Holy war

An exclusive look at the making of 'The Pillars of the Earth'

Deep Impact: Tandem 10th Anniversary

BUDAPEST, Hungary -- In a field-commander's tent next to a 12th century castle, director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan is staging the siege of Lincoln. On the clock.

Three wide-screen TVs -- marked A/B/C -- subdivide his field of vision, the three setups for this sequence. Screen A is a Steadicam that starts with the mounted knights charging the castle, pans up and over the battlements -- briefly catching a bloody melee of ax-swinging foot soldiers -- then whips hard left up the wall, where defenders jab 10-foot pikes at the camera. B has the front-on view of the knights, panning right to a siege engine mounting the ramparts. C is a below-axis shot from a trench inside the walls.

Mimica-Gezzan's eyes dart left, right and down as the cameras roll. A hundred extras swarm across the screens. The director nods, blinks and shakes his head.

"Cut! OK. A couple of things we gotta change, then we got it. Show me A."

He runs through the changes -- more horses here, get rid of the goofy extra wielding a pike like a curtain rod -- quickly, with a shorthand efficiency developed during 12 years as an AD to Steven Spielberg. The curt, detailed commands, peppered with tech jargon, together with the split screen of the three monitors, evoke a scene from Fox's "24" with Mimica-Gezzan as Jack Bauer. You can almost here the clock ticking.

Mimica-Gezzan and his team have 110 days to shoot the eight-hour limited series "The Pillars of the Earth," based on Ken Follett's massive best-seller tracing 40 years in the lives of the characters and the building of a Romanesque cathedral. To finish the project, Mimica-Gezzan's team are doing 40-50 setups a day, compared with 25 for a regular episodic series.

"It's like doing 12-hour speed chess -- you're always thinking three moves ahead," cinematographer Attila Szalay says. "It's good that everyone here knows how to work fast but still on a grand scale."

And the scale of "Pillars" is huge. Budgeted at $40 million, it's the largest TV event shooting anywhere, financed entirely by a consortium of Canadian and European broadcasters and banks, from the CBC to DZ Bank, and features a cast that includes Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell and Donald Sutherland, among others.

The sets, built on the outskirts of Budapest, would put many a feature film to shame. Just off camera, scores of extras are being fitted for costumes. Animal trainers -- pulling goats, sheep, the occasional cow and pig -- trot by piles of crossbows, halberds, shields, jewelry -- and a heap of disturbingly realistic severed limbs.

"We have to do it on a monumental scale," on-set producer John Ryan says. "So many people have read the book, we couldn't get away with doing it on the cheap."    

David Oakes -- who plays William Hamleigh, "Pillars' " main baddie -- puts it more succinctly: "The sets cost more than the cast. Which really seems right, doesn't it?"

Despite the massive scale and scope of "Pillars," Mimica-Gezzan (NBC's "Heroes," Syfy's "Battlestar Galactica") never seems rushed.

"I have a shot list with everything on it -- where each one fits in, but I never look at it," he says in colloquial, Croat-accented English. "You have to let each scene stand for itself, you've got to let it breathe."

"All of us actors, we've been looking at each other the whole time going, 'He's really good, isn't he?,' " says Matthew Macfadyen, who plays monk Prior Phillip. "Sergio will never compromise on a shot, never rush things along just to make the schedule."

Halfway through -- the Lincoln siege is Day 55 of the shoot -- and Mimica-Gezzan is still on schedule.  Twenty minutes pass and the crew's ready to go again. This time it all clicks. The shots are quick and smooth.

"Cut! Print it! That's it!" Mimica-Gezzan barks.

"Two takes for a castle siege," says an AD. "Not bad."