It’s never an easy path for a kid who falls in love with movies and spends their whole life wanting to be a director. For every Peter Jackson, Edgar Wright or Gareth Edwards there are countless more we never hear from. But spare a thought for Russian director Timur Bekmambetov.
Interview by Drew Turney
While Jackson was crawling around his living room with a Super 8 camera recreating King Kong in suburban Wellington or Wright was winning a video camera in a short film competition in Somerset, Bekmambetov was born in the then-Soviet territory of Kazakhstan where American movies were strictly forbidden while we in the West took them for granted.
It was his adaptation of Russian fantasy novel Night Watch (2004) that gave him international attention. A kinetic action thriller about spectral forces doing battle in present-day Moscow, it was the highest grossing movie ever in Russia and was Bekmambetov’s ticket to Hollywood.
The James McAvoy/Angelina Jolie comic book adaptation Wanted followed, and he’s been more active as a producer since then (Apollo 18, Unfriended). Now, his first foray behind the camera since 2012’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is kind of a tall order as he helms a new imagining of the granddaddy of golden age Biblical epics, Ben-Hur.
The 55-year-old director spoke to Video & Filmmaker in Los Angeles about tackling a classic.
How did you get involved with Ben-Hur?
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.
It’s just so famous. The name is so famous. He said, ‘just read the script’. John Ridley’s script was so powerful, so emotional, so bold I realised that I couldn’t not do it. It was not about the brand, it was about the script.
Do you mean to say you’re not remaking the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston?
It’s very different from what we know about Ben-Hur because it’s more the tone and the message of the original book, written in the nineteenth century by a general who killed so many people during the Civil War and felt guilty he wrote this book.
Won’t the first question from audiences be ‘why do we even need a new Bun-Hur?’
It’s not for me question. It’s for the studio.
Were you a fan of the original movie?
No, I grew up in the Soviet Union, there were no very good movies and religion was forbidden. I saw this movie for the first time when I was maybe thirty something.
Movies from the time of the original aren’t generally accepted nowadays as being terribly realistic.
It was different. Every time when we see that chariot race it was not historically correct. In movies about chariot races the chariots are huge, more chariots for parades. They’re like big Cadillacs from the 1950’s. In Rome we used historians who found images and sculptures.
The real [battle] chariots were different. They were shorter, much more aerodynamic, and much more dangerous to drive because drivers were so professional. You’re standing on a bench and flying along at a speed of forty, fifty miles per hour with four horses, and you have to balance yourself. There is no way you can grab a railing or anything.
Was there any particular challenge that sticks with you about the whole shoot?
Every day. It’s cumulative. The crucifixion wasn’t an easy scene to shoot because it’s scary itself, but it was also very cold. It was freezing and just scary.
What does the film have to say, apart from the thrills and spills of the chariot race?
It’s about forgiveness. The message of the movie is the biggest achievement, I believe. Usually there aren’t any big commercial projects where people are talking about forgiveness.
It looks like you’ve used a lot more in-camera effects that most movies you’ve worked on. How come?
It’s a drama. It’s a very deep and emotional drama with a very entertaining thriller in the story, in the characters, and for me it was really important to make this movie less theatrical and more realistic.
That’s the only way we can be different. I know how to send the bullets around corners. We have great action in the movie but in my mind it’s not an action movie, it’s a drama.
Even action scenes we shot as drama – the story is more important than the action. The goal was instead of a director standing behind the camera I was behind the actors, letting the story and the actors play and trying to be real.
Did you find a lot of elements in the book and the script that were left out of the original?
Yes, there is overall the message, the idea of a brother forgiving his brother, which wasn’t in the movie in 1959. They just took it away. Without it the whole thing makes no sense.
Also it’s just more contemporary. We live in the world of TV where the characters are so unexpected and dramatic structures and stories so complicated and interesting. We cannot make movies that look like they came from 1959 anymore because they’d look silly.
In our story the characters are 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 at the time.
Ben-Hur opens today in the US and from August 25th in Australia. Check local listings for release dates and cinema times near you.
All images from the motion-picture ‘Ben-Hur’ courtesy of Paramount Pictures and MGM.