Husband-and-wife team makes 'The Bible' a miniseries

The Bible

7 p.m. Sunday


Posted 10:49am on Sunday, Mar. 03, 2013

The husband-and-wife team of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey know all about pressure.

They felt it every day for three-and-a-half years of producing their dream television project.

The Bible, a 10-hour, five-part miniseries premiering at 7 p.m. Sunday on the History channel, covers the book in its entirety, Old and New Testaments, from Creation to Revelation.

As Burnett -- the man behind such hit reality/competition shows as Survivor, The Apprentice and The Voice -- puts it, the Bible isn't just the greatest story ever told, but also the biggest.

"People have said, 'Wow, the Bible, that's very daunting. How are you going to take that on?'" he says. "There are so many great stories, all of them interconnecting into one larger, epic story."

"And we've only got 10 hours for it all," Downey adds. "I wish we had 1,000 hours."

But it wasn't enough just knowing that millions of believers will one day watch and judge this miniseries, expecting to be both moved and entertained by it.

As the couple packed their bags last year, about to leave for Morocco to begin five months of filming, their three teenagers added exponentially to the pressure.

Downey, the Irish actress best known for the long-running drama series Touched By an Angel, remembers, "Our kids told us, 'Whatever you do, please don't make this lame.'"

Burnett and Downey were in Dallas last month to promote the miniseries -- and they're proud to say that their toughest critics, those three kids at home, don't think the finished product is lame in the least.

"The standard today, particularly because of CGI in movies, is that the audience expects the very highest quality onscreen," Downey says. "We've set out to bring miracles to the screen."

"Like Moses and the parting of the Red Sea," Burnett says. "If you look back at the movie The Ten Commandments, that was pretty epic. It's something everybody talked about. But technology has moved on. People today expect effects that are even bigger and more spectacular."

"To deliver anything less," Downey continues, "would be a huge letdown. So we hired a firm out of London. They won the Oscar for Gladiator. The effects are just fantastic."

The international cast of actors, headed up by Portuguese TV star Diogo Morgado as Jesus, is solid as well.

"Can you imagine the pressure of playing Jesus?" says Downey, who appears onscreen as Jesus' mother, Mary. "But Diogo turns in a wonderfully charismatic and nuanced performance."

The genesis, so to speak, of this project for Burnett and Downey, who married in 2007, was seeing a documentary that left a bad taste in their mouths.

"It was an especially negative view of God and some of the Old Testament stories," Downey recalls. "We watched that particular program, and it served to act as a trigger. I felt like, 'Why would anybody want to create a show that was so mean-spirited and so negative?'"

Soon, they were developing their own project, one that approached the story of the Bible as "a great love story." And Burnett started shopping the idea, unafraid that network executives might ask him to stick to his bread and butter of documentary-style competition shows.

"My husband doesn't take 'no' for an answer," Downey says. "When someone uses the letters, 'N-O,' what he hears is 'New Opportunity.' He sold it. We made it. And we're excited for everyone to see it."

Meanwhile, Bible stories seem to be on the verge of making a comeback in mainstream movies.

Russell Crowe will be seen in the title role of Noah, a Paramount movie with a $125 million budget. Fox and Warner Bros. are both said to be developing Moses movies, with Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg, respectively, in talks to direct. Warner Bros. also has a Pontius Pilate movie in the works with Brad Pitt. Sony is considering a Cain and Abel movie, to be directed by Will Smith.

Why the resurgence of the Bible as mainstream entertainment?

"I can't speak for anyone else," Burnett says. "But Roma and I are people of faith. This is the most important project the two of us have ever taken on."

Adds Downey: "These are the greatest stories ever told. They are the roots of great literature and great art. The Bible is the cornerstone of our culture. It stands to reason that, as the entertainment industry looks for great stories, it will return to these.

"But also, I believe the timing is right. I believe we need hope now more than ever. I feel that there is a real hunger for that in our nation and in our world. I think that was the call that we answered.

"Yes, this is a business, making this television show. But it has also been a labor of love."

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