Kerry Brown
July 01, 2014 02:30 PM

Everyone knows the story: Hebrew baby gets dropped off in a basket. Egyptian royals adopt the baby. Baby Moses grows up and rediscovers his Hebrew roots. There’s a burning bush, divine revelations and some plagues here and there – then Moses parts the Red Sea and saves his people from slavery.

In Exodus: Gods and Kings, director Ridley Scott reimagines the biblical epic. While it’s a huge undertaking, the director had no hesitations.

“The bigger the better,” Scott tells PEOPLE of his latest project, due in theaters Dec. 12. “It’s all pretty massive.”

The film – starring Christian Bale (as Moses), Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul – “is an emotional journey,” Scott notes. And the director adds what sets it apart from previous iterations is its “realistic characters,” with emotional performances from Bale and Edgerton.

“I was knocked out,” Scott says of the actors, who play the squabbling siblings Moses and Rhamses.

From left: Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro and Christian Bale
Kerry Brown

Filmed throughout Spain and the U.K., Exodus goes back to ancient Egypt with spectacular sets and costumes fit for a pharaoh. And though there was some digital assistance, “it all looks completely real,” says Scott, whose last sword-and-sandals blockbuster, Gladiator, won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2001.

“The word ‘authentic’ comes to mind,” Edgerton, 40, who plays pharaoh-to-be Rhamses, tells PEOPLE. “It feels very rich, grand and epic. There’s something very regal and austere and driven about it, and very human.”

The Aussie actor, who played Tom Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, says there was a lot of prep work involved with his character. And though Rhamses is a Battle of Kadesh-fighting, two-horse-chariot-commanding warrior, Edgerton was more worried about grooming than training.

Joel Edgerton
Kerry Brown

“My body was almost entirely void of hair. I actually spent four months shaved and plucked,” Edgerton says. “I would literally get up every morning and put on a gold skirt and work with an eagle or a puma or something around me, and I would rule Egypt. It was bizarre, but fun.”

And Edgerton notes that working on a such a blockbuster production was a great experience – particularly because of his “deeply emotional” scenes with Bale (“It was a great dynamic Christian and I had”) and Scott’s expansive vision (“It’s big and f–––ing grand”).

Scott promises an even more spectacular adaptation than previous iterations like The Ten Commandments, which starred Charlton Heston as Moses: “We nailed it absolutely visually.”

For more photos from the film, check out Entertainment Weekly‘s sneak peek.

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