Sunday, July 19, 2009

22 Years Ago in the Screengrab: Nailing "The Last Temptation of Christ"

MOROCCO, FALL, 1987: I arrived on the set of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ a week into the filming. Andre Gregory, stripped to the waist, is standing knee-deep in water and ranting at the extras, who are writhing and wailing and flagellating themselves. I'm still adjusting to the heat and dust that the filmmaking team has already had a chance to acclimate itself to. The sun is doing strange things to my eyes. I thought I saw a goat with the head of Wallace Shawn run to the edge of the river to drink, but shrugged it off. A member of the crew picked up the goat, tucked it under his arm, and carried it back to the catering tent. The goat kept talking about how much it enjoyed sipping cold coffee in the morning and reading Charlton Heston's diaries until the sound of its voice was cut short by the sound of an axe connecting with its neck.

Scorsese himself wanders back from the line of portable toilets and looks at the screaming, bloody mess going on in the river. "Wow," he says to no one in particular, then flags down his cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus. "Listen," he says, "I don't want to get you in dutch with the union, but maybe you should cut your break short and film some of this, y'know? Maybe we could use it." Ballhaus nods and turns his camera toward the scene as Scorsese heads for the catering area.

The prospect of Scorsese telling a Biblical story is an exciting one. His Catholic background is felt in every frame of Mean Streets and Raging Bull. If one knows the devotion and passion that the director is likely to bring to religious themes, it makes it all the more frustrating to listen to the ridiculous complaints that have been coming from conservative religious groups who expect the movie to be an exercise in blasphemy. This is Scorsese's second try at getting this movie made. He was all set to go in 1983 with a cast that included Aidan Quinn in the title role, but Paramount got cold feet and pulled the plug at the last minute. This time, Scorsese is determined to get the movie finished no matter what. Word has it that he sought out a secret line of support as a safety net, just in case Universal tried to withdraw funding. If the stories are true, then he was right to hedge his bets. Sidney Sheinberg, the head of Universal, was reportedly on the verge of canceling the production shortly before he was hospitalized with mysterious stomach pains. (Doctors subsequently removed a nest of locusts that had somehow managed to make their home in his abdomen.)

I find Scorsese in the catering tent. A true hands-on director, he is helping prepare lunch, personally slaughtering the animals that have been smeared with lambs' blood and trussed up beneath a giant pentagram, a symbol the matches the crimson tattoo on Scorsese's bare chest. "O dark prince, accept my offering!" he screams as the knife in his hand comes down for the last time, opening the throat of a deer. The spray of blood hits Scorsese right in the face, but with the reflexes of a trained butcher, he barely winces. He wipes his hands and face with a wet toilet offered to him by his assistant, then whips off the antlers and animal skin that he has been using to protect his head and back from the ferocious sun. "Hi," he says as he shakes my hand, "I'm Marty, pleased ta meet'cha!" You can still see the shy, asthmatic little boy from Queens inside the powerful Hollywood player.

"I'm, I'm, I'm a, I'm like very excited about having the chance, having the chance to make this picture," he says, looking down at the mob at the river. "It's, it's a, it's just a very personal thing to me, and after awhile, you're prepared to do anything to get made. Anything." He turns to look at his crew sorting the carcasses to go on the grill, then grabs my face with both hands and looks deep into my eyes. "Aaaaanything!!" he stresses.

"You know, some people have been trying to depict this production as some kind of sacrilege, and that's kind of funny for those of us who do understand the project and what your intentions are. I know some people who think you must be angry about that, but I imagine that you must see it as sort of amusing."

"Yes, yes, sacrilege, blasphemy, that is, that is very funny, it amuses me, it makes me laugh, mwahh-hahh!! It hits me in the whadadya whadadya whadaya call it the funny bone, that it where it hits me. Where it makes me laugh. Hey, Randy, how's that venison coming?"

"This is some hard terrain you're shooting in," I say, watching as the chaos at the river accelerates and a man dressed incongruously, in a long black cloak and black hat, strolls along the bank, taking notes. "Have any of the actors had trouble working under these conditons?"

"It's been, it's, it's been, what you say, a very lively, most unconventional shooting environment. For sure, it has. And people have reacted to in any number of surprising ways. Willem Dafoe, when he's not working, he mostly hides in his trailer, weeping and curled in the fetal position. David Bowie spent his first half hour on the set wandering around muttering something about Berlin, then joined Dafoe in his trailer. Harry Dean Stanton is talking about buying a house here."

The man in the long black cloak turns to face the tent. "Oh, no," mutters Scorsese. "Please don't look at me. You can be here, you can leave notes, you can watch the dailies, but please, please don't ever look at me, not like that..."

Sensing that this might be a representative of Scorsese's secret investor, I ask, "Who is that guy. Would it be all right if I talked to him?"

"Nggggggghhhhh!!, replies Scorsese, "I, I do not think, I would not suggest that you, I think that would be a very bad idea, am unfortunate idea, one that I would in fact urge you not to pursue. Please don't. I urge you, don't. And whatever you do, don't sign anything he gives you. " He turns and holds me by both my arms and, looking me in the eyes again, silently mouths the word, "Don't." Then he turns and looks again at the man in black, and murmurs, "I passed him yesterday when he was talking to Barbara Hershey. Something about Botox..." He seemes to shudder.

The sky, which was clear and bright, suddenly turns black and the sound of distant thunder is heard. "Good set of ears on him, that's for sure," says Scorsese.

"You've worked as an independent filmmaker and from deep inside the industry," I say. "Even this far into your career, you've sort of gone back and forth. Do you think you'll ever work this way again?"

"No. No no no no no no no no no, I do not forsee that happening," says Scorsese. "I cannot anticipate the project on which I would want to repeat this particular experience, so no. It's just that this one means a lot to me, you know? I am...provisionally obligated to do another picture with my financer, a picture of his choosing, but based on the suggestions that he's got up his sleeve, I am fairly comfortable in my hopes that the actuality will not materialize. I'm pretty sure. I think. I hope." For the third time, Martin Scorsese looks me in the face, but now his expression is different, beseeching, hopeful yet frightened. "You don't happen to know," he asks, "if it's true that the remake rights to Cape Fear are up for grabs?"

No comments:

Post a Comment