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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. stan the man

    Is this another sequel to Star Wars or the Hobbit?

    March 3, 2013 at 9:03 am |
  2. ArthurP

    Are they going to do the Songs of Solomon as a music video complete with all the nu.dity and se.xual innuendo?

    March 3, 2013 at 9:03 am |
  3. Louis

    "It's not a series of unconnected stories," says Burnett. But that's EXACTLY what it is. How you put those unconnected stories together, the ones you choose and the ones you ignore for you purposes, is how you make up your religion or denomination.

    March 3, 2013 at 9:02 am |
    • ArthurP

      It will be a white wash of the Bible.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:04 am |
    • stan the man

      Don't you know there are many books of the bible that no one knows about since they were edited out.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:04 am |
  4. Oh Gawd!

    Why isn't this on the SCI-FI channel?

    March 3, 2013 at 9:01 am |
  5. steve orbe

    Good Ghost Busters quote...lol

    March 3, 2013 at 9:00 am |
  6. JesusChrist Son of God Son of Mary Brother to the Holy Ghost

    Make it a reality tv series. Show Jesus and the 12 disciples sharing Mary. And when she couldn't keep up, we would have a sheep or two. I didn't get put on the cross by the romans, it was when we were getting into bondage. It was the best s e x I eve had.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:58 am |
    • Tea Clown

      I guess the moderator is so busy deleting my posts that this one slipped by.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:03 am |
  7. Jennifer D

    You lost me at "they are stunned the Bible is not taught in public schools." Morons.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:54 am |
    • Jenny R.

      I wouldn't really mind if the bible was taught in schools, as long as other religious texts were also taught. I would not mind a class on religion, and it doesn't have to start in high school. Religion is a part of life, and is very relevant to our lives and our history.

      Of course, it should not be presented as the ONLY text, or the "correct" text, and nor should creationism. All forms of mythology, past and present, should be considered and taught. Ok, maybe not ALL but at least the major ones.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:08 am |
    • 999 Plan

      I think it's moronic not to teach the historical aspect of the Bible in public schools. It's moronic not to use the Bible to teach about the development of man made religions and their impact on the world. Trying to sweep the Bible under the rug is just as moronic as someone trying to shove it down your throat.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:26 am |
  8. steve orbe

    I do wonder if in this mini series they will show Moses throwing down an I-pad instead of the 10 commandments...hahaaaa

    March 3, 2013 at 8:52 am |
  9. ArthurP

    I wonder if the board of censers will let this scene in:

    Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the people went to meet them outside the camp. But Moses was furious with all the military commanders who had returned from the battle. "Why have you let all the women live?" he demanded. "These are the very ones who followed Balaam's advice and caused the people of Israel to rebel against the LORD at Mount Peor. They are the ones who caused the plague to strike the LORD's people. Now kill all the boys and all the women who have slept with a man. Only the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves.

    Numbers 31:13-18

    March 3, 2013 at 8:50 am |
    • palintwit

      Sounds like Detroit.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:54 am |
    • stan the man

      The Isrealis were igregious violators of human rights from the beginning. It only counts with them when they are the targets.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:06 am |
  10. BD70

    Should be one violent movie.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:50 am |
  11. g2-46727cfba90dcecf33341b4b6a803b16

    "Lord of The Rings" is more believable than this tripe...

    March 3, 2013 at 8:50 am |
  12. Craig

    Spoiler alert: The devil did it.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:49 am |
    • ArthurP

      The Devil only killed 12 people. God, who must love killing, killed millions.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:52 am |
    • JMEF

      The last episode should just be a re-run of The Life of Brian by Monty Python, a little comic relief would be needed by then.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:54 am |
  13. worktolive

    Thank God, there are Christians in the movie industry striving to get the word out to unbelievers.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:49 am |
    • Tea Clown

      ...and to make a big profit off of the gullible ones.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:55 am |
    • stan the man

      I believe that you believe that nonbelievers are either inferior, misbegotten or somehow another form of life.
      How abou we believe that believers are a little lite headed when it comes to accepting the reality that invisible sky beings dont exist..

      March 3, 2013 at 9:09 am |
  14. Martin

    Romans 1:20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

    Acts 7:54 When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.

    You may now continue to gnash...

    March 3, 2013 at 8:48 am |
  15. palintwit

    1969 brought us Woodstock. 2013 promises to bring us Baggerstock. A gathering of the faithful... baggers, birthers and Palinistas. Tickets will be available as soon as organizers can find a trailer park big enough for the event.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:47 am |
    • palintwit

      I am also a big idiot. I haven't the slightest clue about anything I post. I'm basically a troll who lives in a one bedroom flat.

      And my mother does my laundry for me.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:52 am |
    • Observer2

      This other person is obviously not the real palintwit. A little bit funny, maybe, but an imposter none the less.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:57 am |
  16. Science

    From the other side! Works too !

    BBC. Planet of the Apemen. Battle for Earth 1. Ho-mo Erectus

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TUliLKSJ4bQ

    Peace

    Facts = Evolution = Truth

    March 3, 2013 at 8:46 am |
    • Faith-Isn't-a-Preacher

      Whether fact or not; people need something to appease their torment by people of such malice as yourself.
      Children have imaginary friends that help them cope with the complexities of life around them.
      Why not let people have some solace and reprieve from the ill will of others.
      Cultures do not have to conform to the demands of those who believe that their belief system is superior.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:13 am |
    • Science

      Facts work best.

      Peace

      The bibles Adam and Eve and fairy in the sky also lost at the Dover Trial back in 2005 and they are still trying to push the crap !!!

      March 3, 2013 at 9:28 am |
  17. topconservative

    No matter what, the bible is a pile of middle eastern camel poop.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:45 am |
    • touchedbychrist

      I am so sorry no one took the time to introduce you to the love of Christ. The love of God. It is real He is real.Truly you cannot believe you came from the ocean and formed into a being and then a monkey and then a man. For that to even happen it would take a God to do. But God formed u with his hands and heart. Think of it this way. if you were walking in the woods and you found a watch there. would you think the watch just appeared there?That it formed from something else? No you know that it had to be specifically made by a higher being, for a specific purpose. If you would just open your heart and forget your fears one moment and close your eyes and ask him to come to you and show you he is. He will . Open your mind and your heart. Stop being afraid. Your life will be so different and you wouldnt have to be so sarcastic and try to make corny jokes because you are afraid of the truth. Learn the truth. Pick up the bible and read. Learn about what you hate so much and realize the truth...I pray for peace to you. God is real and he loves you

      March 3, 2013 at 10:29 am |
  18. Steve Johnson

    10 hours isn't a whole lot of time to cover the stories in the bible...

    They could do 10-20 hours on Jesus alone, and that's just a small part

    March 3, 2013 at 8:45 am |
    • ArthurP

      The problem with that is which story do they use. They are all different. Then again they will probably do what the other chaps did and make up their own story.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:09 am |
    • stan the man

      Yeah 10 hours telling the story of a man who tried to preach peace and love, then all he got for his trouble was cultural and bio-genocide from his followers, and a church that buggers little boys.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:12 am |
  19. Tea Clown

    Just more sanctimonious "Christians" cashing in on Jesus. It's all about the profits – not the prophets. 🙂

    March 3, 2013 at 8:44 am |
    • Sam

      Aren't you the poster who just sarcastically commented to another poster 'judge not, lest ye be judged'?...hypocrite.

      March 3, 2013 at 9:04 am |
  20. tj

    Oh boy....another series about the bible. This has been done more than "found footage" horror movies.

    March 3, 2013 at 8:44 am |
    • ArthurP

      Problem is the story is not as good.

      March 3, 2013 at 8:54 am |
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About this blog

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.