Earlier today Deadline debuted the new trailer for 20th Century Fox’s big Christmas picture Exodus: Gods And Kings. The large-scale biblical drama looks BIG. EPIC. The kind of movie studios used to thrive on but are simply cost-prohibitive these days. Well, they seem to be making a comeback. Ben-Hur, which took 11 Academy Awards in 1959 including Best Picture, is now being remade. Of course Paramount released Darren Aronofsky’s Noah early in the year. But Gladiator in 2000 was the last big-scale epic of this period to wow Academy voters into giving up their Best Picture vote. It’s no coincidence that Ridley Scott directed that one, which also brought Russell Crowe an Oscar for Best Actor. Now Scott is back doing the impossible for Fox with Exodus.
In a brief conversation before the studio’s special press presentation Tuesday evening at the Zanuck Theatre on its lot, Fox Chairman Jim Gianopulos mentioned to me it reminded him of the heyday of David Lean, who of course helmed such masterworks of epic scale as The Bridge On The River Kwai, Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. Lean’s lush era seems lost deep in movie history compared to the kinds of leaner films the studios make today. At least of this type. “There is nothing out there remotely like this,” Gianopulos told me. “You don’t see movies on this scale anymore. You don’t see movies using these numbers of people in these massive scenes unless they are computer generated. Ridley did the real thing — and in only 80 days.” Producer Jenno Topping, who hosted the nearly 40-minute presentation of various scenes from the film, actually said it was 74 days, which is pretty remarkable for the director who will be turning 77 just days before his latest epic opens in the U.S. on December 12. Of course, a leaner-than-Lean-type production schedule can keep the costs down, but judging form what we were able to witness in this presentation, it looks like it is all on the screen — and then some.
“From a production standpoint, this movie was kind of a nightmare, and hugely intimidating and ambitious,” Topping told the crowd. “We had a ridiculously tight schedule . … We were shooting in different countries, there were hundreds of people speaking in different languages, Ridley was shooting in the elements, like crazy sandstorms and water, and there were tons of animals. And not just like dogs and cats but horses and donkeys and camels and freakin’ frogs. It was just endless and crazy. Fifteen-hundred special visual effects, six 3D cameras running at all times. And I really only think Ridley could have taken on this task, not only because of his incredibly beautiful mastery of the cinematic language, but because of his mental and physical toughness to be undaunted. He’s just such a badass in every way, and he powered through it — and in fact jokingly suggested that his credit on the movie should be ‘Directed By Ridley Scott’ and then in parentheticals beneath it ‘in 74 days.'”
The selection of clips — all in 3D, with the exception of the new trailer, which premiered to the audience in 2D — definitely showed off the scope of this picture, ranging from intense dramatic scenes between Moses (Christian Bale) and Egyptian Pharoah Ramses (a bald and almost unrecognizable Joel Edgerton) to four of the 10 plagues featured in the movie. The scene with the frogs alone was remarkable, and creepy, and I’m told there were at least 400 live frogs mixed with CGI variety. Didn’t Scott hear you are never supposed to work with children or animals — especially frogs? In the Q&A that followed Bale said he fortunately didn’t have to work with those amphibians. But Moses is obviously an intense role, and he was very well aware the shadow of Charlton Heston, who famously starred as the biblical icon in 1956’s The Ten Commandments, loomed over him. Perhaps more surprisingly, he said part of his research included renting Monty Python’s biblical film parody The Life Of Brian as well as Mel Brooks’ History Of The World, Part I. He wanted to make sure his portrayal did not lapse into parody, so this was a way. He also read Moses: A Life and even the Koran among other literary works. Steven Zaillian wrote the script for the film, which, with its huge scenes of overcoming 400 years of slavery, Bale described as more about a revolution than previous versions. Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul and Sigourney Weaver are among the supporting cast. Chernin Entertainment and Scott Free are among the production entities who put it together.
So a true assessment of Oscar chances for this massive effort is hard to make, based even on 40 minutes of footage, but if voters are in the mood to revisit the kinds of films that often used to prevail at the Academy Awards, then Exodus: Gods And Kings is definitely “for your consideration,” Oscar Gods and Kings. Certainly just for the sheer attempt, and the way in which he seems to have pulled it off, Scott deserves to be on a shortlist of Best Director possibilities. He was not among the Oscar winners for Gladiator, as that was one of the rare years of a split between Best Picture and Director, with the latter going to Steven Soderbergh for Traffic. He’s never won. A smackdown between Exodus and Noah for Best Special Effects could make that category even more interesting than usual, though both will have to face the final Hobbit movie.