Q: There are a lot of stories vying for your attention. Why this one?
A: This story just lit a match for me. I thought, ‘Wow, this is an incredible, big story, which is actually the threshold, really, of the beginning of the rulebook of civilisation. If you regard the Ten Commandments as such then it comes out of that. I admit I had never really paid much attention to divinity school, or religious instruction as we called it at my secondary modern school. And I wasn’t really in depth at all about Moses. I was staggered to discover what kind of man he was and where he’d come from. I had no idea he was the counter-point to Ramses. I didn’t know how close their relationship was and that they were raised like half brothers, half cousins if you like.
Q: How was the experience of making Exodus?
A: I’m telling you, it went way beyond my expectations. I think the fundamental structure of the story is so rich with emotional context, the challenges and the doubt that Moses faces, it’s incredible. And Moses continues to have doubts about himself and what he senses, and what he doesn’t sense, what to believe or not believe. It’s a real emotional ride. I’d never worked with Christian [Bale] before, and he delivered way beyond my expectations. He was fantastic.
Q: So what appealed to you about the story this time round?
A: The epic nature of the story and the insecurity of the central character, Moses, and the massive context of this incredible time 5000 years ago. You don’t really want to get into religion politics, but you’re treading the threshold of religion. The magnitude of Moses’s story, and what he believed, was very compelling. If you place yourself at that particular time – and it was savage times – to believe in one being or higher order, when the Egyptians had a thousand Gods, is incredible.
Q: You said you cast Exodus very ‘carefully.’ Could you expand on that?
A: I guess being a director, in some ways, is like being the captain of a sports team, like a soccer team, and you have to make sure that you have every position covered really well because that will help you to win the game. So I always look on making a film as a partnership and that’s what casting is all about, whether it’s the star or the guy with one line. And by doing that you enable them to feel confident to try things out and feel free to suggest things. And over the years I’ve got the best results from actors who really are my partners in the process and it makes it all the more enjoyable. In this instance I’d met Christian four or five years ago when we had a cup of tea together and a rich tea biscuit in LA and he said ‘what are we going to do together?’ And I said ‘well, I’ll come up with something..’ and it wasn’t until five years later when I was thinking about the idea of Exodus and Moses being this kind of larger than life character who, at the same time, has to be played definitively as a very real person, that I thought of Christian and I knew he was the right actor for the role. It’s not a fantasy. Ramses certainly wasn’t a fantasy and somewhere Moses is very much written down and indicated and believed. So it’s a real thing.
Q: What was in your mind when you set about creating this international cast?
Egypt was – as it is now – a confluence of cultures, as a result of being a crossroads geographically between Africa, the Middle East and Europe. We cast major actors from different ethnicities to reflect this diversity of culture, from Iranians to Spaniards to Arabs. There are many different theories about the ethnicity of the Egyptian people, and we had a lot of discussions about how to best represent the culture.
Q: Which of Christian’s performances had stuck in your mind?
A: I’ve watched Christian down the years and he’s always been interesting and a very good actor. I liked him in 3:10 to Yuma – I thought that was really interesting. And I loved him in The Fighter opposite Mark Wahlberg. I thought that was amazing. I cast him because I thought he would be the definition of Moses – he has the physicality and the sensitivity that you need for the role. His research is meticulous. By the time we started filming he knew more about Moses than anybody on set. I’d compare him to Russell (Crowe) in that way. His work ethic is fantastic and he does his research and then some. And he’s full of ideas. We’d talk and I’d say, ‘that’s a great idea, I’d never thought of that..’ And you know, he’s a lot of fun, too. Christian is a true partner. He communicates his ideas really well and it’s all about, ‘what are we going to do with this scene? Should we try this?’ With Christian everything is about in depth conversations and that’s an interesting way to work.
Q: So with Christian in place you had to think about an actor who would play Ramses because those two characters are at the heart of your film – they grow up as brothers, they love each other but in the end they will be on opposing sides. So why Joel Edgerton?
A: Joel had read for me for Kingdom of Heaven and I really liked him. He sent me a tape at the time, out of the blue, and I watched it and I was like ‘who is this?’ And later I saw him in Animal Kingdom, which is a great film, and he was brilliant. I was knocked out by what he did on Exodus. He is a very real actor and I mean this in the best sense of the word, but he has a great theatrical intuition. He’s a great character actor and now, I think, he is a leading man. Christian and Joel together are very, very powerful.
Q: Are you concerned about how religious communities will receive the film?
A: I try to be as respectful and honest as possible, because my job is to put myself in the position of that man, as near as I can do it, and tell his story. I do that in partnership with an actor – in this case a wonderful actor, Christian Bale – and we want to honour the story and the man. I spent a lot of time casting this film and we cast it very carefully. And as I said, I think our actors have done a wonderful job.
Q: At the heart of the story is the relationship between Moses and Ramses. It’s a very human story of two men raised as brothers who end up on opposite sides. Was that part of the appeal, too.
A: Absolutely. Moses is Ramses’ brother in all but blood. They were very fond of each other and they were raised as brothers, but Ramses would always be first place, and Moses would never be in that position, but there was no competition. Moses didn’t want it – I think he was perfectly happy to be number two. Number two is a much easier position to be in. You have a better time (laughs).
Q: What was the balance between real sets and CGI?
A: The CGI is massive. It’s 1300 effects shots. Is that a lot today? I think it’s average for a big movie, about average. We dovetailed the CGI with the live action very well. Arthur Max (production designer) and I were forever having discussions about how we would balance the two.
Q: But you could have done more with CGI and yet you build those fantastic sets. Why is that important to you?
A: We build sets and go on location because I want the reality of a fully envisioned environment. That’s good for me, shooting it, and for the actors who are performing in that environment. And when you have someone like Arthur you are getting the very best. And if you get the right artists – and we have them – then you completely pre-vis (pre-visualise) your sets before you start. All of Egypt was completely pre-vised in a form that looks like a photograph; they are all digital prints and it’s incredible so I can work out if some of the buildings are too tall or if I want more density and in a matter of days it can be done and then you build off of that. You cost it and you build it and it saves so much money. For instance, from the moment I stood on the ground in Almeria where we built our set for Pi-Ramses – which I think was 204 acres, maybe a bit more – I had the pre-vis and I knew what had to be built. And the crew did an amazing job. The bulldozers moved in, the team got to work, and we got it done on time. It’s insane.
Q: Arthur Max said it’s the biggest challenge you’ve done. Would you agree?
A: Yes, I would. We’ve both stood there in the twilight, looking at each other, going, ‘Everything alright?’ and Arthur said, ‘Yeah.’ This is the biggest. When you see it, you’ll see how it grew, as well. It was a huge challenge and the production team and the crew met that challenge. And you’ll see it all on screen.I I shot it in 3D and I cut it in 3D and it’s majestic. The people from the studio came in to see an early cut and they were blown away – more than I expected – so then I went straight into cutting and refining the final mix.
Q: You’ve made so many big films now. Sum up what it was like to make Exodus?
A: This one was more rewarding than most. I don’t know what it was but we just seemed to land in all the right places and I really enjoyed myself. I found that the people I had working with me – the crew and also the actors – were really willing to give everything for this film. So yes, I really enjoyed it.
Exodus: Gods and Kings' will open in Australian cinemas on December 11.