It’s a passion project.
The new 10-hour mini-series The Bible is “a story of enduring love,” says Mark Burnett, producer of TV mega-hits Survivor (CBS), The Voice (NBC), The Celebrity Apprentice (NBC), and Shark Tank (ABC). “It’s many, many stories that have endured over thousands of years. It’s how God has used many flawed characters and doesn’t give up on them.”
But the History Channel’s upcoming Easter presentation is also a labor of love, a long-planned first-time co-production by Burnett and his wife Roma Downey – best known for her nine seasons as Touched by an Angel star Monica.
Their mission? To bring the Bible to generations who may not know the stories told and re-told so many times over the centuries, says Burnett.
For six long, hot, dusty months, the couple shot the docudrama on location in the Sahara Desert with an international cast of over 400 actors.
Premiering Sunday, March 3, the project spans Genesis through Revelation, presenting more than 30 beloved Bible stories from Adam and Eve to John’s Vision of the Apocalypse, from Noah’s Ark through Jesus’ life. The final segment, scheduled for Easter Sunday, includes Christ’s Last Supper, Betrayal, Crucifixion and Resurrection – with Downey playing Mary, the mother of Christ.
“We only had ten hours,” sighs Downey, “and we wished we could have had more and we could have told more. There were two ways to handle it. Either we could go through more stories, but tell them more quickly, or we could tell fewer stories and have an opportunity to go deeper into them – in the hope that we could engage the audience more emotionally with a deeper experience, inviting them to walk in the shoes of these wonderful, historic characters.
“That’s what we ended up doing,” she says. “In 10 hours, we knew we couldn’t do a Bible series and not tell the story of Abraham or Moses or David. One of the episodes that was of the most importance to us bridges from the Old Testament to the New Testament.”
“We did that through the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, which, of course, tells how the conquering Persian king saw without a doubt that Daniel’s God is the only true God – and releases the Jewish people from their exile, allowing them to go back from Babylon to Jerusalem.
“There’s great celebration, but Daniel’s prophecy is such that he knows that the worst is yet to come – and we fire forward showing the clash of shields and marching of feet of the Roman Empire as we find ourselves in Galilee during the hard times, that oppressed era the Savior chose to dwell among men.”
Were there times when Burnett and Downey wondered why they took on such a massive undertaking?
“Oh, there were tough days obviously, but we never really wondered why we were doing it. It’s a project we’ve wanted to do for a long time,” says Burnett. “We love the Bible and, you know, when you have a couple of hundred people in a difficult location like the edge of the Sahara desert, anything can get difficult.
“We had a good sense of humor and we surrounded ourselves with an incredible film crew, a special kind of people. They’re problems solvers, not problem creators or complainers. That was the key, surrounding ourselves with the right kind of people to take on such an important project as this which means so much to both Monica and me.
“Nothing was that hard when you look back on it,” he said. “If you asked the same question maybe a year ago on the wrong day, when we were exhausted and we were thinking ‘Oh, wow, this is so tough–’”
“It was a little bit like carrying a baby,” interjects Downey. “I think after the point of delivery, most women forget how uncomfortable their pregnancies were and so, here we are on the eve of delivery and we are just so grateful for the experience of making this series together, co-producing as a husband and wife team.
“It really deepened our friendship and strengthened our marriage.
“You know,” she says with a smile, “there were moments during it I’m sure where we felt we might never speak to each other again. It was highly pressured and very hard work. It was hard to be gone from home for so long. We were in Morocco from February to July, but we felt called to do this.”
“We shot in Morocco,” says Mark, “because our hope was to achieve an epic, big scale, quality production that would present the grand narrative of the Bible while at the same time allow opportunities for intimate storytelling – so that we could really make the emotional connection with our audience.”
“We know as movie makers that this sort of storytelling begins in the heart,” says Roma. “When your heart opens up, that’s the opportunity for grace to move in.”
This series is far more than just entertainment, say the couple.
“I believe that people will be able to go back to the Scripture with these images in their minds and be able to engage God’s Word in a whole new and exciting way,” says Downey.
Wasn’t telling Bible stories an abrupt change of direction for Burnett? Is it a recent thing that he would tackle a project focusing on the Holy Scriptures?
“This project certainly deepened my faith immensely,” he says. “I mean, anybody who spends three and a half years working on telling the story of the Bible cannot help but be touched.”
But a personal faith isn’t something new to him, he says. “I grew up in a wonderful home with a Scottish Presbyterian mother and a Scottish Catholic father. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s probably in America that I realized there is a difference between Catholics and Protestants.
“That was a great way to grow up – with tolerance for each other.”
Given his success with reality TV, wasn’t this a major challenge professionally?
“Oh, yes,” he chuckles. “I mean it was my first time working with actors so closely.”
It was also his first time directing his wife.
“I didn’t go over to Morocco with the intention of playing any part,” recalls Downey. “We ended up you know, trying to cast the role of Mary while we were over there and Mark urged me to step into the role after we didn’t find who we believed was the right actor for Jesus’ mother. That was a great privilege for me, an unexpected privilege to step into that role, to experience those things through a mother’s heart and to see them through a mother’s eyes.”
Burnett, on the other hand, does not appear on screen.
“At one point,” Roma remembers, “I tried to throw him in to play a farmer, but he resisted. So, don’t scan the crowds and try to find him amid the multitudes. He stayed behind the camera.”
“I remember, here I was in Morocco sitting on a little craggy piece of rock in the middle of the Sahara Desert, longing for some shade and finding it,” recalls Downey. “We would gather around with these actors who would express such touching sentiments about how much this project meant to them.
“So many times as an actor, you wish you could have access to the screenwriter, to ask, ‘What did you mean here? What are we trying to do with this scene?’ So, I would reach into my little dusty backpack and just happen to have my Bible.
“It was extraordinary to open it up and see exactly what the scene was all about.
“And it was the most extraordinary, wonderful thing when the actors allowed me to pray with them.
“Many of the crew were deeply affected,” recalls Burnett. “It was a wonderful challenge, studying the Scriptures and thinking ‘How do we tell this? How do we present that?’ and trying to be creative and be true to something that means so much to us.
“In the end,” he says, “what we’ve done is a meta-narrative, a grand narrative of emotionally connected stories.
“Roma and I know we’re not qualified to teach the Bible. But we’re qualified to be good television producers and storytellers.
“By telling these emotionally connected, big stories, hopefully millions of people will reopen their Bibles.”
“And be touched,” agrees Roma, smiling like the angel we all remember so well.