It wasn't the swords. It wasn't the sandals. For Rufus Sewell, the tough part was all the stinkin' mud. Playing a 12th-century stonemason in mega miniseries The Pillars of the Earth, premiering tonight on Starz at 10/9c, meant maintaining "a level of grime on my neck consistent with that of your typical farm animal," he says.
A small price, indeed, for what's shaping up to be the armor-clanking, leech-sucking, monks-a-poppin' drama of the summer. Pillars, based on Ken Follett's doorstop of a best-seller (all 973 pages of it), about the quest to build a Gothic cathedral in a fictional England of yore, runs eight hours over six Friday nights, which more or less qualifies it as a TV "event," though that's established the second Donald Sutherland saunters in, wearing a camel-colored cloak and a beard worthy of its own Emmy.
It helps, too, that the producers are Ridley and Tony Scott, who normally limit their medieval screw-turning and bodice-ripping to the megaplex screen. "I'm a history supporter, and television was really the only way to present a historical tale this vast," says Ridley (Robin Hood). "With so many individual characters and so much time and ground to cover, two hours simply wasn't enough."
Pillars revolves around a grand and violent effort to construct Kingsbridge Cathedral over the course of 50 years. Sewell (Eleventh Hour) plays Tom Builder, a penniless mason who loses everything except his dream to build something lasting. He's one of a swarming corral of mud-splattered characters. Sutherland plays an earl with a stunning, strong-willed daughter (Hayley Atwell). Ian McShane (Deadwood) is Waleran, a powerful bishop with serious anger-management issues. Matthew Macfadyen (Pride & Prejudice) is kindly Prior Philip, a monk on God's better side. And British actor Eddie Redmayne (a recent Tony winner for Broadway's "Red") is a medieval renaissance man as the young artist, storyteller and architect Jack Jackson, Tom Builder's adopted son.
As Sewell explains, "We've all seen ancient cathedrals, at least in pictures, but most people never consider the lives that went into building them." Sewell himself worked construction jobs between acting gigs early in his career, so he knows what he's talking about. Perhaps that's why he's so at ease here. "Every one of those old bricks carries a story and I felt for that," he says. "There were the masons who broke for lunch, the bosses who screamed at them, the women who loved them and the visions they all had for a better life."
Times certainly weren't easy back in 1123, and Pillars re-creates that era in all its brutishness: animals on the bed, women dying in childbirth, those freaky bald spots the monks wore. Even the life of the knights, so often glamorized on screen, is made human. Director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, who helped Steven Spielberg stage the famous beach-landing scene in Saving Private Ryan as an assistant director, says, "Knights always have swords in movies, but swords were incredibly difficult to come by in those days. It was [of equivalent] value, by today's money, to buying a house. Buying a horse was like buying a Ferrari today. I really pushed to reflect the realism of those days, right down to what it meant to buy food, what it meant to commit your life to prayer."
Shot mostly in Hungary last year, Pillars enlisted hundreds of extras in a working medieval town constructed for the production on a farmer's field outside Budapest. "What we created was real in that things were being moved not by technology but by oxen and ropes and sheer will," Mimica-Gezzan says. Though that got tougher after days of heavy rain left the ground covered in knee-deep mud. "That's when we all basically turned into human swine," Sewell says with a laugh.
Then there was the construction of the cathedral, not quite the feat chronicled in the miniseries, but still impressive. Exterior walls were built from scratch and the soundstage interiors were designed with painstaking detail based on medieval floor plans. It was so true to the time and to the book that Follett himself was stunned when he first walked on set. "I dreamed it, and now it's real," he wrote on his blog. Then again, with a budget of $40 million for the mini-series, they probably could have built Follett a real cathedral.