On August 19, a fresh, new Ben-Hur will be charging into theaters to tell, once again, the epic tale of brotherly betrayal and revenge for a new generation. At a recent press event in Los Angeles, we got the chance to speak with executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (The Bible, A.D., and Son of God) about this new imagining of a classic film and why they were drawn to the project.
What attracted you to this production of Ben-Hur?
Mark Burnett: Gary Barber, the chairman of MGM, had seen The Bible series and Son of God, and as the head of the studio that owned the rights to Ben-Hur, decided it would be very beneficial for Roma and I to join the team, in the sense of guidance. It was really a big honor. When we were asked to get on board with Ben-Hur, we thought, wow, that’s a big step up from making TV series to making a giant epic movie. It’s been a great experience.
And by the way, you never know how God is moving because what happened as a result of that, is not only that we got to contribute to the re-making of Ben-Hur, but our companies have all merged together into MGM. So now, The Voice, Survivor, Shark Tank, The Apprentice, The Bible, Son of God … are all MGM now. That merger/acquisition wouldn’t have happened had we not met through Ben-Hur. So you don’t know where things lead.
Roma Downey: Yeah, it was such an incredible catalyst to a much bigger opportunity. For me with my production company, Lightworkers Media, we are now the faith and family division of MGM, which brings with it such a greater opportunity for outreach and output. With the mantra that it’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness — we’ll continue to try and create inspirational and aspirational content. Which really is what Ben-Hur is, although it comes in an incredible action-adventure movie — it still holds at its heart this beautiful story of mercy and love and forgiveness and reconciliation.
Is there one moment in the film that touches your heart?
Roma: For me, certainly it’s the moment when Judah, with grace, is transformed in front of the cross. He’s carrying a rock that he’s picked up along the way … when he goes to give Jesus water when he collapses on road carrying the cross, and the Roman kicks Judah and he grabs a rock instinctively to throw at the Roman back … well Judah still has that rock in his hand when he hears Jesus say, “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing,” and as he drops to his knees, his heart having opened, he also opens his hand and lets go of that rock. And it reminds me of all of those places in ourselves where we might be holding onto something — anger, or disappointment, or hurt or bitterness, whatever we hang onto in our lives … that we all have the opportunity, in front of the cross, to lay those things down and through grace be healed and restored.
So that’s my favorite moment. But it’s also hard not to inhale when that kerchief drops at the start of the chariot race and the horses hurdle down that track and you don’t exhale for another 15 minutes! Right?
I don’t know if anybody’s told you, but our horse trainer’s father trained the horses in the 1959 film. And our hair and makeup guy who designed the beards and the wigs, his father designed the hair and the beards and the makeup for the ’59 movie! So there was legacy at work too; people were really invested in bringing this to the screen in the most magnificent way possible.
One can imagine that the film will be a hit with the Christian audience, but how do you think it will be received by the non-Christian audience? Will they like it?
Mark: Yes. For a movie to be successful, it has to work from a secular and a faith point of view. You have to be able to make a movie that, if no one ever noticed the Jesus part, the movie itself works as a story, versus choosing to make a Jesus movie, and assuming you don’t have to do the work and make it a good story.
And in terms of impact, there’s a supernatural element to doing this. It’s amazing the amount of people who get affected and you can’t be planning that. It just happens.One scene I find very interesting is the Pontius Pilate scene, around the leper, when he sees Jesus try to stop the violence and get rid of hate and focus on love. And Pilate says to his commander, “What this man is preaching is far more dangerous to us than any army.”
Roma: Also, we’ve built up such friendships in the faith community over the course of the three or four projects we’ve done over the past few years. So we were shooting in Matera in southern Italy — we were shooting the crucifixion sequence, which is always challenging emotionally, physically and spiritually — and I had sent out hundreds of emails asking our communities to pray for us. And that prayer rose up that day. So when Rodrigo (Santoro, the actor playing Jesus) was brought out of his trailer in subzero temperatures and we were trying to keep him comfortable as long as possible, there’s still the moment when the heaters are removed, the blankets are taken off and the platform is removed, and he was literally vibrating, he was so cold. And I stood there, with some others, praying that through this scene — and into the place where Messala finally drops his knife and it clatters to the floor — that all around the world, that all the places that we are at war with each other, literally or within our own families, that the Holy Spirit would work through this film and touch people’s lives. So that was a prayer that was prayed into the fabric of this film.
There’s such a tenderness in Rodrigo Santoro’s expression of Jesus. Could you share a bit about finding that Jesus?
Roma: Casting is always one of the more fun parts of putting a film together. We compile lists and try to figure out who would be the ideal person to play the role. And Rodrigo Santoro def was always on our wish list… and he himself had been hoping to play Jesus sometime in his career. He brought such a sincere, loving heart to this project. The morning The Passion sequence began, he went into prayer and fasting to prepare himself for that sequence of shooting, and allowed us to pray with him as well. He brings a stillness and strength to the role.
Mark: Also, I like the idea that Jesus is tough. If you isolate what Jesus says in the Bible, it’s a lot of pretty tough stuff. It’s not all soft at all; he’s a tough guy. That ‘s what had God chose to come to Earth and I think that Rodrigo embodies that. He’s a carpenter! He’s a guy’s guy.
Roma: Yeah, he’s a carpenter … so he had to be believable as somebody you could imagine doing that kind of manual labor….
Mark: Meek doesn’t mean weak. When you see Jesus come down those stairs, and the Romans won’t let anyone give Jesus water … it’s not like Jesus is going to take a violent action against the Romans, he would never do that, but guy to guy, he looks the Roman right in the eye. And I like that. Sometimes in other films in the past, Jesus seemed very slight and always in a white robe and not very real. But if you go back and read the gospels, he says pretty tough things, often. Tough stuff. So I thought it was real.
And I think for a new generation, it’s a much more practical way to spread the gospel for young people — to see that it’s gritty.
Roma: And for Christians, this is an easy movie to invite a friend to see with you. There’s a subtlety to the message here. It’s advertised as an exciting action-adventure movie — and it doesn’t disappoint on that. And yet it holds something deeper, and that will be available to those whose hearts are open to it.