Easter Sunday seems an appropriate time to focus on Hollywood’s treatment of the subject matter of religion. When it comes to making movies from various Biblical interpretations, conventional wisdom says stick close to scripture and the faithful will flock. Mel Gibson hewed closely to the New Testament with 2004’s The Passion of the Christ and the film grossed over $600 million worldwide to become the largest independent film of its day and the top-grossing non-English language film ever. But veering from that strategy can do more than alienate that audience segment as Universal Pictures found out when Martin Scorsese filmed 1988’s controversial and in some eyes blasphemous The Last Temptation of Christ from Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel and angry protesters were dragging crosses in front of the home of MCA Universal head Lew Wasserman. Have things changed since then?
Several filmmakers hope so because they are making movies that challenge faith tradions. These projects are very different from, say, big projects that include Fox’s stylized retelling of Moses leading the Israelite exodus out of Egypt, or Bedrock Films’ $30 million 3D reimagining of the story of creation as depicted in the Book of Genesis. But all of the following daring projects can take encouragement from The Book Of Mormon, the first Broadway musical by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker who teamed with Robert Lopez on the skewed look at the Mormon faithful. The result is a smash hit Tony Awards contender playing to capacity.
– Hollywood agency WME will soon shop the movie rights to The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, a James Frey book published this weekend that imagines what the Second Coming of Christ would be like in contemporary America and depicts Jesus Christ as bisexual and promiscuous. Frey wrote the controversial A Million Little Pieces, a memoir that turned out to be semi-fictional. Though his new book is getting strong reviews, there is no getting around the fact that audiences who flocked to Mel Gibson’s film would consider Frey’s vision to be blasphemous. The book launched with a lavishly illustrated limited edition print run of 10,000 books — selling for $50 each — published by Gagosian Gallery. It will then be published published widely through e-book for the Kindle, Nook, iPad, Kobo and Sony ereader. Frey tells me he’s “open” to his book being shopped for films. When I asked who would be the movie audience for it, Frey says, “When I write, I don’t think that way. I wrote a book about what I think it might be like if the long awaited Messiah were alive today, who that person would be, what he would believe in, how he would live, how society would recognize him and deal with him,” Frey told me. “I spent 15 years thinking about it, and about how to do it, and what story to tell. I believe that the Messiah would not eschew the use of alcohol, nor restrict his ability and willingness to love based on what they do for a living or their gender.”
– Director Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers) and his ICM reps have spent the last half year unsuccessfully trying to raise financing for a movie version of Jesus of Nazareth, a book Verhoeven co-wrote and researched for nearly two decades. In his revisionist vision of Christ, Verhoeven rejects the miracles, the immaculate conception, and the resurrection that Catholics all over the world will celebrate tomorrow. Verhoeven feels they undermine the core teachings that have kept Christ relevant for more than 2,000 years. Verhoeven had developed a Jesus Christ film idea with comedian Mel Brooks years ago and became consumed. “If you look at the man, it’s clear you have a person who was completely innovative in the field of ethics. My own passion for Jesus came when I started to realize that. It’s not about miracles, it’s about a new set of ethics, an openness towards the world, which was anathema in a Roman-dominated world. I believe he was crucified because they felt that politically, he was a dangerous person whose following was getting bigger and bigger. Jesus’ ideals are about the utopia of human behavior, about how we should treat each other, how we should step into the shoes of our enemy.” The difficulty in securing film financing for his book is that Verhoeven supposes that Christ was likely the result of his mother being raped by a Roman soldier, which Verhoeven claims was commonplace. Jesus himself is depicted as a radical prophet who performs exorcisms. And so on, all running counter to the New Testament.
– Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson continues to works on The Master, a film he wrote about the creator of a belief system that spreads like wildfire in the 1950s. Universal (which made The Last Temptation Of Christ after Paramount dropped it) bowed out of The Master, in large part because a $35 million budget for a specialty film was too large. Anderson has continued to rewrite a drama that has obvious parallels to both Mormonism and Scientology. That press has complicated Anderson’s efforts to make the film, but the project is less about scrutinizing Scientology or Mormonism as much as an exploration of the desire to believe in a higher power, the choice of which one to embrace, the point at which a self-started belief system graduates into a religion, and the impact on its founder when that happens. The film has recently been championed by Megan Ellison, the daughter or Oracle founder Larry Ellison who is investing money in prestige projects. I’ve also heard that Warner Bros and Black Swan financier Cross Creek Pictures are possible participants. Anderson has long had Philip Seymour Hoffman attached to play the belief system founder, with Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner possible to play his right hand man, and Reese Witherspoon for another role.
– The Book Of Mormon ridicules the faith but is getting laughs from liberal Mormons. The key, Parker and Stone maintain, is to be respectful of the believers while showing irreverence toward the beliefs. Neither of the duo is particularly religious, but they are fascinated by the power of faith. “Whether it’s The Bible or The Book of Mormon, these are great stories. We are storytellers and that is the real reason religion has fascinated us for so long,” Parker said. “I don’t know where people get the impression we’re anti-religious. I don’t think South Park has ever been anti-religion, or that Trey and I have ever felt that way.” So what will happen when producer Scott Rudin inevitably shops the Broadway musical to become a movie musical? “We’ve learned in our careers that as long as something is successful, they will give you money for it,” Parker tells me. “They just want to make money in Hollywood, they don’t really care. As long as the musical continues to do well, I don’t think it’s going to be hard at all.” and yet they portray 3 wide-eyed Mormons trying in vain to convert a Ugandan village afflicted with poverty, rampant AIDS, and violence at the hands of rebel soldiers. There are musical numbers that feature provocative and explicit lyrics. (Songs include one with a chorus that means “Fuck God,” another about the importance of stifling gay urges, and another about the maggots in a villager’s scrotum.) The turning point in getting the village to embrace baptism? When a bumbling missionary enhances Mormon teachings with story lines and characters from Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings and makes the faith more appealing.
Parker and Stone have always been quick to shine a light on organized religion. Their career trajectory is directly traceable to the short film The Spirit of Christmas, about a death battle between Jesus Christ and Santa Claus for possession of Christmas, which made as much fun of Jews as Catholics. Commissioned as a video holiday card, the short went viral and introduced the core characters of South Park and became a de facto pilot that was picked up by Comedy Central. During South Park‘s long run, Parker and Stone have often covered the faiths and practitioners of Christianity, Judaism, Scientology, and Mormons so often they barely raise eyebrows. The only real ruckus came when Comedy Central, citing security reasons, refused the duo’s plan to depict Islam founder Mohammad in a farcical light. Only then did the duo go too far.