Timur Bekmambetov and Roma Downey
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Timur Bekmambetov and Roma Downey

Sorted-54_Ben-Hur_Roma-DowneyBy Simon Bell/FAMOUS

Firstly, why Ben-Hur? Why did you get involved?

TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: It just happened. Three years ago Sean Daniel, the producer of the movie, called me and [asked] if I wanted to direct this project, and I was not enthusiastic about it.

Why not?

TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: Because it’s just so famous. Then he said, “Just read the script,” and he sent me the script and I read it. It was so powerful, so emotional, so bold, and then I understood that I [could not] miss it.

The other actors we talked to all said similar things about it not being a remake of the 1950s version. It’s very important that it’s its own thing.

TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: It’s very different. It’s just very different from what we know about Ben-Hur, because it was three movies and many shows and TV shows. Because it’s more the tone and the message of the original book, written in the 19th century by a general who killed so many people during the Civil War and felt guilty and wrote this book.

Just from a market point of view, are you not worried the first question audiences are going to ask themselves is: “Why remake Ben-Hur?”

TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: It’s not for me question. It’s for [the] studio.

ROMA DOWNEY: Also you have to understand when I told my children how we’re going to be producing Ben-Hur, all three of them said, “Ben who?” I think that there’s a whole new generation that [is] going to discover the story [and they] are going to be thrilled by the action that the story gives them.

When have you ever seen a chariot race on the screen? 1959 is a long, long time ago. The beauty of the story, I think, is that it has all of that and yet woven within it is this deeper, really intense tale of forgiveness.

What kind of relationship did you have with Ben-Hur because you would have been kids when you first saw this movie… Did you have a special relationship with the movie?

TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: For me, no. I grew up in [the] Soviet Union and there [were] not [many] very good movies, and religion was forbidden. I saw this movie [for the] first time when I was maybe 30-something.

ROMA DOWNEY: Yeah, I remember seeing it as a child with my family. I think what’s interesting is I remember more the experience of who I was with than what I saw. You know? I will say that our film, in rewatching the ’59 film, it’s theatrical. It’s a big show. It’s shiny. This is gritty. This, you can feel the dust in your mouth from the chariot race.

TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: It’s cumulative effect. Of course … I shot [the] crucifixion, and it’s not [an] easy scene to shoot because it’s scary, because at some point as a director you should tell people what to do and it was very tough. It was cold.

ROMA DOWNEY: Yeah, it was freezing. The logistics to put a man on a cross, to make sure the cross is bolted to the ground, to make sure that he’s safe, that he doesn’t fall on his face. I mean, there’s like a million things. The platform to get it up … It was so cold. It was the coldest I’d ever been, and I had coats on, and I was behind a heater, and Rodrigo is in a loincloth. We wrapped him in aluminium blankets.

You’ve been working two years and a half, three years on the movie, and then in one week, one week. Most of the time you get the first weekend and then the next big movie’s going to come out.

ROMA DOWNEY: Yes, but look at the opportunity for families to see it. It’s not just about going to the theatre that first month anymore. It’s an important film because it has such a message that’s needed in our world. That you can put it down, that you can be free, that if you forgive, you can be free… Ultimately, that’s the message of the movie.

TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: It’s a message of the movie. [The] biggest achievement, I believe, because usually there [are] no big commercial projects where the people [are] talking about forgiveness. The crew we had had a very interesting connection with the movie because the … You’ll tell the story.

ROMA DOWNEY: Yeah, our wigmaker … His father was the wigmaker on the 1959 movie. Our horse trainers came from the family who trained the horses in 1959.

TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: The [character] who whipped Judah in the galley, his grandfather whipped [Charlton Heston].

Religion, forgiveness. Now a lot of people choose not to forgive. Do you think, as you said, this message in the movie is important because of that? 

ROMA DOWNEY: Yes. I mean, I think that the elements in this movie would probably better be referred to as faith and religion. While Judas has had this transformation because of an encounter with Jesus, the transformation, I think, has a universal appeal. We’re really hopeful that globally … this movie will speak to all the places … that we are hurting, you know, and are desirous of hope. That’s just about everywhere.

I fully agree. Did you guys see a lot in the script and the book that you don’t think was in the last film that you wanted to bring to the story?

TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: Yes, but overall there is the message – the idea of [a] brother forgiving his brother was not in the 1959 [film]. They just took it away. Without it the whole … Well, this book has no sense.

ROMA DOWNEY: I think also, don’t you, that you really understand both points of view? You know? It’s not: “Oh, he’s the baddie and he’s the goodie.” It’s more ambiguous, and it makes the movie much more interesting because you can really understand how one thing leads to another, such as the things that happen in our lives.

It’s not that usually that somebody just makes one awful decision. It’s a series of things that bring you to that place, where suddenly they’re in this separation. They’re so far apart, yet they’ve loved each other so deeply. Then there’s an opportunity for redemption. It’s a beautiful healing.

TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: In our story both characters, they’re both brothers. They’re not fighting with each other. They’re fighting with the faith, with the rules of the world, with the political situation in Jerusalem.