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Ben-Hur reimagined: Read the EXCLUSIVE interview with producer Roma Downey now!
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Read the transcript of Roma Downey's exclusive interview with Catholic Online.
LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Downey was interviewed Friday, August 12 in regards to the remake of the cinema classic Ben-Hur.
The 2016 release features the talents of Jack Huston and Tony Kebbel. It was directed by Timur Bekmambetov, best known for his directing films such as "Wanted" and "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."
Me: Good morning, Ms. Downey.
Roma:Hello, good morning Nikki and please call me Roma.
Me:Oh, sure thing. How are you today?
Roma:[Laughs] I'm great, thank you. I'm still a little bit floating on a cloud because I got my star on Hollywood Blvd. yesterday. Such an exciting day. It really was so much fun. I remember as a young girl, when I moved here, skipping down Hollywood Blvd. like Dorothy on the yellow brick road looking at all the names and never imagining for a moment that mine would be there, so it's really fun and validating and special to get to share it with my family. My husband and our children were there and all of our cast for Ben-Hur showed up so great excitement mounting for the final lap as we have 7 days before the film opens.
So excited, you know, it's been quite a journey to bring us to this point and I have such hopes for the film, for what it will achieve and you know because it's an exciting action adventure movie, it's filled with tension and drama and danger and battles and chariot races and, you know, it's a feast really, a visual feast and yet at the same time it holds this deeper, quiet meaning: opening hearts to forgiveness and reconciliation, mercy, and love, you know?
Because our main character, Judah Ben-Hur with a hardened heart looking for revenge, ultimately had an encounter with Jesus and it transformed his life forever.
Me: Yeah, it's such an amazing story, I assume you've seen the original several times before, it's such a classic.
Roma: I, yes, I have seen it and I've seen the silent movie that came before that again and then it's my understanding there were a number of theatrical productions that had, uh, occurred because the book was such a best seller in its time you know, in 1880 when Lew Wallace wrote the book, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, it, you know, I think next to Gone with the Wind it was a great selling book because it's such an epic story and.we are excited we get to bring it to the silver screen in 2016 for a whole next generation to see it and to feel it.
Me: Awesome, so may I ask what your initial thoughts were when you heard they were going to remake Ben-Hur?
Roma: Well, we were invited to the project by Gary Barber over at MGM and when he first told us, we thought, well that's a bold move to take on such a beloved classic but then we read the script, written by John Riddley, who won the Oscar for 12 Years a Slave and you know we have a saying in the theater that if it's not on the page it's not on the stage.
And this script was so beautiful, it's character-driven, it's about relationships, it's about loss, loss of family, loss of freedom, it's, you know, this extraordinary story of these brothers who have been raised lovingly together, they're best friends, whose lives get ripped apart and suddenly they're arch enemies both intent on getting their revenge and if it means killing each other, that's what they'll do, they'll stop at nothing and of course it ends up in this amazing sequence in the arena in this grand stadium where they're going to go up against each other in the chariot race, in the great chariot race which, as a cinematic moment will leave you breathless.
It's an extraordinary sequence it's like 12 minutes of pure excitement, our director Bekmambetov studied Formula 1 racing, Nascar and so on to really understand how to create a, you know, vibrant and dynamic and exciting and explosive race and, and now with the use of modern technology, from the very small cameras, the GoPro cameras, that can be placed in unusual places, he had them in the wheels of chariots, he had them on the armor of the riders, he had them between the ears of horses, he even put one in an old soccer ball in the stadium on the sand so that the horses rode over it so that he could achieve many different angles and then when they're edited together at great speed it just creates this extraordinary, you know, extraordinarily dramatic cinematic sequence, the likes of which I don't think will be seen on the silver screen this summer.
When we were able to bring together the best in the business to put this film on the screen, I think that it, ultimately everybody saw the value because the story is so important. And at a time of such confusion, and fear, and darkness in our world, Nikki, I think that a film that holds, at its heart, a message of love and mercy and forgiveness and reconciliation is needed now more than ever.
Me: Oh yeah, I can definitely agree with you on that. One-hundred-percent.
Roma: Yes, we filmed in Italy, we filmed in- our exteriors were filmed in a town called Matera, which is a boot shape. Matera is in the ankle bone, and then we moved to Roma, to the great city, the eternal city, and we worked at the famous film studios there, Cinecittŕ, and we did all of our interior work there.
Now, Cinecittŕ is where the 1959 Ben-Hur filmed, it's where Fellini shoots all of his movies so it's a studio steeped in history and connecting to that studio we built a racetrack, a sort of a one-story track. Of course by the time you see it on the screen it's three or four-story high thanks to the advancements of CGI.
You know, where maybe we had a few hundred extras, when you see it you'll see a few hundred thousand extras but a lot of the stunts were done with real people and our two young leading men, Jack Huston in the role of Judah and Tobey Kebbel in the role of Messala, both trained for a month so that they could get into those chariots and ride down that track themselves so we're grateful that we got through that scene with no injury and no animals hurt whatsoever in the making of the movie, thank God.
But while we were in Rome we had an opportunity to go to Vatican Square and I took with me some of my actors, in particular I wanted to take Rodrigo Santoro, in the hopes that he would have the opportunity to meet the Holy Father and we are so grateful that he was able to. The Holy Father actually came over to him and put his hand on his head and he blessed him and it was just so beautiful.
In fact, Cardinal O'Malley, who is one of the Cardinals in the United States who have graciously endorsed the movie, speaks of the blessing and believes that you can feel the blessing in the work that Rodrigo did in the film. His portrayal of Jesus has a stillness and a strength and a directness and a truthfulness and an honesty that is so profound and deeply touching and you know, he received that blessing and then the next day came in to film and he was just so thrilled.
We were able to show the film also to Cardinal Wuerl in Washington D.C. and he has spoken up on behalf of the movie and here in Los Angeles I was able to personally screen the movie with Archbishop Gomez, and he has also endorsed the movie.
And I think that our Catholic leaders understand that, you know, that this is a fictional story but because it holds within it the heartbeat of Jesus, it holds within it the message from Jesus and it's an opportunity to reach young people, it's an opportunity to reach youth, and it's an invitation for people to come back to God.
I don't know that anybody's going into the movie theaters to be preached at, Nikki, so this movie certainly is presented in an entertaining way, it's an exciting movie but I don't think you will leave this film not feeling moved.
It's such an opportunity to reach youth and to reach, you know, to reach everyone, really, with an invitation and I think our Church leaders recognize that and we've been so grateful for their support to, you know, to really encourage Catholics to come out this weekend- next weekend, and support the film.
It's not often we get to see Jesus on the big screen and the scenes in which Jesus plays are so beautiful. Rodrigo does such a great job. And the crucifixion is a powerful scene where we see and hear Jesus saying, "Father forgive them, they don't know what they're doing," and Judah understands, finally, in that moment that the only way forward is to forgive and he drops to his knees in a moment of, of redemption - touched by grace.
And he's been clutching a stone, Nikki, and in that moment he drops the stone and the stone represents his anger and his bitterness and his desire to be revenged and it's a very beautiful moment just to see him let go of that stone.
And we've had stories from all around the country, in youth groups and in churches, where people are being inspired by that moment and having their groups carry a little stone themselves and bringing it up to the cross and letting it go, you know, the stone - you know, what's, what is the stone that you're carrying, that I'm carrying?
Some of us are carrying hurt or disappointment or regret in our lives and you know it's a great thing about our faith, that we can take those stones, whatever they are, and we can put them down in front of the cross.
And the film, I think, just has the potential to heal, you know? So at Lightworkers Media, our company, we have a saying, where we believe it's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
And we're committed to making content that illuminates the darkness and the times that we're living in are dark, and so where we can, as filmmakers, as producers, to create content that adds, that uplifts, that inspires, that unifies, that's what we're interested in and that, that's what Ben-Hur is about. In the spirit of that, you know it is a great big candle. And we just hope that fellow Catholics will come out next weekend and recognize that and support it.
Me: Oh, wonderful, we hope so too, but speaking on how dark times are nowadays, I was just wondering, was it difficult to get the project off the ground?
Roma: No, this one.When you have a great script I think everybody recognizes that. And I think that, you know, the other movie, while a beloved classic, it was almost 60-years-ago and so much has changed in the world since then and I think so much has changed in cinema since then. So I think there was real enthusiasm for this project, but you know we've had, in our careers as producers, my husband Mark Burnett and myself, have felt resistance in the past, certainly, when we wanted to bring the Bible series to television but, initially, there was resistance and people thought we'd lost our minds.
And then when we brought "Son of God" to the big screen, putting Jesus and his life and his story on the big screen, that people thought that we would be, you know, that nobody would want to go see it and in both cases the naysayers were proven wrong.
In the, you know, the country rallied in big numbers showing that people of faith everywhere are hungry for stories of hope, they're hungry for this kind of material so perhaps that, you know, had something to do with this new attitude from Hollywood, perhaps to making, you know, epic stories of faith.
But it's been terrific having MGM and Paramount working on this together and I think the results speak for themselves.
Me: Awesome, one last question if that's alright, Roma?
Roma: Yes, Nikki.
Me: I just wanted to know if the film plays any sort of personal role in your life.
Roma: Well, you know, I have committed myself and my career to being a Light worker and to tell, to be part of the telling of these kinds of stories so my involvement in this is personal and passionate. I've been on board the project from its very early days so it's with great emotion that we enter the last week, it's like the final lap as we gallop towards that finish line.
I certainly have a memory of watching the Charlton Heston movie as a young girl with my own family. I probably remember more about watching it with them than I actually remember the movie itself, curiously, I actually remember the experience of it. I'm eager to start hearing from families who will gather together to watch the 2016 Ben-Hur. It's a great film and it's, there's something in it for everybody and the whole family. I don't think audiences will be disappointed. I know they won't be.
Me: Awesome. I very much look forward to seeing it. Is there anything else you'd like to say?
Roma: No, I think perhaps the only thing that maybe Catholics in particular would be interested in is that, to pay attention to the young zealot, the character of Dismus, and to watch his journey in the movie because he'll end up being the Good Thief on the cross next to Jesus. And I don't know that we've ever seen that in a film before.So that might be just interesting for our Catholic audience to pay attention to in the story.
Me: Well thank you so much Roma, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak to me today.
Roma: Oh, Nikki, my pleasure and thank you for your support in our efforts here. We all worked so hard on this and we're reliant on you, Nikki, to reach out, to let people know it's on.So we're grateful for your partnership and support on that. Thank you.
Me: Alright, well thank you and you have a wonderful day.
Roma: Thank you, you too. Have a good weekend.
ME: Thank you, you too.
Ben-Hur will be available nation-wide on Friday, August 19th at a theater near you.
Show your support by filling those seats and enjoying one of cinema's most classic films re-imagined in high-definition, amazing cinematography and action-packed thrills.
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