Ben-Hur Interview: Roma Downey

Posted on August 18, 2016 at 1:21 pm

It takes a lot of courage to re-make a film that holds the record (tied with “Titanic” and “Lord of the Rings”) for the most Oscars, but producer Roma Downey has more than updated movie-making technology to bring to “Ben-Hur.” After the success of their previous Biblical epics “The Bible” and “A.D.” they wanted to tell a story from the era with another perspective. The 1870 Lew Wallace novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is adjacent to the story of Jesus, and that gave them the chance to tell non-Biblical story about a personal journey with exciting adventures and profound inspiration.

In an interview Downey spoke about what led them to the project and what they hope people will learn from it — and about how many cameras were used to create the thrillingly dynamic chariot race scene.

How do you begin to think about topping one of the most famous scenes in movie history, the 1959 “Ben-Hur” chariot race?

It is the most breathtaking scene in the film, there’s no question about that. You will inhale when those chariots come out of the starting gate. Eight chariots, 32 horses come charging down that track and chances are you won’t exhale until one of them crosses the finish line. It is really amazing. Timur Bekmambetov, our director, did an incredible job. He studied at NASCAR, he looked at Formula 1. He figured out all these different and exciting places he can place a small camera, in the wheels of the chariot, between the ears of the horses, on the armor of the riders. He even put a GoPro in an old soccer ball in the middle of the track so the chariots rode over the top of it. And then when he cuts all these things together from all these different angles, it builds the most exciting sequence that you’re going to see on screen this summer.

And how did you select Jack Huston for the role that Charlton Heston made so iconic? Tell me about the cast.

He is just a really hot up-and-coming actor, and this role of Judah Ben-Hur is certain to be a star-making role for him. I’m sure it will make him a household name. He has all the qualities that we were looking for, an actor who could be princely, who could play the young Prince Judah at the start of the movie. And he played so well the physical; he is athletic. The chariot race isn’t just all stunt doubles and body doubles, this guy was really at the reins of these horses, he was really out there courageously coming down that track, riding that chariot. And he also has a beautiful vulnerability. Remember it’s a character who is confined with his heart set on revenge but because of an encounter with Jesus his heart softens and opens even into a desire to be reconciled even into forgiveness. We needed an actor who could display vulnerability for that broken period of life. So I think that you will agree that his performance is just amazing. And of course we also have Toby Kebbell who plays Messala, the adopted brother. Their on-screen chemistry is amazing. And last but not least the great Morgan Freeman playing the role of Ilderrim and the Brazilian superstar Rodrigo Santoro, who plays the role of Jesus for us, a very important role in this film, differing from the 1959 version that really had more of a sense of Jesus, we never really got to meet Jesus the man, we never got to see his face, we never really got to hear his message. In our film we made certain that Jesus was an important character and you get to see him interact with people, you get to see how he engages with the characters and you get to see how he transforms particularly the heart of our leading character Ben-Hur.

I’ve done a lot of research about all the various versions of this story going back to the book published in 1870. Was your first exposure the Charlton Heston movie?

Yes, it was. I have very vivid memories of curling up with my family every Easter in our little home in Northern Ireland watching Ben-Hur. I have the loveliest memories of that movie but you know the truth is it was fifty-five years ago. The world that we live in has changed since then and our expectations of what we hope to see on screen have changed since then, cinema has changed and editing styles are faster. It was a very long idea with an intermission in the middle of it and I don’t know if the audience really would be willing to sit that long for a movie anymore. And also I think the acting style has changed. We now expect a more naturalistic acting style. And of course what we are able to achieve through special effects has transformed amazingly in the last 50 years. We have kids at home, Mark and I, and when we told them that we were going to be on the producing team of Ben-Hur they actually responded, “Ben who?” indicating to us that there is a whole new generation that actually doesn’t know the story, hasn’t seen it, haven’t even heard of it and so we believe it’s a whole new audience who will be excited to see this great story back on the big screen.

What was it like to tell another Biblical era story from the perspective of a fictional character whose story only touches briefly on Jesus?

“The Bible” and “The Son of God” were 100% focused on the Bible or Jesus or the apostles. We loved making this movie which follows Lew Wallace’s story because of the way that he used Jesus as a smaller part of a bigger story. In the same way this movie will appeal to a very widespread large audience because in the end it’s an entertaining fun big action adventure movie. Woven through it however, is this beautiful story of an encounter with Jesus which changes everything and so I think we have been very faithful to the spirit and the intentions of Lew Wallace.

As the producer, you have to worry about everything. What worried you the most?

Copyright 2016 Paramount
Copyright 2016 Paramount

We talked about the chariot race and you can only imagine what a logistically complicated project that was. It takes a village to make a movie and thank God on “Ben-Hur” the village was populated with the very best in business, the best horse trainers, the best stunt men, the best camera men, the best special effects team, an amazing director, cinematographer and so on, an incredible group. But I know that the one thing that weighed heavily on our hearts in the shooting of that sequence was safety, first and foremost, that there would be no injury to people and no injury to horses. And so we were very relieved when after two months of principal and second unit photography that sequence finally wrapped.

A scene that was also incredibly moving and extraordinary to recreate was the crucifixion scene. As producers it is our third crucifixion scene in our three years that we’ve got to do that with the Bible series of course which then became “Son of God” and then again with “A.D. The Bible Continues,” so Rodrigo Santoro was the third Jesus that we have cast in a picture and when we hung him from a cross it was the third time that we had re-created the scene. It is a somber set as it always is. Even though it’s a movie you can’t help but being moved by the violent nature of the method of murder and the intensity of just that scene and knowing that Jesus offered himself willingly is incredibly humbling.

It was an extremely cold morning, which presented its own set of challenges for Rodrigo, especially, who had to strip off. The rest of us had the luxury of warm coats and gloves, but he had to be stripped off and be hung from a cross for a long time. We filmed the entire sequence. We know that Jesus said seven things from the cross, so we actually filmed all of that. We weren’t sure what would end up in the movie but the words that Judah needed to hear, the most important things that he needed to hear was on forgiveness: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” It’s in that moment that Judah realizes that he could lay down his hate, that he could set down his anger. His heart is opened and he realizes the only way forward is to forgive and that ultimately is a message of the movie. That vengeance doesn’t work, that it will just leave you empty, it doesn’t to get you anywhere and as Jesus said the only way forward is love and forgiveness.

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