In the year 2043, the world has gone dark. Some decades since a catastrophic event that has left America a wasteland, one-man battles his way across the country, the personal guardian of the last Holy Bible, a book that he hopes can redeem humanity.
This is the world of The Book of Eli, from the mind of screenwriter Gary Whitta and brought to life under the direction of Albert and Allen Hughes, their first feature film since 2001’s From Hell. Stepping into the well-worn shoes of Eli is Denzel Washington, whose character finds a kindred spirit in a young woman, Solara (Mila Kunis) born into slavery. Both actors chatted with ComingSoon.net about the film, their characters and the somewhat weighty subject matter of Eli’s on-screen message.
Drawing Denzel to the project was the advice of his son, producer John David Washington, who the actor says has always had an eye for promising projects and who he has raised all his life reading movie scripts.
“He talked me into doing ‘Training Day,’ ‘American Gangster’ and now this one…,” says Washington, “[H]e really got his teeth into the story. He’s a very, very spiritual young man and just a unique individual. He got behind it and he wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
For Mila, there was no other push required outside of the chance to work along Denzel and Gary Oldman (who plays the film’s villain, Carnegie, the corrupt and violent ruler of a desert townscape where Solara has lived all her life), but the actress was also drawn in by Solara’s strength as a female lead.
“Very rarely am I attracted to characters that are ‘woe is me,'” explains Mila, “I’m not a big fan of women who are the victim and who need to be saved at all times. I don’t think that’s how it is in real life and I don’t think that’s how it should be filmed. I think that anyone, if given the right, will persevere… I think it would be an unjust portrayal of people if you didn’t let the character grow.”
In both cases, each actors’ first step was to return to the text at the heart of the film: the Bible itself, though both met with varying degrees of success.
“I tried to read the Bible,” Mila laughs, “I attempted it. I didn’t finish it, to be honest. I though the stories were great. I just had a hard time reading it. I wasn’t raised with religion. I was raised with faith. I didn’t know much about the Bible and I thought this would give me a really good opportunity to actually learn about the Bible… But I couldn’t finish it.”
Washington, on the other hand, knew the Bible backwards and forwards and, according to screenwriter Gary Whitta, “would come into meetings with the script in one lap and the Bible in the other and find all these parallels.”
Though a devout Christian, Washington explains that, in pre-production, having the Bible there was less about his own religion and more about a deep understanding of his character’s beliefs.
“I just worked my way through the script with the Hughes brothers… We had the Bible there because we were always looking for quotes back and forth. I’ve sort of taken what I’ve done as a director and, in this case anyway, applied it to the screenplay, because I was really involved as a producer as well. We would sit up in my house and I would play all the parts and flesh them out… I do a whole journal on my character. I do that for every film. He’s a guy who worked at K-Mart.”
For Kunis, her character’s arc was about finding Solara’s naiveté and then adding on layers from each on-screen experience.
“She’s not aware of the repercussions of life or what the world has to offer… She’s naive due to her circumstances. For all her life, she was brought up in a world where her stepfather was abusive mentally and physically. She didn’t know anything outside of that world, but she always knew there was something there. When [Eli] appears she’s inspired by him and believes in him for whatever reason. And follows him.”
Following Denzel, Mila claims, was no difficult task as, even after getting to know him, she was in constant awe of actor’s raw charisma.
“He’s an intimidating man,” she explains, “There’s a presence about him that is just intimidating. Whether you know who Denzel Washington is or you don’t, when he walks into a room, you’re going to pay attention. He’s just such a powerful man.”
Not only did Denzel need to communicate the stoic, spiritual power of Eli with stage presence, he also, at times, needed to show off Eli’s fighting skill. For this, the Hughes brothers turned to fight choreographer Jeff Imada, who trained Washington one on one.
“It was a lot of fun, actually,” laughs Denzel, “[Jeff] is a disciple of Danny Inosanto who was a contemporary of Bruce Lee. So I was training with some of the top, top guys. So that was really hard. But it was a lot of fun just to stretch every day… Just to go down that road and that avenue was a lot of fun.”
Less pleasant for the actors was having to shoot on-location in the deserts of New Mexico which Mila readily refers to as “the middle of nowhere”.
“Outside of the town of Albuqueruqe and Santa Fe, in-between, it’s nothing, she says, “It’s just nothing. You’re in the middle of nothing… [Y]ou walk outside of where the trailers are parked and there’s rattlesnake holes. I grew up in LA. I’m not a person of nature… I’ve never even gone camping!… Every day it was different. You would have days where it would snow. Just snow. Then the next day it was 80 degrees. Where am I? What is happening?”
Even though both actors have long since wrapped production, Denzel insists that his character’s development still continues in his head and evolves with every screening, making a big part of his art what an audience brings to it rather than what he directly applies. By the same stroke, he’s quick to note, he can’t be the one to give the audience with any sort of specific message or moral:
“I wouldn’t dare,” Denzel says, resolute, “Man goes down to the ocean and tries to fit all the knowledge of the ocean into his little brain instead of just jumping in the water and enjoying himself. Jumping into the water is faith. For me to even suggest that I know what mankind needs is – I just thought it was an interesting story. A good story. I embraced these and spiritual aspects of this story and how the quote unquote ‘word’ can be manipulated as it is. You turn on the TV and see it all the time. You don’t have to turn on the TV. You can just look. That’s what I’ve always argued the difference between spirituality and religion is. Mankind gets a hold of it and goes, ‘mind is good. Yours isn’t.’ or ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’. All that kind of stuff… Not that this is a cautionary tale necessarily, but its been going on for thousands of years. Hopefully we’re just entertainment.”
The Book of Eli opens this Friday, January 15th.