Plenty of people want to make movies about the Bible. I hear pitches constantly to draw attention to this Bible project or that faith movie. But only a few have the experience to create a professional result and the connections to distribute them on a wide scale. Roma Downey and Mark Burnett are just such a couple, trading on their decades of success in Hollywood to create The Bible miniseries that astonished Hollywood with its high ratings and the new Son of God movie hitting theaters this week. And they’ve got more projects in the works.
I sat down with Downey and Burnett, with two other reporters, in a hotel in Washington, DC. Literally as the first question was asked, a fire alarm forced us into the snowy January day.
They could not have been better sports. Burnett led us to a bagel shop across the street, offering bagels to everyone, and they both chatted there in the booth like old friends meeting for lunch. One thing was very clear: They both love The Bible project and feel lucky to be able to work on it. They brim with excitement about it. It’s a passion project, one they’re delighted is having the success it is enjoying.
Here’s our conversation:
When did you first decide to turn the footage from the miniseries into a feature film?
RD: We had an editor on set with us, each week we’d look at rough assemblies. As the Jesus narrative was unfolding on the screen, I said to Mark, I wish we had been making a film because this is so beautiful. It’s spectacular and really deserves to be on the big screen. We decided there and then we would to that as well.
MB: With no clue of how we would possibly get the thing in the movie theaters. But we just knew….we’re very blessed with our careers, so we knew we could afford to get the movie made and somehow we’d certainly get it in a couple of theaters.
RD: At the very least we could do special event screenings. Not even really daring to dream that it would become what it has become with 20th Century Fox.
So you were filming with both a miniseries and a feature film in mind.
MB: Yes. Just because we thought it looked so great and Roma said it should be on the big screen. It took us a year in edits to figure out how to do this in only two hours. When we saw it, we realized this is really emotionally connecting. It just flies by with the pacing. Of course, it came true. It’s literally coming out 2/28 in three thousand theaters. What’s great, people who are seeing this who have gone to church their whole lives, pastors, theologians, who say, “I’ve never thought of these details.” These moments, you know, when Peter gets out of the boat, when Jesus walks on water, what are the other disciples thinking? “Peter, what are you doing? What are you doing? You’re going to drown!”
RD: We just decided to tell the story with drama, with the occupying Roman forces at that time, Pharisees led by Caiaphis, the disciples led by Jesus, on this collision course…On one hand I think the film plays like a political thriller. On the other, I know it plays like a love story. The greatest love story there ever was.
Please tell us about filming the crucifixion scene.
RD: It was the most intense scene in the entire picture. It took us three days to film it. It was challenging not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. And I think that everybody who was present was deeply impacted by the scene. The challenges that we had to put an actor up on a cross and we needed to make sure the cross is bolted to the ground. There were high winds one afternoon. There was intense sunshine on the second day. We had to figure out how we were going to get him up and down off the cross. We had to build a platform. How long could we keep him on the cross? How could he balance on the cross? There were many many rehearsals and we had different people up on the cross. It was the most moving thing for all of us was just to imagine what the whole experience must have been… I have have considered the cross my whole life but I never fully considered what his mother must have been. To be the mother of Jesus, to see your son so brutally murdered in such a way. I know that she was the mother of the Son of God, but she was also the mother of a son. So, yeah, all I could do was to bring a heart of a mother to it. I’m a mother myself. We know all the disciples except for John were not present so the courage of his mother and of Mary to remain with him, to be there for him, you know? We also know Jesus only said seven things from the cross and one of those was to take time to look after his mother and make sure she was ok. Which of course says so much about him as well.
Did you imagine as you started out in Hollywood that you would do this? What does it take to get to the place to be able to do a project like this?
MB: Roma had intended to come here to act with National Theater of Ireland, and took a job to pay the rent as a coat check girl in Manhattan. My first job was as a housekeeper slash nanny in Beverly Hills, as a servant for $125 a week. So, cut to where we are now, it’s America. If you think of what we are doing now, only in America is this possible. In terms of making this film and the series, if it wouldn’t have been for Touched by an Angel and The Voice and Survivor and The Apprentice and Shark Tank, I don’t think we would have the leverage to have gotten this made. I know that’s true. It’s certainly gave us an entry point to getting it made so therefore you can look at things happen for a reason. It’s for such a time as this that we met and two careers.
If you also think back, interestingly enough, we both had huge success on CBS, so the only show that was really beating Survivor?
Touched by an Angel.
Does that come up a lot in your house?
MB (laughing): Beaten by Roma.
What can you tell us about your upcoming projects, AD and The Dovekeepers?
MB: We absolutely had thought to write the outline for AD while in Morocco [as they filmed The Bible] because we’re living in the environment and thinking, boy, how did 12 guys take down Rome? Because really, wouldn’t it have been obvious that Jesus crucified, resurrects, there starts to become problems around the growing of realizing the son of god has been on earth … strange they didn’t just kill them all and just get rid of it that way.They weren’t exactly above killing everybody, were they? They crucified 500 people a day at one point. But it’s amazing you look at the four groups, the disciples, the Herod family who were insane, literally insane, the Romans who just wanted to keep peace and collect taxes, and the temple authorities who were literally battling against the people of the way and Rome at one time, it led to 40 years later, the temple finally falls, right? So that’s AD, AD is really through the line of Acts through Revelation, built around a huge drama about what was going on. By the way, it’s an amazing amount of church leaders who said to us, well, that’s a really important story because no one has really considered that much what they really went through.
And then Dovekeepers takes place actually, it starts, at the destruction (of the temple).
RD: Clearly we love this period of time and stories that show the triumph of human spirit in spite of the terrible times they were living through. And both stories have that as the heartbeat. Dovekeepers is a beautiful novel written by Alice Hoffman. In fact we’ve just gotten our first draft outline of the screenplay today, so we’re eager to get to read that, we’ll probably do that on the flight back. And it’s a great story that’s going to be a four hour miniseries, a special event miniseries on screen 2015 on CBS. And AD, we have a 12 hour commitment from NBC to make that series and we’re hoping that will be an ongoing series, that it won’t just be a one-off.
Is it through Revelation or does it go past, does it go into the early church fathers?
MB: Revelation is 95, ok? around 80, 90, 95 [AD]. We planned to get to 70 as the temple falls, however, like with everything on TV, I’m about to make season 29 and 30 of Survivor.
MB: If people are watching, it could absolutely go on. We’ve really thought of taking it to AD 337. You know what happens then, right?
MB (Laughing): You passed. Your teacher would be so happy.
I gotta tell you, I’m fascinated by the early church history. I would love to see that.
MB: You’d have passed that test.
I was in Italy this summer, so I had a little cheat.
RD: Did you see the Pietá?
RD: You know the moment when we have Jesus dropped, lowered down from the cross, we wanted to pay homage to Michelangelo’s Pietá, the camera lingers for just a moment when Jesus is placed in his mother’s arms. It’s a beautiful statue that’s in Rome that is Mary holding the dead Jesus in her arms and Michelangelo, it’s the only statue he ever signed. He signed it because he really felt it was inspired by God.