Ben-Hur news round-up: Many more cast & crew interviews!

Ben-Hur news round-up: Many more cast & crew interviews! August 22, 2016


Another week, another round-up of Ben-Hur-themed news items.

The film opened over the weekend and earned a lot less money than expected.

Jack Huston and producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey went to a pre-screening party with megachurch pastor Joel Osteen in Houston on Thursday night.

The studio released a clip of the sea battle.

Guideposts posted a set-visit report by Rick Hamlin, whose wife happens to be Carol Wallace, the great-great-granddaughter of Ben-Hur author Lew Wallace:

Quite frankly, I am completely won over by most special effects, but I can tell when actors are faking it, and the excitement of watching the 15-minute long race was feeling the absorption of the actors. By their eye movements, their focus, the turn of their heads, their grip on the reins, you know they’re not on some Hollywood sound stage.

“We tried doing some shots without the horses,” Jack Huston says, where he was evidently pulled around by a truck with cameras rolling. “That didn’t work,” he added. He might have been holding the reins but he didn’t have four horses on the other end galloping at 40 miles an hour.

Christian Today also posted a set-visit report:

“There’s a lot of material in the book, so you don’t have to mine exactly the same story,” [producer Duncan] Henderson explains. “There’s obviously big themes there that we go back to; it’s a story of friendship, betrayal, revenge and forgiveness. Those are big, big issues in the story and pretty much every Ben-Hur that you would see would have those elements in it. But how you put those together, how you structure those, are different.”

Vanity Fair spoke to screenwriter Keith Clarke about the film’s lack of a gay subtext:

When asked if his version was an adaptation or reinterpretation of the book, rather than the 1959 film, Clarke explained: “That’s very accurate, and there’s a reason for that. Warner Bros. owned the old MGM library and so I can’t do a remake of that, because Warner Bros. owns that. I had to go back to the source material, so anything that’s in the 59 version that is not in the book I could not use.”

That’s one of the reasons why, for example, Toby Kebell’s Messala doesn’t die in the arms of Jack Huston’s Ben-Hur at the end of the famous chariot race. That death—so famous from the 1959 film—was not in the book, and therefore off limits to Clarke. So it’s important to remember, when re-examining the gay legacy of Ben-Hur, that if ever there were homoerotic tensions between Messala and his childhood friend, Judah Ben-Hur, they were the invention of Gore Vidal, one of the many screenwriters on the 1959 Ben-Hur.

Deadline also spoke to Clarke and his wife, Joni Levin:

“Keith had always been looking for a vehicle about forgiveness,” said Levin. “It was Easter and Ben-Hur came on TV, and I looked at Keith and said what about this?”

Clarke said, “The idea of forgiveness … (Nelson) Mandela said we are first and foremost South Africans and we are not going to fight each other. In our research, we have seen brothers killing brothers and sisters fighting sisters in Belfast. Same in the Middle East, but they are all part of the same tribe of Abraham.”

Signature spoke to director Timur Bekmambetov (as well as screenwriter John Ridley and producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey):

“There’s not a single slow-motion shot in my movie,” he explains. “There are no tricky visual composites or smash cuts. I wanted the look to be mostly handheld. Our director of photography shot ‘The Bourne Identity’ and that’s the look we were going for because the story should direct the movie, not the movie itself or any cinematic antecedents. The last version was over four hours long, ours is just over two. We wanted to keep the movie grounded for today’s audiences. I can’t imagine a film playing in cinemas today where an intermission placard goes up on screen and the audience what? Texts for a half-hour?” . . .

And if all roads lead to Rome, then all discussion of “Ben-Hur” eventually doubles back to that famous race. And like any general worth his salt, Bekmambetov wouldn’t ask Huston or Kebbell to do anything he hadn’t tried himself. Ergo the director’s time in a rickety cart lashed to four horses.

“Do you remember watching Formula One races when you were a kid?” Bekmambetov asks. “It’s kind of like that. That’s also probably the first time we were shown such shaky camerawork on broadcast television, but that’s really what it’s like. Your eyeballs are bouncing and vibrating and it’s hard for your brain to process what you’re actually seeing because it’s all happening so fast.”

“Then there’s things flying through the air because there are horses in front of you and horses behind. Imagine you’re on a motorcycle with no helmet and there’s a garbage truck in font of you and the garbage people are tossing garbage in your face. You really don’t know how you’re going to survive.”

The National Post in Toronto spoke to Jack Huston, who plays Judah Ben-Hur:

Besides, Huston had other plans when he first auditioned for a role in the movie.

“I initially went after the role of Messala, then later Timur said to me, when I’d gone out for a few auditions, ‘I think you might be right for Judah’,” Huston says.

“Inadvertently, it was a beautiful way into the Ben-Hur character, because the people who love you the most sometimes are the ones who hurt you the most.”

Nuke the Fridge also spoke to Huston about why he was cast as Judah:

But acutually, I love the role of Messala. I always thought it was one of the most misunderstood characters because I don’t think there’s any one person in the wrong in this. I actually think that was one of the great things about this story. What Timur did ,which I thought was really interesting, which I didn’t know and he told me later. He said, you came and spoke so impassionately, so impassionate about Messala that I felt real love for the character from you. That’s what I needed in Judah, was that he loved Messala because they are two brothers.

Backstage Pass spoke to Huston about the galley-slave scenes:

The galley was the toughest, personally. There are guys at your feet, guys above; three layers of bodies around you. If you’re out of sync, you’re screwed! We rehearsed for two weeks — just rowing. It was humid, wet, smelly … it was pretty rough. And for me, it was also four hours of make-up before: all the scars, the beard, the hair … then you have to get greased up … and then people are walking around pouring water on you. After a while the warm water runs out, and everyone’s cold and shaking. It’s like being in a mens’ locker room with a bunch of angry, naked men who just don’t want to be there at all … and have been rowing for weeks.

Nerd Reactor also spoke to Huston about the galley-slave scenes:

When asked if Judah Ben-Hur completely changed when his world was turned upside-down? Huston replied:
“I wanted to make a very clear physical and emotional change in the character because we do such a fast jump cut, five years, that I didn’t want it to appear like, ‘oh, the five years have been a dawdle.’ The life expectancy of a slave back then in the galley of the slave ship would’ve been between 3 and 6 months. To last for 5 years would’ve been absolutely brutal. I lost 30 pounds for that part of the movie, I went down to it. Early on, he was a very open, happy, sweet human being who was going through a lot emotionally [and] personally. This was the hardened slave who’s been through… I can’t even imagine what it would’ve been like 5 years on those ships. It was a very conscious decision to try and almost change everything. From my voice to the way I looked, the way I moved, the way I hold myself, it was a very conscious decision to go there.”

Den of Geek spoke to Huston about his connections to the Heston family:

As a side note, since the family’s names are both sort of well-known, did you ever get to meet Charlton Heston?

I never got to meet Charlton. But I know Fraser Heston, his son. He’s coming with me to the premiere on Tuesday. And I know Jack, his grandson, and his wife Marilyn. One of my great old friends, one of my Uncle Danny’s old friends, Alex Butler, and Fraser worked on the 50th anniversary (Blu-ray) edition of Ben-Hur. They put together this beautiful package and did this incredible artwork for it. When I got the role that very kindly turned up on my doorstep, just saying congrats and good luck.

That’s very nice.

It was a really lovely thing. I feel like I had to approach this from a place of love. I loved that movie and it was very important to me growing up. I remember how I used to say, “Oh, boy. This is why we make movies, exactly this.” The art of it. If there’s a reason to tell it, then tell it. And, by God, do the best that you can. And I felt very strongly about this film because I realized the relevance of this story and how it’s more relevant today than ever before.

Huston also spoke to The Gospel Herald, Bustle and Fox 4 Kansas City.

Latino Review spoke to Huston and Morgan Freeman, who plays Ilderim:

LRM: How physical was this role you know post-shipwreck and everything with the voice and all that.

Jack Huston: Yes, there is. I guess it is why I was very aware that I wanted to make a very clear physical and emotional change in the character. The life expectancy of a slave back then in the galley of a slave ship would have been between three and six months they said. Five years would have been absolutely brutal. I lost 30lbs for that part of the movie. I went down to it. It was very much the way he moves, the way he sets. Before Judah, when I was—early on he was a very open, happy. He was a sweet human being who was going through a lot emotionally. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like five days on those ships. It was a very conscious decision to try and almost change everything. That was from my voice to the way I look, the way I move, the way I hold myself. It was a very conscious decision to try to do there.

The Deccan Chronicle quoted Huston on Freeman’s ability to memorize dialogue:

“He is unbelievable! The first day we worked together he had to do this monologue, but had not received that page in his script. So Timur gave it to him on the spot, Morgan stepped into his trailer with it and then came back out 10 minutes later and nailed it verbatim! I had one line afterwards, but I think I didn’t say anything in the end… Morgan Freeman is just a master. And he is always in a good mood and makes everyone around him feel well too, while at the same time bringing everything you can imagine and more to his part.”

Freeman also gave interviews to Nerd Reactor, Geeks of Doom and the Toronto Sun.

The Deseret News spoke to Fraser Heston about the old and new Ben-Hurs:

Being raised in a family so firmly planted in the hubbub of Hollywood, it’s no surprise that Heston would go on to become a writer, director and film producer in his own right, nor that one of his earliest childhood memories is being driven around in a chariot by his father on the set of William Wyler’s epic 1959 film “Ben-Hur.” Heston recalled the experience as being “a heck of a lot of fun.”

“I imagine I thought (my father) was a professional charioteer,” Heston said. . . .

Heston said he thinks his friend Jack Huston (of “Boardwalk Empire” and “American Hustle” fame) was a “wonderful choice” to take on the part of Ben-Hur.

“He’s a real actor,” Heston said. “He’s not just a movie star. He’s a well-known guy, but he’s the real thing, and I think he’s an excellent choice for that part.”

The Christian Post spoke to Toby Kebbell, who plays Messala:

“I’m not sure that the studio would be happy about it but a stuntman was thrown. Four horses carrying a chariot leapt clean over the fallen stuntman,” Kebbell tells reporters, citing that he believes that avoided disaster might have been a divine intervention which he described as a “miracle.”

The Gospel Herald spoke to Kebbell about Messala not being just a “villain”:

“It was difficult,” he said of playing the antagonist. “Not revealing too much about my personal life, but it’s one of those [things] where I understood it. I understood where you can be ambitious to the point where you become slightly blinded with your selfishness – that no one else really sees your dream, they don’t see it from your point of view.”

He added, “I don’t want to play the ‘bad guy,’ the ‘villain’, but I wanted to play somebody who is the best friend of someone and is then insulted and hurt, their pride is hurt by what they consider to be stupid, weak behavior, and they’re so engrossed with their rage – not with anyone there, but just their own private rage. It’s selfishness, really.”

The Christian Post spoke to Nazanin Boniadi, who plays Judah’s wife Esther:

In “Ben-Hur,” Boniadi plays the voice of reason often encouraging Judah Ben-Hur to act in a Christ-like manner. The actress herself said she attended Christian school growing up but told reporters at the screening that it was the film’s executive producer Downey that was the biggest inspiration for her character.

“Roma, obviously, she’s very devout and spiritual, and I wanted to make Esther very true to her,” she said.

The “General Hospital” actress admitted that before she went in for her chemistry read, she had what she believes was a divine sign from heaven. She was sitting in a coffee shop rehearsing her lines and suddenly looked up and noticed aircraft contrails in the shape of a cross directly above her head. That is when she knew she would get this role.

“I remember just looking up and my nerves being really settled and calm. I went in for the reading and I told Roma and she sort of just nodded and it was like a secret sign, because she also gets the signs all the time. So for anyone who believes in miracles and signs it was just a sweet moment for me where I felt like this was my role,” Boniadi explained.

The Gospel Herald spoke to Boniadi and Rodrigo Santoro, who plays Jesus:

“[Esther] personifies this quiet, graceful, dignified strength, and even when she’s confronting Messala, somebody who’s essentially torn her from the man she loves and killed her father and torn her family apart, she does it with sort of this serenity that I find so inspiring,” the actress said.

Nell Minow at Beliefnet spoke to producer Roma Downey:

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.

The Gospel Herald spoke to Downey and her husband Mark Burnett:

The couple, who together have produced five faith films The Bible, Son of God, A.D. The Bible Continues, Dovekeepers, and now Ben-Hur, revealed that the words 1st Timothy 6:12 guided them throughout the filmmaking process: “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”

Downey and Burnett also spoke to Kilmeade and Friends on Fox News and to WND.

The National Catholic Register got some quotes from the press junket:

Costume designer Varya Avdyushko noted that 120 people were involved in designing wardrobe for the production. “We had a big army creating costumes for another big army,” she said, noting that various ethnicities were highlighted in the chariot race.

She added that the wardrobe department was able to secure some Roman costumes from the 1959 version, which were used by spectators during the chariot race: “It was our way of tying the new to the old and honoring the previous production.”

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to a few cast members at the film’s premiere who haven’t been a major part of the press tour so far — such as Jarreth Merz, who plays a Roman officer named Florus (he also played Simon of Cyrene in The Passion of the Christ and an Alexandrian Jew in the opening scenes of The Young Messiah):

“The film was so challenging, because — let’s not kid ourselves — there’s a classic out there. We had to come up with something new. We had to bring up a new chemistry, and I think we achieved that; we managed to do by just being very closely knit and supportive of one another.”

There have also been some new video interviews, so here they are:

Jack Huston, who plays Judah Ben-Hur, and Rodrigo Santoro, who plays Jesus:

Executive producer Roma Downey:

Downey and her husband Mark Burnett (the first one via Good Morning America):

Huston, Downey, Burnett and Toby Kebbell, who plays Messala (via Fox News):

Burnett, Huston, Kebbell, Santoro and Nazanin Boniadi, who plays Esther:

Collider got all the main actors to name their picks for the film’s “unsung hero”:

Collider also got some of the actors to answer the website’s mail:

Check out earlier trailers and other videos here:

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