Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet’s journey to the big screen

Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet’s journey to the big screen began more than a decade ago when executive producer Steve Hanson embarked on an eight-year quest to license the rights to the Lebanese author’s timeless bestseller.

The beloved book, which has been translated into 40 languages, has sold over 100 million copies and has never been out of print since it was first published in 1923.

Producer Clark Peterson, who previously produced gritty crime dramas including Charlize Theron’s Monster and Woody Harrelson’s police-corruption thriller Rampart, says the filmmakers realized early on that the book’s timeless lyricism could best be captured through animation.

“We believe animation is, in a way, the closest cinematic form to poetry,” he explains.

Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet’s journey to the big screen began more than a decade ago when executive producer Steve Hanson embarked on an eight-year quest to license the rights to the Lebanese author’s timeless bestseller

The beloved book, which has been translated into 40 languages, has sold over 100 million copies and has never been out of print since it was first published in 1923.

Producer Clark Peterson, who previously produced gritty crime dramas including Charlize Theron’s Monster and Woody Harrelson’s police-corruption thriller Rampart, says the filmmakers realized early on that the book’s timeless lyricism could best be captured through animation.

“We believe animation is, in a way, the closest cinematic form to poetry,” he explains.

The film was originally conceived as an anthology of animated shorts. But when actress and filmmaker Salma Hayek-Pinault signed on to the production, the project began to grow in scope.  Hayek-Pinault, who is part Lebanese, had been introduced to the Prophet by her paternal grandfather. “I love the book and I thought it was an opportunity to do a homage to this half of me. It’s my love letter to Lebanon.”

Coming on board as a producer, Hayek-Pinault championed a unique narrative framework that would tie together individual “chapters” drawn from Gibran’s masterwork.  “I wanted to make the film bigger and more special,” she says. “I proposed that we have the main story to go along with the poems so we could make the movie more accessible and more open to families. Then we started looking for somebody who could find the glue to bring all these elements together.”

To create that overarching framework, the producers turned to acclaimed writer-director Roger Allers, best known for his work on some of Disney’s most successful animated features.

After writing Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, Allers directed Disney’s blockbuster Lion King and earned a Tony Award® nomination for scripting the long-running Broadway musical version of the film.  “It was my dream and hope that Roger Allers would be involved in the film,” says Hayek Pinault. “I have a child, so I was aware of all the animators that do mainstream movies and for me, The Lion King is one of the best ever.” Allers, who first fell in love with Gibran’s writings as a college student, says he jumped at the opportunity. “I wasn’t about to let this one get away from me,” he laughs.

In re-configuring The Prophet as a feature film, Allers faced one major dilemma. “The biggest challenge was that Gibran’s book really has no narrative,” he says.

“It’s chapter after chapter of poetry and philosophy. In fact, The Prophet barely has a story at all. I had three elements to build from: A man’s been waiting for a ship for years. He goes and talks to people. He gets on the ship. That’s the whole story.” Early on, Allers devised a personality and backstory for the central character of Mustafa. “I had to look into who this guy was,” he says. “Why is he staying there? I researched Gibran and used bits of his past. I also used other writings of Gibran as a way of creating a little tension in the story points.” In the spirit of his Disney fables, Allers also introduced a fantastical flavour to the storyline. “One of my first ideas was to have a seagull character who would give us the opportunity to see the world from a different point of view,” he says.

Characters Drawn From Life

To ground Gibran’s soaring philosophical insights in the daily realities of life on a Mediterranean island, Allers populated the film with characters based on people he’d met while living on the Greek island of Crete in his 20s. “The burly café owner is very much like someone I observed when I spent a year living in Crete after college,” Allers says. “The tweedy date seller with the giant moustache, he’s the kind of person you might see in a market or on the street. They all come from observation; they’re all pulled from life.”

A Painterly Look

Honouring The Prophet’s lyrical tone, Allers chose to present the story in a 2D animation style that would visually complement Gibran’s elegant language. That meant steering clear of the jokey, ironic tone and frenetic pacing typical of many of today’s animated features.

“Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is not like other animation projects where you start out with the idea of something very light and entertaining,” the director explains. “Gibran’s book delves into all the big issues of life. It talks about love and death and having children and working. In order to do justice to his work, this couldn’t be a silly movie.”  Allers brought in New Machine Studios and Danish art director Bjarne Hansen to craft the sumptuous landscape and village settings featured in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet’s framing narrative. “I found out about Bjarne from his blog, which posts these beautiful little watercolors or snow scenes that he does every year for Christmas cards,” Allers recalls.

“There’s no snow in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, but there was something about the freshness and simplicity of Bjarne’s work. I wanted to feel as if the pigment is splashed on the paper. Bjarne had that kind of approach, so together we worked to find out how to describe this island, this town, this special kind of brilliant light that you find in the Mediterranean.” Hansen used a set of customized Photoshop brushes to create a warm, tactile texture for the film’s backgrounds. “The story’s set in Northern Africa or Southern Europe so the film needed to have a warm palette and a light feel,” he says.

“We wanted a style of drawing that was gestural and showed more details.” Hansen, who previously served as art director on Best Animated Feature Oscar® nominee The Illusionist, adds, “We created this watercolour feel in order to suggest rather than to actually show. I think it’s nice to have something to look at that is not rendered all over the place but has the quality of a drawing. That’s what I was trying to get.” Working on the animation elements with Bardel Entertainment, Allers devised an unusual production pipeline: characters were first prototyped as computer-generated 3D models, then “flattened” into the final 2D images seen on screen.

“Movements and details sometimes vanished along the way,” Allers notes. “You could see in the CG modelling there’d be cheek action happening but when you flattened it out, the cheek would disappear.  But we had a great bunch of 2D animators who came in to pull things back in and make the shapes and wrinkles. It was an interesting collaboration.” The animators had rarely if ever taken on material with the kind of dramatic heft found in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, but Allers says they rose to the challenge presented by the film’s contemplative themes. “Many of the animators had a background in television, which is very action-oriented and very broad comedy,” he notes. “For this film we needed them to take on very serious human drama. They really dove into the challenge of expressing subtle emotions and animating these serious scenes.”

Bringing the Poetry to Life

Allers and Hansen hewed to a uniform animation style for Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet’s episodic adventures but entrusted an all-star roster of international animators to interpret eight separate poems as free-standing “chapters.” Visionary filmmakers from France, Poland, Ireland, the United Arabic Emirates and the United States produced a dazzling range of selections to illustrate Gibran’s text.

“I hoped that we would get animators from different countries around the world,” Hayek-Pinault says. “Our deal with the directors was that they were going to be completely free in style and interpretation. They coordinated with Roger but they all had their own visions. We celebrated what each of these directors would bring into the project.” Polish animator Michal Socha, for example, created the film’s “On Freedom” sequence. “Among the different kinds of freedom that Gibran talks about, I decided to focus on civil liberties, which I thought was the most important,” says Socha. “The idea for me came from nature. When I saw birds up on the branch, I thought about the idea of ‘Free as a bird.’” Socha says he spent about a year perfecting the “On Freedom” segment. First, he laboured for six months designing the storyboard and animatics, then the production required another six months. “I painted each image frame by frame. That was a lot of work but I’m very happy with the final result.” Oscar-nominated animator Bill Plympton used an entirely different technique to create his evocative “On Eating and Drinking” segment.

“It’s basically just coloured pencil on bond paper, which I know is very retro but I find it to be fast and beautiful.” Plympton, a Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize winner for his experimental film Push Comes to Shove, says he chose “Eating and Drinking” as his theme because “I loved the concept that the food we eat eventually eats us, that you grow something and then we die and our bodies become food for other people, so I had a lot of fun animating that idea.” Plympton, who used European paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries as models for the hard-working farmers depicted in his sequence, found considerable inspiration in the source material. “There’s a lot of smart stuff and I can see why the book’s never gone out of print,” he says.

“Certainly now whenever I pass a field of corn or grain, I think differently about where it comes from and where it’s going and that whole process of eating and drinking.”

Lending Voice to the “Prophet”

Although each of the animators brings his or her own unique interpretation and visual style to the film’s different sections, there is a powerful unifying thread connecting the dramatic scenes with the recitations of Gibran’s poems: the voice of Oscar-nominated actor Liam Neeson.  “We needed somebody who had a soulful voice that would sound wise but at the same time full of hope,” says Hayek-Pinault. “A lot of people who have the training to recite poetry overdo it. Liam knows how to deliver poetry without having it sound heavy and preachy. I cannot think of a better voice.” 

Working with Neeson in the recording studio turned out to be a revelation for Allers. “Liam came completely prepared,” he says.

“We recorded the dialogue for the dramatic scenes in one day and on the second day it was all poems. With the timbre, the pitch and the resonance of his speaking voice, he made the poetry that flows through the movie clear and nuanced, so the ideas are really there for you to understand.”

The Oscar-nominated actor invests Gibran’s verse with hypnotic allure while portraying political prisoner Mustafa as a gentle seer who refuses to be intimidated by political brute force.

“I was familiar with Gibran’s poetry from a fairly early age,” says Neeson, who prepared mainly by immersing himself in the source material. “It was just a matter of spending time rereading The Prophet, ingesting it, and then trying not to get in the way. I wanted to let Gibran’s words speak for themselves and not colour them too much or act out the poems. I wanted to be a vessel for the words to come through.”

In dramatizing Mustafa’s status as a political prisoner, Neeson says he drew inspiration from Chinese activist artist Ai Weiwei. Like Mustafa, Weiwei has been confined to house arrest for producing artworks considered subversive by his country’s ruling regime. “Weiwei immediately sprung to my mind as being the same kind of prophet as this Mustafa character,” Neeson says. “He’s a thorn in the side of the Chinese authorities. I’d been recently reading about Weiwei and this extraordinary artwork he does, which highlights issues in China and around the world. He reminded me of the power of poetry and the power of artists to engage and potentially change society.” 

After Neeson recorded Gibran’s poems, he got a chance to experience the full effect of his voice-over combined with animation. After seeing an excerpt of the film, he says, “It looked very beguiling. It reminded me of the magical realism of the late Spanish-language novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez.” Neeson believes audiences could come away from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet with a renewed appreciation for poetry. “I hope they will get into Gibran’s work. And maybe by doing that, it will encourage them to buy some more poetry and investigate more poets. Poetry is an extraordinary art form in the way it speaks—and always will speak—to us.”

The Spirited Salma Hayek-Pinault

In addition to her duties as a producer, Hayek-Pinault enlivened the mother-daughter relationship at the heart of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet by providing the voice of the widowed mother Kamila, who works as a housekeeper for Mustafa. “Salma brings so much energy to the recording sessions, she really gives her whole self to it and the performance pops off the screen,” says Allers. “But Salma’s not just an actress of the high and the loud. The scenes with the daughter were tender and quiet and intimate. Of course, Salma has a daughter herself, so she was able to bring a lot of personal experience to the performance.”

“Kamila is a single mother who loved her husband and has a problem child,” Hayek-Pinault explains. “She cannot communicate with Almitra and it breaks her heart because her daughter has shut down. Kamila’s a hard-working, heartbroken mother and I think many moms around the world will identify with this.” While her involvement in a film based on Gibran’s writings provided Hayek-Pinault with an opportunity to connect with her Lebanese heritage, she is quick to point out that the film’s setting is intentionally left ambiguous.

“It was important for me that the film didn’t have a time or space and that it is a place that anybody could claim as their own. The film doesn’t have a nationality or a religion. We had people from all over the world working on it, from the financing to the actors to the directors.”  Hayek-Pinault hopes Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet will transport audiences to a land where bold, beautiful truths hold sway. “The idea is to bring back the sense of naiveté in the animation but in a beautiful art form,” she says. “Once we get comfortable with this place, the island of Orphalese, then we let the mind of the child take us into outrageous places so we can be surprised over and over and over.”  True to the spirit of Gibran’s writings, Hayek-Pinault harbours a simple ambition for audiences. “I hope the film lifts their spirit and reminds them of the things we all know but often forget,” she says. “And I hope it puts a smile in their hearts.”