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‘Ten Commandments’ pays attention to detail

Special effects, massive sets help look of miniseries remake of classic film
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's a hazy June afternoon and crew members are preparing the set for the 300 Moroccan extras to cross what's supposed to be a parted Red Sea. The locals look incredibly convincing as Moses' Hebrew followers.

The mock-Biblical set is remarkably believable. Water pumped from the ocean trickles down a cliff, and the seaweed stuffed into the stratified rocks is an artistic touch.

Then comes a jarring detail.

As the crowd makes its dash, some enthusiastic extras cry "Allah Akbar," or "God is great," a common exclamation in a Muslim country like Morocco.

"That's good," yells one of the assistant directors, eager to wrap up the day's shooting of the remake of the "Ten Commandments".

Did he not hear the Arabic phrase from a religion that came more than a couple of millenniums after Moses?

Not to worry noted script supervisor Deirdre Horgan, the sound would be edited out.

The ABC miniseries version of the 1956 Hollywood classic, which starred Charlton Heston as Moses, brought director Robert Dornhelm and superstar Omar Sharif, as well as Dougray Scott as Moses, to Morocco last summer. The four-hour two parter airs Monday and Tuesday, 9 p.m. EDT.

Executive producer Robert Halmi, president of Hallmark Entertainment, said he chose Morocco because of the difficulty in getting production insurance film in Egypt, where the Bible says much of the action took place. Egypt has seen several attacks on tourists over the years blamed on Islamic militants. Halmi, 81, has done three other "Egyptian" films in Morocco.

His latest, written by Ron Hutchinson, has an international cast of 50, including from the United States, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, and a couple of Arab countries — as well as 20,000 Moroccan extras and 300 stunt men.

Roll B, Slate, 147, Take 1. "Quiet please," barks an assistant just before the cameras start rolling.

Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II, played by award-winning British stage actor Paul Rhys, rides in on a chariot accompanied by Menerith — a fictional Egyptian prince and stepbrother of Moses — and scores of spear carriers.

The troops stop a few steps from the director's tent.

"Where are they?" asks Ramses, referring to the Israelites.

Menerith (played by "Lost's" Naveen Andrews), standing on a stool to bring him to the same height as the pharaoh, points his stick to the beach.

"They're slaves. They're unarmed," screams Ramses.

Cut. "Good," says the assistant director.

Between the takes, the Moroccan extras — old and young men and women as well as children dressed in brown and beige costumes, burlap sacks filled with ash slung on their shoulders — lounge on the beach, some beside their donkeys. Such work is not new to some of them. Morocco has provided locations and extras for such epics as "Lawrence of Arabia," "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Gladiator."

A man passes around Moroccan mint tea in glasses.

Make-up artists smudge the faces, necks and hands of the extras — presto, the grime of a trek in the desert.

A pleasant breeze brings relief. The mood is relaxed and everyone's friendly.

A few steps from the extras, some of the actors and crew sit on white plastic chairs and chat.

British actor Ashley Artus, who plays Sichem, a Hebrew tribesman, makes everyone laugh with his jokes and stunts.

The director, cameramen and script supervisor stretch out on the sand discussing the next scene.

The hillside above is lined with villagers in brightly colored clothing watching the shooting.

Most of the shooting took place in the desert region of Ouarzazate, about 560 miles east of here, where production designer Keith Wilson built a gigantic Egyptian set that covered more than a square mile and included the pharaoh's palace.

The hills near the ancient village of Ait Benhaddou, about some 37 miles north of Ouarzazate, were used for the battle scenes between the Melkites and Hebrew tribesmen.

The towering Atlas Mountains were used as a background for the scenes of the Exodus.

According to the Old Testament, when Ramses II rejects Moses' demand to free the Israelites, ten plagues descend on Egypt — from a swarming cloud of locusts to a river transformed into a rushing stream of human blood to a downpour of frogs from the heavens.

At one end of the studio, two pools are filled with hundreds of live frogs. When audiences see it, the live frogs will be augmented by rubber and computer-generated versions.

Just as production designer Wilson and his colleagues had finished building the Egyptian set and were preparing to film, a bit storm hit Ouarzazate with hailstones as big as golf balls. Sets were destroyed and frogs escaped. New amphibian extras were captured and double the original crew hired to rebuild so they could stay on schedule.

Morocco had much to offer. However, a little help from computers was needed for the miracles.

Scott, an unlikely Moses with his blue-green eyes and small frame, stands on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic, hair long and unkempt, robe ragged, sandals dusty. His back to the camera, he raises his staff with his right arm, holds it up for a few seconds and then with two hands brings it above his head.

The rest will be edited in later. Master shots of the ocean were taken from the cliff and of waterfalls elsewhere in Africa and in Brazil and 24 animators in Budapest, Hungary, used them to create the parting of the Red Sea. Four-and-a-half minutes in the film took a year to produce and cost about half a million dollars.

As the sun lowers, the shooting ends. The Moroccan extras clap. Scott, who had been unsocial for most of the day, draws cheers from them as he holds up his cane and does a dance. One of the extras takes a souvenir picture with the star.