Full Speed Ahead: Ben-Hur Returns to the Big Screen

Growing up in the USSR, Timur Bekmambetov might have found it hard to fathom the idea that he would one day helm a new take on one of Hollywood’s most iconic films. But his engaging, grounded approach to visual spectacle has cemented Bekmambetov’s Hollywood career and is sure to come in handy as he brings Ben-Hur back to the big screen. Like William Wyler before him, Bekmambetov shot his Ben-Hur in Rome’s historic Cinecittà studios, but that’s as far as the comparisons go. Bekmambetov ties his vision of Ben-Hur to the nineteenth-century novel by Lew Wallace and promises audiences a thrilling experience, particularly when it comes to the film’s chariot race sequence.

First things first—this isn’t a remake. You’re approaching this film as a different take on the source material. That said, has the legacy of the 1959 film been a distraction? 

It was an issue at first, in the beginning before I read the script. But the script was so impactful and different that it didn’t become an issue for me personally. If you read it, the script is more in the tone of the original book. For me it was not an option to think of the previous film, because as soon as you’re in production, you don’t have time to think about these kinds of topics. You are dealing with everyday strategy and production questions, and there’s no time to look back.

How did that screenplay find its way to your office?

Sean Daniel called me. He’s a very good and experienced producer and he called me about three years ago and asked me if I wanted to make this movie, Ben-Hur. I was not enthusiastic about it. I had something exactly like your reaction, thinking, how are we going to catch this monument? He asked me to just read the script and that we would talk afterward. Reading the script, I understood just how important this movie is today, how unique this material is. It’s very difficult in today’s world to find a script of this quality. It’s a story with a message, with a big idea in it. I read the script and met with MGM’s people and they were interested. That’s when I made a pre-visualization of the chariot race, which proved to be a key element of the whole process because the producers were so excited about the new take once they saw the new version of the chariot race. My goal was to present something that was more contemporary, grounded, and real instead of theatrical.

What were some of the thematic elements that drew you into this project?

First of all, the original book was written right after the Civil War, by a general who probably took responsibility for many people’s lives. This book is full of very deep and emotional characters. I think in today’s world it’s very relatable and important. We live in a Roman Empire: globalization, ego, a cult of power, and competition are the only ways people can develop this world. This book suggests a different approach that is less concerned about competition and embraces collaboration. It’s not about power, it’s about forgiveness. It’s a very challenging movie, and that’s why I was so interested in making this movie. It goes against all the stereotypes of the world we still live in.

The film was shot in Cinecittà, the historic Italian studio. Was this your first time shooting there? And what did you think of shooting in Rome, a city so steeped in tangible history?

It was the only way to make it. The spirit of this brand, this story, is in Rome. We had a very enthusiastic and professional crew. Their ancestors, their fathers, were part of the crew of the previous Ben-Hur film. For example, our makeup artist’s father was the makeup artist on the 1959 movie. The guy who was in charge of consulting on the chariots, his grandfather was one of the members of that crew as well. Even the stunt guy who was whipping Judah on the galley in our movie, his father whipped Charlton Heston in the ’50s. Every time you are driving through the gates of Cinecittà, on the left side you see the huge sculpture from the set of the circus of the 1959 movie. It’s still there, they kept it. We built the real circus, the real arena, a few miles away from Rome. We had almost 100 horses trained for the race. We spent three months, maybe more, training those horses. By the way, the most surprising part of the production was that Cinecittà gave me Federico Fellini’s office, and I was able to spend nine months sitting in his chair. It was a dream.

Fantastic. And your leading man, Jack Huston, has a Hollywood pedigree. Tell me a little bit about casting Jack and why you thought he was the right person to be in the film. 

He’s a prince. If you talk with him you’ll immediately understand and recognize him as a prince. It’s in his veins. Ironically, in casting he came to read for Messala [Ben-Hur’s enemy]. When I met him I immediately understood he is Judah Ben-Hur. The rhythm, because he read for Messala and he thinks that he’s Messala, is very much in line with the character, because Judah Ben-Hur is a spoiled Jewish prince, but he wants to be Roman. He wants to be strong and powerful, like a Roman hero. Jack’s envisioning of himself as a Roman orphan, is what happens with his character. I believe I didn’t make a mistake; he is unique. We tested the movie and the audience loves him.

The chariot race has to be something that every film director dreams of tackling. How did you approach that challenge? Were there any other films, sequences, or elements from popular culture that you drew from for your vision?

Our race is very different and contemporary, maybe because I didn’t use references from other movies or paintings. Instead, I used YouTube videos as a reference for the race—NASCAR, Formula 1, or motorbikes, along with crowd reactions from soccer matches—to get the sort of response I was looking for. YouTube was mainly a source for me to find an inspiration, but the entire sequence is more focused on the characters, the reactions, and the camera work. It’s about how smooth and elegant the camera is. We wanted a more impressionist aesthetic, as if you were there with a GoPro camera in the chariot. You can recognize immediately the style of the camera work from NASCAR racing: a long lens like a sniper or cameras on the track with this bullet passing you in half a second so you cannot even pan. All this is very recognizable, contemporary impressions of such a fast, intense sport like NASCAR or Formula 1 racing. This was different. It’s not about how much you see—it’s about how much you miss that makes it impressive.

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