EXCLUSIVE: Pontius Pilate, a script by Woman On Top scribe Vera Blasi about one of the most vilified figures in history, has shaken loose from Warner Bros. Several financiers are chasing it, but I’m told the clear front-runner is Jeff Robinov’s Studio 8. That makes sense because Robinov ran production at Warner Bros when the script landed there, and he was a big proponent. Gone from the project is Brad Pitt, who was attached to play the title figure who sentenced Jesus Christ to die on the cross.
The project languished at Warner Bros and with Pitt, even though it’s considered to be one of the best scripts around. They had a parting of the ways, so considering the subject matter it’s probably best to say that they washed their hands of each other. And while Warner Bros renewed its option on the material, producer Mark Johnson prevailed upon the studio to give it back to him in turnaround because it didn’t fit the current Warner Bros production mandate, particularly with Pitt no longer in the mix. This is less like the straight-ahead Moses tale of Exodus: Gods And Kings and more like like the remake Ben-Hur that gets underway next year at MGM and Paramount with Timur Bekmambetov directing, in that it tells an epic historical story as part of a multi-layered tapestry. As in Ben-Hur, Christ is a major character here, but his arc is just part of the tale. I’m told that several major directors are eyeing this. It’s an intriguing addition to the slate of films Robinov is putting together. He has the financing and the production savvy to make statement movies to be distributed by Sony.
This script follows the evolution of Lucius Pontius Pilate from the sensitive son of a Roman knight into a ferocious soldier whose warrior exploits make him a general and puts him on a political track under the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Promised a military governorship in Egypt, Pilate instead is assigned by Tiberius to become the prefect of Judea, at a time when Jerusalem was a cauldron of religious tensions between various factions of the Jewish faith. Pilate veers from the political fast track into the express lane to hell and historical infamy. Rather than a straight-ahead biblical film, Blasi’s script reads almost like a Bible-era Twilight Zone episode in which a proud, capable Roman soldier gets in way over his head. His arrogance and inability to grasp the devoutness of the citizenry and its hatred for the Roman occupiers and their pagan gods leads him to make catastrophic decisions. All of this puts him in a desperate situation and in need of public approval when he is asked to decide the fate of a 33-year-old rabbi accused by religious elders of claiming he is King of the Jews. Along the way, Roman emperors including Caligula and Tiberius and New Testament figures such as John the Baptist, Salome and Mary Magdalene are seen in a tale that culminates with Pilate’s fateful decision to allow Jesus Christ to be crucified.
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It is hard to put a new spin on the Greatest Story Ever Told, but the script had the twists and unexpected turns that satisfyingly combine history, political maneuvering and storytelling inventions reminiscent of such films as Braveheart and Gladiator. Blasi has also taken the care to explain the motivations of religious leaders like the Jewish high priest Caiaphas (who engineers Christ’s demise) as these leaders tried to bring varying religious sects under one roof, and the script doesn’t have the polarizing chill some felt in The Passion Of The Christ.
I sought out Blasi when I first broke this story as it landed at Warner Bros to see how she came upon such an unlikely character as the linchpin to tell the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. Blasi was raised Catholic in Brazil and grew up always curious about Pontius Pilate. While she made a living writing scripts that include Tortilla Soup, Woman On Top and most recently Emperor (with Tommy Lee Jones playing Douglas MacArthur as he weighs the post-WWII fate of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito), Blasi told me she spent about 10 years researching Pontius Pilate until she came up with a balance she feels is 80% fact and the rest dramatic license. “You have the available facts from Roman and Jewish history books and the four gospels, and then you are left to speculate, to interpret the character of Pilate and give him a dilemma,” Blasi told me. “He seemed a great way to offer context to this very famous event, and if you look at it from the perspective of the Roman governor of that time, it allows for an investigation of the politics of Judea at the time and what it was like to be occupied by Rome.”
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