FOT, Hungary — Ken Follett made his name writing spy thrillers like "Eye of the Needle." But the book that has won him the most critical, and eventually popular, acclaim is a nearly 1,000-page novel about the construction of an English cathedral in the 12th century.
Now, "The Pillars of the Earth" is being turned into a Ridley Scott-produced miniseries starring Donald Sutherland, Ian McShane and Rufus Sewell. Shot in Hungary and Austria, it is to air by June 2010.
Follett said that while he had received offers to turn the book into a two- to four-hour film, only Scott was willing to commit to an extended version that would capture the book's complexities.
"Most people think it's my best book, and I felt very strongly that I should hold out for a long miniseries," the British author said in an interview while visiting the set at Astra Studios in Fot, just outside Budapest. "Ridley was the only person who was able to guarantee that."
The producers financed the project independently, and the question of who will eventually broadcast the eight-hour series — which can be shown in four or eight parts — is still to be determined.
The book was first published in 1989 and has gone on to become Follett's best-selling book, getting a big boost in 2007 when Oprah Winfrey choose it for her book club.
The story centers on the building of England's first Gothic cathedral in the fictional location of Kingsbridge and unfolds over nearly 40 years. It has dozens of characters, including monks, bishops, craftsmen, nobility, soldiers, peasants and city dwellers.
An endeavor of faith
Follett, 60, said he was very pleased with the screenplay for the miniseries written by John Pielmeier.
"What I liked most about the script was that the story remained strong. I was most relieved when I read it," Follett said, adding that not all the films based on his books had been good and that gave him pause sometimes before agreeing to a new adaptation.
"You think you have to let your baby go, like sending your child to school, you have to put him into someone else's hands. You know you've got to do it but it worries you anyway," Follett said.
Pielmeier, who also played monk Cuthbert Whitehead in the miniseries, said the story was rooted in an age when people were willing to devote several generations to a single edifice.
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"We've lost a certain amount of faith, not in a literal religious way, a faith in our future," Pielmeier said. "The faith that people had to embark on an endeavor of such size ... taking a job that you know you will never see the end of. It's something people today wouldn't be able to do."
A 1985 film adaptation of Pielmeier's play, "Agnes of God," about a novice nun who claims her pregnancy was the result of a virgin conception, starred Jane Fonda. Pielmeier has also acted in a few made-for-television movies.
Sutherland plays Bartholomew, an earl who loses his head in the power struggles to command the English throne. He is also the father of Aliena, the novel's heroine, and his role in the miniseries is larger than in the book.
Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings In 1983, the Canadian actor played the leading role in "The Eye of the Needle," a World War II thriller and the first Follett novel made into a film.
Even at age 74, Sutherland keeps a busy schedule with a lot of traveling, often going from one project to the next with hardly any time off.
"I still get nervous every time," Sutherland said about getting into character. Just this year, he has worked on location in Hungary, Canada and the United States.
Sutherland said collaborating with director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan made it easier to deal with the extensive filming schedule, planned for 113 days.
"Sergio is fantastic," Sutherland said. "I thought they were going to change the title of this piece from 'The Pillars of the Earth' to 'Thank God We Have Sergio' because he's been brilliant."
Mimica-Gezzan has worked as assistant director on several films by Steven Spielberg, including "Saving Private Ryan" and "Minority Report," and has directed episodes of "Battlestar Galactica" and "Heroes," among other television series.
$40 million budget
The miniseries has a budget of $40 million and was shot in Hungary and Austria.
Scott and producer Rola Bauer said that using studios and locations in Hungary had allowed them to save money and tackle the project without having to secure a U.S. network to help with the finances.
"We are working outside the studio system," Bauer said, which gave them greater creative freedom — albeit coupled with greater financial risks.
After looking at possible locations in Ireland and Canada, they chose Hungary not just because it was cheaper, but also because of the high quality of the film industry professionals.
"We get so much more here for our money. It's fantastic — the quality of personnel, quality of artisan, quality of artist," Scott said. "It's really good, as good as it gets."
Bauer's Munich-based Tandem Communications and Scott's production company, Scott Free Inc., may also develop a series based on "World Without End," Follett's sequel to "The Pillars of the Earth."
"We'd definitely be interested in that," Scott said. "Mr. Follett is a great writer and also has a talent for talking about history without it becoming a history lesson."
Follett said he was working on his next novel, titled "Fall of Giants," about World War I and the Russian Revolution.
"It follows five related families ... through the great events of that period," Follett said. "It's the first of a trilogy which will tell the entire story of the 20th century and will finish in 1989. I think the climactic moment of the trilogy will probably be the fall of the Berlin Wall."
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