Spotlight on The Pillars of the Earth
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
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 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