friendly smaller markets, has made nearly $3 million at the box office in two weeks. It's backed by Provident Films, Sony BMG and Samuel Goldwyn films, but the critics have been merciless.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted: "It preaches to the converted -- literally." And then there was this Richmond Times-Dispatch love letter to Kendrick: " 'Facing the Giants' may have been made with all the best intentions in the world, but it was also made by writers who can't write, directors who can't direct, editors who can't edit and actors who can't act. And they're all the same guy."

It helps, however, to understand that the Southern Baptist guy at the heart of this movie has had a tough time turning his "Star Wars" epiphany into a career reality. He is learning how to make movies and "Facing the Giants" is only his second try.

Kendrick never had a real chance to study screenwriting, editing, directing or acting. When the time came to pick a career, he did what many young media-driven believers end up doing. He entered the ministry.

It's hard to explain to outsiders how this kind of thing happens.

"I kept trying to find people who felt the same way as I did," he said in an interview just before a ratings tussle with the Motion Picture Association of America that sparked a media firestorm. "I could see that movies were shaping our culture and I couldn't understand why so many other people couldn't see that. It was hard to find people who understood what I wanted to do."

Kendrick tried a Christian college, where there were no classes linked to entertainment and filmmaking, but ended up with an all-purpose degree in communications from Kennesaw State University near Atlanta. Then he went to seminary, but it was more of the same.

Eventually, he heard that Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., was seeking help with its 24-hour Christian ministry on the local cable-television system. This led to Alex and his brother Stephen being hired as "associate pastors of media" at this modern megachurch, the kind where the faithful sit in movie seats and the preacher stands between two giant video screens.

"Basically we were putting church on TV," said Kendrick. "We were filming services, concerts and special events. But my brother and I still wanted to make television shows and movies that told stories that connected with people."

Then they saw some research that helped the leaders of their church understand what they were saying about media.

In their book "Boiling Point," evangelical pollster George Barna and e-commerce professional Mark Hatch put it this way: "The world of entertainment and mass communications -- through television, radio, contemporary music, movies, magazines, art, video games and pop literature -- is indisputably the most extensive and influential theological training system in the world."

That clicked.

Before long, Alex and Stephen Kendrick and their supporters had "prayed in" $25,000 to create a movie called "Flywheel" about a morally confused used-car salesman. It did surprisingly well in a few local multiplexes and on DVD, considering that it was made with volunteer actors and technicians, using store-bought cameras, lights from Home Depot and the video-editing software in desk-top computers.

This led to "Facing the Giants," where a slightly larger budget let the church hire five professionals to run a movie "boot camp" for church members, as well as to film some of the football scenes. It was a strange place to study filmmaking.

The folks at Sherwood Pictures team have learned many lessons, but are well aware that they're just getting started -- at last.

"So many miraculous things have happened to make all this possible," said Kendrick. "We're doing the best that we can and we're learning ... I truly believe that I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing."

McPassion pinches a nerve

People are supposed to meditate in church, but the epiphany that rocked

filmmaker Rik Swartzwelder two years ago was different.

It started when he visited several churches in Charlotte, N.C., while

visiting family. In service after service he heard preachers telling

people it was their "Christian duty" to rush out and buy a ticket for "The

Passion of the Christ." There were brochures for Mel Gibson's bloody epic

in the bulletins, posters in sanctuary lobbies and preview clips for the


Swartzwelder began thinking about the biblical drama in which, as St. Mark

said, "Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold

and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers,

and the seats of them that sold doves; And would not suffer that any man

should carry any vessel through the temple."

So he pounded out a sarcastic -- some would say bitter or blasphemous --

script entitled "The McPassion," a feverish vision of what would happen if

Hollywood and the fast-food industry teamed up to sell Holy Week. The

script sat on a shelf until Swartzwelder decided that Tinseltown's love

affair with born-again marketing was growing instead of fading.

The results have been posted at, a 4-minute blast

that opens with chipper children scarfing down their McPassion meals,

complete with a crown of thorns and round fries that the announcer notes

are "shaped just like the Eucharist." Then there's the McLast Supper from

Burger King of Kings or the McLoaves and Fish Sticks dinner (all you can

eat, while supplies last). The meals come with toys, like the pretend

stigmata tattoos, a simulated leather cat of nine tails, Shroud of Turin

towelettes, a kid-sized crucifix and the "cool McPassion hammer."

The pitch ends with this call to commerce: "Buy one today! Make Jesus

happy! ... Alleluia, God's lovin' it!"

None of this is terribly subtle.

"I want people to wince," said Swartzwelder. "I wince when the girl says

that dipping the body of Christ in ketchup is fun. I wince when the boy

hits the girl's palm with the toy hammer and you hear that clink, clink


The goal was to inspire heated discussions and Swartzwelder and director

Benjamin Hershleder were more than willing to infuriate many Christian

viewers in order to get their point across. The result was an online

firestorm that has been both painful and gratifying.

"I keep reminding people that I am a Christian and that, if they really

want to know, I am a big fan of what I thought was a courageous movie by

Mel Gibson," said Swartzwelder, a freelance filmmaker in Burbank, Calif.

He is best known as the creator of "The Least of These," a short film

released in 2002 that won 27 awards and played at mainstream and religious

film festivals around the world.

The Emmy Award-winner stressed that he is glad that "The Passion" rang up

$370 million at the U.S. box office, opening doors for more artists to

make more films -- From "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" to "The End of the

Spear" -- that can tap into a faith-friendly marketplace out in Middle

America. As an admirer of Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, he is glad that

the "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is

rising toward $290 million in U.S. ticket sales.

Swartzwelder is even pleased that many evangelicals, after decades of

merely throwing stones at Hollywood, are now seeking positive ways to

engage the world of entertainment.

The problem, he said, is that some religious leaders have allowed movie

publicity campaigns to bleed out of the marketplace and into the church

sanctuaries that are supposed to be safe havens for vulnerable souls.

"At some point we have to ask: What is the purpose of worship? What is the

purpose of the pulpit?", asked Swartzwelder, who also has led filmmaking

workshops at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"Even with the best of intentions, using the pulpit to push movies -- even

good ones -- is dangerous. And what happens when we start seeing more

people making more movies for this audience? How do we decide which movies

to plug? There could be, no there will be, abuses and that's going to lead

us into murky waters."

Movies after the Passion, Part I

When it comes to judging Hollywood, critics in pulpits and pews have been chanting the same mantra for decades.

All together now: There's too much sex and there's too much violence. Amen.

Then a strange thing happened. An evangelical named Randall Wallace wrote "Braveheart," which a Catholic named Mel Gibson turned into an Oscar-magnet about freedom, faith, sacrifice and truth. It was bloody violent and its wedding was followed by a nude wedding night. Many conservative believers cheered and began to have second thoughts about their R-rating phobias.

Then Gibson made "The Passion of the Christ."

"A movie comes along that is, in the words of one Los Angeles critic, 'a two-hour execution,' and people of faith everywhere are embracing it and being moved to compunction, repentance and spiritual renewal," said screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi, speaking at a global cinema conference last week in Valencia, Spain.

"What we are learning from all this is that the problem is not with violence on the screen. It is meaningless violence that is wrong in entertainment. The Passion reconnects violence to its source in rebellion against God. It never objectifies the subject of the violence, nor does it dehumanize the perpetrators of violence. It shows the effects of violence in all its horror."

Aftershocks continue in the marketplace and in churches, while Gibson's epic keeps climbing toward the $370-million mark at the U.S. box office. Meanwhile, Hollywood is trying to learn how to mine this bizarre demographic Gibson has discovered -- Middle America.

Nicolosi has argued that the big lesson is that masses of the faithful will buy tickets when a talented, name-above-the-title superstar finances, produces and directs a theologically sophisticated movie. But there's the rub. How many celebrities make that A-list?

Meanwhile, debates about the Passion may help traditional believers learn more about the craft of making movies for the modern marketplace, she said, in her written text. Questions about the film's shocking use of violence were highly symbolic.

"This movie will challenge future filmmakers to make the violence in their films just as meaningful," said the former Catholic nun, who leads the Act One screenwriting project. "It will also open the people of God to a broader artistic sensibility. ... My young filmmaking students are very concerned about the place of the artist in the world. They want to talk about an ethics that would go along with the power of the mass media.

"They want to know what is good for people to watch and what might harm people to watch. This is very good."

Anyone can make violent movies, she said. It takes talent, skill and vision to show violence that means something. The same thing is true of sexuality, after 40 "shameless years" in which "cinema has shown us every possible permutation of two naked bodies writhing around." The same thing is true of symbols and themes of faith and spirituality.

There are signs of change in Hollywood. Nicolosi called it the "Don't Show How Things Look, Tell Us What They Mean" movement. Are religious leaders paying attention?

Nicolosi is not the only conservative arguing that filmmakers must stop assuming that safe, squeaky-clean predictability is the same thing as artistic quality.

Even Christian consumers would rather watch "Spiderman" than "Left Behind -- The Movie" and they would choose "Toy Story" over another "Touched By and Angel" rerun on a family cable channel, according to Dallas Jenkins, president of Jenkins Entertainment. He created the company with his father, Jerry B. Jenkins, who is best known as co-author of the bestselling "Left Behind" novels.

At some point, religious critics must humbly study the art in films such as "Taxi Driver," "Traffic" and "Pulp Fiction" as well as criticize their moral content, he said. It is even more important to study edgy films that combine personal storytelling with issues of faith, such as "Schindler's List" and "The Pianist."

"Why can't we make movies like that about our faith? ... Great films, no matter how specific their subject matter, have universal appeal," said Jenkins, writing in Relevant Magazine.

"Where are the thought-provoking, morally important rated-R films? Every year there are dozens of big, successful family films, but only two or three landmark, important films for adults. Can't at least one be made by a Christian?"

NEXT WEEK: Hollywood struggles to understand the church.

The passion of old words and symbols

Jesuits rarely receive frantic calls from Hollywood megastars rushing to finish movies that are causing media firestorms.

But Father William Fulco is getting used to it, as Mel Gibson completes his cathartic epic "The Passion of the Christ."

While mixing dialogue the other day, Gibson hit a scene in which a man standing at a door lacked something to say. The director needed a line -- right now. Fulco's first question was unique to this project: Was this character supposed to speak Latin or first-century Aramaic?

"Mel said the camera was not on the speaker's face, so we did not need to synchronize what he said with his the movements of his mouth," said Fulco, who translated the screenplay into the two ancient languages, with English subtitles.

"The character needed to say something in Aramaic in the ballpark of, 'What do you want?' So I had him say in rather colloquial early Aramaic, 'MAH? MAH BA'EH?' That is literally, 'What? What wanting?' "

That worked.

It has been nearly two years since Fulco answered the telephone and heard a strange voice blurt out: "Hey Padre! It's Mel!"

Gibson's proposal was unusual, but fit the Jesuit's skills as a professor of ancient Mediterranean studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Fulco began digging into Hebrew texts seeking the roots of the now-dead Aramaic language, while simultaneously exploring dialects such as Syriac spoken today in tiny Christian enclaves in Iran, Syria and Turkey. He also stepped into heated academic debates between those who favor a more Italian-friendly Latin and those who reject this approach.

"I'm getting hate mail about Latin pronunciations," said Fulco. "On guy wrote who was angry about what he called 'these ecclesiastical bastardizations' of the Latin. Not only was he going to boycott the movie, he said he was going to call his high school Latin teacher and tell her to boycott the movie as well. ...

"I have to keep reminding people: This is not a documentary. We had to make artistic choices."

Legions of critics, of course, oppose the film for other reasons. Liberal Catholics and some Jewish leaders claim the script is tainted by anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, Gibson -- who has invested $25 million in the project -- has previewed early versions to rapt audiences of traditional Catholics, evangelicals and others. The film opens on 2,000 U.S. screens on Feb. 25, which is Ash Wednesday.

It is crucial to realize that the images and language at the heart of "The Passion of the Christ" flow directly out of Gibson's personal dedication to Catholicism in one of its most traditional and mysterious forms -- the 16th century Latin Mass.

"I don't go to any other services," the director told the Eternal Word Television Network. "I go to the old Tridentine Rite. That's the way that I first saw it when I was a kid. So I think that that informs one's understanding of how to transcend language. Now, initially, I didn't understand the Latin. ... But I understood the meaning and the message and what they were doing. I understood it very fully and it was very moving and emotional and efficacious, if I may say so."

The goal of the movie is to shake modern audiences by brashly juxtaposing the "sacrifice of the cross with the sacrifice of the altar -- which is the same thing," said Gibson. This ancient union of symbols and sounds has never lost its hold on him. There is, he stressed, "a lot of power in these dead languages."

Thus, the seemingly bizarre choice of Latin and Aramaic was actually part of the message. The goal of Gibson's multicultural, multilingual team was to make a statement that transcended any one time, culture and tongue.

"We didn't want another movie with Jesus as some kind of Aryan superman or Jesus as a surfer," said Fulco. "We saw one movie in which Jesus was almost this Michael Jackson kind of character. Try to imagine that. ...

"We didn't want an American Jesus, or a Japanese Jesus or a French Jesus. What we wanted was a language that allowed Jesus to be none of these nationalities, so that he can be all of them at the same time. This is a universal story."