In the summer of 2001, a film crew gathered in Morocco to portray Jesus’ final hours. It wasn’t a crew for Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which was shot in Italy. This crew was shooting the TV movie “Judas,” which portrays not only Jesus’ crucifixion, but also—and mainly—his relationship with his betrayer, Judas Iscariot.
“Judas,” an “interpretive dramatization” of Judas’ time with Jesus in politically unstable Judea, airs March 8 on ABC. The two-hour special was directed by Charles Carner, who recently spoke with EthicsDaily.com by phone from Los Angeles.
“I take my faith very seriously,” said Carner, a Catholic and native Chicagoan who graduated from his hometown’s Columbia College. “I try to bring my faith to my work. Not every movie I do is an explicitly religious film, but it’s always on my mind.”
“Judas,” of course, is an explicitly religious film, and one that was brought to him by Frank Desiderio, the president of Paulist Productions. Paulist was founded by Father Ellwood “Bud” Kieser in 1960 to produce the acclaimed syndicated series “Insight.” For more than four decades, Paulist has continued to produce TV shows and films, the latest being “Judas.”
“We’re both involved in various Catholic and ecumenical groups in the entertainment business,” Carner said of Desiderio. “I knew him in those circles. He knew my work and when the picture was ordered for production by ABC, Frank recommended me.”
Carner got to work, shooting the $5 million movie in Morocco in the summer of 2001. Almost three years later, it will finally air.
“We finished the picture, and it was originally going to air during the Easter season in 2002, and it didn’t happen,” Carner said. ABC kept changing its schedule, and “Judas” got pushed further and further back.
But when Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” went into production and then neared release, Carner and friends decided it was high time for ABC to act.
“We all went to ABC and suggested that we air ‘Judas’ during the same time frame because there’s so much tension and interest in Gibson’s film,” Carner said.
As Carner put together his directorial vision for the film, he was drawn again and again to the portrayal of Judas—one of the most infamous characters of Christian Scripture.
“How does he go through this process in human, emotional terms?” Carner wondered.
The role of Judas went to Johnathon Schaech, best known for “That Thing You Do” with Tom Hanks and “How to Make an American Quilt.”
“Johnathon Schaech was a wonderful, wonderful actor,” said Carner. “He came to the party ready to go.”
Schaech also had a unique challenge under Carner’s direction.
“What was I concerned about was trying to make Judas understandable without excusing it [the betrayal],” Carner said. He relied not only on Schaech for this task, but also on the script by Tom Fontana, executive producer of “Homicide: Life on the Street” and creator of HBO’s popular “Oz.” Fontana also wrote “The Fourth Wiseman,” another Paulist Production.
Fontana “takes what little we know of Judas from Scripture and tries to make it understandable,” he said.
Carner also cast Jonathan Scarfe in the role of Jesus. That was after Carner auditioned a number of other actors.
“What I was worried about was that they would be pious and lifeless,” Carner said. Instead, they came in playing Jesus as angst-ridden and tormented. Eventually, however, he saw Scarfe.
“He was the only one who came in and gave a sense of joy, which is the essence of Jesus,” Carner said. “The message he’s bringing is good news.”
Carner said he remained keenly aware that this project was risky.
When you make a film with biblical subjects, “You’re on a high-wire,” he said, placing “The Greatest Story Ever Told” at one extreme and “The Last Temptation of Christ” at the other.
“If you completely lose your way, you end up doing ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian,'” he joked.
Furthermore, “Judas” deals with issues that have turned Gibson’s “The Passion” into one of the most controversial films of recent memory.
“When we went into production, we were completely unaware that Gibson was contemplating ‘The Passion,'” Carner said. In fact, “The Passion” was shot after “Judas.”
“We were not aware that his film was going to be criticized in that area [of Jews’ role in Jesus’ death], but we were conscious of that concern,” Carner said. That concern led the production to ask a rabbi to give input to the process, and Carner said he often deferred to Desiderio on biblical issues.
“We had various screenings with different pastors of different faiths to be sure that our film reflected the circumstances that were operative in the crucifixion,” Carner said.
Some of those circumstances included portraying Judea as a land mired in political struggle, as well as showing the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and the Jewish high priest Caiaphas in charge of their respective realms.
“It’s clear that the guilt is not a collective guilt of the Jewish people,” Carner said, but a political situation relating to those two people—Caiaphas and Pilate.
Carner said he doesn’t know if “Judas” will be criticized like “The Passion of the Christ.”
“We made an effort in that area,” he said of the production’s sense of social responsibility. “Whether that effort is respected and accepted remains to be seen.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Stay tuned for our review of “Judas,” which airs March 8 (9-11 p.m. ET) on ABC.