Timur Bekmambetov is standing near something of a crossroads for onscreen storytelling. The stylish Kazakh action auteur, who made his bones in the 2000s by directing supernatural thrills like the Russian The Night Watch, and transferring to Hollywood to direct Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, has spent much of his recent producing career in search for new ways to tell very familiar cinematic experiences. Last year, Bekmambetov produced Unfriended, the first horror movie filmed entirely from the perspective of a Skyping laptop, and now his latest effort as a producer has just hit theaters: the live-action first-person shooter spectacle, Hardcore Henry.
Yet, while producing these traditional genre films built from the aesthetics of new media, Bekmambetov is himself revisiting one of the most famous old school sagas ever put to celluloid—he is making a new version of Ben-Hur, which is due out in theaters on Aug. 12, 2016. Unto itself, this project is also the third major big screen adaptation of an iconic 1880 novel by Union Gen. Lew Wallace, but it is also resurrecting the famed chariot race and biblical underpinnings from William Wyler’s legendary 1959 film of the same name.
Hence, when we sat down for a phone interview with Mr. Bekmambetov, we chatted extensively about how his 21st century movie will differ from Wyler’s 20th century classic, as well as the dangers inherent in doing his own chariot race in 2015 without any CGI. We also talked about how it offers a radically different contrast from the Hardcore Henry production, which began by Bekmambetov seeing director Ilya Naishuller’s Biting Elbows music video, “Bad Motherfucker,” and thinking its first-person shooter visuals could be translated to a feature-length film.
Hardcore Henry is the first feature-length film that I know of to be shot entirely in the first-person with a GoPro camera. You also previously produced Unfriended, the first horror film to be shot wholly on Skype. Is it safe to say that you’re looking to challenge traditional filmmaking techniques?
Timur Bekmambetov: I just feel that we’re living in the world now where a lot of things are changing how we live, how we behave, and we are spending our time in front of the screens, our computer screens or gadget screens, and we’re playing the games. It’s why we made these two movies. It’s about human beings, it’s about us, but it’s also about us living in the 21st century.
Considering how much that formula and the familiar are preferred in Hollywood, do you feel like you’re trying to pull genres, such as horror and action, into the 21st century by reinventing them with these formats?
Yeah, it was important for me when we released Unfriended last year in theaters. It was very important to be in theaters, because we had a lot of debates of how to release this movie, because I’m sure if we’d just uploaded it on the Internet, it would [have gained] ten times more views, because it’s the organic form for the Internet.
But it was important to make a statement that it is a movie. It is not some new type of media; it’s still a movie. That’s why it was important for me to release this in a theater, because it was strange to see it on this huge screen in IMAX, to see my computer screen. You know the mouse moves, the clicks, and it was so edgy, I think. It’s a statement, you know? It tells everything about my life, about me, my relationship with the world.
And in this case, Hardcore, it’s another obsession, yes? I think it’s really good [when this movie opens in theaters] around the world to see the computer game and to feel the same way you feel when you play a game.
Did you always know that you wanted to see a film shot like a first-person shooter or was that something you discovered while watching Ilya’s Biting Elbows music video?
Yeah, I discovered [the interest] when I saw Ilya’s music video. But suddenly, a few weeks ago, I found a music video I made at the end of the ‘90s—it might have been 2002 or 2003—and it was a first-person POV, but it was not an action movie. It was just a very experimental, first-person POV story, impression. But also, we have to remember the Chemical Brothers did a music video from the ‘90s with a POV of a distorted world.
What I think is good about Ilya is not that he invented the format or language. What’s important is he is a solid filmmaker; he can tell very emotional and entertaining stories, but it’s not about high-concepts. High-concepts are cool for five minutes, for 10 minutes. For music videos, high-concept works. But if you’re talking about the 90 minutes, the 100 minutes, then it’s about filmmaking, it’s about telling stories and about being emotional.
From what I understand, Ilya had to be convinced at first that he could make a feature-length film in this format. Could you describe what that conversation was like and how you first pitched the project to him?
Honestly, I lied to him! I lied that “I’m sure this will be a great movie!” But the reason why is that it was a really captivating idea to see a game on the big screen. And when I spoke with him, I understood that he could do it, he could—potentially. Of course, there is a chance that everything could fall apart, because it’s a very, very unusual process. It was very, very risky, but somehow intuition [said] that he would do it, he will finish it.
Obviously, you’re working on your own movie currently, but were you able to get to the Hardcore Henry set and see how they were using the GoPro cameras?
No, we shot the chariot race in Ben-Hur! [Laughs] And it will be a very unusual experience for the audience, I hope. And it’s crazy, it’s not CG. Everything is real: the horses and the actors, and the chariots, and even the size of the chariots is original.
Our chariots are much lower and slimmer than the 1959 version, and they’re much more like Formula One bullets. Theirs are like Cadillacs from 1959, you know? It’s a very dangerous sport if you’re sitting on the very tiny backbench with the two wheels and flying by four crazy beasts. I hope audiences will feel it.
Obviously the title Ben-Hur comes with some major pedigree. Did you ever have an affinity or relationship with the William Wyler film while growing up?
As many of us—and by many I mean maybe 60 percent of the cinema audience—I remember this movie. But maybe 70 percent of this [audience] remembers the movie. The rest remembers two scenes: the chariot race and the naval battle, and maybe a mother and sister rescued by a miracle. That’s it.
And originally, it was a book, the most popular book ever written in this country. And for many, many years, it was the second [most popular] book after the Bible, I think, and it was written by a general after the Civil War. And he wrote it, because he felt guilt-ridden, I think. He wrote a story about a brother killing brother with a huge idea of forgiveness. It’s the only way we have to survive if we learn how to forgive each other. And the 1959 movie is a movie about revenge and power, which is a much more commercial concept. I totally understand. But I hope that we can find a connection with the audience.
What do you think about it being 2016? What do you think about today’s audiences makes it so viable to reinvent now? Because it was a book in the 19th century, and there have been several film adaptations. But what do you think about the 21st century right now makes it so relevant?
I think it’s a very contemporary story, because we live in a world with the same problems as the Roman Empire had two thousand years ago. You have terrorism and brother killing brother, and the crisis of the values we live in, and we’re looking for new ideas. And the world is on the edge, either we will find these new values or whatever, or we’ll kill each other.
And I do believe that we’ll find it; we’ve already found it, because when people are uploading new kinds of videos on YouTube everyday for free, they’re not looking for money. They’re looking to be found; they want to share. They’re looking for likes and they want people to recognize them. It’s very different from what we’ve had. I cannot imagine this 10 years ago, because 10 years ago, everyone was trying to sell something.
From what I gather in the trailer, your version of Judah Ben-Hur and Messala are actually brothers. Are they blood relatives in the movie?
No, they’re not. But the whole movie they love each other, and they are just forced by circumstances. There is no good brother and bad brother like there was in the 1959 version. We love them both, we understand them both.
It’s an interesting contrast. I know screenwriter Gore Vidal insisted for years that his version of the characters were lovers. I don’t suppose you’re going down that road with this version?
No, no [Laughs]. It’s not that extreme from the original book, but it’s about two boys who grew up together, and they are very different and they need each other. It’s about how different we are, and how we can learn to understand each other.
The original subtitle for the Ben-Hur novel was “A Tale of the Christ.” Given that you’re talking about with redemption and forgiveness, do you think that is a major element for your film?
Yeah, it is. I don’t think it’s a religious movie. I think it’s talking about the basic human values, and I believe forgiveness is the most important from many of them. And I hope this story—we’re not teaching people, it’s a very entertaining story. But our heroes are smart and they’re thinking about big stuff, big questions in the movie.
I think you have such a direct style that is very singular. Could you talk a little bit about how you take something like the New Testament and find a visceral uniqueness to the imagery?
I think this story directs the movie, not the movie. The story tells us about the tone and the style of the movie, and for this, it was very important to be as relatable and as grounded as possible for today’s audience. It’s why it’s very different from what I’ve done before. There is not one slow-motion shot in the movie. There are no tricky visual effect shots and flashy cuts. It’s almost a handheld movie that’s shot by a DOP who is named Oliver Wood, and he’s shot many great movies like The Bourne Identity, and he is a very interesting cinematographer who is embracing the style.
It’s not about being beautifully beautiful or stagey images, it’s like a drama. And it’s not a four-hour story. It’s two hours, and I think it will make a difference, because it has a very contemporary rhythm of the storytelling, and the dialogues written by John Ridley and it sounds very relatable and smart.
You said earlier that there is no CGI in the chariot race. How long did that take to film?
That’s a good question. It was 45 shooting days for just the chariot race and usually that’s the whole movie. And it was 90 trained horses, who we trained especially for the chariot race, and there were dozens of chariots. It was eight kinds, eight different types, because every driver presents a different culture. It was one Syrian, Persian, Greek, Egyptian, and every chariot had a different design. And it was 45 days that we shot it in Rome. We built a surface almost a thousand feet long with a traditional, historically correct plan and design.
And the actors, they were brave to drive chariots, because I did it myself before I asked them to do it. And it’s crazy, because you’re asking them to be very fast like Formula One. You remember the images with the camera inside the Formula One? It’s very, very shaky and vibrating, and you cannot understand what’s happening because it’s so fast and so shaky. And also, there’s always stuff and debris smashing into your face because of the horses in front of you and the horses behind you, and you’re like in a stream of these creatures. It’s an interesting experience. But one thing we were lucky [about] is that the horses, we didn’t hurt the horses; there was only like one accident but nothing really bad happened and the horse survived. The people had problems like a broken arm.
My costume designer Varvara Avdyushko, she made authentic, historically correct costumes. And it was very strange when we discussed with her that they had leather stripes around their chests, and we were very curious about why they needed these stripes. It looks cool, but how do stripes help you? But she did it, she did these leather stripes, and when the accident happened, and our driver was under the chariot, these stripes saved his life!
It was logical. I don’t know why or how, but he survived.
So I know you’re in the post-production process right now. How is the editing bay for Ben-Hur going for you right now?
Endless, it is an endless process [Laughs]. It’s already been nine months, it’s just endless.
Thank you for being able to talk to me today.
Thank you very much, thank you.