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'Exodus: Gods and Kings' visually re-creates biblical Egypt

"Exodus: Gods and Kings" director Ridley Scott gets biblical with this epic about Moses taking on the Pharaoh. Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

The architects of ancient Egypt built their cities and monuments with hundreds of thousands of slaves -- and, of course, free slave labor. The architects of "Exodus: Gods and Kings" -- director Ridley Scott's take on the Bible story, which opens Friday -- had "a couple of hundred Spaniards and English people," said the film's production designer, Arthur Max. And they were hardly slaves. "No, they were getting overtime."

Still, in creating the visual universe of "Exodus," which takes place circa 1,300 B.C.E. and involves Moses, his tiff with the Pharoah and the freeing of the Jewish people after 400 years of bondage, Scott's production had to face the usual triumvirate of obstacles -- "money, time and space," Max said. Scott dealt with it in part by relying on the same people who created the classical Rome of "Gladiator" (2000), the inner city of "American Gangster" (2007), the futurescape of "Prometheus" (2012), and even the interplanetary ambience of his upcoming film, "The Martian" (2015).

They include costume designer Janty Yates, for whom "Exodus" meant re-creating biblical Egypt's sometimes fantastical clothing, jewelry and armor through visits to museums in Berlin, Cairo and London; vast research online, and finding a way to re-create ancient metalwork in materials less hazardous to wear during chariot races.

"It comes out of what I call the globbety-globbety machine," said the veteran designer, of the props she makes out of urethane, a material "which is like car-bumper rubber." The lamellar armor worn by the higher-ranking members of the Pharaonic military -- who include at the beginning of the saga Moses (Christian Bale), Ramses II (Joel Edgerton) and the insidious Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn) -- "is like scale mail," Yates said. "It's basically made up of metal petals -- as intricate and protective as chain mail, but more so. It was a thing of utter beauty. But no one was going to be interested in wearing that racing chariots up a mountain."

The chariot "race" -- actually the flight of the Jews from Memphis, with the Egyptians in hot, horse-drawn pursuit -- is just one of the elaborate and kinetic sequences in a movie that through physical sets, miniatures, scale models and the miracle of computer-generated imagery re-creates -- and in some cases re-imagines -- what ancient Egypt looked like.

"You can't just rent this stuff," said Max, who in building the Egypt of "Exodus" had the advantage of having studied architecture at NYU (plus, coincidentally, a required course in Egyptology). "Ridley likes to create a world that is going to immerse the actors, where they walk on the set and are in a 360-degree environment. The details come down to the smallest objects -- the tableware, every stick of furniture. It was the same on 'Gladiator.' Everything had to be drawn and built by hand and I'm very proud of what we were able to achieve. The woods, the gilding, the bejeweled world of Memphis; caskets, masks, sarcophagi, every chair, every bed -- not to mention six or eight chariots."

"Exodus: Gods and Kings" will inevitably be compared with "The Ten Commandments," the Cecil B. DeMille epic of 1956 which has become an Easter/Passover TV tradition, and which members of Scott's crew watched before filming their version of the Old Testament story.

"It's really not half bad," Yates said. "Technicolor was a huge thing at the time, and they used colors we never would have used. It's like 'Cleopatra'" -- the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor vehicle. "Liz's dresses had push-up bras and corsets built in and a lot of man-made fabrics; we weren't going to do that." The dress fabrics in "Exodus," Yates said, were mostly silk, cut on a bias and pleated on a bias, hence the beautiful way they fall. The jewelry, too, will be making viewers swoon.

To Max, "Cleopatra" -- or what he called "Ancient Egypt Goes to Las Vegas" -- was impressive in the scale of its production, which was something of a legendary Hollywood catastrophe, but was made at a time when budgets weren't really an issue and they had far more than the 15 weeks Max was given to pull his ancient Egypt together.

"In the case of Spain," where much of "Exodus" was shot, he said, "we were still designing as they were building, and the 3-D modeling was being done in tandem with that and it was quite breathtaking -- in not a good way."

At the same time, he said, the bad weather, big winds and breakneck pace of production were all "part of the fun." While he'd never created such big sets before, he thought there was also an intimacy to the storytelling. (The film's design included the world of the Jewish slaves in their huts and hovels, and that was an intriguing part of the job, he said.) The people behind the scenes of "Exodus" possessed varied levels of experience in plastic filmmaking, computer imagery or both, and the goal was "to strike a balance between what you generate digitally and what you actually build, to create a world that's credible -- and try not to show the seams."

Scripts from the Scriptures

The Old Testament is the storybook of Western civilization -- there are very few narrative formulations that can't be traced back to Genesis, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Numbers and the popular Exodus, the foundation of Ridley Scott's new swords-and-sandals (and 3-D) epic. The only guy who comes close in terms of archetypal plot lines is that new kid, Shakespeare, so it's no wonder that the movies have found their way back to the Old Testament time and time again, the results very often being less heavenly than they are heavy-handed:

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) You can turn it on, eat your holiday dinner, do the dishes, bathe the kids, put them to bed and still catch Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea. The big kahuna of Bible epics, this was Cecil B. DeMille remaking not just the Good Book but himself (he made a silent version in 1923) and only feels like the longest movie ever made.

NOAH (2014) Director Darren Aronofsky segued from ballet ("Black Swan") to the Bible and employed many cubits of special effects in his madly ambitious retelling of the story of the Flood. With Russell Crowe as God's obsessive boat builder, the film was feverish enough; with those many-armed giants of stone (the Nephilim of Genesis) "Noah," which was partially filmed on Long Island, transitioned into sci-fi overkill. Still, there is much to like about a film whose director tried to make it physically convincing, and at the same time faithful to the original.

DAVID AND BATHSHEBA (1951) "Inspired by" would be a good way of describing the connection between this film by director Henry King ("The Song of Bernadette") and the scandalous biblical tale of King David (Gregory Peck), who sent Uriah the Hittite to his death in battle in order to cover up his affair with Uriah's wife, Bathsheba (Susan Hayward). Hollywood frequently mined the erotic content of biblical stories, because they always came equipped with a high-minded alibi.

SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949) Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr played the dysfunctional couple of the title in this film by DeMille, who really liked the Bible, because Hollywood really liked sex (see "D&B" above). Lamarr -- as the devious Philistine who cuts Samson's hair and delivers him to his enemies -- was one of Hollywood's hotter commodities; Mature was kind of a big lug, but he does get to pull the temple of Dagon down on his tormentors.

JONAH: A VEGGIETALES MOVIE (2002) Charming, computer-animated retelling of the story of Jonah and the Whale, featuring "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything" and produced by the Christian animation company Big Idea Productions. Less ambitious than "Exodus," but probably better for children.

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