Hot on the heels of The Passion of The Christ comes another film about Jesus — well, sort of. Judas, a made-for-TV movie airing Monday, March 8, on ABC, is billed as an "interpretive dramatization" about the disciple who betrayed Christ. Its release less than two weeks after The Passion is no accident, says director Charles Carner: "Given the attention that Mel Gibson's film has received, ABC felt the time was right to show Judas now."
Monday, 03/08/04, 9-11 p.m. (ET)
The film, featuring Johnathan Schaech (That Thing You Do) in the title role and Jonathan Scarfe ("ER") as Jesus, is the final project of the late Father Ellwood "Bud" Kieser, founder of the Humanitas Prize and Paulist Productions. Judas was executive-produced by Emmy Award-winning producer Tom Fontana ("Homicide: Life on the Streets," "Oz"), who also wrote the screenplay—some of which is taken straight from the Gospels, and some of which is clearly not.
Carner, 46, a devout Catholic, is a veteran writer and director. He wrote the feature films Let's Get Harry and Blind Fury. He wrote TNT's Crossfire Trail, starring Tom Selleck, the highest-rated cable movie in TV history. We recently caught up with Carner to ask about his latest directorial project, Judas. Our conversation started with our complaints about the frigid weather here in Chicago, where Carner grew up. He fielded our questions via phone from warm, sunny Southern California …I'd be glad to trade places with you right now. It's about nine degrees here.Charlie Carner: Nine? Oh, a heat wave!Exactly. But let's talk about Judas. How would you describe the film?Carner:Judas tells the story of Jesus from a unique perspective, that of the man who betrayed him.Why did you want to be a part of this project?Carner: I'm a Catholic, and I always look for opportunities to combine my faith and my professional work. When I heard about this project, I was very interested because it would give me a chance to combine filmmaking and religion. Father Frank DeSedario, the executive producer, was familiar with my work, and he approached me about directing it. Once I took a look at the script by Tom Fontana, I jumped on.The film opens with a young Judas watching his father being crucified. Obviously we don't read about that in Scripture. Was that poetic license?Carner: The event itself, a mass crucifixion of the Jews, was based on an historical event. There had been an uprising in Judea, and the Romans put it down violently with literally thousands of crucifixions. The poetic license, or dramatic license, is based somewhat on recent biblical scholarship and speculation, which is that Judas either was a Zealot or a sympathizer with the Zealots. So that was one of Tom Fontana's concepts—that Judas's father was a revolutionary who was crucified, and Judas himself inherited that revolutionary spirit. And thus, when he encounters Jesus, he's looking for a warrior king like David, someone who will literally liberate the Jews.Is that why, in the film, Judas first encounters Jesus when he's turning over tables outside the Temple, yelling at the moneychangers? In Scripture, Judas meets Jesus much earlier than that.Carner: Again, it's just dramatic license. Judas is a guy who's got a cause, but he's looking for a leader. He's a man of action who wants to be ordered into battle, so to speak. And so when he encounters Jesus throwing the moneychangers out of the temple, he believes he has found his guy. But it also gets Judas off on the wrong foot, because he mistakenly thinks Jesus is going to lead a physical revolution. The way Fontana envisioned it and the way I tried to realize it, is it's a tragedy in the sense that Judas misunderstands who Jesus is. From the beginning almost to the end, he just doesn't get it.Does the film imply that Judas never gets it? Or does he get it at the end? That seemed a bit nebulous to me.Carner: Yes, it is a bit subtle. When Judas finally realizes Jesus is essentially being railroaded, he regrets what he has done. But by then, he can't stop the train. He has set things in motion that cannot be stopped. And his suicide is both remorse for having been manipulated by Caiaphas and for the guilt over what he's done. I think, if he actually "got it," he wouldn't kill himself. Because Jesus' message is never to give up life, but no matter how guilty you are, to find a way to do penance and repent. So I think we can say that Judas never quite got it.Matthew says Judas kills himself before Jesus is crucified. But this film has it happening after Jesus is on the cross. Why?Carner: I think there are a number of factors at work. There is some disagreement throughout the New Testament as to exactly what happened and when it happened and how it happened. Acts 1:18 says Judas fell and all of his intestines spilled out, but we weren't going to have his guts come bursting out of his belly …Mel Gibson might have done that!Carner (laughing): He might have!Anyway, in this film, Judas actually sees Jesus being crucified.Carner: Yes. It seemed natural to have the story of these two men that has been so intertwined, then to have it unravel simultaneously. And it just seemed powerful visually for Judas to see what's happening. He's not there and participating, but he's able to see it. It just seemed like the right thing to do.Critical question: How come we don't see Christ resurrected in this film?Carner: It was never in the script. This was always intended as a Good Friday movie rather than an Easter Sunday movie. But I wanted to say, that's not where the story ends. So I tried to find subtle ways to imply the Resurrection without actually showing it.What are some of those ways?Carner: When the disciples cut Judas down from the tree, they start saying the prayer of the dead. Then Jesus' voice joins theirs and takes over as their voices drop away, and at the end of the prayer you hear only Jesus' voice, suggesting that Jesus is alive. This is his prayer, not the prayer of his disciples.Another thing I did is when Caiaphas goes to see Pilate, we see the Praetorium, which represents Rome. In every other scene in the movie, it's always been sort of filled with a sense of power and wealth; now it's like a tomb. It's empty. We also have a peacock in the foreground, which was an early symbol of the resurrection.The third thing was the music in the climax. Although the lyrics are in Latin, they are about Jesus reigning in glory. So it is not just a requiem, but also a triumph.Do you want viewers to like Judas in this film?Carner: I want you to get an understanding of Judas without ever excusing him. I want him to be a recognizable human being. What he did was terrible, and so when he kills himself you're not really crying over this guy's fate. So I didn't really worry about likeability. It was more of, Is this guy compelling? Are we carried along by who he is and what his quest is? And can we illuminate what he did without excusing it?How did making this film affect you personally and spiritually?Carner: It was a daunting challenge, because on one level as a Christian, it's hard to have the presumption to say, Okay, now Jesus is going to go here. Now he's going to say that. No, not like that, Jesus. Don't do it like that. Do it this way. I imagine there are sort of two ways to go about it. One is to be so egotistical that you don't even think about the ramifications of what you're doing, and you just do it to gratify your own ego. What I tried to do was to take a different approach. I began each day with a prayer to, insofar as I consciously could, remove myself and my own ego from the process and to try to open myself up to the Spirit and let the Spirit guide my decisions. I can't imagine how I could have faced another way.Another thing, while we were editing the film, 9/11 happened. Everybody at the studio was in shock, and I brought them all together and we said a prayer. Then we got to work. And in the course of the day people came up to me, expressing gratitude to be working on this movie at that time. They said so much of what they do is meaningless crap, just a way to pay the bills. But they felt that this was a film that had some substance, and it made them feel they were doing something good. They were contributing to a message of love as opposed to violence and hate.I understand you had an accident some time ago that ultimately led you to a stronger faith. Can you tell me that story?Carner: I was raised in a mixed household—my father was Protestant; my mother was Catholic. I was baptized Protestant. In my teenage years and in my twenties, I didn't go to church. I was smarter than organized religion, so I rejected them all. But I began to gravitate toward Catholicism, partly because my girlfriend at the time was Catholic and she was very serious about her faith. But I always found excuses not to actually pursue it.On Easter Sunday 1991, I hit my head on the bottom of a retaining pool at a water park, and I was paralyzed from the neck down. As it turned out, the paralysis was temporary. I was in a hospital for a week and in physical therapy for a year, but eventually made a full recovery. I considered that to be literally a wake-up call from God, getting hit on the head by the Almighty. And as soon as I was able to drive a car, I drove over to St. Monica's, which was my local church, and enrolled in the RCIA program—the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, which is the process by which you become a Catholic as an adult. The program lasts a year, and on Easter Sunday of 1992 I became a Catholic, and I've never looked back.And now your faith informs all of your filmmaking.Carner: Absolutely. I try to bring my faith to the work in whatever way that I can. In a film like Judas it permeates the whole thing. In other films it is not as upfront, but it's always there. It's just how I see the world, and so it's how I do my work.Photos copyright ABC 2004, by Bob D'AmicoCopyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.