Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (in theaters Dec. 12) is the year’s second major Old Testament epic from a director who is not a believer — but don’t get Scott started on Noah’s rock-monster Watchers. Whether it’s angels or plagues, Scott prefers a more restrained, naturalistic sensibility.
I learned this at a recent press event in Manhattan, where I had the opportunity to sit down with Scott as well as his Moses, Christian Bale, and his Rameses, Joel Edgerton. (The press event involved several sessions and configurations; the edited discussion below includes dialogue from two sessions.)
Among other things I learned: While Scott has identified in the past as an atheist, he now calls that a mistake (perhaps not unlike filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, who has called himself “godless” but whose outlook may be a bit too complicated for the label “atheist”).
The first topic of discussion: Scott’s controversial choice to represent the voice of God in the form of a “messenger” (identified in the credits by the Hebrew term malak, often rendered “angel” in English translations of the Old Testament) portrayed by an 11-year-old boy.
Ridley Scott: [The boy is] not the figure of God. Malak means “messenger.” Malak is the messenger of God. A more popular word might be “angel,” but I didn’t like the idea of “angel,” associated with wings. I wanted the whole film to be very reality-based. I think I felt what we needed was an exchange with God as often as made sense — not too often — and, therefore, the angel, the malak character, was the perfect example: a child who, at the end of the film, you realize never ages, so that makes him special.
But there’s no halos, no magical appearances or disappearances. If you’re watching very closely, you’ll see that whenever the two are witnessed from a distance — Joshua does a lot of sneaking up over rocks and seeing what’s going on — he can’t see anything. He just thinks his leader has lost his mind, because he’s talking to himself. When you are in close, then you see who Moses is talking to.
Christian Bale: I’m always interested in asking other people’s opinions on it. How would you have represented God, if you were in Ridley’s position? It can be very easy to pick apart someone’s choice for a depiction of God. But if you are put in Ridley’s shoes, it’s an immensely difficult thing. How on earth do you do that? You know Moses had to wear a veil for the rest of his life, because people couldn’t even look on him after he witnessed God with his own eyes. So how would you represent him?
Joel Edgerton: You’re talking about taking something that’s owned by everybody — everybody who has faith, who has a connection with that story in the Bible… A man like Ridley has to take his imagination and create a movie; then it’s a visual language that has to be created. In The Ten Commandments [God] was depicted as a voice. Where do you go if you want to take a more visual stance on that?
SDG: Ridley, you have something in common with many filmmakers who have made some of my favorite movies about faith themes, which is that you don’t yourself identify as a believer. I’m thinking of Darren Aronofsky, who just made Noah, Marc Rothemund, who made Sophie Scholl: The Final Days; Rossellini, Pasolini … I wonder if you …
Scott: Pasolini is pretty out there.
Bale: You’re a fan of Pasolini?
SDG: Yes… I wonder if you would be willing to speak to the challenges and interest of engaging in this subject matter from the perspective of standing outside of [faith] and if that gives you any advantages, any handicaps, if it challenged you in any way.
Scott: I think it helps. The shallow parallel is that I never liked science fiction as a child, until Stanley [Kubrick] did 2001. Then I thought, “Aha. Here’s the threshold; here’s the doorway.” [Then I saw] Star Wars, which was seminal — a milestone; those two science fictions [movies] are head and shoulders above anything else. So, thereafter, I was converted, and I knew how to do a science fiction [film]. And, lo and behold, I was offered this pretty savage thing called Alien, and away you go.
Religion is a little bit like that. You start off in Sunday school. I went for about four or five years as a kid. I used to go to meet the guys — and as I got older, to meet some girls. I must have taken a lot in, because, once I got into my early teens and fundamentally said “That’s enough of that,” I forgot about it — except you never do. I challenge most people that they are really, deep down, kind of part believers. It stayed with me forever; it never left me. Even if it comes in the form of guilt … it’s memory; it’s paying attention to right and wrong. There’s all kinds of things that still lie very deep in me from the rule book [of faith]. So it has never gone away.
I made the mistake of saying I was an atheist at one point, when I was doing Kingdom of Heaven. The writer I chose to polish [the Kingdom of Heaven screenplay] said you couldn’t have asked a worse person to do it, because [he was] a dyed-in-the-wool atheist. And I said, on the contrary, it’s a bit like science fiction: Because I never believed in it, I had to convince myself every step of the way what made sense and what didn’t make sense, what I could reject and accept …
[Noah’s] rock men really should be part of [the world of] the hobbits. I think [Aronofsky] is a great director, but rock men? Come on. I could never get past that. The film immediately kicked off as a fantasy. I’m just telling you what I think… Russell Crowe is a good friend of mine; I know I’m going to get a horrible email from him this afternoon! But it’s hard enough [to say], “I’m going to build a boat, and on it is going to go creatures two by two … ” and make that credible. But that’s what we do for a living.
So I have to part the Dead Sea [sic] — but I’m not going to part the Dead Sea, because I don’t believe I can part the Dead Sea and keep shimmering water on each side. I’m a very practical person. So I was always thinking of science-based elements. Plagues come from natural order or disorder — or it could come from the hand of God, whichever way you want to play that. With a sweep of his hand, he could demolish Egypt with massive plagues of locusts or frogs or whatever or make the river go red…
I watch a lot of National Geographic. Right there, you’re seeing God at play, allowing his creatures to survive or not survive in the program of nature. So I think any liberties I may have taken in how I show this stuff is on pretty safe ground, because I was going from the basis of reality, never fantasy. This is not Harry Potter. It’s real.
SDG: [The death of the firstborn] is a key moment, because, there, the relationship between the faith interpretations of events and the scientific explanation of events is decisively resolved. It’s an all-out supernatural moment.
Bale: [Ridley] has said it’s the one he couldn’t find any other way to tell it. It just had to be told in that fashion.
Edgerton: The movie has a sensitivity to science, yet at the end of the day, the real explanation of the movie, the reason the movie even exists, is because of the religious basis for which it’s told. I think, definitely, [that shows in] the death of the children — there’s no science book for that.
SDG: How do you think that God comes off in the movie?
Edgerton: Well, it’s interesting… It’s eye for an eye, isn’t it? The reason Moses even exists, and why he was sent down the river in a basket, is because the previous pharaoh had decided to cull the workforce and to kill the firstborn male children. So there’s the eye for an eye. And, later, in the story … Rameses declares that every Hebrew child will be drowned in the Nile. And the mouthpiece of God, the messenger of God, is saying that Rameses has spoken, and that’s what he’s going to get. It’s wrathful.
Bale: Part of what I find so fascinating about the Torah is that [Moses and God] have this contentious relationship throughout. He truly does wrestle with him, and then God ultimately doesn’t allow him into the Promised Land. Moses’ end is a tragic one… He is able to assist others, and Joshua obviously takes over and leads them on, but Moses never does get to Canaan.
SDG: What was the most difficult or challenging thing about approaching your characters?
Bale: For me, it was the wave of expectation, initially, knowing just how beyond important Moses is to so many people. First, reading the Torah, and then starting to have conversations with friends of mine — whether they be Jewish or Christian, various faith leaders, people I arranged meetings with — and being told in a very adamant fashion exactly how Moses must be played.
I kept finding that people weren’t making suggestions to me. They were telling me in a demanding fashion: “Christian, you must portray him this way.” And then I would speak with somebody else, and he would say, “You must portray him this way” — and it would be a very different portrayal. Ultimately, I had to find my own way under [Ridley]’s guidance in the context of our film, but with absolute respect to the Torah in its entirety.
Edgerton: The most difficult thing for me was striking a balance with the tyrannical, villainous aspects I knew needed to exist in the character of Rameses. The intention in the latter half of the story is that he’s there to be a villain. I think the difficult thing was how much you allow yourself to humanize or find that human connection and empathy and milk a little empathy out of a character who really is a fascist and holds what is the opposite [of the] ethical point of view that a person on earth, and particularly a leader of people on earth, should take.
Bale: I also felt that Moses, being a man of compassion — how can he not feel immense guilt over the death of what is essentially his nephew by bond? How can he not feel absolutely torn asunder internally looking at his army, who he used to command, second only to Rameses, knowing all of those men who were willing to give their lives for him have lost their children as well?
In comparison with, for instance, Charlton Heston’s wonderful portrayal — which I sometimes felt almost like he was going to levitate and sort of fly over — for this version, I wanted to feel the full weight of that emotional burden. This guy is really trying to lift mountains and having a very tough time doing so.