On the set of The Pillars of the Earth
Photo: Egon Endrenyi
One of Oprah's Book Club's most popular selections is coming to life in an eight-hour television miniseries extravaganza, premiering July 23 on STARZ. Go inside the filming of Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth and find out why cast members say they'll never look at the world around them the same again.
Sticks and stones are the stuff great cathedrals are made of, but it wasn't until Ken Follett's novel The Pillars of the Earth that mere words could capture the painstaking detail and extensive personal and financial costs of completing man's masterpiece to God. Ken's more than 900-page labor of love hit shelves in 1989 after more than three years of toil and remains his most popular work to this day. Book clubs everywhere—including Oprah's—have devoured the epic with a passion Ken has never before seen. "It's becoming a cult," he says on his website.

So when it came time to rebuild Kingsbridge Cathedral onscreen, a feature-length film simply wouldn't do. A sweeping tale of good, evil, violence and beauty set against the backdrop of war, religious strife and power struggles, the story has been blown out into a must-see miniseries event, premiering July 23 on STARZ. At its helm are powerhouse producers Ridley and Tony Scott (CBS' The Good Wife, Robin Hood, American Gangster) and a stellar cast headed by Donald Sutherland (M*A*S*H*, Ordinary People), Rufus Sewell (CBS' Eleventh Hour, Ian McShane (HBO's Deadwood and Matthew Macfadyen (Pride and Prejudice, Robin Hood).

Meet the entire cast of characters 

Under the direction of Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, hundreds of crew members set up shop in Austria and Budapest, Hungary, for a 113-day shoot of epic proportions. Between cavalries of horses, an army's worth of armor and action sequences that could give 300 a run for its money, German actress Natalia Wörner, who plays woman of the forest Ellen, can only describe filming as "intense." "Viewing the call sheet was like reading a Bible almost," she says. "So many people and animals and technicians—you name it."

The town of Kingsbridge itself also became larger than life. The set's appropriately filthy medieval streets led cast and crew alike to Shiring Castle, the bishop's palace, peasants' living quarters and, of course, a half-finished cathedral. "The size of the sets that were built really made you not have to act so much. You could look up in awe," says actor Eddie Redmayne, who plays Jack. "You weren't having to imagine a huge moment."

Divine intervention and the cast of The Pillars of the Earth
William Hamleigh, as played by David Oakes
Photos: Egon Endrenyi
It was crucial to find the right actor for each part in a cast of characters that already lives so vividly in the imagination of readers. In some cases, however, one could argue there was some form of divine intervention at play. "I was given this book [by friends], and they were like: 'Read it. It will change your life, and there's a character in it that reminds us of you.' And I was like, 'Whatever,'" Eddie says. "Randomly, I was then in Los Angeles and I got a call saying, 'Scott Free—Ridley Scott's company—wants to meet you about this miniseries called The Pillars of the Earth,' and I was like, 'Wait a second, I remember that name.' So I went and read it and fell deeply in love with it. And here they offered me the part of Jack, and I was kind of blown away by the offer, to be honest. And also felt there's a weird fate or serendipity or whatever you call it to the fact that my close friends said, 'You'd be quite good at that guy.'"

Still, no casting director could have conceived that the face of pure evil would come from the shadows of the real-life structure that Ken based Kingsbridge Cathedral upon. The part of hateful brute William Hamleigh went to Trinity star David Oakes, whose father, Jeremy, is a canon at Follett's beloved Salisbury Cathedral. David was also educated at the Bishop Wordsworth School in the Salisbury Cathedral Close. "Sometimes stuff comes along and it just falls into place," he says. "I really grew up with the cathedral in my life."

Ken Follett on casting the film's villains. 

David says the cathedral was also at the heart of one of the most important lessons he learned as a child. "[The headmaster] said: 'The cathedral is the most amazing thing. When you're feeling a bit above yourself and a bit pompous and a bit big-headed, you look up at the cathedral and it'll put you right back into place. But when you're feeling insecure and vulnerable and needing some support, you can look up to the cathedral and it will pull you up to its level. You'll get all the support you'll need.'"

This notion of faith, David says, served him well during filming. "That kind of speaks to mind going into Pillars of the Earth," he says. "The message sort of runs through."

The miniseries' legacy
Eddie Redmayne as Jack
Photos: Egon Endrenyi
Just as millions of readers have been taken by The Pillars of the Earth, cast members say they have also been forever transformed by their work on the film. Actress Hayley Atwell, who plays a resourceful young woman on a mission to restore her family's title, says she will never look at the buildings of her hometown the same. "Now, walking around London, it's kind of made my awe for this city so much greater," she says. "This is the city I was born in and grew up in, and you look around and think, 'This is the work of man, and what man is capable of is extraordinary.'"

Eddie agrees. "The thing about the cathedral is it's never finished. It's never going to be completed. All these great cathedrals in Britain still, and across the world, have mason yards attached to them, and they're constantly working because the thing always needs upkeeping or renovating or changing," he says. "It's this idea that you never see the thing finished, so actually it's all about creating selflessly for the next generation and for a greater good. And I certainly felt that story or that focus in the book and in the miniseries is kind of incredibly optimistic about humanity."

Everything you need to know about The Pillars of the Earth miniseries

Your Pillars of the Earth reading guide

Oprah interviews Ken Follett
Photos: Egon Endrenyi © Tandem Productions GmbH / Pillars Productions (Ontario) Inc. / Pillars Productions (Muse) Inc. All rights reserved.


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