Sun, 13 Mar 2005

New take on Spartacus focuses on the man

M. Taufiqurrahman, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Every movie producer must be aware that if they remake one of the grandest of Hollywood epic films, they must be prepared for high expectations that the new film will outshine the old one -- and for criticism.

Wolfgang Petersen reportedly spent US$175 million for his version of Homer's Iliad in Troy so that he could recreate the larger-than-life saga into an even more panoramic version than his predecessor could have done in the fifties and sixties.

The movie was a commercial flop.

Executive producer Adam Shapiro was undeterred by the potential for criticism and expectation when he decided to film an updated version of Stanley Kubrick's 1960 epic, Spartacus. If anything, he stayed away from trying his hand at a grandiose production and took an entirely new approach to the critically acclaimed film -- he has turned the epic into a made-for-TV miniseries.

Spartacus is the tale of a slave who was trained as a gladiator and led a bloody revolt against his Roman masters more than 2,000 years ago. Kubrick's version was nominated for six Oscars and won four.

In the miniseries, Shapiro said he stayed true to the original book written by dissident writer Howard Fast in 1950.

"We stayed away from the original movie. We just didn't want to have a remake. You will find that the miniseries is significantly different, the things that happen, all the characters are taken from the book," he said in a three-way telephone interview with three Asian newspapers, including The Jakarta Post.

He said that the original Spartacus, in which Kirk Douglas played the lead role, did not tell the whole story and interpreted the characters differently.

"In the original movie, the main character ... was very gregarious. He was someone who could motivate a crowd by his personality. In the miniseries, Spartacus is very brooding, contemplative and very quiet. His actions speak louder than his words," he said.

Shapiro said that unlike Achilles in Petersen's Troy, who sought personal glory, the Spartacus of the miniseries was portrayed as a straightforward individual: "He is a simple man who wants simple thing -- freedom."

As part of his low-key approach to the epic, Shapiro said the miniseries chose not to recreate the famous slave army cry "I am Spartacus" from the original movie.

In the Kubrick version, the cry is actually a recording of a crowd at a Michigan State (the Spartans) vs. Notre Dame football game.

And if the new batch of epic remakes rely heavily on computer generated imagery (CGI) to portray life during pre-modern times, the miniseries kept its CGI use to the minimum.

"We only used CGI to portray the scene of Rome from a distance, and if taken together, CGI only made up 10 percent of the whole movie," Shapiro said.

For the miniseries, the production team built a five-acre setting that was Ancient Rome in Bulgaria, only a couple hours from the birthplace of the real Spartacus in southern Italy.

To recreate Spartacus, Shapiro cast Croatian-born actor Goran Visnjic, who is widely known for his role as Dr. Luka Kovac on NBC's E.R.

"He is recognizable, somebody that people like. He is also somebody who is very physical (and can) do combat and can actually act," Shapiro said, adding that it was somewhat a difficult role to play, as it would gain Visnjic an inevitable comparison with Douglas.

Shapiro also said that the miniseries had a different ending compared to the original movie.

Spartacus is only one among several epic miniseries produced by Shapiro. Previously, he successfully brought Helen of Troy and Attila the Hun to the small screen.

Having long dreamed to become known as a producer of epic films, Shapiro got a career boost at cartoon factory Hanna Barbera, where he produced animated programs such as The Power Puff Girls, Dexter's Lab and Courage the Cowardly Dog.

"Cartoon was just a side step ... My heart was always on historical epics because I love the genre," said Shapiro who, incidentally, majored in history at university.

Now, Shapiro has set his sights firmly on recreating -- and creating -- epic movies, and is optimistic that the genre will always gain currency.

"Although not all remakes of the genre are successful, we believe that the sandal-and-sword genre will never go out of style," he said.

Spartacus, the miniseries, will premier in Indonesia on Star Movies on March 19 at 8 p.m. and March 20 at 1.30 p.m.