In the hands of director Timur Bekmambetov, this re-imagining of Ben-Hur is true epic action adventure wrapped up in a classic story of brotherly love, betrayal, forgiveness and finally redemption.
ScreenPicks talked with the men of the film – Jack Huston (Judah Ben-Hur), Toby Kebbell (Messala), Rodrigo Santoro (Jesus) and Morgan Freeman (Ilderim), and learned these nine things about making Ben-Hur.
On apprehension of doing another Ben-Hur:
Morgan Freeman: None! All the more reason to do it. It’s a re-imagining of a story that’s already been told three or four times. At least twice before in movies. I worked with Timur before. I know he’s very innovative when it comes to special effects and stuff like that. I couldn’t see how it was not going to be an exciting adventure.
On playing Judah Ben-Hur:
Jack Huston: I initially went after the role of Messala, which was interesting because I went and sat down with Timur and in my rather impassioned way spoke about Messala. Timur being Timur just sat and wrote everything down. Then later he said to me, when I’d gone out for a few auditions, “I think you might be right for Judah. I think you’re our Judah.” Then I went and tested and I somehow got the role. He said later to me, “The reason I felt that about you as Judah is not only did you feel like Judah to me but it was the way you spoke about Messala. You spoke about Messala with such love that he was never the bad guy to you.” He said, “For you two to have that relationship, it had to stem from real love between two brothers, and that’s how Judah felt about Messala.” Inadvertently, it was a beautiful way into the character, because the people who love you the most sometimes are the ones who hurt you the most. For this movie to work, that had to stay true, right to the very end. For the redemptive moment, for that last bit of forgiveness, you need to feel these brothers’ love. I was like, “Hah, Timur, you’re a smart dude. You got this. I feel good.”
On the differences between Judah and Messala in this version vs. the 1959 Ben-Hur:
Toby Kebbell: [The story] was much more about forgiveness. It was also much more about them being younger men and best friends, and about a person who couldn’t really understand how someone who wasn’t his blood could love him so much. It really wasn’t that interesting to play the villain twirling his mustache, this obsession of becoming powerful. But it was important to understand. That’s what ambition is, sometimes it’s blind and sometimes it forces stupid actions. What we wanted was looking [at the situation] from each other’s perspective. Why can’t he look from my perspective and see how it damages me. I’m in front of my superior officer. You’ve told me you did it, I have the bow and arrow, all you have to do is give me the zealot. You’re being noble and bold and that’s fantastic but it leaves me with no option. So what I wanted in that next scene was for Messala to be haunted and drained. It’s just so confusing on why [Judah] wouldn’t see it from my perspective, but the irony is, I can’t see it from his.
On that chariot race:
Huston: When you come out the gates and there’s 32 horses going around that arena and it’s choreographed so brilliantly, because you’re not for a second not aware how dangerous this is. It’s as dangerous a thing as you’ll ever do, because not only do you have to worry about what you’re doing, you have to worry about what the other 28 horses and chariots are doing around you. If you come out of one of those things wrong, you’ll get whacked by every other team. The first time you realize that you have to act is one of the big ones, because you’re like, “Oh my God, this is mad.” Then there’s this amazing moment where you realize what you’re doing and this is it. Everything in your mind, all of those voices that are telling you this, that or another, all the things of the day completely disappear and you are so focused on what you’re doing that you don’t think about anything but the race and the chariot. It became a meditation and it was beautiful. I had some of the most unbelievable weeks and months.
On training for that chariot race:
Kebbell: You learn on one horse, you move to two and then to four. But by the time you get to four, it’s terrifying but then it gets weird. You remember driving, when you first drove? It’s terrifying and you’re concentrating on everything, the stick shift all of it. Then all of sudden, you start thinking about what so-and-so is doing and you realize you’ve driven 12 miles and you haven’t been concentrating. It became like that, you’re driving these horses and then you forget you’re driving. It’s very bizarre.
On the horses actually loving that chariot race:
Huston: The horses love it. When I say love it, the horses have the best time. The horses race each other. At one point I had to put my feet and go completely horizontal with my feet on the front of the cart, just for them to feel me, so I was telling them to stop. That’s the kind of power they had. They’re beautiful. We had Friesians and Lippizans. Amazing horses.
And no, none of the horses were hurt:
Freeman: Of course not. That would be an absolute no-no. Nobody is going to rent horses to you today with the idea that you’re going to do something to them. The ASPCA watches what happens on set. You can’t even hurt a cockroach on a movie set. Did you know that? When we were making Se7en, in the scene about the gluttony guy, I shined my light on the cockroaches, and there was a cockroach wrangler. I am as serious as cancer!You do not hurt anything that you use in a movie. If it lives, it had better be alive when you are done. That includes maggots!
On interpreting his Jesus:
Rodrigo Santoro: We wanted to humanize Jesus and make him relatable. What excited me was that Timur said he wanted to make Jesus relatable. People have to feel connected to him. I’m like, that’s kind of the message, isn’t it. It shouldn’t be he’s the teacher and we are all listeners. It should be about we can do it, we all can do it. This is how we are supposed to live. What a better way to spread that message than make his relatable. Bring him close, ground him.
On how audiences will relate to Ben-Hur:
Freeman: You have different audiences. You have the youth factor. They are going to flood your superhero movies, action movies, where “Follow me! Wait here!” is most of the dialogue. And then you have this kind of world-renowned epic story that, in itself, is heroic, which usually will appeal to a broader audience. That’s the essential difference, I think.
Ben-Hur opens this Friday.