The story of Judah Ben-Hur has been one of the culture’s most popular, most powerful stories for more than a century now, and Jesus has always been at the center of it. Earlier this summer, I wrote a blog about the 1880 book Ben-Hur: The Tale of the Christ, discussing the faith journey of author Lew Wallace. It’s such a powerful tale that Focus on the Family Radio Theatre even created its very own top-notch production of the story. But most of us are probably most familiar with the 1959 movie starring Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd and the most exciting chariot race in cinematic history.
Now there’s a new version of this timeless story charging into theaters this Friday—one crafted by executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. In Los Angeles, I (along with about 10 other “press” people) had a chance to sit down with Burnett and Downey, both committed Christians, and talk with them about the project, and why they’d want to remake a movie that’d already won 11 Oscars.
[Note: When I asked a question or made a statement, my name is included. All other questions came from others in the room and are simply designated with a “Q”. Some editing of the original transcript was done for readability and brevity.]
Q: It’s almost unimaginable how [some of the movie’s characters could forgive] at the end [of the movie]. Can you tie in that message of forgiveness of Christ and of the film?
Downey: At our production company, Lightworkers Media, we have a mantra that it’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. And it’s something that we have been committed to doing in the content that we create. I think that this film at this time hopefully can offer some kind of balm for the hurting world that we live in. …We’re just movie makers. This film comes to an audience as an action adventure movie and it doesn’t disappoint on that, but it holds within it more important, deeper themes of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of loving, of mercy. And the best we can hope is that these themes will touch and open hearts.
Burnett: Obviously the faith audience will connect [with] why the forgiveness happened. [The] secular audience will connect [too because] Jesus, in the way [the scene] was shot, was speaking directly to Judah.
I bet you many people that day at the crucifixion thought [Jesus] was speaking to them. And in fact He was. Then there’s also a supernatural element—a mystery that none of us actually understands—where things just happen. Sometimes you’ll be in a church setting or a movie or a meeting, and that the spring of the Holy Spirit within you can bubble up, flow through you into others. [You] just gotta make sure you don’t feel like you deserve the credit or it’s because of you it happened. It’s just passing through you.
Q: Do you feel that since you’ve made The Bible [miniseries for the History Channel] and now you’ve made these other [biblical] projects, do you feel like something is coming through you?
Burnett: I feel all different kinds of things at times. It’s very easy to feel proud of doing or to feel important for doing it. I bet you all the famous pastors sometimes feel that way or cardinals or the Pope feel that way, because we’re humans and we’re weak.
Waliszewski: When people ask why remake a film that is so well known—like Charlton Heston’s 1959 classic with its 11 academy awards—what do you say?
Downey: We say it’s such a great story and it’s a story that needs to be seen, heard, and felt by a whole new generation of moviegoers. With all respect to the 1959 movie, it’s just so long ago.
Waliszewski: And it’s so long.
Downey: And so long. That’s right.
Waliszewski: Three hours and 43 minutes.
Downey: That’s right. Our film is significantly shorter. It’s a really great story and we loved working on this screenplay with John Ridley, who of course won the Oscar for 12 Years a Slave. I think it’s been retold in a way that is both exciting and profoundly touching.
When you can for 2016 create [Ben-Hur] in 3-D as a new experience—[bringing on an] Oscar-winning special-effects team to create this amazing CGI as evidenced by the battle scene, the naval battle scene and of course the chariot race—it’s just breathtaking. You will inhale at the beginning when that kerchief drops and those horses come hurdling down that track and you will not exhale till that race is over. I think it over delivers in those scenes.
Q: Again, comparing this film to the previous film, what do you think that you guys actually did better in this film?
Burnett: I don’t necessarily think it’s better or worse. It’s just different.
The book is great and the book’s from the 1800s. … I bet you a lot of people will actually want to read the book because of the movie. It’s really strange [how it works.] People write a book. It becomes a play. It becomes a movie and another movie and then people rediscover the book. Not many things are like that. I bet you Shakespeare is a little like that. The Bible certainly is. We know millions of people rediscovered the Bible or discovered the Bible because of The Bible [TV] series.
And to come back to your question about why remake Ben-Hur: If you stop to analyze the wisdom of it, you would not do it. You wouldn’t. There’s times where you just jump in. …Why would the chairman of MGM, Gary Barber, come to us and say, “We’re the studio that owns Ben-Hur. We’re gonna redo Ben-Hur. We’d like you guys to come on as producers on this movie.”
The big-baby approach would be, “Whoa, no way! That could go wrong. That could not end well for us.” And [we could] chart a very safe course. Or you [could] have a little recklessness. …When you get too safe and comfortable, then you probably don’t need to lean on God as much in your own mind.
Downey: I think there was a boldness in doing this. We approached it prayerfully—a constant prayer [for us] is Less of me, more of you. And we try to get out of the way and so that when the Spirit moves, we listen. It’s in every stage of this we just prayed it in and we called in prayers from the community, particularly for the big scenes. Particularly for the crucifixion, which, you know, is a difficult scene to film physically, emotionally, spiritually.
And that morning we went up to that hillside with the prayers and support of so many in our community and so we prayed into the fiber of the film that the story that that moment when his heart is touched that people’s hearts will be touched. That the movie will be seen not just in America but globally, and that there may be an opportunity for people to experience some of the grace and the transformation of his heart that Judah feels, or that Messala feels or that Ilderim feels. … It’s in our broken places often that the light comes in.