Ben-Hur: Remake Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

ben-hur_2016_posterBen-Hur is the epic story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), an officer in the Roman army.  Stripped of his title, separated from his family and the woman he loves (Nazanin Boniadi), Judah is forced into slavery.  After years at sea, Judah returns to his homeland to seek revenge, but finds redemption.

Based on Lew Wallace’s timeless novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.  Also starring Rodrigo Santoro and Morgan Freeman.

 

 

 

Credits

Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures present Ben-Hur.
Executive Producers Mark Burnett, Roma Downey, Keith Clarke, John Ridley and Jason F. Brown.

Produced by Sean Daniel, p.g.a., Joni Levin, p.g.a., and Duncan Henderson

Screenplay by Keith Clarke and John Ridley.

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov.

TIMELESS TALE

When director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Night Watch) was first approached to direct a re-imagining of one of cinema’s most beloved films, he was hesitant.

“The  1959 Ben-Hur is not just a film, it’s a phenomenon that greatly affected the culture of the 20th century,” Bekmambetov explains. “That’s why when I was offered to direct its  reincarnation, my initial thought was ‘absolutely not.’ Luckily producer Sean Daniel persuaded me to read the script, which turned out to be this incredibly meaningful story, impressing with not just sensational action but with line-up of amazing life-like characters and deep thinking. Even though the setting and the circumstances are thousands of years ago, the characters’ emotions and actions are relatable and have a
modern, universal resonance.”
Writer John Ridley had similar reservations while developing the script. “The most ardent fans of the 1959 film might find it blasphemous to revisit it in any form, but  they forget these characters existed 80 years prior. People only tend to remember Charlton Heston and the chariot race, but Judah Ben-Hur is such a rich, classic character.

He’s a wronged man seeking revenge and redemption. Compelling characters like Ben Hur and Messala are the reason we can return to these stories again and again, so I wanted to make the personal conflict between these former friends just as tense and
memorable as the climactic chariot race.”

“The emotional themes of the film, vengeance vs. forgiveness, are timeless. The conflicts the characters experience are as relatable today as they were in Roman times or 1880, when Lew Wallace wrote the novel,” explains Daniel. “It’s human nature, and that
doesn’t change.”
“In many ways we still live in the Roman Empire, we still live with its values,” comments Bekmambetov. “Power, greed and success rule the world, people try to  achieve everything in harsh competition, and only few realize that true human values are collaboration and forgiveness.”

Casting

“Casting Ben-Hur was as epic an undertaking as making the movie,” says Daniel.  “We searched all over the world. The casting of the roles of Judah Ben-Hur and Messala were especially tricky, because the movie only works if those two characters have chemistry. They start out as brothers who become bitter rivals and rip each other’s lives apart. When we saw Jack and Toby work together we knew we had something special.”

“Finding the right actor to play Judah Ben-Hur was a process,” recalls Bekmambetov.  “We needed someone smart who could create a character combining aristocratic irony and ability to truly care for other people. Jack proved to us that he is capable of doing all that.”
Huston recalls first meeting with Bekmambetov. “Timur asked me to give him my thoughts on the character of Judah Ben-Hur. I started talking, and he was fervently  writing notes. He saw it as a conversation, and wanted to bring as much authenticity to it as he could. Working with Timur has been exciting, because it’s a collaboration.”
“Originally Jack came to try out for a part of Messala (brilliantly played by Toby Kebbell). But after I talked to him it became clear to me that I’d just found Prince Judah Ben-Hur!” exclaims Bekmambetov. “It felt like he was born in that era. Ironic, well built,
experienced horseman.”
“Jack Huston gives the most extraordinary portrayal of a man on a journey,” comments Executive Producer Roma Downey. “Through the course of the film, we see him change physically and emotionally. Physically, we see him go from this handsome, charming, debonair prince, to a man broken and brought to his knees. Through the years he spends on the galley ship, we see his body tighten and his heart harden.  He knows that
the only thing that will allow him to survive is to harness his lust for revenge.”

“We absolutely loved Jack as Ben-Hur because he was just so brilliant in his reading and understanding of what the character is about,” says Daniel. “On top of that, Jack’s a Huston, one of the royal families of film. We shot the film at Cinecittà Studios in Rome, where John Huston directed “The Bible” in 1966, so it was exciting to have his  grandson in our film all these years later.”

Toby Kebbell as Messala
Toby Kebbell was cast in the pivotal role of Messala, Ben-Hur’s adopted brother and best friend who sets him on his path for vengeance.
“Toby brought a lot to the role of Messala,” Producer Duncan Henderson explains. “The character was very interesting to begin with, but Toby was able to instill
the character with his own innate sense of humor that he brings to set every day.  Messala is a very dark character, but Toby’s portrayal gives him a certain lightness that just adds to his complexity.”
“Toby sizzles on screen,” comments Downey. “Physically, he just brings it. He’s
good looking. He’s grounded. He’s strong, and he inherently has such intelligence and
depth. We believe that he loves Judah, and the thing that drives him through the second
half of the movie is that love and disappointment.”
“When I met with Timur,” Kebbell recalls, “I realized this wasn’t just about a
chariot race. This is a story about brothers, about family, how badly we sometimes treat
the ones we love, and how often we need forgiveness. Everything we’re exploring is
drawn from the original book.”
Kebbell continues, “The roles of Ben-Hur and Messala are symbiotic. It was a
fun challenge for us to play with the fraternal bond between these rivals. There’s love and
there’s hate there, but give too much either way and you’ll lose the unique conflict that
drives the film.”
Morgan Freeman plays Sheik Ilderim, a greatly expanded role from previous
adaptations of Ben-Hur. After Ben-Hur escapes a deadly slave galley, Ilderim serves as
his mentor and benefactor, eventually teaching him to race chariots.
“We needed an actor of Morgan Freeman’s caliber to show the honor and dignity
of the character of Ilderim, and make him integral to the story,” comments Ridley. “For
me, as a person of color, it was extremely important to give this character a voice and
make him more faithful to the era and true to life.”  Adds Daniel: “Working with Morgan
Freeman has been one of my dreams. Morgan brought deep commitment to his portrayal
of Ilderim. It was important to all of us and it is the first time in any creation of the
movies (and stage plays) of Ben-Hur that a man of color has been rightfully depicted as
the character really is.”
“Morgan Freeman and I worked together on Wanted, and I couldn’t wait to
collaborate with him again,” explains Bekmambetov. “Ilderim in his interpretation is
cynical, emotional, smart and tricky all at the same time. He doesn’t show all his cards at
once, but you get the sense that bringing these characters from point A to point B was
always part of his plan.”
Freeman says he enjoyed his experience making Ben-Hur. “I noticed that the
director and producers laugh a lot. When there is a lot of laughing that means they are
happy with what they are getting.”
Esther, Judah’s childhood friend and eventual wife, is played by Nazanin Boniadi
(“Homeland”, “How I Met Your Mother”). “I was drawn to Esther because of her complexity. As a Jew, she wants to resist the Roman occupation and advocate for the
disenfranchised, but supporting the rebels could put the House of Hur and her own family
in jeopardy,” says Boniadi. “Later on, when she’s lost her home, family and the man she
loves, she becomes one of the first followers of Jesus, the carpenter prophet who teaches
her that freedom can be achieved through forgiveness and compassion.”

Naomi Ben-Hur
Ayelet Zurer (Man of Steel, Angels & Demons) plays Naomi Ben-Hur, Judah’s mother and the proud matriarch of the House of Hur. Zurer explains, “Naomi resents the  Roman occupation, but doesn’t want to risk her family status by openly opposing them.
She has a kind and generous heart, and adopts Messala as a child, which is a decision she
may come to regret.”
Sofia Black-D’Elia (Project Almanac, “Gossip Girl”) plays Tirzah, Judah’s strong willed younger sister, who falls in love with Messala. Black-D’Elia says, “Tirzah’s
journey is familiar. At the start of the film, she’s sheltered and naïve. Then, in an instant,
it’s all taken away and she’s forced to see reality. Ultimately, she must forgive the man
who ruined her life; the man she loves.”
“We wanted our female characters to be as complex, strong and influential in this
story as the men,” Sean Daniel states. “These characters have all existed in previous
versions of the story, but weren’t given the depth or development these actresses were
able to bring to their roles.”
Rodrigo Santoro (The 33, 300) was selected to play Jesus Christ, who crosses
paths with Ben-Hur at several points in the story.
“As soon as I met Rodrigo, it was clear he was the right actor,” recalls
Bekmambetov. “He has a God-given talent – Rodrigo can play this spiritual figure while
still coming across as the boy next door.”
“Rodrigo was a perfect choice to play Jesus,” comments Downey. “He’s got
strength, kindness and depth.”
Henderson agrees. “Rodrigo just has an inner peace and strength. He’s
inspirational in the role because of the calm, regal presence he brings.”
Playing the role of Jesus was a serious undertaking for Santoro. “Billions of
people all over the world have a very personal and intimate relationship with this man,
with his image, with what he represents,” comments Santoro. “It’s a tremendous
responsibility, but it’s also a unique opportunity to have a chance to explore and to have a
deeper understanding of what he went through and try to practice his teachings.”
“I think the first thing that I had to do was attempt to erase any preconceived ideas
I had about him,” says Santoro. “Things that I’ve heard, things that even my grandma told
me when I was growing up. I went to a neutral place and started from there.”
Santoro undertook a physical and mental regime to prepare for the role. He spent
a lot of time practicing yoga, meditation, and adopted a strict, cleansing diet.
“I tried to connect to what I truly felt about this man because I had to play Jesus,”
Santoro continues. “How do I understand, as deeply as possible, this person and
everything he represents? I wanted to create a portrait of the man behind the myth. I
wanted to make him relatable without sacrificing any of his teachings, his aura, his
spirituality and everything that was so unique about him. It was the most challenging
thing I have ever done.”
BRINGING THE FIRST CENTURY TO THE TWENTY-FIRST

“Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur is one of my all-time favorites,” says Executive Producer Mark Burnett. “It was truly an amazing spectacle, especially for the time in which it was made. As much as that film means to me and so many others, my own
teenagers had never heard of it. I realized there was a massive audience ready for a fresh
approach to this classic story and with all the advances in filmmaking since then, we can
create a spectacle even more thrilling for a modern audience.”
Bekmambetov proved to be the key to bringing the first century story into the
twenty first. “We didn’t want the film to be another theatrical bombastic,” Bekmambetov
explains. “It was epic not because of hundreds of horses, enormous amounts of extras and
thousand feet sets of the Arena, but because of its idea. Its style, editing, acting and
cinematography hopefully will appeal to the modern audience.”
“Timur is a very unique director,” comments Daniel. “He is cutting edge
contemporary in his vision, but also a very classical thinker. He’s really the perfect
combination for a project like this.”
Director of Photography Oliver Wood (the Bourne series) provided a grounded,
visceral style.  One of the most innovative tools used was a G4 camera. “The style of the
camera works like your iPhone,” explains Bekmambetov. “It makes every scene feel as if
you were really there, in the moment.”
Bekmambetov found visual inspiration on YouTube. Security footage from an
actual bus crash in South Korea helped the crew create a convincing ship to ship collision
between a Greek vessel and a slave galley ship. NASCAR footage helped Bekmambetov
set the pace, speed and intensity of the chariot race. “The style of amazing camerawork
by Oliver Wood is designed so that every scene feels as if you were really there, in the
moment,” explains Bekmambetov. “We tried to sacrifice the glossy artificiality for the
sake of authenticity, so that the audience knows this world well. All the camera
techniques we used will feel familiar to modern audiences. We wanted to catch the action
as you would in reality, in order to achieve that we were looking for inspiration not in
classic paintings but in photos on Instagram and videos on YouTube.”
Modern innovations, like Go-Pro cameras, allowed Bekmambetov and Wood to
shoot from every possible angle, even placing cameras in the sand to get shots of the
chariots thundering above.
“I do love the freedom of the Go-Pro,” says Wood. “Normally, you’re limited by
spaces that need to fit a camera, a rig and an operator, but a Go-Pro can go just about
anywhere.”
AN EQUESTRIAN EPIC
The climactic moment of the film, Ben-Hur’s deadly chariot race against Messala, was shot over 32 days at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios. From day one, the decision was made to film the majority of the chariot race in camera, requiring twelve weeks of intensive
chariot training for Huston and Kebbell. Though both had previous horse riding
experience, racing with a four horse team proved to be a completely new skill set.
“I’ve grown up with horses,” says Jack Huston. “I feel very comfortable and
confident around them, but there’s something entirely different when you have to control
four of them simultaneously. The sheer strength of them is incredible.  You don’t just
coast around a corner, you skid in that sand. It’s one of the most exhilarating adrenaline
rushes I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
“Chariot racing was truly an extreme sport of its time, though we were drawing
inspiration from NASCAR and Formula 1, riding a chariot with four horses is way more
dangerous.” Bekmambetov confesses, “I’ve had a chance to try driving it when on the
set, and to be honest, that was really scary, forget about comfort, suspension or airbags, a
rider is very close to the ground and the only way to maneuver the chariot is to use the
weight of his own body, balancing on the platform. We couldn’t have done it without the incredible Steve Dent, our Horse Master and Stunt Coordinator, and Phil Neilson, our 2nd Unit Director.”
“When you come out the gates, you’ve got another seven teams with 28 horses surging forward with you,” Huston continues. “You have to play to the camera, but at the
same time, you have to watch the action. It’s like driving a racing car and acting at the
same time.”
“The training was fascinating to me,” says Kebbell. “We started with a horse and cart, then two horses pulling a chariot, then four. There was a big learning curve. What
threw me at first was that no matter how many pushups and pull-ups I did, the parts I had
to strengthen were my fingers. The fingers have to be able to divide your strength
between four horses to control them.”
“I think at first Jack and Toby thought, ‘How hard can it be?’ Henderson
speculates, “But keeping control of all four horses is an incredibly physical task. They
have the ability to get away from you at any moment, so you have to stay on top of that.
It’s not only about your safety but the safety of everyone around you.”
“Driving a chariot at 40 miles an hour doesn’t sound incredibly fast, but try doing
40 on a motorbike with your visor up and you realize how wild it is,” Kebbell says with a
grin. “It’s an incredible feeling when you turn the corner with the sun in your eyes and
the dust pounding your face.”
“We got some incredible footage of Jack and Toby driving the chariots at a full
gallop,” says Horse Master Pete White. “You can clearly see that is them neck and neck
on the track.”
While every effort was made to use practical effects, some of the more dangerous
shots were created digitally for the safety of the horses and stunt teams. A since banned
technique of having horses trip over a concealed wire was used in the 1959 Ben-Hur,
infamously resulting in the accidental injury or death of dozens of horses. Seamless
visual effects allow for digital horses to crash and tumble without putting any actual
animals in harm’s way.
“We have horses running through crowds or taking falls, thanks to some CG
enhancement,” says Second Unit Director Phil Nielsen.  “But for the most part, we did
the race at high speed, with the actors in the middle of it. We wanted the audience to go
on the ride with Judah and Messala.”
“There was no room for improvising at all,” Nielsen continues. “Occasionally you
got some lovely moments that you weren’t expecting due to the nature of having eight
chariots out there doing what they do, but every move and turn is choreographed for the
safety of everyone involved.”
“The stunt team and chariot drivers were the best at what they do,” Nielsen
continues. “But even the expert drivers were working with chariots much smaller than
what they’re used to. It feels like you’re on a skateboard out there. It’s a pretty wild ride.”
WHEN IN ROME
Authenticity was the guiding principle when the creative team set out to recreate
the world of Ben-Hur. Bekmambetov and Production Designer Naomi Shohan agreed
that their Jerusalem would look as though it had been carved out of the rocky hillside.
Matera, a southern Italian town dating back to the third century, proved a perfect
match. Many of Matera’s homes, hotels and restaurants were built in and around the
existing caves.
“We looked at different locations,” explains Producer Sean Daniel, “But we fell in
love with Matera. It’s this incredibly unique and visually stunning town that has original

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dwellings dug into the rock face of a huge ravine. The town has been inhabited for
thousands of years and you absolutely feel like you’re stepping back in time.”
A local residence was selected to provide the exterior of the Palace of Hur, based
on its vantage point on the hillside. Shohan explains, “We needed to have a viewpoint
from which you could see the Roman soldiers invading Jerusalem, so we combed Matera
until finally we found the perfect house. It had a magnificent front door and a view down
a very wide flight of stairs, across the town to the ravine.”
“I’ve seen films shot in Matera before, but never like this,” says Burnett.  “There’s
something about that ancient rock and the truth of the city being so old which translates
to the screen. Matera was a wonderful choice.”
“After we had settled on Matera, it made sense to build the interiors in the
legendary Cinecittà Studios,” explains Producer Sean Daniel. “Cinecittà  was the studio
where they made the 1959 Ben-Hur as well as some of the other greatest movies ever
made. We were always in awe of where we were.”
The largest and most magnificent set at Cinecittà was the interior of the Palace of
Hur. Shohan designed the palace based on photographs she took of a home excavated in
Pompeii, and incorporated a gold, blue and white color scheme to depict the Hur family’s
Hebrew faith.
Cinecittà was also home to the galley ship set, a complicated undertaking not only
for Shohan but also for SFX supervisor Andy Williams.
The galley ship was constructed in three sections: the main galley, a smaller
section that could roll through 50 degrees to simulate the boat turning over after colliding
with another ship, and the third section which hung from cranes so it could be submerged
in the exterior tank.
To simulate the rocking of the ocean, Williams’ team built the massive ship on a system of airbags. Creating the effect of the galley ship being rammed during the naval battle created an additional challenge. “We filled hydraulic rigs underneath it so you
could feel the shock of the impact,” Williams explains.
“The oars were also on pneumatic devices so we could adjust the tension of each
one,” he continues. “We needed to get enough strain on the people who are doing the
rowing so we could see their muscles. They have to work a little bit, but not so that they
can’t work all day.”
By far the largest set in Ben-Hur was the Circus Tiberius at Cinecittà World, a 45
minute drive outside Rome. It took over three months to build.
“We designed the whole circus, but only had to build a fraction of it for
practicality,” explains Shohan, “In our imagination, there was a tunnel and a spectacular
staircase surrounded by fountains and braziers that led up to the city of Jerusalem.”
Jim Rygiel, the VFX supervisor, handled the extension of the physical set into the
final circus.  “We wanted to do as much practically as possible, so they built a sixth of the
circus, because you only needed to see the horses and chariots coming around the track.
The upper levels were created digitally and filled with about ten thousand digital people.”
The crucifixion, the film’s emotional finale, was staged in Matera. The scene
proved a harrowing experience for the cast and crew. The day was bitterly cold. The
crosses were set on the edge of a deep ravine, totally exposed to the elements. Snow had
fallen the day before.
“I had a problem just going there to film that scene,” recalls Bekmambetov. “It
was terrifying to see Rodrigo on that cross.”
“When I was up there on that cross it was so cold it was almost unbearable,” recalls Santoro. “I was on the top of a cliff looking over all those people and Matera in the background, just waiting. When they took me down from the cross, my body was
involuntarily shaking. I couldn’t stop. It was probably the most emotionally charged
experience I’ve ever had.”
“The only word I can use to describe the feeling of being in the crucifixion scene is surreal,” explains Nazanin Boniadi. “You get a slight sense of what it must have been like at that time to see this beloved man unjustly and brutally killed.” “Rodrigo’s hands were strapped to the cross, and his body was vibrating with the  cold,” says Downey with a shudder. “His courage, the level of commitment to playing this role was mesmerizing. The take was 20 minutes long and everyone watching was held in complete silence.”
FIRST CENTURY FASHION
When it came to designing the costumes for Ben-Hur, Costume Designer Varya Avdyushko took different approach to the classic period drama.
“The most important thing to Timur was to make the story believable,” Avdyushko explains. “He didn’t want to make a period drama that no one could relate to.
We want the audience to feel a connection with our characters. It would be difficult for
them to do that with the strange costumes, so we used little tricks to make them slightly
more contemporary.”
“When working on the project I had Italian makeup artists, prop masters and
stuntmen stopping by now and then, with tears in their eyes telling me their grandparents
worked on 1959 Ben-Hur,” Bekmambetov recalls. “The father of our makeup artist,
Luigi, did Charlton Heston’s make-up, the grandfather of our costume designer worked on the film as well, and during our galley scene when Judah, is whipped by stuntman  Giorgio, his own father whipped Heston. Linking the times at work.”
“We have done some serious research figuring out what those (chariot) races
really looked like, some truly dramatic moments throughout the sequence were not
fictional and have really happened two thousand years ago.” Bekmambetov continues, “A
lot of work has been done by our costume designer, Varya Avdyushko, who created
amazing costumes for us, fully replicating the ones used in the Roman Empire. During
the research we have noticed that all the chariot racers had three leather straps across the
chest, even though we couldn’t figure out what was the purpose of those, we used them in
our costumes. Later on when one of the stuntmen fall off the chariot those straps saved
his ribcage, – turns out they were some kind of a safety feature that Romans were using.”
“I drew from both the previous movies, the silent and 1959 versions, which were
quite beautiful,” Avdyushko explains, “as well as historical references like mosaics,
frescoes, and statues. Then I compared them to contemporary pictures to try to make a
link between what we are used to seeing nowadays and the historical material.”
She continues, “I took pictures of Roman soldiers and compared them with
modern photos of Special Forces and the German military, to make them more
identifiable to the audience.”
Avdyushko’s goal was to create costumes that complimented and informed the
arc of each character. “In the beginning we see Ben-Hur at parties, at dinners; he is a
light, colorful person. When he comes back from his years of slavery he is more closed;
he covers his face, and his colors are dark.”
“Messala is nearly the same story,” says Avdyushko. “We start with him as a
small boy and then he enters the world of war. He becomes a soldier, then an officer and eventually attains a very high rank in the Roman army.  We can feel that he is very tough, but you can still see that the vulnerable man beneath the armor.”

“The women’s wardrobes also undergo a big change during the story,” Avdyushko comments. “When we first see Naomi she is the queen of the house,” says Avdyushko.  “Both Naomi and Tirzah are dressed in gorgeous clothes and very confident, but the next
time we see them they are living in the cave and the clothes they were arrested in have
become rags.”
“Esther escapes the fate of Judah’s family,” comments Avdyushko, “and has
become a follower of Jesus. Even though she has joined this movement, I wanted to her
stand out as a strong, independent woman, not a passive follower. Women aren’t
supposed to wear pants in a historical drama, so I put her in pants disguised as a skirt.”
REVENGE AND REDEMPTION
Screenwriter Keith Clarke found a timely story of forgiveness in the original
novel, Ben-Hur, a Tale of Christ. Although Ben-Hur has all the makings of a classic
revenge epic, the aspect that endeared the project to the creative team was its redemptive
themes.
“One of the last sentences Christ spoke was ‘Father, forgive them for they know
not what they’ve done,’” explains Clarke. “With his last few breaths, he forgave those
who responsible for his death.”
“So much tragedy in the world can be averted by forgiving our enemies,” Clarke
continues. “I’m a huge admirer of Nelson Mandela, because he was able to confront the
people who had wronged him and forgive them. In the Middle East, conflicts have raged
for generations because of the difficulty of saying ‘I know what you’ve done to me is
horrific, but I forgive you.’”

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Producer Sean Daniel says, “Regardless of your own personal faith, you will
appreciate the profound and universal themes explored in the film.”
“If you watch this movie, and you’ve never read the Bible, you’ll enjoy story, the
action and adventure,” says Downey. “If you are a Christian, the film will mean that
much more to you.”
“Ben-Hur doesn’t give you a message of faith overtly, but it is there to give you
something to think about,” explains Burnett. “It’s a message of hope that’s been part of
this story since Lew Wallace wrote it in 1880. It’s a story that’s been told before, because
it’s a story worth telling again and again, for this generation and for generations to
come.”