Touched by an epic

As a child, Roma Downey remembers curling up on the sofa of her Beechwood Avenue home and watching '˜Ben Hur' with her mum, Maureen.

Friday, 29th July 2016, 3:28 pm
Updated Friday, 29th July 2016, 4:54 pm
Executive Producer Roma Downey on the set of Ben-Hur from Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures.

Little did she know that, decades later, she’d be producing the epic herself, one of the biggest movies of the 21st century.

The ‘Ben Hur’ remake, starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Huston, is due to be released in the U.S. next week, with a release date in the U.K. and Ireland for the third week of August.

It marks a big month for Roma, who’s due to get her own star on Hollywood Boulevard at the end of August.

“I saw the original in Derry with my family,” Roma told the ‘Journal’ this week. “My mother died when I was almost 11, and I remember her being there when we watched it, so I must have been very young.

“It was amazing, but it was a very long movie and I don’t know that we, as a contemporary film going audience, have the patience to watch a three hour movie anymore.

“I remember the original being so long that it had an intermission, so you got a break in between.”

The new film will open in regular cinema format, and viewers will also have the option of seeing it in 3D.

“It’s a big one,” said Roma. “It’s been a long time in the making and to have the finish line finally in sight is very exciting.

“‘Ben Hur’ redefines the word epic. It is a gorgeous studio picture, an action adventure drama, with lots of action, adventure and drama.”

As executive producer, Roma was one part of a massive team that put the 2016 version of Ben Hur together.

“It takes a village to make a film like this,” she said. “And we had the best in the business working along with us. The directing is by Timur Bekmambetov, with Jack Huston as ‘Judah Ben Hur’, Morgan Freeman as ‘Sheik Ilderim’ and Toby Kebbell as ‘Messala’.

“It’s written by John Ridley who won the Oscar for ‘Twelve Years a Slave’, and our special effects team won the Oscar for ‘Lord of the Rings’. ‘Ben Hur’ has brought together the best in the business.”

The Derry born actress revealed that the film was shot entirely on location in Italy, where they built a replica race track and staged the filming of the famous chariot scene over six weeks.

“The horses were brought in from all over Europe,” she said. “In fact, the horses were trained by the son of the guy who trained the horses for the 1959 film. And the hair and makeup was done by the son of the guy who designed the hair and make up for the ‘59 film.

“The morning we started shooting the sequence for the chariot race, we had eight chariots, drivers and 32 horses come hurtling down the track at 50-60 miles per hour. At that moment, you could have heard a pin drop in the producers’ stand. It was a moment we had all dreamed of.

“There were so many animals hurt in the previous film and it was our intention that no animals would be hurt in our film. And no animals or people were hurt.

“It is a spectacular scene. As an audience, when you see it, you will inhale and you won’t exhale until it is over.”

As Roma looks ahead to next month when she will be given her own star on Hollywood Boulevard, she reflects on what is a “great time” in her life.

She revealed that, when she left the long running series, ‘Touched by an Angel’ which ran in the U.S. for ten years averaging 20 million viewers a week, she was uncertain about what she wanted to do.

“So, I turned my attention to producing,” she said. “Last year, our company merged with MGM which has been just amazing.

“It’s has been a rewarding time and great fun.

“To go this summer and get my own star on Hollywood Boulevard is both humbling and exciting. I remember coming here many years ago,” she said. “I didn’t have a car or drive and, believe me, it is not easy to get around LA without a car. I had a friend take me to Hollywood Boulevard and I was like Dorothy on the yellow brick road going from one star to the next.

“I remember that so vividly. It’s very exciting but it’s a lot of hard work, and there have been disappointments along the way; everytime you get knocked down, you have to get yourself back up.”