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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. GL

    Well if Joel Osteen is involved you know this whole thingis a sham

    March 3, 2013 at 8:14 am |
  2. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    March 3, 2013 at 8:13 am |
    • One one

      How is praying for world peace working out for you ?

      March 3, 2013 at 8:17 am |
    • Proud Atheist

      If God's omniscient, then He already knows what will happen and what will not happen, because everything happens only according the omnipotent one's plan. With that said, you can pray all day long, but if it wasn't already a part of God's plan initially, then your prayers are futile.

      How does it feel when your belief is defeated by logic and reason? I'm sure that it feels like nothing, because you're too deluded to realize that prayer is futile when your god is omniscient.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:28 am |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!:`

      March 3, 2013 at 10:19 am |
  3. JJ

    That's like making a reality show about Harry Potter or any other fictitious book.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:08 am |
  4. JDK80

    another white Jesus? sheesh

    March 3, 2013 at 8:03 am |
  5. Pinewalker

    The atheists are out as usual full of all they have to offer the world....negativity, despair and schoolyard bully tactics.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:03 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      Lying right out of the gate this morning. Do not feed the trolls.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:06 am |
    • End Religion

      Don't forget persecution. You must scream that as well. It is a part of your death cult beliefs.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:06 am |
    • Proud Atheist

      We bully fundaMENTALists, because the fundaMENTALists have bullied "heretics" for thousands of year. We're beginning to stand up for ourselves and push back now, and we're not going to stop pushing until the Babble no longer influences our laws and discrimination due to the Babble is eradicated. Get used to it!

      March 3, 2013 at 8:07 am |
    • Science

      Pinewalker it has beem depunked !!!

      Dover Trial Transcripts

      Below are the complete transcripts from the Dover Trial. Thanks to our friends at the National Center for Science Education for helping us fill in the missing transcripts.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:13 am |
    • Science

      Oops dame thumb source for above.

      http://www.aclupa.org/legal/legaldocket/intelligentdesigncase/dovertrialtranscripts.htm

      March 3, 2013 at 8:15 am |
    • One one

      What is more negative or bullying that preaching that non-believers will be sent to h3ll to be tortured forever ?

      March 3, 2013 at 8:15 am |
    • Pinewalker

      Proud Atheist....sorry i haven't been alive 1000 years, so don't tell me I've been bullying you for 1000 years and how about taking up the slogan "it starts with me". All that really says to me is your not offering anything different to people, just a different packaging.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:16 am |
    • Proud Atheist

      I'm not just talking about you specifically; I'm referring to all fundaMENTALists over the millenia who have persecuted "heretics," aka atheists, due to their disbelief. The Christian mob has bullied atheists, scientists, and anyone who shares a belief different from theirs, for far too long, and now times are changing.

      Are you ready to see religious beliefs decimated in your lifetime? It's happening as we speak, as the newer generations are embracing knowledge and education over ignorance and faith, so prepare to see your religion defeated in your lifetime if you have about another 30 – 50 years to live.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:24 am |
  6. Pokydoke

    He he he, a work of fiction about a work of fiction.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:02 am |
  7. End Religion

    If they were concerned about "getting it right" they would've had to chop out so much of it that they wouldn't have had enough left to make a story.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:00 am |
    • Proud Atheist

      As Christians tend to do, they believe that their interpretation of the Babble is correct, whereas all other interpretations are incorrect; how arrogant. I wonder if they will make stories of all of the discriminatory, misogynistic, violent, hateful, science-refutable stories as well. That wouldn't make their beliefs look too appealing, so probably not.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:05 am |
  8. God

    I thought Jesus was brown. He was Middle Eastern, after all. The only white people in the area were from Greece or Rome.

    March 3, 2013 at 7:57 am |
    • End Religion

      This is what they meant with their efforts in "getting it right."

      March 3, 2013 at 8:01 am |
  9. Surprising

    that they managed to get the scene of one of the disciples se-xually abusing a child past the censors. As good catholics they would want to tell the truth about the faith, right?

    March 3, 2013 at 7:54 am |
    • BobPitt

      Primitive animals believing in csi-fi

      March 3, 2013 at 7:57 am |
    • JMEF

      No doubt they will passover all the nasty bits, typiclal christian hypocricy.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:01 am |
  10. Santi Clause

    Please have scenes from Leviticus, and Lott's daughters. God blessed.

    March 3, 2013 at 7:53 am |
    • End Religion

      That would be something, wouldn't it? If someone actually made a series with all those lurid and horrible passages instead of glossing over it as usual?

      March 3, 2013 at 7:57 am |
    • BobPitt

      I am more interested in scenes from Sodom and Gomorra..

      March 3, 2013 at 8:04 am |
  11. One one

    I'm looking forward to this episode,

    1 Kings 1 & 2: “Now King David was old, advanced in age; and they covered him with cloths, but he could not keep warm. So his servants said to him. “Let them seek a young virgin for my lord the king and let her attend the king and become his nurse, and let her lie in your bosom that my lord the king may keep warm.”

    March 3, 2013 at 7:51 am |
  12. Why not

    Criss Angel should have got the jesus role, only guy seen to walk on water in over 2000 years, more likely the only guy EVER.

    March 3, 2013 at 7:51 am |
    • changed life

      If this show brings just one person to Christ and a changed life it will be worth all the time and effort.

      March 3, 2013 at 7:58 am |
  13. Dyslexic doG

    The Apostles' / Agnostics’ Creed 2013 (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (References used are available upon request.)

    March 3, 2013 at 7:48 am |
    • bow

      God rules.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:17 am |
    • Wake Up People

      Most of that information is way too much for some minds to accept. There was a real Jesus and he's nothing like the one made up in the Bible. In fact the Bible Jesus is a construct of many stories and people. There is evidence of this even the Catholics tried so hard to suppress.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:32 am |
  14. Tea Party Patriot

    I am retired and living on a small pension but this month I still managed to send $100 to SarahPAC , which as you know is Sarah Palin's political action committee. I urge all of you to do the same. After all, who knows better how to spend my $100 than Ms. Palin.

    March 3, 2013 at 7:45 am |
    • UncleBenny

      Money well wasted.

      March 3, 2013 at 7:47 am |
    • BobPitt

      Ha Ha Ha... I guess Bristol can use a new pair of globes...

      March 3, 2013 at 7:52 am |
    • ajbuffl

      I'm sure she'll buy herself some fancy new outfits or a new gun for Todd.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:06 am |
    • diana

      Sarah Palin can't find Jerusalem on a map. Stands to reason she's a Christian...she's stupid enough.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:07 am |
    • Wake Up People

      Could have fed a few bums and done some good with it.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:33 am |
  15. nbgb

    Reality tv & the bible. Now there's a real paradox.

    March 3, 2013 at 7:45 am |
    • BobPitt

      Can't be reality TV competing with the Kardazians, It must be sci ficompeting with Start-Track

      March 3, 2013 at 7:55 am |
  16. Ken

    Awesome

    March 3, 2013 at 7:45 am |
  17. End Religion

    "For further evidence of the true cause of gravity—that we are being pushed down by [the Flying Spaghetti Monster's] Noodly Appendages—we need only look at our historical records. The average height of humans two thousand years ago was about five feet three inches for males, compared with an average height of around five feet ten inches for males today. Useless by itself, this information becomes quite important when viewed in terms of worldwide population. Humans, apparently obsessed with fucking, have increased their numbers exponentially over the years. We find, counter-intuitively, that a small population correlates with shorter humans, and a larger population correlates with taller humans². This only makes sense in light of the FSM theory of gravity. With more people on earth today, there are fewer Noodly Appendages to go around, so we each receive less touching—pushing down toward the earth—and thus, with less force downward, we're taller."
    – Gospel of FSM

    (²) If we are to believe that height is a function of nutrition, as we're told, then a smaller population with more food available per person should correlate to a taller height. This is not what we find.

    March 3, 2013 at 7:45 am |
  18. buclark

    We live on a planet where over a billion people are wondering if an 80 year old man should retire and if he does,can he still wear his red shoes. Another billion or so think god gives a rats ass about how they keep their beards. Another billion or so believe you can do anything you want here on earth and all you have to do is say you believe in fairy tales and everything is OK. What is up with all this.

    March 3, 2013 at 7:43 am |
    • End Religion

      Fear and ignorance are powerful motivators.

      March 3, 2013 at 7:46 am |
    • diana

      Brilliant.

      March 3, 2013 at 7:55 am |
    • Hello

      the Age of Supernatural Stupidity rages on...

      March 3, 2013 at 11:30 am |
  19. Linda Luttrell

    "Survivor Jerusalem: The Musical"??? What a crock!

    March 3, 2013 at 7:40 am |
    • UncleBenny

      How about "Dancing with the Sadducees?"

      March 3, 2013 at 7:49 am |
  20. The Devil

    Made me say it to take the pressure off the ratzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzinger cover up !

    March 3, 2013 at 7:40 am |
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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.