Salma Hayek Reveals International Journey Behind Animated Passion Project 'The Prophet'

"I didn't want the film to have a country," she tells THR of why she chose collaborators from around the world.
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Mustafa, voiced by Liam Neeson, and Almitra, voiced by Quvenzhane Wallis.

Salma Hayek's grandfather first exposed her to The Prophet, a collection of philosophical poems by Lebanese author Kahlil Gibran, which has sold more than 100 million copies since first published in 1923. And now as producer, she's bringing these poems to cinemas with the animated feature Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, which opens in North America on Friday, through indie distributor GKIDS.

Framing the reading of the poems is a story featuring Kamila (Hayek), who cleans house for exiled artist and poet Mustafa (Liam Neeson) while looking after her free-spirited daughter Almitra (Quvenzhane Wallis). But as Mustafa tries to return to his home from this Mediterranean seaside village, the authorities fear that the truth in his words could start a rebellion. Each poem has a distinct look and its maker chose its animation technique, ranging from hand-drawn to CG.

See more Hollywood's 100 Favorite Films              

The film is directed by Roger Allers (co-director The Lion King and Oscar-nominated short The Little Matchgirl), who also wrote the framing story. And each poem was shepherded by a different animation director, among them Academy Award nominees Tomm Moore of Ireland (Song of the Sea, The Secret of Kells) and Bill Plympton of the U.S. (Your Face and Guard Dog). The poems are Freedom, Children, Marriage, Work, Eating & Drinking, Love, Good & Evil and Death.

Hayek says that the film was made for $12 million, raised from Participant Media, as well as investors in Lebanon, Qatar and France.

“I didn't want all the money to come from one place; I didn't want the film to have a country,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I wanted to make the film in the sprit of the kind of film that I was making.”

She adds that it became a passion project for all involved, from the filmmakers to the cast.

“Liam Neeson, when he was [reciting] the poems, there was no script. He knew them by heart because he’s been reading them his whole life," she says.

The idea for the film started with the poems, and Hayek sparked the idea to develop a framing story.

“She thought if there was a stronger narrative holding it all together, it would help audiences make their way through,” says Allers, who was in agreement.

He says that the book contained a basic story, though never explains why Mustafa couldn't leave. To develop the bigger story, he was inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been kept under house arrest in Burma.

“She was a big inspiration. There was a person who was a proponent of democracy," he said. "I thought that bit of the story seems relevant. It’s true now, it's always true that philosophers and poets often can find themselves on the wrong side of governments. Also part of the idea also came from a poem by Gibran: “Pity the Nation was his criticism of the Ottoman Empire, of which Lebanon was a part. The creation of the girl was for children, to help take them through the story, and also to give us a character that has to go through some changes. I knew Mustafa would not go through many changes; he already had a certain amount of wisdom.”

As to the poems, Hayek noted that the animation directors “come from different countries, religions and age groups,” and each worked with Allers and was given a lot of freedom to conceive their segment. “The film is about freedom, and in the spirit of the film it was important that everyone had absolute freedom in the way they did the poems. Everyone did their own techniques; there was no color palette.”

Moore, who used hand-drawn animation for the poem Love, explains that for his piece, there’s a progression in a love story that starts with a style of geometric Islamic art that moves toward more organic images inspired by Gustav Klimt, “whose work is associated with images of lovers and had that kind of exuberance we thought was needed.”

Moore’s two Oscar-nominated films, like The Prophet, were distributed by GKIDS, the indie distributor that has scored six best animated feature Oscar nominations since 2009. Said Moore: “They’ve built a reputation for promoting quality independent projects. I think especially the animation branch [of the Motion Picture Academy] looks at what GKIDS — whatever they picked up that year — with a bit of expectation that it's going to be pretty high-quality fare.”