Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: Warner Bros has acquired Pontius Pilate, a script by Woman On Top scribe Vera Blasi about one of the most vilified figures in history, even before Mick Jagger sang about him. It becomes the latest in a growing list of Biblical-themed projects taking shape at studios all over town. Mark Johnson will produce through his Gran Via banner, Lynn Harris is steering the project and they are already talking to directors. I got hold of a draft, and while it is always a challenge to mount a big budget period film, this one is strong enough to follow a fast track toward production.

This script follows the evolution of Lucius Pontius Pilate from the sensitive son of a Roman Knight into a ferocious soldier whose warrior exploits make him a general and puts him on a political track under the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Promised a military governorship in Egypt, Pilate is instead assigned by Tiberius to become the prefect of Judea, at a time when Jerusalem was a cauldron of religious tensions between various factions of the Jewish faith. Pilate veers from the political fast track into the express lane to hell and historical infamy. Rather than a straight ahead Biblical film, Blasi’s script reads almost like a Biblical era Twilight Zone episode in which a proud, capable Roman soldier gets in way over his head. His arrogance and inability to grasp the devoutness of the citizenry and its hatred for the Roman occupiers and their pagan gods leads him to make catastrophic decisions. All of this puts him in a desperate situation and in need of public approval when he is asked to decide the fate of a 33-year old rabbi accused by religious elders of claiming he is King of the Jews. Along the way, such Roman emperors including Caligula and Tiberius and New Testament figures like John the Baptist, Salome and Mary Magdalene are seen in a tale that culminates with Pilate’s fateful decision to allow Jesus Christ to be crucified.

It is hard to put a new spin on the Greatest Story Ever Told, but the script had the twists and unexpected turns that satisfyingly combine history, political maneuvering and storytelling inventions reminiscent of such films as Braveheart and Gladiator. Blasi has also taken the care to explain the motivations of religious leaders like the Jewish high priest Caiaphas (who engineers Christ’s demise) as these leaders tried to bring varying religious sects under one roof, and the script doesn’t have the polarizing chill some felt in The Passion of the Christ.

I sought out Blasi to see how she came upon such an unlikely character as the linchpin to tell the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. Blasi was raised Catholic in Brazil, and grew up always curious about Pontius Pilate. While she made a living writing scripts that include Tortilla Soup, Woman On Top and most recently Emperor (with Tommy Lee Jones playing Douglas MacArthur as he weighs the post WWII fate of Japanese Emperor Hirohito), Blasi told me she spent about 10 years researching Pontius Pilate until she came up with a balance she feels is 80% fact and the rest dramatic license. “You have the available facts from Roman and Jewish history books and the four gospels, and then you are left to speculate, to interpret the character of Pilate and give him a dilemma,” Blasi told me. “He seemed a great way to offer context to this very famous event, and if you look at it from the perspective of the Roman governor of that time, it allows for an investigation of the politics of Judea at the time, and what it was like to be occupied by Rome.”  Blasi’s deal was made by UTA.

That puts Pontius Pilate on a lengthening road of Bible Belt epics. Darren Aronofsky has gotten underway for Paramount and New Regency on Noah, the film that stars Russell Crowe as the Old Testament character. Deadline revealed recently that Will Smith wants to make his directorial debut, and star in and produce a film about battling brothers Cain and Abel, at Sony Pictures.

Warner Bros has several religious epics. One was the film about Judah Macabee that Mel Gibson set at Warner Bros with the intention of directing a Braveheart-style film about the events that are commemorated at Hanukkah. That one was rendered toxic after Gibson and the screenwriter he hired, Joe Eszterhas, had a loud falling out that ended with Eszterhas–whom Gibson felt phoned in a script–released audio recordings and an e-book he claimed backed his assertion that Gibson was out of control and anti-Semitic.

Warner Bros is having better luck with Gods And Kings, the Stuart Hazeldine and Michael Green-scripted epic about Moses that has had Steven Spielberg circling. Though it’s one of the oldest stories in history, the Moses project is in a race with another, Exodus, a project set at Fox with Chernin Entertainment and Scott Free, with Ridley Scott attached to direct the script by Adam Cooper and Bill Collage.

Finally, Basic Instinct helmer Paul Verhoeven found backing with Muse Productions’ Chris Hanley on a film about Jesus Christ that is being scripted by Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary and based on Jesus of Nazareth, a book Verhoeven co-wrote after two decades of researching Christ. This one is controversial, as Verhoeven strips away New Testament staples like the miracles performed by Christ and the Resurrection. Instead, the filmmaker told me, he will shine a light on a value system and teachings by Christ that Verhoeven feels secured his place in history.

Many of these films will get made, and it’s worth remembering that The Ten Commandments was one of the highest grossing films in history, and The Passion of the Christ remains atop the list of independent films.