Mark Burnett and Roma Downey are well-known for fearlessly taking on compelling, if potentially controversial, projects, including “The Bible,” their 2013 landmark docudrama. Next up is their reboot of the 1959 multiple Oscar-winning epic, “Ben-Hur,” helmed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston. Downey and Burnett serve as executive producers on the new “Ben-Hur,” which bows in theaters Aug. 19.
Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley penned the screenplay for the MGM and Paramount Studios film, directed by Russian-Kazakh helmer Timur Bekmambetov.
In Wyler’s version, which won 11 Oscars, Judah Ben-Hur (Heston) is a wealthy Jewish merchant living in Jerusalem at the turn of the 1st century. He is betrayed by his childhood friend, Messala, now a Roman nobleman. Ben-Hur is tossed into prison and, ultimately, seeks revenge.
There are stunning sequences with chariots.
The updated ‘Ben-Hur’ will provide plenty of new surprises, says Bekmambetov.
“This is a completely different movie, based on a different script, with a different idea at its core,” he says. Bekmambetov’s “Ben-Hur” centers on a prince falsely accused of treason, who regains his freedom and returns for revenge. Both storywise and tonally, Bekmambetov says, the film hews close to Lew Wallace’s original novel (upon which both films are based), but also sends a new message.
“The world has changed a lot and the revenge theme that was used in the 1959 film feels even more visceral in today’s world,” Bekmambetov says. “Our film emphasizes instead the importance of forgiveness.”
The director credits Downey with helping him deal with the sort of on-set challenges that typically pop up during the filming of any movie, including maintaining the film’s core emotional thrust.
“She’s not only a professional producer, but also a good-hearted person,” he says. “Roma has the unique gift of hearing other people and making sure they hear her. That was one of the reasons we managed to maintain the emotional centerpiece of the movie. All the decisions she made were both emotional and well-balanced. Her sincerity inspired me and gave me the confidence that we were on the right track.”
Jack Huston, who stars as the Jewish prince and merchant Judah Ben-Hur, calls Downey “one of the most kind, generous and giving human beings.”
“I think coming from being an actress herself, she understands the process so well,” he says of Downey’s directing style. “She’s very focused and intelligent. She’s very story-driven, and really wanted to help us get the most out of these characters. It’s always nice to have someone on set who exudes warmth and light and is so approachable, and ready to help. She has a brilliant mind and is instrumental in developing a character.”
Stepping into a lead role made famous by Heston, who won the Academy Award for best actor for his performance, was “daunting,” says Huston, but Downey and Burnett offered ample support.
“We built a strong, unique character, one I had such fun and enjoyment working on and bringing to life,” Huston says. “Judah is one of the great characters that an actor could get to play. I felt very honored.”