Year One — the set-visit reports begin

Year One — the set-visit reports begin May 2, 2009

The “biblical comedy” Year One comes out next month, and at least two websites posted new stories last week describing their visits to the set last year; one of them also posted several interviews with the director and members of the cast.

The main report at focuses on costumes, production design and the like — though it also notes, without quite saying so, that the film seems to have shuffled the chronology and geography of the Book of Genesis somewhat. Describing what they saw in the city of Sodom, they write:

There was a giant golden bull’s head prominently displayed in front of a wide-open courtyard where the villagers could gather for the main event, the ceremonial sacrifice of virgins to the Gods by the High Priest (played by Oliver Platt). Apparently, Sodom has been suffering somewhat of a drought and the High Priest has been getting a lot of stress from his King (his brother-in-law) to fix the problem, so he’s been trying everything to get the Gods to bring water down from the sky. Even though the bull’s head was impressive, it was hard not to be even more awed by the giant phallic structure that towered over the entire city, which was clearly in the process of being built, going by the scaffolding that surrounded it. In fact, this scaffolding was not there for the production team as much as for the half-dozen barely-dressed extras playing the slaves working on the construction of what was meant to represent the Tower of Babel. They’d be actively working in the background whenever they were shooting a scene in that general direction.

The individual interviews bring up some interesting subjects, too. For example, Jack Black discusses some of the linguistic issues that have affected his improvising:

CS: Have you ad-libbed lines that you realized you couldn’t say because it doesn’t exist yet?
Oh God, every day. Yesterday, what did I say? We’re forbidden, while we’re here in Sodom, to go into this room, it’s called the “Holiest of Holies,” where the Gods are in the room, supposedly, and if you go in there, you’ll be totally vaporized, unless you’re the High Priest. He’s the only one allowed to go in there and talk to the gods. And I went in there, and the King and the Queen were there, and I was busted, and I said, “Oh, I was just looking, for the crapper.” But you’re not allowed to say “crapper,” because the “crapper” doesn’t exist. Of course the crapper is based on Sir Thomas Crapper, inventor of the first toilet. (laughter) So we changed it to, “I was looking for the grunt hole.” Sometimes it is okay, when you set up the rule never say anything that – I mean English wasn’t invented back then so every word you say is breaking the rule but try to keep it back in that time period. Once in awhile you zing in a new thing and it is extra funny so it is about picking the places you get modern. Grunt holes are not modern, grunt holes they’ve had since the beginning of time.

In a similar vein, co-star Michael Cera adds:

CS: I heard you use the word “compulsory” to the slave driver in the scene…
Yeah, think it pre-dates that word? There have been a lot of discussions about words that pre-date like “totally” or accidentally saying “dodged a bullet there.”

CS: And bullets aren’t even invented.
And Jack said like, “Sue me!” (Laughs.)

CS: Usually do discussions move forward with you saying it anyway?
No, no, Carol comes over and says “You can’t say that.” Like, I said “textbook” one time. “Oh, it was a textbook suicide.” And textbooks aren’t invented yet. You can’t say “textbook.”

CS: Is that creating limitations on how you improvise?
Kind of. You just don’t think about those things. I think it’s gotten less and less, but it really wouldn’t have occurred to me unless someone had said, “It doesn’t make sense for you not to say that.”

Meanwhile, David Cross reveals that his character, Cain, will have a considerably bigger role in this film, beyond simply killing his brother Abel: You play Cain in the movie, but it seems like you have a bigger role than Cain in the bible.
David Cross:
Cain keeps popping up. His descendants are cursed right?

CS: The mark of Cain.
Yes. I know this because I bought something called a “Parable Bible.” It’s easier to read (laughs). The words are the best approximation of what they meant. Prefacing that the Bible is all made up and it’s fiction. It’s a formalized fiction, but I’ve been reading it and Cain’s descendants are cursed. Wait, I was wrong. The mark of Cain is that Cain felt really bad about what he did, he had a lot of recrimination, he was lonely and upset and God banishes him. Which I never saw as much of a punishment but he has a wife and he’s given a family, mysteriously, and says he thinks people are going to know he killed his brother and not gonna like him and cause harm to him so God gives him the mark of Cain so everyone knows it’s Cain and everyone knows that if you f*ck with Cain you’re gonna die.

CS: This isn’t in the movie though?
Oh, no. This is just for your online edification.

CS: How did you put a comedic twist on playing Cain?
Well, unfortunately we shot those scenes already before I got my Bible. [everyone laughs] I just had fun being duplicitous. And mean. And nasty. And murderous. And conniving. And I end up ratting Jack and Michael out. I get promoted because of it. And it’s fun. I mean anytime you get to do that. I usually only get cast in two things. It’s either nerdy guy or sarcastic, nasty guy, but this is kind of a new twist on sarcastic, nasty guy, so I like it.

Finally, director Harold Ramis discusses some of the ideas behind the movie:

CS: You mentioned “Life of Brian” before. We were talking earlier about other great Biblical comedies like “History of the World Part I” or “Wholly Moses!,” which is a bit of a forgotten film. What’s going to differentiate this movie from some of the other classics? What’s your spin on it, basically?
Well (chuckles) our spin is that “Wholly Moses!” was awful! [laughter] And that’s well forgotten, and “History of the World” I looked at again and it’s very old school. It’s very Catskills. It isn’t really expressing any kind of philosophy. Whereas the Python films do contain some kind of social commentary, and there’s a sense of playing with real literature with the Pythons, and that’s sort of what I was going for here. I’ve been looking at the Old Testament for a very long time, starting as a Hebrew school student, and just thinking about it every year. I’ve had some really enlightening contact with a progressive rabbi that I know, and these ideas, suddenly after 9/11, seem much more important. The role that religion plays in the world, the power of Fundamentalism over people’s lives. I thought, maybe I can take all of those ideas I had about the early world and use them in service of this idea. And to somehow find an interpretation of Genesis that would hook directly into where we are today. All our problems go all the way back right to the beginning.

CS: Do you think that the Old Testament is inherently funnier than the New Testament?
I don’t know about funnier, but I was explaining to someone that the New Testament is a much better narrative, that’s why it’s more popular, because it’s like a hero’s journey. It’s one character, the story takes place in one person’s lifetime, it has a beginning, a middle and an end, and a redemption. You look at the Old Testament, and it’s one dysfunctional family after another. Somehow, when we tell Bible stories to kids, they turn out to be little morality tales, but they’re not! You read the Old Testament, and people, they’re more than flawed; they do some terrible things to each other, and there are no happy endings; there are no resolutions. These stories just go on and on in the Old Testament. I noticed that, and I also noticed that they’re all journeys in the Old Testament. Everyone’s on a journey; they’ve either been expelled from somewhere or exiled or they’re fleeing from something or they’re out seeking something in the world. When I thought about doing the Old Testament, there was no single story that has a good enough arc to be a movie, unless you’re doing “The Ten Commandments” again. So I thought I could take all these stories from the early part of Genesis and smash them into one story. I’m sure most of our young audience will not know the difference anyway. (laughter) So it was a way to try and forge a narrative out of a bunch of Genesis material.

Cinematical also has a set-visit report, but it is much shorter and doesn’t get anywhere near as in-depth.

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