Q&A: New miniseries re-enacts Bible stories

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 five-part docudrama produced by Ms. Downey and Mr. Burnett after a four-month location shoot in Morocco.

Steve Beard, editor of Good News Magazine, spoke with them about the project; here are excerpts.

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

Roma: 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.

Mark: 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. . . . 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.

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 BurnettMark: 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, what was it like going through this process with your husband?

Roma: 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]

Roma DowneyAnd our God is a good God. We had a few moments where the challenges were great. There were logistical challenges on the set. . . . 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. 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. . . .

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.

Jesus with crowdYou 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: 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: 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: 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. . . . 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.

 

Mark, are people surprised to discover that the guy who created Survivor and The Voice is a Christian?

Mark: 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.

Reprinted with permission from Good News Magazine (goodnewsmag.org).

 

Bill Fentum, Former UMR Associate Editor

Bill Fentum

Bill Fentum was a dedicated employee of The United Methodist Reporter from 1985 to 2013, serving as the associate editor. Bill continues his work in journalism in a variety of positions as an independent journalist.

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