BEN-HUR: From the Page to the Screen

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©2016 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved

A conversation with the director and cast of the film on practical effects, strong voices, and the power of forgiveness.

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

In 1960, Ben-Hur swept the Academy Awards, taking home Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture prizes, just to name a few. Adapting existing source material is challenging, regardless of any other difficulties. However, recreating a story with a reputation as a bona fide classic requires unparalleled talent. The internationally acclaimed Timur Bekmambetov was tapped for the task. LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down with Bekmambetov and Ben-Hur cast members Jack Huston (Judah Ben-Hur), Toby Kebbell (Messala), and Nazanin Boniadi (Esther) to talk about how the story was brought to the screen.

John Bucher: Timur, you have all this experience directing action with films like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Moments like the chariot race are so well executed directorially. How much of that is on the page? And how much of that is capturing what’s happening? How did you bring that to the screen?

Jack Huston: I didn’t even know how Timur did that. It was magic.

Timur Bekmambetov: Sometimes it just was on the page —  in the book. It might say something like: “A naval battle, Judah is a slave rower sitting inside the ship and with hundreds of people around him. He’s nobody. It’s scary that he’s just muscle.” I took this idea and I just developed it. The chariot race, in many contexts, was done before and done great. We were trying to just find a new, contemporary angle. The secret is we used a lot of YouTube videos as reference from NASCAR races. We looked at race car accidents just to find the right angle of the camera and how the camera shakes. It was really important to make it feel real.

Jack Huston: Yeah, Timur, the first conversation we had was about the chariot race. What are we going to do to make that work? He was like, “Well, you’re going to do it.” I was like, “What do you mean?” He’s like, “Yeah, you guys, you are really going to do the chariot race in real life.”  We managed to pull it off. Timur said quite rightly that there were moments where, you do a close up  when we’ll be pulled by a car to get the shot, but they ended up not using those shots because the bits with the horses looked more real. It makes a difference.

Timur Bekmambetov: The secret is the less you see, the more you believe is real in action scenes. If you see just a glimpse of something, an accident happening in the edge of the frame or off camera. You believe it’s really happening. As soon as it’s perfectly designed and positioned, then you know that’s CG. In this, today’s world, that’s the secret.

John Bucher: What other kind of research did you guys do in preparing for this film? It’s tough in our modern age when people can Google anything and find out the history of a character or exactly how something worked in a previous time.

Timur Bekmambetov: We had a very good consultant. His name was Jonathan Stamp, from London. He knows everything about that period. Also, before we made the movie, I went to Israel and spent a week, because it was very important not only to read but just physically touch. It’s an unbelievable country.

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©2016 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved

John Bucher: I would love to hear from Toby and Nazanin on the themes in this film, specifically forgiveness. It’s an important issue in culture right now and maybe one that we don’t hear a lot. When you first read the script, what was it about the themes that really attracted you? What compelled you to say, “I really want to be a part of telling this story.”

Toby Kebbell: I’m sure for the two of us it’s very different, because the attraction for me was very much about revenge and then realizing it’s the wrong path. I think forgiveness is a huge part. I really appreciated that incentive but I like that it was still a challenge to get to that place and it was interesting for me to play — especially when you have so much to forgive.

Nazanin Boniadi:  Yeah, you’re right. I think all of us, every character has a major loss and just completely tragic circumstances. Esther loses her father. He’s killed right in front of her. Someone she considers family is responsible for what happens, so she loses her brother and the rest of her family, even the man she loves. She’s left with only one thing, that’s faith. She leans on that faith to carry her through. I love her moral compass and I was drawn to the character because she’s actually not perfect. She has outbursts. She has moments of weakness. She has a strong moral compass that drives her, so when she finds faith I think she learns to forgive.

I see a journey for her. In the beginning, I found her to be more demure when she’s a servant and then I definitely think in the second half of the film, she finds her voice when she finds her faith — which is not typical of what you see in these types of period pieces. You find women demure throughout the piece, but she stands up for herself and she’s definitely a strong woman. I’m definitely attracted to playing those types of characters.

Another thing I wanted to add is that some people find forgiveness and kindness, but they see it as weakness. The thing I loved about all the characters is their moment of strength. Their strongest point is when they find forgiveness in their hearts. The more forgiveness Esther has along her journey, the stronger she becomes and the more vocal she becomes, so that was interesting for me personally.

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©2016 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved

John Bucher: Toby, your character in the film is complex. He’s a hard character to watch in this movie. How did you find that in yourself to go from this family man to a man of betrayal?

Toby Kebbell: The specific scene with that turning point was very difficult to find. I was constantly saying he has to make the choice, even though he knows this will make him less likable. The way it is in the film – he’s pressured into it but it’s honest and real. I wanted him to make that decision purely because of what he’s been through. That to me is real. That’s a genuine thing people do and it’s horrible, and so that then takes us along the journey to where we get after the race.

John Bucher: What’s the biggest thing that all of you hope people take away from this film?

Timur Bekmambetov: I think they will believe that there’s only one way we can live together in this world – we have to learn how to forgive each other.

Jack Huston: Yeah, I’d say forgiveness. I completely agree. Being able to let go, release, not hold everything so tightly within ourselves and this blame and this anger, and all the rest of it. I think it does come down to sort of releasing, forgiving, getting past.

Ben-Hur hits theaters on Friday, August 19.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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