Joel Edgerton is wearing eyeliner and a gold skirt, but still looks hard-as-nails. “I never thought I’d wear a skirt and still feel so masculine,” he jokes.
‘The Great Gatsby’ star is decked out as Ramses, the enemy of Christian Bale’s action-hero Moses in Ridley Scott’s biblical epic ‘Exodus: Gods And Kings’… and just a few meters away is a giant statue of his face.
We’re sat in the middle of a desert in Almeria Spain, famous in Hollywood because it’s where Sergio Leone shot his spaghetti westerns, but it’s now doubling for the town square of Pi-Ramses, complete with huge statues, Egyptian columns and the hanging bodies of executed Hebrews.
Even though much of the city will only come to life via computers in post-production, the scale still feels enormous for a modern blockbuster seeing as many are now filmed in green-screen warehouses.
The scenes being shot today are Moses and Ramses departing for, and returning from, the Battle of Kadesh, which we are told was the largest chariot battle in history.
30 chariots file past a cheering crowd – this looks impressive already - but we’re told the number will swell to 2000 after the CGI wizards have worked their magic. Nobody has ever filmed such a big chariot battle.
It’s familiar ground for Scott, who reinvigorated the historical epic with the Oscar-winning ‘Gladiator’ back in 1999 and followed it up with the belatedly lauded crusades epic ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ in 2005. Like those films, ‘Exodus’ is based on historical reality, but also deliberately stylised and exaggerated.
Scott’s production designer Arthur Max told us bluntly: “Usually reality is too small and a bit dull.
“Everyone hears about the pyramids, how amazing they are, but the great pyramid in Giza is only 440 foot high, a 40-story building. Then, it was fantastic, but now we need to pump up the scale a little bit.
“Ridley is trying to romanticise the story he’s telling, rather than a ‘scholastic British museum goes to the Cairo museum’ type of storytelling.”
This exaggeration extends to the clothing, with Oscar-winning costume designer Janty Yates telling us that they added kilts to the outfits of Moses and Ramses because they looked good on Russell Crowe in ‘Gladiator’. “We have researched the heck out of this period” she said, “but then we twisted it”.
It’s a world away from the most famous version of Moses on screen – Cecil B. DeMille’s ‘The Ten Commandments’, which saw a barrel-chested Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner play Moses and Ramses, chewing scenery for much of the three-hour plus running time.
“I hope we haven’t gone back to those 40s and 50s biblical films”, says Max. “We looked at them and they were useful for what NOT to do. The technology was very primitive. The style of acting is very stilted and period-dated.”
Parting The Red Sea
It’s even been suggested that the film will offer natural and rational explanation for both the plagues that afflict Egypt and the film’s big set piece – the parting of the Red Sea.
“How could that have happened?” asks Scott. “Even if it was a hand of God…I’d read – and I don’t know how they know this – but in approximately 3000BC there was a massive undersea volcano and earthquake, which created a tsunami wave that had to have been a couple of hundred feet high. Just off the heel of Italy. Diagonally across you’re staring right up the mouth of the Nile, so I’m wondering if that had anything to do with that.”
We don’t know if Scott will reference this theory in the film, but Max said we should expect a “naturalistic interpretation” of these events, without “the booming voice of God coming through the clouds”.
So the moment Moses parts the waves will be a photorealistic mixture of live action physical effects and digital trickery. The crew has been busy filming different beaches from helicopters to capture the right combination of sand and waves. The trailer offers a glimpse (see below, compared with the Heston version).
A New Moses
We didn’t speak to Moses himself, Christian Bale, on set, so we’re unable to verify if he really is “hilarious”, as co-star Aaron Paul claims. The ‘Breaking Bad’ superstar has a major supporting role as Joshua (in effect, Moses’ right hand-man) and sporting an unflattering prosthetic haircut, told us: “Christian is hilarious. I didn’t know what to expect, I’ve always been a huge fan of his, but off-screen he’s so funny. Always cracking jokes and having a good time.”
A world away from the Batman star’s serious reputation.
Scott told us that he went to Bale first with the part. “I met Christian years ago. He said, ‘let’s go and have a cup of tea’. So we had a cup of tea – I think he was already Batman. Then four years later, I think, I called him up and said, ‘I think I’ve got something for you’ and that’s how it began.”
As you’d expect from Bale, he apparently read both Old Testament and the New Testament cover to cover for the role and “was a pretty good textbook” during the shoot.
But will all that hard work make him a better Moses than Charlton Heston? We’ll find out when ‘Exodus: Gods And Kings’ is released in the UK on 26 December.
Watch the trailer below.
Photo Credits: 20th Century Fox/Rex Features