An alumni adventure of biblical proportions
A new screen version chronicling the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt arrives in theaters Dec. 12.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is the latest epic by director Ridley Scott, whose historical drama Gladiator (2000) won the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year.
Critics praised Gladiator for its spectacular battle scenes on the field and in the Colosseum. The film’s special effects team, supervised by U-M alumnus John Nelson, ’76, took home an Oscar in that category.
Scott’s latest creation arrives in theaters with more U-M connections, this time in the screenwriting team of Bill Collage, AB ’92, and Adam Cooper, AB ’93. Collage and Cooper pitched the storyline that would become Exodus: Gods and Kings.
First, a bit of background
Scott’s film represents the third major screen account of the Moses-led exodus story. Two earlier films titled The Ten Commandments (1923, 1956) were the work of Hollywood’s “showmanship” director Cecil B. DeMille.
The 1923 silent version established a landmark moment in cinema history. Meticulous production details, the precise orchestration of a huge cast, and its innovative special effects set the bar incredibly high for subsequent filmmakers. Perhaps most impressive was the legendary “parting of the Red Sea” effect, enhanced by the application of a double-negative Technicolor process — still in the formative stages of color development at the time.
The original movie arrived in two narrative parts — the first about the Moses-led exodus, and the second a lengthy contemporary story in which two men discuss their reactions to the Ten Commandments.
That modern component was dropped from the 1956 film for a more detailed historical treatment of the Moses-exodus drama. DeMille also expanded the scope of production details and special effects wizardry. Theatergoers in 1956 were dazzled by DeMille’s pillar of fire, the burning bush, the divine plagues, the parting of the Red Sea (again), and the reception by Moses of the tablets that contained the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments of 1956 remains one of the most popular and lucrative motion pictures ever made. With an iconic cast led by Charlton Heston as Moses (with three-month-old son Fraser Heston as baby Moses) and Yul Brynner as Rameses II, DeMille once again displayed his mettle for unparalleled showmanship long before the magic of computer-generated imagery – CGI – would make its mark on the cinematic landscape.
It should be noted that the 1960 Otto Preminger film titled Exodus, adapted from the Leon Uris novel of the same title, focused on events that led up to the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.
Partners Collage and Cooper, since graduating from U-M, have earned writing credits for nearly 50 film and television projects, with more underway. In this digital Q&A conducted over email earlier in November, Collage and Cooper together answer my questions about their impressive screenwriting careers, and their involvement with the retelling of this dramatic saga.
You two have established reputations as talented writers of screen comedy, creating the storylines for Accepted (2006) and Tower Heist (2011). What led you to pitch a new screen version of the Hebrews’ flight from Egypt?
We had been working in drama and comedy since about 1995, and with few exceptions (a teeny-tiny polish on Ransom; a rewrite of a horror film called Wrong Turn), we never saw any of our drama stuff produced. In 2007 we stopped writing comedy and focused on setting up only drama projects. We sold an adaptation of Moby Dick to Universal (with Timur Bekmambetov directing) and then pitched Exodus to Universal.
While they thought we did a super job on the Moby Dick movie, they hesitated about a mega-expensive updating of The Ten Commandments — as it was seen as “sacred cinematic ground” — and they passed. But we had always been drawn to the Moses story, and saw it as an opportunity to take a marquee character that had 100-percent market penetration in terms of name awareness, and reintroduce him to audiences at a time when the technology of filmmaking could at last live up to the scope and spectacle of the biblical story.
You pitched your ideas to Peter Chernin of Chernin Entertainment and he was immediately taken with your concepts for a remake of the story. What so excited him about your pitch?
Yes, Peter Chernin and Dylan Clark (his then-president of production) were our second stop with the pitch of Exodus and they bought it in the room. At the time, pitching a serious and long “God movie” was as about as out-of-favor an idea as you could imagine. After 9/11 Hollywood was making comedies by the bushel. We felt like people would be yearning for epic stories again soon. Luckily for us, Peter and Dylan wanted to go along for that ride.
We think they responded to the way we saw the Moses character and his relationship to Rameses: A brotherly relationship forged in battle and upbringing, that is broken when Moses discovers his true identity and Rameses endeavors to capitalize on it. Twentieth Century Fox has ultimately built the entire marketing campaign of the movie around that dynamic, which has been neat for us to see.
More than anything though, we didn’t shy away from depicting the miracles and the power of God in a serious and cinematic way. An exciting and arresting way. In a way that people could feel the miracles and the power of this timeless story.
Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 script for The Ten Commandments included original material of studio writers as well as material from historical books about the exodus, such as Prince of Egypt (Wilson) and Pillar of Fire (Ingraham). Did you undertake any specific research to prepare for your pitch?
Yes, we quite literally read anything we could and spoke with rabbis, priests, and other experts in theology. We scoured over everything from the Talmud, the Koran, and exegesis of Torah texts (known as “midrash”) to Jonathan Kirsch’s Moses: A Life in order to get as well-rounded a picture of the man and his time as we could. It was a fantastic experience. Then, of course, we had to sort through what to use and what not to use.
Can you talk a bit about the narrative and thematic similarities/differences between your storyline and that of DeMille’s 1956 film?
Without giving anything away, suffice to say we’ve always taken the beginnings and endings of a story very seriously. Where do you start? Where do you end? And in that regard, we framed our version differently than DeMille. Whereas DeMille endeavored to make a retelling of the biblical narrative from the birth of Moses up until his death, our intention was to tell a story about a man’s quest for his identity and personal freedom — and in embracing who he is and what he’s supposed to do. He’s responsible for the freedom of an entire people. That inspired us. His relationship to God inspired us. Moses was a man, riddled with doubt, who came to his faith through the power of a transformative experience. That felt exciting to explore.
Both Christian Bale, who portrays Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings, and director Ridley Scott have been quoted as saying the upcoming remake presents a version of Moses and the flight from Egypt in startling new ways. Bale has even referred to the nature of the film as “shocking stuff.” Would you elaborate on these comments?
We didn’t shy away from depicting what we read in the Bible and other midrash in a very powerful way. Whereas previous versions of the tale apologized for things or played things “soft,” we felt we would present what happened in as raw and realistic a way as our art-form allows. If you think about any one of the plagues, you’re immediately presented with difficult stuff. Pick one: The Lord striking down all first-born Egyptian children in the middle of the night? That’s not soft. That being said, we were not doing anything for “shock value.” We just depicted this often spectacular, often difficult material in a way that didn’t shy away from what happened.
Back to your pitch. How did your visualizations for a new telling of the exodus story factor into the development of the major characters: Moses, Rameses, Joshua, Miriam, Tuya, etc.?
We spoke of the tone or feeling of the movie from the get-go. Egypt of the pharaohs was a vast and quickly expanding world, and the characters are a by-product of that. In order to achieve the grandeur they desired, the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews. Whenever you’re dealing with one population subjugating another, there’s an inherent darkness to the narrative — and it’s from that experience the characters are borne. Who the characters are and their relationships to one another are what drives the exodus story, so it’s the development of the characters that actually informed how we visualized the story — and not vice-versa.
A story of two men raised as brothers who are then pitted against one another was rich territory, and the secondary relationships all stem off of that. Joshua, Miriam, Aaron — Moses’ brother and sister — played a much larger role in our drafts than in the subsequent drafts. That was interesting to us too — the relationship between Moses and Aaron and Miriam. But that got pared back as things evolved.
In what ways, do you think, is Exodus: Gods and Kings a revisionist effort — both in the writing and in its on-screen realization?
We don’t view it as revisionist from a storytelling perspective. It’s all culled from the Bible and midrash, but where other iterations of the story have chosen to highlight certain elements, we have chosen to highlight others — and where we couldn’t find answers, we did what all writers must do: We made it up.
As a child of royalty raised in ancient Egypt, you were either trained in the art of war, or trained in scholarship — and seeing Moses as a warrior seemed to be the more active and compelling choice, especially when one has to reconcile the fact that God chose Moses to lead a people to freedom. God chose Moses because he needed a warrior. That choice is consistent with the character in the biblical text and we loved the idea of Moses being a man of action who evolves into a law-giver. He evolves from a man who literally has trouble speaking into one who commands us to “listen to everything I say.”
But our opinion was just one of many. Keep in mind, Jeffrey Caine and Steve Zaillian also wrote on the movie and, in some cases, made different choices than we did. They’re both super writers and we felt blessed they lent their talents to the project. This is to say, not everything on the screen was in our drafts.
I’ve read that the title of the story you pitched was simply called Exodus. Why was the secondary title Gods and Kings added?
The secondary title was added because there was a rights issue with the title Exodus alone.
What do you expect/hope that filmgoers will take away after seeing the biblical story that you set in motion with your pitch to Peter Chernin?
An appreciation of Moses’ strength of character to not just survive hardship, but escape it. To not just seek a better world, but to make a better world. An appreciation of how Moses balanced the need for freedom with the need for laws. And the power of this idea (which we state here by paraphrasing the words of Bruce Feiler): Dreams don’t have to die with the dreamer.
Do you think there are any larger implications for the current re-emergence of familiar biblical stories, i.e., Noah earlier this year, and now Exodus: Gods and Kings? Or are these just great tales that lend themselves to big-screen adventures?
Great stories are great stories. They can come from anywhere, but there is something to be said for the ones that have endured for thousands of years and been passed down from generation to generation. Given the long life of the biblical stories, there’s an inherent power to them, regardless of one’s system of belief. This is to say, a timeless story about universal truths always will touch people — no matter if it comes from the Bible or from The New York Times.
As it relates to Noah, we’re fortunate enough to know Darren Aronofsky — who is very, very gifted — and have worked with him on two other projects of ours. During that time, Darren and his writing partner, Ari Handel, shared their script of Noah with us prior to production and we all talked about it. His commitment to doing that movie was as strong as ours to set up Exodus. They were written roughly around the same time. So we were all thinking about very different kinds of movies than the marketplace was digesting in the mid-late 2000s. Last year, we set up a project called The Maccabee with Darren and Ari at New Regency. It’s another incredible tale — not from the Bible, but about the incredible revolution that led to the Hebrews reclaiming Jerusalem from the Assyrians around 167 BC.
Beyond working with Darren and Ari, we’ve also just sold a network TV show that will recount tales from the Bible. Powerful stuff. Some people have asked us not to share the topic, which we understand. But suffice to say, Noah and Exodus are just the beginning … literally.
That leads me to a question about the production itself. I’ve just seen theater previews for the film, which make it absolutely clear that this Exodus will be another impressive Ridley Scott “effects” extravaganza. How do you see the use of CGI, which worked so well in Scott’s Gladiator, abetting this new film?
Sir Ridley is a cinematic genius and for him to have gravitated to our script and put his talents against our material is simply a dream come true. His production of this was enormous by today’s standards and the results are on the screen. When DeMille made The Ten Commandments, he did not have the technology at his disposal that Sir Ridley did, so the CGI and 3D technology really exist to more fully immerse the viewer in the experience of the narrative.
What was it like to work on such an important film and to work with a great director like Ridley Scott?
We are humbled to have been afforded this opportunity. We’re just so so so appreciative that we were given a chance to write this film. It’s a been an absolute blessing.
A couple of questions about your working methods. As team writers how do you go about developing a screenplay storyline? Does each of you play a specific a role, or do you, as many team writers do, bounce ideas off one another as you work?
We’ve sold something like 44 or 45 projects since starting our careers, all to major studios, so we’ve never worked in independent film. Collaboration comes with the territory. Lots of voices, chefs, etc. We’ve come up with things ourselves and we’ve worked on existing projects. Sometimes one of us does one thing, sometimes the other one does.
And since we’re pretty much always working on two (or three or four) things at a time, we simply each dive into something and then trade when it feels right. And everything gets put through so many revisions (by us internally), then by producers, then by the studio, then by directors and actors — we ultimately lose track of who came up with what or who did what.
We live on separate coasts and always have (Adam in LA, Bill in New York) and as such, we talk on the phone daily. But we never really type in the same room unless we’re on set or doing production rewrites. We understand it’s a lame answer, but at this point, we don’t have “one process” — just whatever it takes to do great work in various situations.
Who are some of the filmmakers and screenwriters, past and present, that have inspired you?
Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Stanley Kubrick would be our Mt. Rushmore of filmmakers, we suppose. Scorsese probably would be the top, if we had to choose.
We’ve been fortunate enough to get to work with a pretty esteemed group of directors. We’ve worked with Ron Howard several times and he’s simply awesome as a filmmaker and a person. There’s no nicer human in the world and we look to him as a role model for how to comport ourselves.
Coppola, Oliver Stone, Robert Towne, Billy Wilder, and Paddy Chayefsky are a few of the writers we love. There’s a group of amazing guys working right now who are our peers or up-the-ladder from us. Like Steve Zaillian. We love his work. To have him lend his talents to Exodus is another dream come true.
Any projects currently underway?
We just finished The General (a George Washington war picture) and we continue to work on the film adaptation of Assassin’s Creed starring Michael Fassbender (which starts shooting next September). We also just finished work on Splinter Cell (starring Tom Hardy) and adapted the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Devil in the Grove about Thurgood Marshall for Lionsgate. There’s also a movie called Guernica, which we wrote, that is being directed by Alberto Arvelo. And we are likewise in the process of finishing a TV pilot for ABC and will pitch another feature soon. What it is, we can’t say. But it’s another one with a grand scope and an incredible character at the forefront.
Screenwriting over the past few decades has been a pathway to film directing. U-M grad Lawrence Kasdan, ’70, is one example. Would that be a welcome opportunity for the two of you?
Adam has always said there’d be a point when he would direct a film. And Bill loves his little routine in his one-street town of Sag Harbor, N.Y., too much to ever direct. We both took screenwriting and film classes around 1990-93 at U-M. Our screenwriting professor Mick Hurbis-Cherrier remains not just a friend, but someone we repeatedly turn to for insight on film and storytelling. He has a vast knowledge of movies and often refers us to incredible films in order to bolster our knowledge of what’s been done and what’s possible. He, more than anyone, got us started. Mick and the movies themselves.
You are so right, Bill and Adam. Mick Hurbis-Cherrier is a one-of-a-kind teacher whose inspiration for his students is re-avowed in your comments. I want to thank you for your pointed, honest, and interesting insights into the creation of Exodus: Gods and Kings as a redux of that biblical story. I wish you great success with this film and all your future endeavors.