Martin Scorsese banned smoking from the set, both because he's a severe asthmatic, and to avoid any photographs being taken of actors and actresses playing Biblical characters, primarily Willem Dafoe, who smoked at the time, with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths.
Director Martin Scorsese first read Nikos Kazantzakis's novel "The Last Temptation of Christ", after being given a copy by Barbara Hershey, while he was directing her in Boxcar Bertha (1972), his second feature film. When she read in a trade paper many years later that Scorsese was finally getting the opportunity to direct a film adaptation, she begged him to let her play the role of Mary Magdalene. To make sure she didn't feel that he was giving her the part as a favor for having recommended the book, he made her audition.
The script for this film sat in the office of Martin Scorsese's lawyer for at least five years prior to being made. Although Scorsese thought the film could be brilliant, he was concerned how the public might respond to the finished film. His lawyer agreed the script was brilliant and very "brave", but advised against making the movie, because he did not think moviegoers were ready for such a story.
This movie was judged so controversial by some French fundamentalist Catholics, that they went as far as torching a couple of cinemas releasing the film, in Paris and Besançon, causing one death, and several serious injuries among the audience.
According to Martin Scorsese, the last shot was not intentional. The camera used to film this scene was faulty and light leaked in onto the film, causing a whiteout at the exact point in the scene at which Jesus died, and this was not discovered until the film was processed. Serendipity or divine intervention, take your pick.
The picture was Oscar nominated, in one category, for Best Director - Martin Scorsese. In the history of the Academy Awards, it has been a very rare occurrence indeed for a film to be Oscar nominated just only for directing without being nominated for anything else.
Several theater chains refused to screen the film. One of them, General Cinemas, later apologized to Martin Scorsese for this. Similarly, when released on home video and LaserDisc in the U.S., many video stores, including Blockbuster Video, did not carry the title because of the film's controversial reputation.
As of January 2002, the film cannot be shown on public television in Bulgaria. The National Television had scheduled it for showing, but the Bulgarian Orthodox Church managed to get a forbidding order, and the Council of Electronic Media banned it.
When Jesus is in the temple and Roman soldiers are coming after him in what appears to be all directions, it is the same five soldiers that are used in each shot. This was to save money, as the film had a small budget.
Some historians claim Pontius Pilate was born in Scotland, where his father was posted as a Roman Centurion guard. On knowing this, Scottish comedian Billy Connolly suggested that David Bowie to play Pontius Pilate "as a Scotsman". Bowie did not accept this advice.
The filmmakers were given such a paltry budget for their controversial project, that many economies had to be improvised. For example, Barbara Hershey (Mary Magdalene) had to continually re-apply her own mendhi tattoos (which kept streaking in the desert heat) because there were not enough makeup artists for everyone.
To get the film made, Director Martin Scorsese offered to shoot the picture in a minimal fifty-eight days for a mere seven million dollars, which was half of its original budget when the picture was being developed at Paramount Pictures, upon which the Universal Studios greenlit the production. Due to the time constraints for principal photography, Scorsese developed a "minimalist aesthetic", many scenes were improvised and worked out on the run with little rehearsal and preparation. Scorsese once commented: "We worked in a state of emergency."
The television premiere of the film on Channel 4 in the mid 1990s used to hold the record for receiving the most complaints (1,554) about a broadcast on British television. That record was eclipsed by BBC2's broadcast of Jerry Springer: The Opera (2005) on January 8, 2005, which drew more than fifty thousand complaints, many of which were submitted by Christians before the broadcast, offended by what they considered the blasphemous portrayal of Jesus in the program.
Because of the controversy surrounding his role in this movie, Willem Dafoe was refused a role in another historical epic movie, after the sponsors threatened to pull all funding if he was cast. Thus, the role of Doctor John Henry Holliday in Tombstone (1993) went to Val Kilmer instead.
The film attracted controversy not only in the United States, but also internationally due to the frontal nudity (especially from Jesus) in the crucifixion scenes, and the strong implication that Jesus had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene.
The film was released thirty-five years after its source novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis was published. Also known as "The Last Temptation", the novel was published in English in 1960, Martin Scorsese first optioned the film rights to the book during the late 1970s.
Martin Scorsese's friend and The New Yorker Magazine's critic Jay Cocks worked uncredited to revise the screenplay by Paul Schrader. Cocks' contribution could not be credited due to contractual obligations, as well as WGA regulations, which Schrader admits was unfair.
The author, Nikos Kazantzakis, made this disclaimer in a prologue to "The Last Temptation of Christ": "This book is not a biography; it is the confession of every man who struggles. In publishing it I have fulfilled my duty, the duty of a person who has struggled much, was much embittered in his life, and had many hopes. I am certain that every free man who reads this book, so filled as it is with love, will more than ever before, better than ever before, love Christ."
The film was originally to be produced by Paramount Pictures, budgeted at fourteen million dollars, and shot on location in Israel. The project was aborted at the last minute in December 1983, when management at Paramount Pictures (and its parent company Gulf + Western) became nervous about the many letters of protest they were receiving from religious organizations, as well as the movie's ever increasing production budget. The film was going to be Martin Scorsese's next film after The King of Comedy (1982) but when it got cancelled, he went and made After Hours (1985) instead. Eventually, Universal Pictures and the theater chain Cineplex Odeon co-financed it with the budget cut down to seven million dollars, and shot in Morocco.
Reportedly, a church group offered to buy up all the prints of this movie for ten million dollars. Also, Campus Crusade for Christ's Bill Bright wanted to buy the negative of the picture from Universal Pictures so that it could be destroyed for good.
The film is referenced in the title of the track "Your Kingdom, Your World" from the 1998 album "All About Satellites & Spaceships" by Seven Percent Solution, the track contains audio samples of the dialogue between Jesus (Willem Dafoe) and Pilate (David Bowie).
Martin Scorsese: [New York] Most of the apostles with speaking parts were played by actors from the New York City area. Scorsese wanted the apostles to speak with urban New York City accents, because he saw the apostles as "street guys".