When the producer of mega reality TV shows like Survivor and The Voice turned his attention in a more spiritual direction and produced a 10-hour mini-series based on the Bible last year, many people in Hollywood scratched their heads. Until, of course, the History Channel series was watched by over 100 million people and nominated for multiple Emmy awards. Suddenly, Mark Burnett wasn’t crazy, he was a genius.
Burnett could have easily left it at that and gone back to exclusively masterminding slick competition shows, but instead he and his wife, the actress Roma Downey—who conceived and produced The Bible with her husband—are throwing themselves into a whole new round of religious-themed projects with all the fervor of impassioned believers (which they are).
For Burnett, it’s the kind of mid-career evolution that typically winds up in the A-for-effort category. But if the success of The Bible—the third most-watched cable show of 2013 after The Walking Dead and Duck Dynasty—is any indication, these passion projects are much more than just a lark. They are broadening his legacy beyond pop-culture pleasures and showing a creative versatility that few in Hollywood are able to pull off.
Next up for him and Downey are 2015's A.D., a follow-up to The Bible, which will air on NBC; an adaptation of Alice Hoffman’s best-selling novel The Dovekeepers, about four women whose lives intersect during the siege of Masada, for CBS; and, on Feb. 28th, Son of God, a 20th Century Fox feature film about Jesus that was created out of footage from The Bible.
So what’s driving this new direction?
"It came in as a whisper, and it felt like a calling," says Downey. "We love this subject matter. We are passionate Christians, so to be able to bring to light the Bible, and to be able to bring to the big screen the story of Jesus, has been a labor of love for us."
Downey is quick to remind that for her, at least, this is not entirely new territory. "As you remember, I spent 10 years playing an angel on TV," she says, referring to the 1990s CBS series Touched by an Angel. Downey also stars in The Bible and Son of God, as Mary.
As for Burnett, he shrugs off the notion that his new projects are that much of a departure from producing other projects like Shark Tank or the MTV Music Awards. In the end, he says, producing is producing.
"I’ve been doing this a long time, and I have a lot of franchises that are very large and have been going a long time. In particular, if you look at Survivor, that shoots in different countries with a crew of 400 in very remote places. So people know I can do a foreign shoot, as well as a show on a very large scale. Either you’re a real producer or you’re not a real producer, and we are.
"The next question is: do you understand the subject matter and do you really care about it? And, of course, we really understand the subject matter of the Bible and Jesus, and we really care about it."
The inspiration for The Bible came after he and Downey watched Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments for the first time since they were children.
Of course, presenting an interpretation of the New Testament requires a level of sensitivity that filming food- and sleep-deprived people competing in an underwater relay race to win tribal immunity, does not. So Burnett and Downey have been exhaustingly meticulous in their filmmaking process. From the get-go—which was nearly five years ago—they enlisted scholars, theologians, and religious leaders from across denominations to read the script for The Bible, and, later, Son of God, and weigh in.
"It was a slow-moving process because we came up with our early draft, and sent it out to a group of about 40 people we’d assembled," says Downey. "The script came back with notes and adjustments, because of course we were dealing with sacred scripture, so we wanted to make sure we were accurate. Or in the places where we needed to link stories together, we wanted to make sure we told those stories always in fairness to the text. So we made adjustments. Sent it back out. We got more adjustments, and so on.
"The end result is we have been able to put on a film that has broad appeal and that satisfies the different denominations." In other words: The Passion of the Christ, this is not.
Indeed, the intention behind the film, Downey says is "more about unity than creating division."
Based on the trailer and footage from The Bible, Son of God is a lushly produced (Hans Zimmer composed the score) film that presents the lion-lamb dichotomy that defined Christ, though with more emphasis on the lamb. Through all the brutal violence that characterized the weeks and days leading up to Christ’s crucifixion ("At one point, during the Siege of Jerusalem, the Romans were crucifying 500 Jews a day," says Burnett), he is ultimately portrayed as a living embodiment of goodness and humility.
In the weeks leading up to the film’s release, Burnett and Downey have continued their outreach efforts, screening the film to religious communities across the country at events like the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., in order to spread word of mouth. "We’ve been out there on the road—we head out tomorrow for another three weeks," Burnett says. "Basically, we’re doing a city a day."
Does all this togetherness ever grow old for the couple, who have been married 10 years?
"The real miracle in all of these projects is that we’re still speaking to each other," Downey jokes. "It’s been quite a journey together. Most couples can’t even work in the yard together. It speaks well of our friendship and of how we are with each other that we have been able to do this."
As to how they work together as business partners, she says, "I think creatively we both contribute a great deal. But I think it’s how we deal with situations—we bring a different dynamic."
"My husband is very much the hammer, and I’m the heart. I have a gentler, more loving approach, and he has a much more assertive approach. Sometimes situations require one way, and sometimes the other. For instance, when we decided that we were going to do a series on the Bible and we took it to networks to pitch it, I might still be standing there gently knocking on doors, where my husband in his take-no-prisoners style, was right there next to me, knocking the doors down."
And how do they settle disagreements? Does the hammer always win?
"As far as being on the set, who on Earth is going to take my side in any creative discussion?" says Burnett. "Everyone’s going to take Roma’s side, because she’s an angel!"
Image Sharon Graphics