Director Timur Bekmambetov talks BEN-HUR; practical chariot races and grounded tone

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The moment it was announced that Timur Bekmambetov, the frenetic Russian filmmaker behind Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, would be helming a new remake of classic Ben-Hur, the jokes started rolling in about how he was going to turn the story’s iconic chariot chase into a one horsepower sword-and-sandal Fast & Furious. I would know… I made some of those jokes.

The 11-time Oscar winning 1959 version’s chariot race finale is one of cinema’s most memorable scenes, as director William Wyler had stunt drivers crashing and smashing their real chariots around a huge racetrack set. With the advances in modern technology – and especially given Bekmambetov’s digital-effects heavy filmography – you would be forgiven for expecting this new version to be me nothing but wall to wall CG.

But chatting to /Film, Bekmambetov revealed that he’s actually taking a surprising old school approach to the film.

We shoot everything in the Italy. We built 1,000-foot-long surface, with a track, stands, and gates. We had 90 horses trained for several months, to be able to race. We built very unique chariots based on original references, which is very different from previous movies, because usually chariots are like these huge battle axes [Laughs]. In reality, it was a very low, almost Formula 1-type of design. It was very difficult to race, because nothing protects you. You’re just staying on a bench with two wheels, flying with a 40 or 50 mph speed, with a lot of horses around you. It was very, very dangerous work.

What’s very contemporary is there were teams — blue or red — and they were very popular in Roman Empire. They were so rich. They were paid well, if they survived. One of the champions, he’d be worth 40 billion dollars [Laughs]. It’s a whole culture. We shot it in Rome, in Cinecittá studio, and also found a great medieval town, Latera. What’s interesting is — it’s all real. We shot chariot race for 45 days. It was 45 days with a crowd, horses, and great stunt drivers. Phil Neilson is a very good person, the second unit director, and he was my hero. He helped me make it right.

As /Film pointed out, Neilson also worked on Ridley Scott’s Gladiator which also boasted some great chariot sequences. And he’s not the only one getting his hands dirty as Bekmambetov revealed that they’re actually one-upping Wyler’s version in one regard. Whereas Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd mostly left the actual chariot racing to that film’s stunt team, just showing up in the close-ups, Bekmambetov had his stars – Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell – do all but the most dangerous work themselves.

You can’t really change things on the fly. Horses need to be prepared. Actors spend months to prepare, to learn how drive chariot races. There were stunt guys, but only for the really dangerous things. Overall, it was actors in the chariots.

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If this all sounds very un-Bekmambetov-like, that’s because it is, but as the director previously also told /Film, the story itself is forcing him to change his usual over-the-top bombastic approach.

The style comes from the script and the tone of the movie. For example, in Ben-Hur, it’s very, very different. The visual concepts are very different, because it was very important, for this project, following [screenwriter] John Ridley‘s (12 Years a Slave) script, to make it as grounded as possible and as real as possible. In the whole movie, there’s not one slow-motion shot [Laughs]. It’s handheld, no huge crane shots, slow-motion, or whatever. It’s a very grounded style of filmmaking, which was important.

And although I referred to it as such earlier on (for brevity’s sake), technically this is not a remake of the classic 1959 version but rather a new adaptation of the same source novel. However, given the elevated status of that version in the Hollywood pantheon, Bekmambetov knows that comparisons are inevitable.

This movie is the third movie based on this book. No matter what, people will compare it [to the 1959 film], and there’s no way you can survive comparisons made to the classical movies. People will not compare us to the movie, but to the dream, the memory [of the movie]. The movie should be very different in order to survive, and that’s why Ben-Hur is very realistic. It’s a realistic, deep drama, not a huge tentpole attraction. It’s just drama.

And to up that drama, Bekmambetov and Ridley are actually taking a different path when it comes to Ben-Hur (Huston) and Messala (Kebbell), as this is “not Ben-Hur’s story, it’s Ben-Hur and his brother’s story.” To effect that, Messala will be a far more sympathetic character here, and not an all out villain. Which actually explains all the focus on him in the trailer. And combined with these other revelations above, has actually got me really intrigued to see this.

Ben-Hur also stars Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Morgan Freeman and Pilou Asbæk. It is scheduled for release on 12 August, 2016.

Last Updated: April 6, 2016

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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