Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The Stolen Script

I commented earlier that since the question of stolen script comes up repeatedly in news stories and now even in an academic review, I would like to comment on this. The gist of the accusation is this. In March-April last year, a committee assembled to look at a script of (what was then being called) The Passion. This "ad hoc" group was made up of Eugene Fisher from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Eugene Corn from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and seven New Testament scholars, four Catholics and three Jews. The group issued a fairly critical report on the script, in particular drawing attention to alleged anti-Semitism. It was this report, just under a year ago, that began the controversy that has surrounded the film ever since. Now, was the script which the "ad hoc committee" obtained stolen? This appears to have been alleged by Icon Productions after the group had published their report but to my knowledge the accusation was not investigated or followed up in any way. Two members of the ad hoc committee, on the other hand, have commented on the accusation in print. The first is Paula Fredriksen, who in an article published in The New Republic On-line on 25 July 2003, explained the situation from her perspective at some length. She uses some rather polemical language at points, but the article is detailed and specific and leaves little doubt that as far as she is concerned, the script was not stolen:

Mad Mel
by Paula Fredriksen

Here are the relevant parts excerpted:
. . . . . On March 25, the day before they invited me on board, Fisher and Korn exchanged communications with one William Fulco, S.J., who teaches in the department of classics and archaeology at Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit institution in Los Angeles. He had served as Gibson's librettist, translating the script from English into Aramaic and Latin. His intimacy with the script was perhaps the reason that he assumed, or was assigned, his role; for as long as the dialogue lasted, Fulco was the main contact on the Icon side.

Fisher and Korn had faxed Fulco two documents on criteria for evaluating dramatizations of Jesus's Passion, one issued by the USCCB in 1988, the second produced jointly by the USCCB and the ADL in 2001. In response, Fulco thanked them, and assured both men that the script was devoid of any hint of antiJewishness. In fact, he claimed, it was "totally in accord with the [USCCB/ADL] documents." Fulco's struggles with the translation, he says in this e-mail, had engraved the script in his memory. ("I know [it] almost backwards.") Shooting had concluded, Fulco said, only the prior week. Fulco then added two points of information relevant to future events--that he was "preparing accurate subtitles" (what had happened to Gibson's "point of honor"?) and that "the film follows the script quite faithfully." (Since the reporter from The Wall Street Journal had mentioned seeing "a first look at a rough cut of the film," it must have been substantially assembled before March 7.)

A few weeks later, on April 14, Fisher wrote to the group of scholars and to another USCCB officer: "I have just received the good news that we will receive the script for our analysis and comment within the next couple of days." The scholars had to promise confidentiality: we could not circulate the script outside of our group, "though of course your comments can be public." On April 17, Fisher informed Fulco that he had received the script and had sent copies out to the scholars. We received them and read them over Easter weekend.

The whole group heard again from Fisher on April 25. "Gibson called me last night," Fisher began. "He had with him McEveety [another Icon producer] and Fulco." Gibson said that he wanted Fisher to convey to the scholars that he does not share his father's views, that some of his best friends are Jewish, that he is sensitive to anti-Semitism and opposed to it. "As an Irish Catholic Australian," wrote Fisher in his e-mail, Gibson "knows more than a bit about religious and social prejudice and [he] relates to Jews as fellow sufferers from it.... He's open to what we have to say, but still a bit cautious." At this point Fisher still thought that we could work with Gibson to try to improve his film . . . . .

. . . . . The script, when we got it, shocked us. Nothing of Gibson's published remarks, or of Fulco's and Gibson's private assurances, had prepared us for what we saw. Each scholar, independent of the others, wrote his or her own comments on the document. We then boiled them down, bulleted our points, and made the whole discussion easy to digest. The first section of our report explained the historical connection between passion plays and the slaughter of European Jews, the dress rehearsals for the Shoah. Then we summarized our responses to the script. We pinpointed its historical errors and--again, since Gibson has so trumpeted his own Catholicism--its deviations from magisterial principles of biblical interpretation. We concluded with general recommendations for certain changes in the script. Four short appendices--two historical, two directly script-related--traversed this same terrain from different directions. A final appendix provided excerpts from official Catholic teaching.Receiving criticism is never easy. As teachers and as scholars, who regularly give and get criticism, we knew this. We also knew that we were asking Gibson to revise his script substantially. We knew that we were working against his enthusiasm, his utter lack of knowledge, and his investment of time and money. We pinned our hopes on his avowed interest in historicity, on his evident willingness to hear what we had to say, and on his decency. In retrospect, we also functioned with a naïveté that is peculiar to educators: the belief that, once an error is made plain, a person will prefer the truth.

Fulco knew by April 27 what the substance of our response had been: Fisher had already communicated privately with him. By May 2, we had our eighteen-page report assembled. Fisher and Korn co-wrote the cover letter on USCCB stationery, and sent the report to Icon by May 5. On May 9, members of the group received our copies. We waited. Icon was silent. When Korn phoned Fulco on May 12 to get his sense of the report, Fulco declined to share his views. He did mention that he, Gibson, and other Icon executives were scheduled to meet the following day. More silence.

Meanwhile, disturbances began to accrue. After a story about Gibson's movie ran in the Los Angeles Times, one of the group's members, Mary Boys, S.N.J.M., received "three vicious letters filled with personal attacks and anti-Semitic drivel." (Boys is a chaired professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, an adviser on ecumenical affairs to the USCCB, a member of the Catholic Biblical Association, and a tireless worker in the area of Catholic-Jewish relations. She knows anti-Semitic drivel when she sees it.) At the same time, another member of the scholars group, Father John Pawlikowski, O.S.M., professor of social ethics at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, mentioned an unhappy encounter that a friend of his--like Fulco, a professor at Loyola Marymount--had had with other Jesuits following Loyola's commencement ceremonies on May 11. On that day, Gibson had received an honorary doctorate. These Jesuits informed Pawlikowski's colleague that "Father Fulco has written a beautiful script; how could we possibly attack him? How could anyone criticize the story of the Passion? They were all aware of our report, so Fulco is obviously spreading the word."

We were surprised: we had understood that, for the time being, our report, like Gibson's script, was meant to be kept between us and Icon. "They"--Fulco, Gibson, and company--"are simply going to discredit us," Pawlikowski concluded. On May 16, the truth of his words, and the reasons for Icon's silence, became clear. On that date, Fisher, Korn, the ADL, and the USCCB received a letter from Gibson's attorney. Dated May 9, written within days of Icon's receipt of our report, the letter had sat for a week while we waited for their response, and Gibson collected his degree, and Fulco avoided Korn, and the Icon executives and Fulco conferred.

"As you are fully aware, you are in possession of property stolen from Icon, namely a draft of the screenplay for the Picture," the letter began. "At no time did Mr. Gibson authorize the release of this material to you or to any other third party for dissemination to you." The lawyering went on for another page: "You have admitted that you came into possession of this stolen property by means that are illegal." "You are now attempting to force my clients to alter the screenplay to the Picture to suit your own religious views." Our side was threatening to discredit the film, and to intimidate Gibson. ("This act is itself illegal--it is called extortion.") All scripts were to be returned by 5:00 p.m. on May 13. (Poor organization, since this letter was faxed three days after its own deadline.) Court orders, lawsuits, reserved rights and remedies, and all sorts of terrible consequences might and could and would follow. Very truly yours, et cetera.

"Gibson, Fulco and McEveety were all on the phone with me well before," Fisher wrote to me on May 20. "They knew we had the script, as they had known for some time, and did not ask for it back." Icon's new claim also made nonsense of the earlier condition of confidentiality to which we had assented before seeing the screenplay: who else would have required that? No matter. Lawyers were in the saddle; reason was dying . . . . ."
If Fredriksen's perceptions are right, there is little doubt -- the script was not stolen. Her report is backed up by a second member of the ad hoc committee, Amy-Jill Levine:

The Real Problem with "Passion"

This was published on Beliefnet also last summer, but it is not dated. Levine writes:
After questioning our panel's motives, Mr. Medved referred to the Gibson camp's charge that we used a "stolen" script. Indeed, Mr. Gibson's backers have consistently accused this committee of being underhanded and immoral: first, they claim, we obtained the script illegally. This is wrong: Gibson's company, Icon Productions, knew we had it, and Mr. Gibson personally expressed interest in hearing our views.
As far as I know, there have been no published attempts to refute Levine's and Fredriksen's explanations of the matter. They remain the only accounts, and Fredriksen's is the only rigorous, blow-by-blow account available. Until any published refutations of these accounts appear, I would suggest that the accusation of theft is dropped by those who comment on the film.

Update (22 July 2010): the link to Fredriksen's article above is no longer active and the New Republic's online version of the article is unreadable (Mad Mel), but there is a good PDF reproduction on Paula Fredriksen's home page.

Update (16 July 2012): the links to Fredriksen's article died again, so I have resurrected them in the above post, and in the update above.

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