Among the more prolific members of the entertainment industry, executive producer of the new and much talked about version of The Ten Commandments, Robert Halmi, Sr., would be within his rights to make a film about his own life. Caught as a young man between two of the twentieth century's most brutal pharaohs - Hitler and Stalin - Halmi twice faced down the threat of execution before immigrating to the United States at age 26.
Now 82, Halmi was raised a Calvinist in his native Hungary, joining his country's anti-Nazi resistance in his teens. As a 20-year-old, the future filmmaker was caught by his enemies in a Polish forest and sentenced to death. He was saved - for a time - during the Red Army's westward advance toward Berlin, but later got into trouble for anti-Soviet activities behind the Iron Curtain. After being smuggled out of prison, the young Halmi made his way to Austria before arriving in New York, five dollars in his possession, in 1950.
Speaking by telephone from China, where he's engaged in pre-production work on his next major miniseries, Halmi sounds almost surprised that anyone might take an interest in the dramatic details of his youth and eventual escape to the United States. He's worked feverishly in the five and a half decades of his American existence, getting his start behind the camera as a "diaper photographer" in a department store. (The job involved photographing babies whose parents had just purchased his employer's brand of diapers.) He later won awards as a Life magazine photographer and began experimenting with film in the 1960s.
He's produced an astonishing 200 films in the intervening years, nearly all for TV, and has been a regular Emmy nominee since the mid-Eighties. Any stigma normally attached to TV movies doesn't apply to his projects - among the A-list alumni of his productions are actors as diverse in their talents as Gregory Peck, Isabella Rossellini, Glenn Close, Ben Kingsley and Christina Applegate.
Halmi typically produces between three and four films a year, favoring adaptations of classic literature and mythology. The last decade has witnessed efforts ranging from Crime and Punishment and Alice in Wonderland to Jason and the Argonauts and Don Quixote.
The Ten Commandments, his second Bible-based miniseries after 1999's Noah's Ark, won't be his last - he's planning to bring the Book of Genesis to the small screen after he finishes his current project. That film will be a biopic of Marco Polo and was the reason for his trip late last month to China and Mongolia, where a cast of thousands will help portray the travels of one of history's most famous explorers.
Even after a long day - it's 9 p.m. in eastern China when he calls Jerusalem - Halmi sounds focused and energetic about his work. He's not concerned about comparisons between his film and Cecil B. DeMille's classic 1956 Ten Commandments, though he does count Charlton Heston, that film's iconic Moses, among his friends and former colleagues. The time was right to update the Exodus story for contemporary audiences, he says, explaining his belief that "anything that's an important piece of literature or story from the past has to be redone every 30 or 40 years so that it reaches young audiences" who might not be familiar with it. Each generation, he says, "deserves an updated version" of these stories.
His updated Ten Commandments takes full advantage of the new technology and historical knowledge at his disposal. Halmi lists computer generated imagery and other special affects among his "specialties," and said his production team consulted topographic maps of the bottom of the Red Sea before planning the look of his film's splitting of the sea. Though he mostly declines to make comparisons between his version of The Ten Commandments and its 50-year-old predecessor, he notes that in his film the sea bottom remains wet and muddy as the former Israelite slaves race across it - a detail he thinks adds realism and credibility to the scene. Halmi, who established his company's special effects facility in Hungary, says the team worked for roughly half a year before perfecting the scene, which vastly outdoes its counterpart in the DeMille film. (Even by the standards of its day, the original scene was considered unimpressive, with the New York Times film critic grumbling that the parting of the Red Sea is "abrupt," "a bit mechanical" and "an obvious piece of camera trickery.")
Moses, Halmi notes, is a prophet honored by Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike, and that he should be recognized even among the non-religious for being "the first man to put the law into writing." While Halmi says he's "not interested in the past" with regard to previous Exodus films, he considers his own picture important because "it shows how Israel was born and what people had to suffer to get there and establish their country - what happened 3,000 or 5,000 years ago and its connection to today."
In addition to depicting Adam and Eve's exile from the Garden of Eden, Halmi's next Biblical miniseries will also revisit the deadly sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel. He believes he's got "four or five more years to make movies, and at this point at least 10 movies planned."
With over eight decades and 200 films behind him, has he ever considered slowing down, perhaps just a little? His answer arrives without hesitation but is accompanied by a warm laugh.
"I'll rest when I'm under the ground," he says.