Interview: Roma Downey and Mark Burnett Talk ‘Son of God’ and Future Projects

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.

Congratulations

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?

Constantine.

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?

Yes.

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.

Opinion: Roma Downey and Mark Burnett are Much Too Professional to Intentionally Make Satan mimic Obama

People get a little loopy when religion is involved.

A very silly tempest in a teapot happened Sunday night when folks on Twitter started noticing that the character of Satan in the History Channel’s The Bible bore a striking resemblance to our Commander in Chief. 

Personally, I do think that Satan, played by Mohamen Mehdi Quazanni (see a picture of him without makeup here) looks a lot like Obama. It’s weird because the actor is light skinned and not of African descent, but he does have features resembling Obama’s and with the makeup, the similarity becomes striking.

But that’s where this whole thing should have died. With a shrug and a “isn’t life odd?” chuckle.

There is absolutely no chance that The History Channel and producers Roma Downey or Mark Burnett (read their response to the hubbub here) had any intent of making Satan look like Obama. None.

How do I know?

Well, the couple is too Hollywood to make such an error or statement.

That may sound like an insult, but it’s not.

Roma Downey, of course, was the lead angel in the TV show Touched by an Angel. Burnett is the mastermind behind such TV hits as Survivor, The Apprentice, and Shark Tank. I have spoken with Downey several times (here and here). She is many things: polished, intentional, even a bit slick. But she is a consummate professional and not somebody who would sabotauge her reputation by taking pot shots at the President. I have not interviewed Burnett, but if anything, he’s even more professional. In fact, there is no evidence that either one of them has anything but the highest regard for Obama. Burnett donated money to his election campaign, a common practice in Hollywood.

Furthermore, behind all the packaging and promoting, The Bible was a passion project for both Downey and Burnett. Downey spoke many times about her dream of bringing her faith to her work. She was thrilled to be in a position where she could choose projects that reflected her faith.

“I have reached a point in my career where I don’t have to work,” she told me, “I have a lot of gratitude. I have a choice. I can do projects that are positive and honor God.”

In case any of us have missed the memo, nobody gets kudos or enhanced reputation in Hollywood by being religious or doing religious projects, especially old-fashioned Christian projects. In fact, it almost always costs something.

Downey and Burnett have paid their dues in Hollywood, and then some. They have worked hard and built reputations and relationships. They’ve done the hard work of being successful in a town where success can be hard to come by. And they turned around and poured that capital they had built into a Bible project.

Kudos to them. We should all be so lucky. We should all be able to say we’d built something that mattered as they have.

So, no, no one involved in that miniseries intended for the Devil to look like Obama. They worked too hard and cared too much to throw away their reputation and the project’s reputation on a cheap potshot.

It’s a coincidence.

Everybody stand down.

And, whatever you think of The Bible, give Roma Downey and Mark Burnett a pat on the back for at least being in a position to bring such a work to the small screen. It’s much more than the rest of us can say.

For more on The Bible:

Peter Chattaway reviews the first episode of The Bible.

Peter Chattaway reviews the second episode of The Bible.

 Craig Detweiler on how Hollywood underestimates religious audiences

Producers Defend “The Bible” Miniseries in the face of Obama-Devil Controversy: Utter Nonsense! Obama is a “Fellow Christian”

The Internet is in an uproar over the resemblance of the Devil in the History Channel’s Bible miniseries to Barak Obama. 

The producers of the miniseries, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey have issued the following statement:

“This is utter nonsense. The actor who played Satan, Mehdi Ouzaani, is a highly acclaimed Moroccan actor.  He has previously played parts in several Biblical epics– including Satanic characters long before Barack Obama was elected as our President.”

Executive Producer, Roma Downey added, “Both Mark and I have nothing but respect and love our President, who is a fellow Christian.  False statements such as these are just designed as a foolish distraction to try and discredit the beauty of the story of The Bible.”

The History Channel also made this statement: “HISTORY channel has the highest respect for President Obama. The series was produced with an international and diverse cast of respected actors. It’s unfortunate that anyone made this false connection. HISTORY’s ‘The Bible’ is meant to enlighten people on its rich stories and deep history.”

The Bible has been a passion project for the TV supercouple. Mark Burnett has produced spectacularly successful reality shows like Survivor, Shark Tank, and The Apprentice. Roma Downey is best known as the lead angel on the TV show Touched By an Angel, which aired from 1994 to 2003. They married in 2007.

Back in November, Downey told me this project was “the best work my husband and I have ever done.

Update: Why I think the resemblance must be an odd coincidence. 

For more on The Bible:

Peter Chattaway reviews the first episode of The Bible.

Peter Chattaway reviews the second episode of The Bible.

 Craig Detweiler on how Hollywood underestimates religious audiences

‘The Bible’ to Premiere on Sunday

The History Channel will premiere The Bible on Sunday, the first installment of a ten part miniseries acting out the stories of the Bible.

I was supposed to talk to the producers, Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, but got sidelined by the flu. Still, this interview was made available to me and has some interesting tidbits:

ROMA: Our faith is very important to us, and we both love the Bible. We love its stories of love and redemption and God’s heart and hope for his people. So Mark and I started talking over breakfast one morning about how someone really needed to bring this love story to the screen, to tell the overarching story of the Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation. We were excited to be able to bring our combined talents and strengths, creativity and experience to the series, and we were both involved in all areas of making it. This was our first professional collaboration as husband and wife. We worked closely on this for three years, and we’re still speaking to each other!

Q: What’s unique about this adaptation of the The Bible?

MARK: There’s a tremendous legacy of depictions of the Bible, both on the big and small screen, from King of Kings and The Ten Commandments all the way through The Passion of The Christ.   Our desire was to tell these unforgettable stories through the use of live action combined with state-of-the-art CGI techniques.

 ROMA: We filmed in Morocco because we wanted the feel of the real locations in the Bible, and the landscape there provided it. We augmented that with CGI work in order to render as faithfully as humans can the miraculous power of God. Those who’ve seen parts of the series have been very gracious and complimentary about how the two approaches have meshed together.

How did you determine who to consult with on this, and will you talk a little about the writing process?

MARK: There is no shortage of people who know the Bible – chapter and verse – better than we do. That’s why we worked from the beginning with scholars, theologians and pastors of varying denominational stripes.  With their help and guidance and the expertise of our team of writers, we pray we have captured the heart of the biblical stories that move and inspire so many.

ROMA: We don’t claim to be Bible teachers; that’s a role reserved for churches and pastors. We simply hope to be Bible illuminators, capturing the essence and inspiration of the Scriptures we love.

 What new insights into your faith did you gain from this experience?

MARK: That the Bible is a love story. The story of God’s love for his people. We’re called to be instruments of that love on earth in the short time we’re here.

ROMA: We wrote some books as companions to the series – including a devotional that captures our thoughts and reflections about how making this series gave us a deeper appreciation for the Bible and for each other as husband and wife.

Was there an instance where you initially envisioned a certain angle to a segment, but when it was under way, you felt led to take a different approach?

ROMA: Whenever we faced a challenge of any kind on set, or any bit of uncertainty on how to proceed, we stopped to pray. We asked friends to pray. God answered those prayers.

MARK: This project started with prayer and was sustained by prayer.

What will your next project be?

ROMA: Sleep!

MARK: What she said!

Exclusive First Look: Samson from ‘The Bible’ Miniseries

We have an exclusive first look at Samson from The Bible, a ten part miniseries acting out the Bible.

Along with other faith-based outlets including American Bible Society, Beliefnet, ChristianCinema.com, Christian Post, Crosswalk, and Hollywood Jesus, we bring you exclusive first looks at character art from the miniseries. Take a peek at King David next at Crosswalk.com.

THE BIBLE is an upcoming mini-series that will premiere on THE HISTORY CHANNEL on March 3. The series which includes stories from Genesis to Revelation is being brought to television by the producing team of Roma Downey (Touched By An Angel) and Mark Burnett (The Voice, Survivor, Celebrity Apprentice), “Our faith is very important to us so we’ve tried to bring the Bible alive in a way people haven’t seen before on television. It is such a remarkable and inspirational book that, we believed, deserved to be presented in a fresh way through powerful and moving filmmaking.”

Roma Downey Gives Us an Update on History Channel Bible Miniseries

Roma Downey, TV’s former lead angel in Touched by an Angel, came to the phone to talk about the release of her Little Angels Bible Storybook.

She was pulled out of work to come, she explained. She was knee deep in editing her next project.

With her husband, producer Mark Burnett of Survivor fame, Downey is producing a ten part miniseries acting out the Bible. It will air on the History channel in Spring of 2013.

They wrapped up principal photography in July, after spending six months in Morocco filming.

“We’ve been developing the scripts for three years,” explained the very excited Downey, “And we’ve brought in a ton of experts and scholars to be accurate. We will be telling the main stories of the Bible in the spirit of the Bible. Abraham, Moses, David, Daniel. Jesus and the crucifiction and resurrection.”

She was particularly excited about applying modern special effects to the Bible, updating Cecil B. Mille’s 1956 version of the burning bush, for example. “You haven’t seen miracles come alive on the big screen until you’ve seen these,” she gushed.

But the special effects aren’t the only thing going for the project. Diogo Morgado as Jesus “brought beauty, strength, and humility to the role. He portrayed the lion and the lamb.”

Downey herself stepped in front of the camera. “I’ve loved Jesus my whole life,” she said, “so the chance to step in as his mother, it was so humbling and a privilege.”

Downey said the project is the best work she and her husband have ever done. “As a married couple, to have brought this to life….thrilling,” she said, “Two years and we’re still speaking to each other. It’s brought us closer.”

But best of all, she said, is the chance to reach people from all walks of life.

“I have reached a point in my career where I don’t have to work,” she said, “I have a lot of gratitude. I have a choice. I can do projects that are positive and honor God.”


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