Salma Hayek tends to wax rhapsodic once she gets going on the subject of The Prophet. Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran’s book of spiritual musings has sold 120 million copies since first being published in 1923, but until Hayek and her team came along, nobody had ever attempted to turn the intellectual property into a feature film. Why not? The Prophet features plenty of New Age musings on love and death but nothing in the way of an actual story.
So Hayek executive produced a Disney-style narrative to draw moviegoers into Gibran’s text as envisioned by eight animators around the world. “The language of the film is the language of dreams,” explains Hayek, who also voices a stressed-out single mother in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, opening August 7 in New York and Los Angeles. “That’s why it’s animated and not live action. We surprise you with these different chapters of animation that feel like dreams so that watching the movie becomes like having a journey inside of yourself.”
Hayek, Oscar-nominated for her performance in Frida, put on her producer’s hat for The Prophet. In addition to raising money, she recruited The Lion King director Roger Allers to craft a kid-friendly framing narrative. Hayek says, “We wanted the main storytelling style to be very simple and down to earth and comfortable for the movie goer. We thought a Disney animator would be great at that.”
Allers came up with a story about a political prisoner held under house arrest. Escorted by soldiers, artist/writer “Mustafa” (voiced by Liam Neeson) travels across a sun-dappled island with housekeeper Kamila, (Hayek) and her rebellious daughter Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis from Beasts of the Southern Wild). Along the way, Mustafa shares his philosophy during interludes animated by the contributing directors.
“The visual jewels are the poems,” Hayek observes. “Roger was very humble because the first thing he said is that the main story needs to be in neutral, earthy tones to make the poems stand out. Otherwise, it would just be too much information.”
Like co-star Neeson, who recited Gibran’s poems from memory during his voiceover sessions, Hayek counts herself a longtime fan of the poet/painter. “My grandfather was Lebanese and always kept The Prophet on his bedside table,” she recalls. “He died when I was six and we were very close.”
Twelve years later, Hayek happened to spot Gibran’s eye-on-hand book cover painting. “When I saw that drawing, I recognized it from my grandfather’s night stand. So I read the book and it made a huge impression on me. It was as if my grandfather were teaching me about life through The Prophet.”
As The Prophet adaptation took shape, Hayek and Allers decided an anthology approach best embodied Gibran’s themes of inclusion. She says, “We wanted to make a film about freedom and unity and everybody connecting together. That’s why we picked animators who were so different from each other, from different parts of the world, with different belief systems, different ages, different styles.”
Hayek resisted any temptation to micro-manage the maverick directors. “Every single animator who worked on a poem had complete creative freedom,” she says. “We gave them the poem, we gave them a budget, and then they could do whatever they want.”
As showcased in the slideshow above, segment directors interpreted Gibran’s texts with a idiosyncratic range of works ranging from Nina Paley‘s 18th-century inspired “On Children” chapter to Polish filmmaker Michal Socha‘s hand-colored film frames stitched together to animate “On Freedom.”
Hayek cites the contrasting styles employed by Portland-based artist Joan C. Gratz and Oscar-nominated shorts filmmaker Bill Plympton. “She did her entire animation on the same hard surface by transforming it and transforming it and transforming over and over again using just one finger. That took months, and then we had Bill, who did his whole animation ‘On Food and Drink’ with colored pencils in a week.” She laughs. “Bill can be very naughty, which is why we didn’t give him ‘On Love,’ but he came through beautifully.”
Like the Kamila character she voices in The Prophet, Hayek, married to French businessman Francois-Henri Pinault, has an opinionated daughter. “She resented this movie for many years because it was so time-consuming. My daughter would see little pieces here and there and say “You know Mom, nobody’s going to watch this movie because it looks like old-time animation.”
But the final product got a thumbs up from the eight-year-old. “After she finally saw the final cut my daughter went off and wrote a poem about how we cannot be incarcerated by our own bodies because we are spirits and free and eternal,” Hayek recalls. “And then she did a little drawing of her grandmother coming out of her coffin and dancing with all of us in the family.”
With its lofty language, dulcet tones and high-minded musings on mortality, love and universal brotherhood, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet might lack an obvious demographic hook, but Hayek’s looking beyond immediate box office gratification. “This movie is a very ambitious experiment,” she says. “We want to take this philosophy that has united people of all religions and beliefs around the world for so many generations and make it into a film that does not put people into boxes. It’s not for children, or for teenagers, or for young adults, or adults, or for senior citizens. This film reminds anybody who sees it to get in touch with their humanity. In order to do that, we came up with a concept that makes everyone feel like a child, so they can take in these teachings with a light heart.”