With the debut of the 1959 classic Ben-Hur on Blu-Ray, a process that cost a total of one million dollars and several years to accomplish, Jesusfreakhideout.com had the honor of sitting down with Fraser Heston (Director and son of actor Charlton Heston), Catherine Wyler (Producer and daughter of director William Wyler) and Ned Price (Oversaw the restoration process to Blu-Ray) at the Essex House in New York City.
JFH (John): It was very interesting to hear about your father and his legacy and what it was like making the film. How did you oversee the restoration of the film over to Blu-Ray?
This interview took place on: 9/30/11.
JFH (John DiBiase): I watched the Blu-Ray release for Ben-Hur and I thought it was fantastic. I watch a lot of Blu-Rays and I have to admit it's one of the best I've seen.
Thank you very much.
Well, I got involved with this project when Warner Bros. came to me and asked if I would be interested helping to produce a documentary about my father. That became "Charlton Heston and Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey," which is the name of our feature-length documentary that is included with the Blu-Ray set now. So it gave us an opportunity to use a lot of archival material that we had, including three long reels of 16mm film footage that my mom, Lydia Clarke, took on the set of Ben-Hur, from behind-the-scenes, in our villa in Rome and at home after we got back. So it gave us a chance to use those assets in a way that I think tells a wonderful story of how did Ben-Hur affect my father's life, what was his life like with the family in Rome - not the part that you see in front of the camera, but the part that you see at home and behind-the-scenes. So it gave us a chance to kind of make that story happen, and it was a wonderful experience.
JFH (John): How did the film's success and story affect your family?
As far as the restoration of the film goes, I wasn't brought in until it was almost completed. I went to visit at Warner Bros. at the lab where they were doing it and they showed me some of it. It was just extraordinary. It just blew my socks off. It looks like you can step into the film with the actors and jump into the chariot and ride off. It's great.
Well, I think Ben-Hur affected us profoundly and to the good, obviously. Dad felt that he had not quite achieved a level of the sophisticated actor that is taken seriously as an artist - not just as a blockbuster hero like someone who does a C.B. DeMille epic, and he loved Ten Commandments and was thrilled to work with C.B. DeMille, by the way, and that's a marvelous film, but Ben-Hur was a different line of country. It was probably the first modern epic. And, of course, going into it, Dad had no idea whether it was going to succeed or whether he was going to be any good in it. And there were doubts and fears and second thoughts. William Wyler came to him halfway through the show and said, "Chuck, you need to be better in this part. I don't know how to tell you to do that, but you need to dig down deep and find that character within you and bring that out." And Chuck went "Wow, that's scary!" But it was the right thing to say to him at that time. And it got him motivated and he did dig down deep and, of course, both he and Wyler won an Academy Award.
JFH (John): Do you have a favorite scene in the film?
Well, the chariot race scene for me just blows me away. You've got a scene that goes on for five or ten minutes - with no music, by the way - and there's almost a one or two minute introduction of the parade of chariots around the ring - and no dialog! Nobody's explaining what's happening, you don't need a word. It's a great piece of filmmaking. It's like a mini-movie itself.
JFH (John): And you remember being on that set?
One of my first memories is riding around the ring in my dad's chariot. And we have film footage of that. I think I imagined my dad was a professional chariot driver at that time.
JFH (John): Did you ever hear any stories from fans or people who wrote in, maybe to your father, about the spiritual impact the movie had on them?
Y'know, the film does have a spiritual impact. I think the most profound impact, in a way, was on my dad. The very last scene they filmed was the last scene in the picture - which isn't always the case. As you know, we mix and match the scenes to fit the budget and the schedule. In this case, the crucifixion of Jesus was the final sequence in the film and dad basically lost it. And he's not supposed to be in tears, but practically was and you can see it in his face looking up at this very realistic recreation of Golgotha. Although Ben-Hur is a Jew, like Jesus, he becomes one of the first Christians, in a way. You can say "no, he stays true to his Jewish faith," which is fine. Whatever your interpretation is, but certainly the message is a Christian one. And I think that profoundly affects a lot of people who watched it, including my dad.
JFH (John): What are you working on, personally, these days?
I just completed a film called The Search For Michael Rockefeller, which is a documentary that also uses some old 16mm footage that we found, taken by a man named Milt Machlin, who went to New Guinea looking for Michael Rockefeller who disappeared in 1961.
JFH (John): Oh wow, when is that going to come out?
It's in film festivals now.
JFH (John): Oh really, wow. Now, your father took the hand door knockers from the Ben-Hur estate set in the film. Did he have any other keepsakes from the film?
No, the "Ben-Hur knockers" as we call them, have the Star of David on them and are proudly displayed in my father's study. That was his main [keepsake] - that and a lot of memories.
JFH (Joseph): Do you still have the Roman costume [that they made for you as a little boy]?
No! I wish I did. I think the Wyler kids, David and Melanie, kept theirs. I don't know what became of that stuff.
JFH (J.M. Farro): Thanks for releasing your dad's journal (with the Blu-Ray box set), because I saw your father in a new light.
Did you? Oh, I'm so glad! Because we were a little uncertain whether we wanted to do it or not and I thought, "Y'know, he would want us to put them in there." There was nothing in any way too private or too personal.
JFH (John): So what was it like to have director William Wyler as a father?
Well, you know he had a great reputation for being a perfectionist and he was definitely a perfectionist at home also, so a great deal was expected. But he also was really fun. He liked to play, he was very funny, he was a great storyteller, obviously. And he was very politically committed. So he was fun and interesting to be around and I always just liked him a lot. And, at the same time, as I learned about what he did, I think my impression of him mostly came from how other people treated him. Because there were a lot of famous people coming and going from the house, but they always seemed to be treating him with so much respect and sometimes even awe. It was hard to know as a kid how to take that. But he was obviously someone to be respected. Although, I was the eldest child and the eldest, generally -- like wearing lipstick, for example, was a really big struggle. He did say to me once, "the most beautiful women in the world ask my opinion, why won't you??" *laughs* I was a teenager.
JFH (John): Were you ever on the set for Ben-Hur?
Catherine: Oh yeah, sure. Well, my whole family went to live in Rome because they were there for more than a year, but I was in college, so I was only there for summer vacation, but we went to the set a lot because the all the sets were so fabulous. I mean, everything that was going on was so fascinating! It was a lot of fun to be there.
JFH (John): Do you have a favorite memory from that?
Catherine: Yeah, my favorite memory is riding around on the back of his vespa. Y'know, these were the biggest sets ever made, so he had a vespa take him around and I would sit on the back of the vespa and just listen in on what he was telling people, what was going on, etc - which was really interesting.
JFH (John): What did the film Ben-Hur mean to your father?
Catherine: Well, I think it meant - once it was done and it was successful - it meant that he could make a big epic and make it good! And he'd always been interested in making all kinds of movies, he hadn't made an epic yet, and so he sort of showed himself that he could do that too. Because it was far outside the realm of the kinds of movies he was usually interested in. And then it meant great success in Hollywood, at the same time that it also meant that his standing among the critical community took a nose-dive, because he was kind of written-off as just a commercial director, not really serious anymore if he's going to make a movie like that. So I think he was really rather hurt by that treatment, but that seems to have dissipated over the years.
JFH (John): Yeah, I was actually going to bring that up since you mentioned that in the documentary on the Blu-Ray set. It surprised me to hear that. Is it because it was the equivalent of a blockbuster nowadays?
Catherine: And not only that, it was two things, really. I think it was that he made what they consider a Cecile B. DeMille picture, and even though he made it more three-dimensional and profound, etc, still, and then also it had shortly thereafter became the era of the Otur, and he firmly believed that the director should tailor the style to the story as opposed to having a style that stood out. He felt the director's work should be visible. So all those things hurt him, critically for awhile.
JFH (John): Are there any projects that you're currently working on?
Catherine: I'm actually working on getting a new documentary on my father made using contemporary directors talking about how he influenced them, because there are a lot of people who are working today who do think back to what they learned from him. The other thing I'm working on in terms of him - we've got a website, which we haven't really done anything with for a long time and I want to get that to have a contemporary feel and have lots of material and links and all the things that you can do with the web nowadays. That'll have an even bigger reach than a documentary.
JFH (John): What did the film Ben-Hur mean to you?
Catherine: Well, another milestone in my father's career, I suppose. It meant wonderful trips to Rome and I think it meant him being celebrated in more places. It was all good.
JFH (John): Do you have a favorite William Wyler film?
Catherine: I have a lot of favorites. But of course Wuthering Heights is the film that I was named for, so that's got to be a favorite. But if I start naming my favorites, I've got about ten, so I'll say Wuthering Heights, Best Years of Our Lives, which I think is really his masterpiece, and certainly Ben-Hur.
JFH (John): How did you get involved with the restoration process of Ben-Hur?
Ned Price: Well, the sales division for Home Video called me up and they said "Look, if we're going to release Ben-Hur again, what will it take to make it marketably better for this market?" Because, every time they re-release a title, you have to really raise the bar in order to expect people to shell out the money again to buy it. So I usually go to the drawing board and create some tests for them, do some scanning and then show them. I'll say, "I can probably make it 70% better, but it's going to cost you X about of money and I'll need 10 months," or something like that. And then they weigh it and say "Uh, OK, can you do it in 6 [months]?" and I go "No, no, no." *laughter* So that's what it basically is. In this case, it's a market request coming through and saying "We want something that will knock their socks off, but what will it take for you to accomplish that?" And there have been cases where they come to me and say "We want to re-release this title, what will it take to make it amazing?" And I'll say "Y'know what? The last master's really good and you'll spend X amount of money and I'll get 20% better" and they go "Oh... OK." Or I'll go to them and they'll say they want a title and I'll do my investigation and testing and say "Y'know, this title needs a lot of help and it's going to cost you this much money and it's going to take a year and a half to do it." And then they say "Um...... alright." *laughs* And they go ahead and do it. But it's a bartering thing. I like the fact that it's a challenge. They'll come to me and say "What is it you can do? What can be accomplished?" They don't just say "do it again so we can put it out again." They are sort of conscientious about what they are trying to achieve for the market and the consumers.
JFH (John): So did they come to you for Ben-Hur?
JFH (John): Was it a project you were looking forward to working on?
Very much so, because we had worked on Ben-Hur; we worked with the camera negative original ten years ago and found that it had a problem. Somebody had applied a coating to the negative and we couldn't remove it. It was synthetic and it had bonded in. So we had a problem because I knew we had to revisit that negative and I knew we had to apply digital technology in order to literally strip away that opaque residue and get at the image underneath.
JFH (John): Were any frames lost?
No frames lost in our process. There were frames lost that you will notice in the film that were usually a case of the film being so heavy and, y'know, you've got the perforation transport, sometimes what happens is a perf gets picked - they refer to it like an edge lifts up - and typically, next time it goes to the printer, the printer will pull a tear in it. And if it rips a frame across, in order to repair that frame, in the traditional film world, you have to make a clean slice. So you will notice one frame may be missing here and there. There were some cases where we did morph the missing frame, but there were a number of cases where we didn't because the morph looked more intrusive. So there are a couple visible.
JFH (John): It's not bad. I did notice.
Believe me, it's the better of the two. The fix didn't look good at all.
JFH (John): How long did this restoration process take?
It probably took a couple of years, because there was a lot of technology work, software work that happened; a lot of prepping of the negative before it was even in a position to be scanned. And of course the 8k scans took a long time. We never have worked on a project that was [this big]. I think it was 117 megabytes per frame.
JFH (John): That's crazy. Why was it so much?
Well, we scanned it at 8k and it was a 65 original, so it was quite a large field.
JFH (John): What kind of projects are you working on right now?
Ned: For Home Video, they like to reveal what titles are coming out, so I don't want to ruin their surprises. We've got some really nice titles in the work. I think you'll be pleased.
JFH (John): Are there any titles that you have not worked on that you would love to work on?
I'm making a very conscious attempt of finding elements that are not in our library - titles we don't know we own, which is actually possible that this can happen. There's a case with a series of westerns. I saw the line of westerns and I'm going through and I'm kind of researching them and all of a sudden, a year's worth of westerns are missing. I said, "How do we not own these? We own the rest of them?" And then I went to the legal department and they pulled the originals, and these go way back, and they said "There's a page missing from the agreement. It fell out." So it didn't get entered into our inventory. So, we own them and the negatives were found. That's where I'm focusing.
JFH (John): Those will be on DVD or Blu-Ray?
Ned: They'll be preserved for any distribution anybody wants.
Ben-Hur: 50th Anniversary Edition is available on Blu-Ray and DVD now!