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Reality TV Goliath takes up Bible miniseries challenge, hopes for better outcome
Mark Burnett and Roma Downey on the set of "The Bible," the 10-hour miniseries Burnett produced and directed.
March 2nd, 2013
11:00 PM ET

Reality TV Goliath takes up Bible miniseries challenge, hopes for better outcome

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
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(CNN) - Mark Burnett is the king of reality television. His shows and spinoffs command hours of prime-time television real estate. The seal of his production company One Three Media appears at the end of “Survivor,” “The Voice,” “The Apprentice,” “Shark Tank,” “The Job” and “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?”

He will tell you each show was No. 1 in the time slot. He will tell you he will take on all comers in his bare-knuckle, ratings-driven world and beat them. He will tell you on any given day he has 150 video-editing systems churning through edits on his dossier, which spans the three major broadcast networks.

But if you suggest he may not have the chops to take on a massive scripted dramatic presentation of the Bible as a 10-hour miniseries, his eyes will tell you he wants to throttle you.

My bad.

Burnett and wife, Roma Downey, have been barnstorming the country like roving preachers on horseback trying to evangelize the West. Their gospel is spreading the news of “The Bible” - their ambitious project that aims to tell the story of the Bible in 10 installments. It begins its weeklong premiere on the History Channel Sunday night.

We met in the lobby of the Washington Hilton the night before last month’s National Prayer Breakfast. They were in town to speak to Washington journalists and show clips from their project.

Burnett and Downey’s project tackles the narrative of the Bible, a story woven through 66 books of the Old Testament and New Testament. It’s a story revered by billions as divine revelation – and one they’ve compressed into 10 hours of television. What could possibly go wrong?

A lot.

Many have taken aim at dramatizing the stories of the Bible. Few of those productions stood the test of time. They knew all that going in 3 1/2 years ago when “the light bulb went off,” as Downey puts it.

“It’s been a great fun journey right, Roma?” Burnett said to his wife of nearly six years.

“And we’re still talking to each other,” Downey said, smiling.

Both Downey and Burnett were raised Catholic, Burnett in England and Downey in Ireland. They still regularly attend Mass in Los Angeles. Growing up, both watched the classic Biblical films that the Hollywood of yesteryear churned out, like “The Ten Commandments” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

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“In Ireland, we used to sit up and wait for John Wayne to say, ‘Surely that man was the Son of God,’ at the end of 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' every Easter,” Downey said, with her thick Irish brogue dipping into a delightfully terrible John Wayne impersonation.

After showing their kids "The Ten Commandments" with Charlton Heston, their three teenagers had one request for the Bible project. They told their parents, “Please don’t make it lame.”

Making it work

The project is personal for Burnett and Downey, coming from a deep spiritual desire for more people to see and experience the stories of their faith. As Europeans, now naturalized U.S. citizens, they are stunned the Bible is not taught in public schools.

“It was time for an updating. Adding fresh visual life to a sacred text,” Burnett said.

“People have great hearts and great knowledge but no experience of filmmaking and no budgets,” Burnett said of past telling of the stories on film and television.

“Or the resources,” Downey chimed in. “We wanted to create something that was gritty and authentic. We certainly didn’t want everyone to look like they stepped out of the dry cleaners.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wir4fH6hUxw&list=UUt_Q-xP9pUFpalCF-e_ZhtA&index=18]

Burnett and Downey may not have been high on the list of many studios as producers and directors to put a massive scripted project like this together. "All-Star Celebrity Apprentice" starring Donald Trump and Gary Busey is not exactly" Ben-Hur," and Adam Levine and Cee Lo Green spinning in chairs on the singing competition "The Voice" isn’t often (or ever) compared to the "Ten Commandments."

When I asked Burnett about this, he seemed genuinely insulted.

“Based on viewership, maybe I should be giving a few lessons to the people who are doing stories. Because we have five nights of No. 1 wins on prime-time television,” he started. “As a family we’ve made over 2,000 hours of American television and 8,000 worldwide.”

As he cooled down, ticking off a list of reasons why he and his wife were best suited for the job, he delved into how this project was made.

The production, he insisted, was a lot more like the production that goes into "Survivor" than nearly any feature film or television show in production.

"Survivor" typically includes a cast and crew of 400 people in a remote location with multiple helicopters and boats.

To film the Bible series, they set off for the southern tip of Morocco in Africa with a similar-size crew and hundreds of extras. Not to mention the chariots and horses.

“It was epic,” Downey said.

“Our experience with large-scale productions was very, very important,” Burnett said.

To help further bring the story to life, they brought in Lola, an Oscar-winning CGI team from London who created similar scenes for the film "Gladiator."

They went with an international ensemble for the cast because they didn’t want to distract the audience with recognizable celebrities.

Jesus was played by Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado. Many other actors came from the Theatre District in London.

An actor portrays an Egyptian slave driver in 'The Bible' miniseries

Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado portrays Jesus in 'The Bible' miniseries

The most recognizable face to most in North America will be Downey herself, who stepped into the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary is portrayed in the series as a young woman at the Nativity, then later in life.

“It was a privilege to play it,” Downey said. For nine seasons, Downey starred in the CBS show “Touched by an Angel,” then went on to star in a number of TV movies.

“The scripts at one point just said Young Mary, and then as the scripts progressed it said Old Mary. I said, ‘OK, we have to change that right now.’ The last thing I need to see is ‘Old Mary’ played by Roma Downey,” she said with a laugh. “So we changed it to Mother Mary.”

The budget for the 10 hours was under $22 million, Burnett said, a small price tag for a production on such a grand scale. (NBC paid $4 million per episode for the show “Smash” this season, according to an estimate by the New York Times)

“It’s not easy, even for us, to sell and get placed on prime time television, 10 hours – Genesis to Revelation,” Burnett said. “Do we wish we had 25 or 100 [hours], yes but we got 10. We got a great budget. It looks like it’s a $200 million movie. Of course it’s not. It’s just our combined experiences, our hearts and efforts that make it look like that.”

Getting it right

As they considered which parts of the Bible to shoot, they had to pare down hundreds of stories.

“The first decision was, it’s one story,” Burnett said. “It’s not a series of unconnected stories, it’s one grand narrative.”

“You could call it the meta narrative.”

The series encompasses five hours of the Old Testament and five hours of the New Testament.

They took many artistic liberties to compress the story lines while hoping to remain true to the story.

A public relations manager for the project described the liberties to me as “extra-biblical but not contra-biblical.”

For instance, in the series opener, the Book of Genesis stories of Adam and Eve and Noah unfold together. Noah and his family are already on the ark while the flood waters batter their boat. To calm his family, Noah tells them the story of creation: “In the beginning! ... ” Noah bellows as he runs around plugging leaks and comforting his family and the animals.

An actor portrays an Egyptian slave driver in 'The Bible' miniseries

An actor portrays an Egyptian slave driver in 'The Bible' miniseries

Similarly, in the story of David and Goliath, when David heads out to face the giant Philistine foe, he clutches his sling and quietly begins to recite the 23rd Psalm, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.” David is considered the author of the psalm, but nowhere in the text of the David and Goliath story does it address what he said as he walked out to battle and slay Goliath.

The dialogue in much of the story is similarly constructed along the lines of the bare-bones text. When Jesus calls Peter to be his disciple, Peter asks, “What are we going to do?” Jesus answers, “We’re going to change the world.” Those lines never appear in the Gospel accounts, but Burnett and Downey insist it is consistent with the text.

“Every step of the way we’ve had scholars and theologians working with us,” Downey said.

Burnett and Downey consulted a wide range of pastors and academics, including a major evangelical leader and a Catholic cardinal.

Their advisory panel consisted of many people from varied backgrounds familiar with sharing the stories of the Bible rather than of a "who’s who" of Biblical academics.

Joel Osteen, a popular television preacher and pastor of the 30,000-member Lakewood church in Houston, was among those consulted. Osteen and Burnett are friends and were developing a television series together that went on the back burner during the production of this series. Osteen even took his family to Morocco during some of the filming.

“[Burnett] would send scripts our way and ask doctrinal or Bible questions about it, but a lot of it was a friendship and an advisory role,” Osteen said.

CNN Belief: Five things we learned from Joel Osteen's visit

Osteen said much of his work was confirming if the extrabiblical material stayed true to the Bible.

His encouragement to Burnett was to “use your creativity to fill in between the lines.”

Another consultant was Rabbi Joshua Garroway, an assistant professor at the Hebrew Union College and an expert on early Christianity and the Second Jewish commonwealth (circa 530 B.C. to 70 A.D.) Judaism. He was a paid consultant on the project.

“One of the issues that came up frequently in the comments was the goal of the production was to remain faithful, or at least as faithful as possible, to the narrative and text of the Bible, as opposed to a historical critical approach,” he said.

“The series is not meant to be a historical feature but as a representation of the biblical narrative which is at times historical and at times not,” Garroway said.

One reason Garroway thought he was brought in was because in parts of the New Testament, “there are less than generous depictions of Jews, Jewish leaders and Jewish traditions.”

One of several Jewish scholars involved, his role as a New Testament scholar was to help the production stay faithful to the text but also “diminish as much as possible scenes or statements that could be construed as overly negative toward Jews and Jewish judgment.”

While he thinks the project has an overall Christian orientation, “I think they did well.”

“I don’t think it will run into the same problems that Mel Gibson’s movie ("The Passion of the Christ") did because the producers have been somewhat conscientious about forestalling some of the things that could produce that effect in the Jewish community,” he said, referring to perceptions of anti-Semitism from the 2004 film.

Osteen thinks the project will have a lasting impact in churches. He plans to use pieces of the project in his services to help illustrate points he’ll make in his sermons.

“I know I’m biased because I’m their friend, but I think it’ll be something that will live on for generations because it’s done with excellence, not knocking anything else, it’s just this is production 50 years past where some of the other films were made,” he said.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

Burnett and Downey also think this project will be their most lasting and most viewed.

Burnett said the couple have deferred all their fees for the project. They probably don’t need the money anyway. Forbes lists Burnett as among its 100 highest-earning celebrities with an estimated income of $55 million in 2012.

While the History Channel owns the exclusive North American rights to the project, Burnett and Downey own the rights to global distribution and theatrical airings, which are in the works. There is also a book tie-in, games and apps attached to the project.

For the couple, the project was not about turning a profit, though they likely will. Instead, it was about bringing new life to the stories of their faith for a new audience.

“Will it be screened in movie theaters? Yes, for sure. "Already been approached. Arenas, churches, every way you can imagine,” Burnett said.

Burnett ticked through the shows he and Downey have put together over the years. “Over the next 25 years," he said, "more people will see this than all the others combined.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Bible • Catholic Church • Christianity • Entertainment • TV

soundoff (2,068 Responses)
  1. aallen333

    When this nation was founded, religion and spirituality was interwoven into its very fabric. The very pillars of this nation have Christianity written all over them. From our laws to our custom to our traditions to our holiday celebration, the fingerprints of Christ are every to be seen. Many wonder how a nation so young could become so dominant and so prosperous so fast. The answer should be obvious to anyone with eyes to see. But for those who have no understanding or rather those who are willingly ignorant, the answer is its foundation. And this principal holds true in almost every sphere of society – from successful sports teams to successful businesses to successful homes. Sadly, more and more we see that the willingly ignorant are systematically undermining this nation's foundation. Do we not understand that if the foundation is undermined it will not be long before the structure supported by the foundation is also undermined. Is it any surprise to anyone that the more successful the godless are in removing this nation's cornerstone, the less dominant and prosperous we are becoming.

    March 3, 2013 at 10:04 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Why don't you have the guts to clearly say the USA was a christian nation and prospered because of that, but now is feeling some god's wrath because religion is in decline, or some other variation of the "we have forsaken god and will pay" blarney?

      March 3, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
    • Bart

      "When this nation was founded, slavery was interwoven into its very fabric. The very pillars of this nation have slavery written all over them." I wonder who has it right?

      March 3, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
  2. myuntidydesk

    The first hour about Abraham was good, but for some reason, the story of Moses just fell flat. I kept thinking how much I would rather being watching the animated version "Prince of Egypt". I'll watch it all though just to re-familiarize myself with the stories. I think the producers hearts were in the right place and that counts for a lot.

    March 3, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
    • Religion is

      Superstition!

      How does what you think about the producers' hearts count a lot?

      March 3, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
  3. ernieb28

    I watched for about an hour and was very disappointed in the overall production, casting, script and "believability" of this production, not The Holy Scripture but this production. Although this movie was poorly made, I hope other producer will be encouraged to make a film that is accurate in the Biblical events and the actual characters themselves.

    March 3, 2013 at 9:39 pm |
    • raenil

      Agreed.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:46 pm |
    • scott

      "film that is accurate in the Biblical events" ........This is called history and no christian wants to hear it. These were brutal uneducated people, and our understanding of them was developed well after the time in which they lived.

      March 3, 2013 at 10:04 pm |
  4. Tell the TRUTH

    Why don't you make a trail of Mohammad's story? Why is the double standard? I guess you fear your life. But no Christians will come and attack you and therefore you can twist the historical incidents in the Holy Bible!!

    March 3, 2013 at 9:34 pm |
    • Religion is

      Superstition!

      You might want to try rewriting your post, Truth.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:38 pm |
  5. Shawn

    hah, reality tv guy makes the people of the bible mostly as white Europeans; in this regard it was a monumental failure unless his intent was to pervade the white supremacist ideals that have poisoned Christianity

    March 3, 2013 at 9:26 pm |
    • raenil

      Shawn, if it was written accurately it wouldn't have made it to tv.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:50 pm |
  6. Angelo

    I am watching the Bible but they should have read it before making this one. Too many lies in this production one example is having the Angels who went to Sodom having a sword fight with the inhabitants never happened then when they were leaving Sodom the Angels were running ahead of lot's family like they were trying to escape! I was looking forward to viewing this film but they could have done a better job researching this project.

    March 3, 2013 at 9:14 pm |
  7. Guy Baez

    Since Christianity is based on someone who never existed they can make up anything they want. Just another science fiction story.

    March 3, 2013 at 9:14 pm |
    • Tell the TRUTH

      Christianity is based on historical facts. Please do some research before making false claims.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
    • .

      Provide us, please, with proof that these historical facts are divine in nature. You can't.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:38 pm |
    • WOW

      Atheist like urself CRACK ME UP. You claim to not believe in god or what not yet u are the 1st who come here and are willing to debate...why?

      March 3, 2013 at 9:56 pm |
  8. Dyslexic doG

    When did I realize I was God?

    Well, I was praying and I suddenly realized that I was talking to myself ...

    March 3, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
  9. lol??

    What is it with the A&A's love of death?? Is that an enemy Jesus said to love??

    March 3, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
  10. Dyslexic doG

    With no Honey BooBoo or the Kardashians to watch 2,000 years ago, people had to make stuff up to entertain themselves. The Bible is just a collection of the best of those stories. It's like America's Funniest Home Videos from the bronze age. 🙂

    March 3, 2013 at 9:02 pm |
    • xirume

      Haha. Excellent !!

      March 3, 2013 at 9:45 pm |
  11. Don Garrow

    I think both Burnett and Downey took to many blows to the head from the jaw bones of an ass! This is not history! Using Trump and Osteen as part of the production means only one thing, there is no credibility to this sham. History Channel, you should be embarrassed to be taken in by these charlatans.

    March 3, 2013 at 9:01 pm |
  12. George

    Reality shows are more real than the bible.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:57 pm |
  13. laboogie

    They are stunned the Bible is not taught in public schools! They are obviously clueless about their adopted country. Burnett sure comes off as arrogant. You would think someone taking this on would be a little more humble.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
    • Humility

      ... says one man standing in judgement of another.

      March 3, 2013 at 10:05 pm |
  14. clarity

    Oh great – they consulted Osteen. There goes any chance for reality. I would cast John of Patmos to be played by Keith Richards, but to get more into character, Keith would have to revive some of his habits from about forty years ago.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
    • Akira

      *Shudders*

      March 3, 2013 at 9:54 pm |
  15. nc1965

    When Jesus is is portrayed as being a long straight haired, 6 ft. white hippie, that looks like he's strung out on acid, then a movie will be worth watching.

    Jesus was a Hebrew (a minority), with hair like wool (nappy) and skin like bronze (dark). You know, a black man. He was also 5' 5" according the the Discovery Channel.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
    • #1Christ_Fan

      Oh,cause the Discovery Channel is the #1 authority on Jesues???

      March 3, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Well, do you have any facts to refute it?

      March 3, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Jesus was a pure line descendant of a group of Nordic colonists that had been drawn into the remains of Alexander the Great's empire three hundred years before his birth. Jesus was the first to oppose the stranglehold Jews had over worship of the one Living God. God accepted Jesus as His son and abandoned the Jews to the Romans. The rest is history, or at least it should be on the History Channel real soon.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:33 pm |
    • Frank Cardenas

      Tom Tom the Other One wrote "God accepted Jesus as His son and abandoned the Jews to the Romans."
      Are you on something?

      March 3, 2013 at 10:04 pm |
  16. Nanners

    Welllll, I'm giving it a chance right now, but I must say, It's flat out corny right from the start. It's not doing much for the credibility of the bible, and I keep thinking about the guy they cast to be the VOICE OF GOD.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
    • Morgan Freeman

      Of course, I will play the part of God!!!!

      March 3, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Hahahahaa!

      March 3, 2013 at 8:24 pm |
  17. #1Christ_Fan

    Aliens!

    March 3, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
  18. Jeff

    Boring. We're all tired of the bible. Same old, same old. Rotted meat.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:09 pm |
    • Rock0f@ges

      We will not cast pearls among swine.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
  19. thegadfly

    I cannot imagine a project so destructive to the credibility of the History Channel as a mini-series that purports to tell the story of the Bible. This is wrong on SO many levels. I'm an atheist, but I used to believe, and I find it incredible that any real Christian could be satisfied with the result either. It's lose-lose. Good luck with that, Science Channel.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:09 pm |
    • Akira

      The History Channel started losing credibility with its decision to start airing the bane of my existence, reality tv shows.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:32 pm |
    • Kyle

      LOL You must have missed Ancient Aliens... The History Channel lost all credibility a LONG TIME AGO!

      March 3, 2013 at 9:33 pm |
  20. Dennis

    Jay Athey should get an anti-award for posting some of the most stupid comments ever seen on belief blog. And that's a whole lot of stupid...

    March 3, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
    • Jay Athey

      haha, hate all you want ...Jesus went thru the same thing, I wonder why his story is still being told...and made movies of...It's the story that will never die...it has Eternal life in it...get it ...or i guess you don't ...

      March 3, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
    • Religion is

      Superstition!

      His story is still being told because there are still too many fools like you. But it is improving.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:06 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.