Reviving Demille: Bible on Screen

She captured America’s heart every week as the divine messenger with the lilting and soothing Irish accent on Touched by an Angel. He is the creative genius behind Survivor, The Apprentice, and The Voice. Together, Roma Downey and Mark Burnett are one of Hollywood’s most uniquely equipped married power couples.

Beginning March 3, you will be able to catch their latest ambitious venture on the History Channel. The Bible is a fabulously scripted five-part docudrama produced by Downey and Burnett after a 4 month location shoot in Morocco.

The 10-hour version of this Biblical epic was conceived after the husband and wife team watched the spectacular Ten Commandments by legendary filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959) for the first time since childhood. “Give me two pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture,” DeMille once said. With this new venture, Downey and Burnett have produced an entire photo album.

Steve Beard spoke with Roma Downey and Mark Burnett about their new project.

 

How did this become a project that you both wanted to do? 

Roma Downey: Well, that was a God thing. I believe we were called to do this, for such a time as this. We are at the fortunate place in our careers where we can choose projects that honor and are pleasing to God. And we joined forces, bringing our talents together and our faith and our love and it has been the most exciting and thrilling and humbling few years of our lives as we’ve brought this to light. And we are so excited because it’s within inches of being finally finished, Steve.

How do you go to the History Channel and make this pitch in a way that they’ve not heard it before?

Roma Downey: Well, if you were me, you would go and knock politely on the door and wait until you’re invited in. But if you were my husband, you would arrive and you would kick the door down. And you would just somehow go in there and present it in such a way that they absolutely knew they had to be part of it.

I love that. And Mark, how did you go about doing that? 

Mark Burnett: We heard of a documentary someone was going to make about the Bible that was asking why God is so mean to everybody and why would God flood the earth and kill everybody, why would God tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, et cetera, et cetera. Roma was so offended and she said to me, “You know, we should just do a Bible project on…” I said, “What, the whole Bible?” She said, “Yes, we should do that.” I said, “Roma, you’re crazy. There’s no way. Who do you think we are? Cecil B. DeMille?” She said, “Maybe. We should do this.” I said, “Roma, this is impossible, you know.” And she said, “Well, so was Survivor, so was The Voice. Why don’t we do this. We love the Bible, we love these stories, we believe.” And I said, “No, no, no, this is crazy.” And then a couple of days later I decided, you know, maybe she’s right, maybe I should listen to my wife.

We took a year and a half to think exactly how to present it in a way that would be impossible to say no to. There is an art form to how to present an idea in our business, to get someone to say yes.

Mark, you certainly know how to do that.

Mark Burnett: Yes, I’m probably the most experienced person in television at doing exactly that.

This obviously is much more serious than anything else we’ve ever done. But you have to decide upon what’s the entry point and what’s the three-line message? What is the story of God’s love for all of us? And realize that the worst thing you can present is like a rule book: Don’t do this, don’t do that — and in a dry kind of way. If you do it in a dry kind of way, why would someone want to see it on television?

If you want to do it on television, it better be a fresh visual, emotionally connecting way of presenting the sacred text. And I think that’s what we did. Rather than telling you the rules from the Bible, we tell stories and the moral underpinning and rules are evident in the stories of the interaction with the characters. And that’s what we’ve done. And it just took a while to figure out exactly how to do it.

Ten hours of television is nearly the equivalent of half a season. That is a gift-wrapped blessing in Hollywood. What stories did you tackle? 

Mark Burnett: They are not going to give us 100 hours, you know, which is what you’d need. So obviously, if you were approaching this as almost a Sunday school greatest hits, there’s certain things you’ve got to do, right?

What we outlined was Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samson, Samuel, Saul, David. Then on to Zedekiah, which led nicely into Daniel and Cyrus and the releasing of the Jews from Babylon and Daniel’s dream about the coming of the Son of Man which was the entry point, naturally, into the New Testament. The New Testament is through the Gospels and then dealing with Stephen, his martyrdom, and dealing with Saul/Paul and on to Revelation.

As we were filming, we realized something had to give. Eventually the story we didn’t film was Joseph. It was Moses or Joseph and we had to do Moses. You just have to because of the parting of the Red Sea, the Ten Commandments and leading into Joshua, because otherwise, that’s the entry point of how you meet Joshua at Jericho. Obviously we wanted to do more, but that’s how we did it.

Roma, how much praying did you have to do through all of this because everything didn’t go as planned? I’ve got to assume there was all kinds of headaches. What was it like going through this process with your husband? 

Roma Downey: The fact that we have gotten through the project and we haven’t killed each other yet, I think, is a testimony to our faith. [laughter]

And our God is a good God. We had a few moments where the challenges were great. There were logistical challenges on the set. We filmed in Morocco. We were there from the beginning of February to the beginning of July. We crossed all seasons and all kinds of terrain and there were snakes and scorpions and there were casts of hundreds and herds of sheep and chariots and horses. You can imagine the endless things that might go wrong and they did go wrong, but ultimately I think the hand of God has been on the project from the beginning. We have great teams of people who have been praying with us and for us and in the way that the sea parted for Moses, unbelievably things just kept turning up for us and the right people kept arriving for us and things that we did not know how to do, suddenly somebody was there who did know how to do it. And even in terms of casting, we were challenged right up to the last minute with finding the actor who would play the role of Jesus for us, which was our singular most important cast member.

Very understandable. That’s one casting decision you want to have serious faith in. [laughter] 

Roma Downey:  We were just a month away from filming and we hadn’t found him yet. We were praying, we were looking for Jesus everywhere. And we had everyone we know praying for him. And then, he just remarkably showed up and he was the perfect actor and he brought all of the qualities that we were hoping this actor would have for this most important part. We cast a Portuguese actor called Diogo Morgado and he is simply sensational. He brings the qualities of the lion and the lamb to this role. And his natural charisma and his natural humility and his natural strength all come off the screen in this beautiful and authentic way. No one has ever played Jesus like this before and I think that his performance is going to touch the hearts of millions of people around the world.

That was a very key piece of casting for us. And there were other moments, too, where God just kept showing up.

One night we were filming a scene where Nicodemus asks Jesus about the kingdom of God and Jesus tells him that he, too, can see the kingdom of God – that he has to be born again of the Spirit. Nicodemus doesn’t fully understand what that means and Jesus describes to him how the Spirit can blow like the wind and it goes where it wishes. And suddenly, as if on cue, the most amazing wind on this very still night blew in through the camp as if God was saying, “Here I am, I’m right here.”

Everybody had hairs stand up on their arms and we all looked at each other in awe. And thankfully, the actors never broke concentration for a moment. And even though the trees were blowing behind them and the hair of the actor playing Jesus was blowing, they both held the moment and it’s just a fantastic moment on camera where it really felt like the Holy Spirit showed up. And there were numerous moments like that for us throughout the experience.

You filmed in Morocco. You’ve mentioned a Portuguese actor and a British actor. What was the international flavor of the rest of the cast? 

Roma Downey:  The cast is mostly made up of UK actors – English, Scottish, Welsh, and a good healthy sprinkling of Irish.

I love it. I’m a seventh generation Irishman in the United States so that warms my heart. [Laughter.] 

Roma Downey:  Oh, you are, really? So I have to tell you that King Saul is Irish. Our Moses is Irish. And I stepped myself into the role of Mother Mary. And as you know, I am Irish.

Splendid. I was going to ask if you crossed lines from co-producer to actress. 

Roma Downey: I hadn’t planned to play the part, but we had cast the younger Mary through the annunciation and through the Nativity – a beautiful young English actress. And we knew that we would have to find someone that would bear some resemblance 30 years later to the actress picking up that role through the mission of Jesus and then through the Passion of Jesus and so on.

Sounds like a perfect fit. 

Roma Downey:  Mark said to me, you know, of all these actors that we’re considering for the Mother Mary role, you actually look more like the young actress than any of them. Would you not consider playing it yourself? And I hadn’t really considered playing any part at that time. I had my producer’s hat firmly on my head, but I thought, well, I’ll pray on it. It was the right thing to do and I’m so glad that I did. It was just such a fantastic experience for me. I have loved Mary my whole life.

Oh, believe me, I’m a big fan of her’s as well. I’m glad you took the role. 

Roma Downey:  It was maybe through loving Mary that I really came to love Jesus. My own mother had died when I was a little girl and the role of Mary in my life became very much like a nurturing mother figure that I didn’t have.

I simply love that. Let me shift gears here. I think a lot of people would be surprised to discover that there is a very vibrant faith within the Hollywood zip code and in the creative world. 

Mark Burnett: Let me say that what we’ve done on this project is the best collective work of our entire careers. And that means everything from Roma’s incredible portrayal early in her career of “A Woman Named Jackie,” playing Jackie Onassis, as well as “Touched by an Angel,” “Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” “The Voice,” “Shark Tank,” the Emmys, all the things we’ve done. I don’t lightly say this, the Bible project is the best work we have ever been involved with or made.

That is quite a statement. Are people surprised to discover that the guy who created “Survivor” and “The Voice” is a Christian?

Mark Burnett: My answer is, why not? Why would you assume that because someone was really good at making commercial television they wouldn’t be a Christian? Why would that matter? You’d be pleasantly, happily surprised at the enormity of people of Christian faith within the creative community. That is not the challenge. The challenge is to actually get something about faith on television.

People are very quick to want to put shows on which call faith into question or shows that might say was Jesus married, was the parting of the Red Sea a phenomenon of nature, all these sort of shows are on TV that you’ve seen. Why would they do those? Because, I guess, they think it’s sensational and shocking. But when you want to make the story of God’s love for all of us, people are a little slower for whatever reason to buy into it. Well, we were called because we’ve got great credibility and people think we’re really good at our jobs and we got the opportunity and we’ve made it and we are really grateful to History Channel to seeing that and stepping up for us and with us. No one in our zip code in Hollywood will be surprised that Roma and I are Christians and have made this.

But I wanted to let you know how deep the community is and that many of us who choose to walk in the creative arts also have deep faith. And every now and then you get an opportunity to live that out in the project.

How do you hope the viewers who usually turn to the History Channel for “American Pickers” will experience your project on the Bible? 

Roma Downey: Well, the over arching embrace is of God’s love for us, it’s woven through every segment of the show, leading through, of course, to the New Testament, that He loved us so much that He sent His only Son to redeem us. So it’s a beautiful story of love and redemption. And it is our hope that the series goes out and that it touches people’s lives and that it is a great reminder that God loves them, and that it draws people back to the book itself, that they are reminded of how amazing our story is because it is our story, you know, we are those characters.

It’s as current today as it was when it was written. We all go through the same journey. The situations have changed but the feelings are the same, the challenges are the same, the hopes and dreams are the same. So it’s our story. They mirror us. There is such an opportunity here for the faithful, yes, but for people maybe who have never opened a book or who have never stepped inside of a church, but who will get to turn their television set on and see something like this. It’s just a very exciting prospect for the Kingdom.

I should say it is. Thank you both so very much for your time. 

Roma Downey: Good. We appreciate you. Thank you for your partnership on this, in helping us to spread the Good News.

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