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ALEXANDER

Final Production Information

RECONSTRUCTING THE ANCIENT WORLD

In keeping with the aim of achieving the highest possible level of historical accuracy for Alexander, each prop, weapon, piece of furniture and set dressing was designed and created specifically for the production. Workshops for the art and wardrobe departments were established and active months before the cameras rolled.

"The look of the movie began with figuring out where the natural settings could be shot," says production designer Jan Roelfs. "We needed to find locations to stand in for Macedonia, Persia, Bactria, Sogdiana, the Hindu Kush and India. Bactria and Sogdiana don’t even exist anymore, and are now part of modern Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Outer Mongolia. It’s amazing the puzzle you put together. With landscapes, you have to be very specific, otherwise they all blend together."

On location scouts, Stone and Roelfs combed much of the world to find appropriate landscapes for Alexander’s journey, ultimately deciding upon Morocco and Thailand, as well as Pinewood and Shepperton Studios outside of London for the interior sets. Morocco was perfect for the film’s expansive requirements. What the country had to offer in terms of landscape, personnel and an atmosphere evocative of ancient times made it the perfect place on the world map in which to recreate much of Alexander’s life.

"Most importantly, we had to consolidate to make the film possible," says producer Jon Kilik. "We couldn’t actually go through dozens of countries and thousands of miles, as Alexander did. We had to focus on a couple of different areas in which we could find different looks. Just outside of Marrakech, we had deserts, plains, mountains, heat and snow, all within an hour-and-a-half of each other. In Essaouira, we had our Macedonia, with the ocean, vegetation, rock formations and plant life all different from the Marrakech area. For an important river location in India, we couldn’t find anything exotic enough in Morocco, so we found an amazing location in Ubon Ratchathani province on the Mekhong River in Thailand, on the Laos border. Thailand also allowed us to solve the problem of staging a battle featuring trained Asian elephants."

Well before the start of principal photography, Stone and director of photography Rodrigo Prieto shot special footage in both Malta and India’s Himalayas, to be used for visual effects "plate shots" – the former for Alexandria’s harbor, including the fabled Pharos Lighthouse, another of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the latter as a backdrop for Alexander’s journey across the snowy wastes of the Hindu Kush.

Stone and Prieto worked out a carefully designed visual scheme, which they threaded throughout the entire film. "We decided to give a different look and feel to each period of Alexander’s life," says the cinematographer. "The Macedonia sequences in which Alexander is younger have very pure, ‘innocent’ colors. For the Battle of Gaugamela, we wanted the color of the desert and the sand to infuse the whole image, so we used a tobacco filter, which gave it an orange-yellow look, and we also went with a film stock that’s just a touch more grainy to give more texture to the battle. We wanted a golden feeling for Babylon, saturated with color, then later, when Alexander crosses the Hindu Kush, we started going a little cooler. For the India sequence, we wanted the exact opposite of Macedonia, so we went for a very grainy film stock and did a process on the negative that enhanced the contrast."

Few aspects of the Alexander shoot were as daunting as the need to re-create the elements of the world that surrounded the young king, covering more than 30 years of ancient history and crossing much of the world as it was known during his lifetime. Jan Roelfs and his art department team were being stared down by historical necessity and artistic veracity. The question was how to re-invent this ancient world with both authenticity and cinematic imagination, and Roelfs was determined to find a balance. What resulted are some of the most detailed re-creations of the ancient world in motion picture history.

On an 8-mile stretch of desert outside Marrakech, Morocco, the art department constructed Alexander’s magnificently decorated headquarters in his tented camp on the edges of the Gaugamela battlefield. Alexander was inestimably influenced by stories of Greek heroes from his youth, so the designers mounted the mythical Shield of Achilles above his throne and encased the scrolls of The Iliad and The Odyssey in an ivory box by the side of his bed.

Also shot in Morocco were scenes in the Macedonian horse market in which young Alexander first encounters and then tames his lifelong equine companion, Bucephalas. The art department added terraces, stone roads and cypress trees to the lush green valley. More than 50 horses and donkeys were placed in the market, as well as autumnal fruit and vegetables in stands and pavilions lining opposite sides of the horse ring. Extras dressed in simple white linen to portray country peasants dappled the landscape like moving sculptures, some with flocks of sheep on the hillside, presenting a beautifully bucolic vision of ancient Macedonia.

Built on a nearly sheer bluff above the glinting ocean in Morocco was a small, ruined temple to Pallas Athena, which contained the rudimentary map of the world that intrigued a young Alexander, and was the site of Aristotle’s lectures to him and his friends in the Gardens of Mieza. In Boufarziza, a Macedonian amphitheatre and 20 four-walled ancillary buildings, including another, larger temple to Pallas Athena were constructed. The amphitheatre was built to be determinedly modest in scale, as befitted a regional city. The vividly colored buildings and statues served as a reminder that the past wasn’t as devoid of color as is commonly believed. As part of a ceremony in the amphitheatre, Roelfs team created polychromatic statues of each god, almost garishly colorful, more theatrical than artful by intention.

Some of the sets were impractical to shoot on location, and so London’s famed Pinewood Studios housed several of the enormous environments constructed by Roelfs and company. Pinewood’s hangar-like "007" stage is the largest such permanent facility in the world, and the Alexander crew filled up nearly every inch of space to erect these elaborate replications of the distant past.

The first of the two grandest sets erected at Pinewood was the exotic courtyard of an ornate Indian palace. Due to the fact that ancient Indians constructed their palaces of wood, no architecture from Alexander’s era is left, leaving the design of the Indian palace courtyard open to interpretation. Inspired by Indian shrines that incorporate steps into their design, Roelfs chose an open air concept, with stepped walls leading down to the courtyard, which was accented with pools of water.

The Indian Palace required four months of construction, with an average of 150 people working on a daily basis building, plastering, painting and carving. A huge, embroidered canopy covered the central area of the Indian palace courtyard and adjacent pools.

While the Indian Palace is an undeniably beautiful and impressive achievement, Roelfs’ piece de resistance proved to be the magnificent city of Babylon. "Babylon is definitely the richest set I’ve ever done," enthuses the designer. "Alexander’s entry into Babylon is the pinnacle of his career. He’s never seen such splendor in his life, never before encountered a culture which in many ways is superior to his own.

"The design concept was done quickly," Roelfs continues, "because it was one of the first sets where I knew exactly what I wanted. But the whole technical process of getting it built was quite something. There was an awful lot of drafting and manufacturing. I decided to integrate the famous ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon’ into the overall concept so that it’s an indoor-outdoor palace, open to the elements. I also wanted really high ceilings, and many different levels of the palace, layer upon layer." The set stood nearly 50 feet high from the floor to the gantries of the 007 Stage.

Perhaps the most dazzling part of the set was Darius III’s bedroom, which Alexander takes as his own after defeating the King. The intricate wooden screens were all hand-carved in Morocco, as was the huge overhead fan featuring the woven image of the Persian supreme deity Ahura Mazda, and all of the canopies and drapings, fabricated in Pakistan.

Scenic artist Steve Mitchell, with only one assistant in attendance, painted a 150 foot long, 45 foot tall wraparound cyclorama depicting a photo-realistic, microscopically detailed panoramic view of Babylon from the palace terraces, revealing a cityscape rich with ancient skyscrapers, bridges, gardens and paved roadways, illuminating a civilization at its apex. For contemporary films, such backings – known as translights – are generally composed of photographs that are enlarged to massive size. For Babylon, however, there were obviously no such photos, so the art department relied on traditional artistry to recreate the past, which took Mitchell five-and-a-half weeks to complete.

To re-create the lush Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, set decorator Jim Erickson called upon his gardening skills and horticultural knowledge to acquire plants appropriate to the historical time and place.

The harsh English winter – and the fact that the 007 Stage lacks central heating – didn’t bode well for such foliage. As a result, the plants were carefully covered and warmed with special lamps after each day’s filming, throughout the night and into the next morning, when they were unsheathed once again for the benefit of the cameras.

Once the Babylon palace was fully populated by actors and extras, with blazing torches, incense and a fully operative water pumping system creating the verdant fountains and pools that add to the building’s splendor, the illusion of reality was virtually complete. Even Stone was sometimes surprised to emerge from the stage into the dreary light of the British winter. "What a strange world we create," he muses. "Just a few steps between centuries and cultures." However, the reverse was a good deal more pleasant: stepping from the miserable gloom into the sparkling Babylonian interiors. "On sets, we externalize what we internalize," says Stone. "We were walking onto fantasy sets, and it was very hard to go back out."

The magnificent Gates of Babylon, through which Alexander and his troops triumphantly march after his victory over Darius, were actually constructed on location in Marrakech. "There are parts of the eastern gate of Babylon preserved in a museum in Berlin," says Roelfs, "but although it gave us great ideas for the overall design, I didn’t want to just copy it. I struggled for quite a while, and then came up with the notion that the main gate into the city is actually connected to a bridge over the Euphrates River. At that point in history, Babylon was the land of milk and honey, a fertile land on a major river. When Alexander enters, we have to know that it’s the richest place on earth."

Gleaming with blue-glazed stone and reliefs of mythological creatures, the Babylon gates built for the film were constructed to a height of 37 feet. They would later be extended to 80 feet with the addition of visual effects, which would also create the entire panorama of the city of Babylon itself. The strappings on the huge wooden gates were made of actual brass, and the huge statues of winged bulls looming over the bridge leading into the gate were carved in England and then shipped to Morocco, where they were painted and finished. An illustration of the care to even the smallest details can be found in the sequence in which Alexander and his army enter the city – set decorator Jim Erickson made certain that no yellow rose petals were to be included in the rain of flowers showered on the soldiers, as the avid gardener knew that in the 4th century B.C., yellow roses only existed in China.

Also constructed at Pinewood was a watery cave set lined with more than 20 primitive, sometimes barbaric paintings – designed and painted by illustrator Simon Thorpe – depicting ancient Greek myths, in which Philip educates young Alexander in the terrifying and violent ways of the world in which they live.

Alexander grew up in the royal palace of Pella, Macedonia’s capital. The detail of the production’s re-creation of the Palace was considerable. Olympias’ chambers – in which Alexander spent his earliest days – contain powerful frescoes from Homer’s The Iliad, and the floor is comprised of a mosaic of inlaid pebbles, with hand-painted bas relief human figures decorating the walls. The palace courtyard was utilized for both Philip’s riotous wedding feast, and for a sequence in which Alexander and his young friends are trained in the art of wrestling.

London’s Shepperton Studios played host to the ambitious re-creation of one of the world’s lost treasures, the Alexandria Library, from which Sir Anthony Hopkins as Ptolemy recounts his memories of his days with Alexander to attentive scribes. The geometrically designed marble floor offsets mosaic frescoes depicting Alexander’s heroic deeds. The shelves that lined the walls held over 25,000 different scrolls.

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