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The Bible Brought to Life

The successful producer of such shows as Survivor and The Voice faces his greatest professional challenge.

By Mark Burnett, Los Angeles, California

As appeared in

We put together an incredible team for the series—highly experienced producers and writers—and when they started adapting the text, the story swept them up, its power and its drama irresistible.

A film can make visual connections that dramatize a narrative. We asked ourselves, “Where was Sarah, and what was she doing when Abraham took their son up the mountain to be sacrificed?”

We would show her being left behind and slowly figuring out exactly what Abraham was planning, show her anguish, her fear and, finally, her overwhelming relief and trust in God’s goodness.

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And in showing the moment when Nicodemus visits Jesus in the middle of the night, we chose to intercut this story with the nighttime moment when Judas goes to Caiaphas. One discovering what it means to be reborn, the other resolving to betray his savior.

The biggest challenge would be finding the right actors for the cast, especially the role of Jesus.

“He’s got to look strong, like a carpenter,” I told Roma. “He is described as ‘meek,’ but meek is not weak. Jesus needs to be shown with the human strength of a manual worker but with the compassion and love of a savior.”

“Yes,” Roma agreed. “The Lion and the Lamb.”

We auditioned hundreds of actors, checked videos, talked to agents, casting directors, friends. We chose some of the finest classical actors, who could bring life to lines from ancient Scripture. Our Goliath was so big he needed two seats on the flight to Morocco, where we shot the series.

A few weeks before filming, though, we still hadn’t found the right actor to play Jesus.

“We’ll pray,” Roma said. She sent an urgent prayer request to her support network. The word spread. In Morocco one of our crew members heard of our need and remembered a Portuguese actor who’d made a previous film in Morocco and who looked the part.

The trouble was, nobody could remember his name, only that he’d stayed at the Berbere Palace Hotel. They combed through the registry and finally found his name, Diogo Morgado. From California we called his agent in London.

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“I’m so sorry,” the agent said, thinking we were in London too. “Diogo’s not in town.”

“Where is he?” we asked.

“He is in Los Angeles.”

The next morning, we looked out our front window and saw a strapping, six-foot-two-inch young man with long hair, clear eyes and a long stride walking up our pathway. Strong and humble. At long last we had found the perfect actor to play Jesus.

We had five months to film, five months of constantly overcoming challenges.

Filming the Crucifixion was emotionally overwhelming. Our entire crew, believer and nonbeliever alike, felt the pain of it all.

One of the choices we made was not just to show Jesus’ solitary suffering but to also show the anguish of his followers, especially Mary, played by Roma. The intensity of a mother seeing her own flesh and blood suffer and die was both exhausting and deeply moving.

We neared the end of our five months of filming, and by some odd set of circumstances, on the very last day of shooting it turned out that we were working in two different locations, filming both the beginning and the end of the Bible: Genesis and Revelation.

I was supervising the shoot of Adam’s creation, and an hour and a half away, Roma was with the crew that was filming John writing his Revelation on Patmos. It was as though the alpha and the omega were happening at once, the beginning and the end.

We shot Eve eating the forbidden fruit and Adam emerging from the earth. He rose from the dust, the first human being, God’s greatest creation. We did several takes and it looked amazing. Then I checked my watch.

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I wanted to try to be with Roma at the final shot of what had been an arduous five months. She had remained in Morocco the entire time and I had commuted back and forth to Los Angeles to shoot The Voice every few weeks, and I so wanted us to be together at the wrap of the show.

Could I make it to the other location before they finished? Was there time? We radioed Roma’s team. They were still at it. But the light was fading. I got in a Jeep and we rode across the desert, chasing the sunset.

Close of Jesus from The Bible miniseriesThe five-part miniseries The Bible will premiere on March 3 at 8 p.m. ET on The History Channel.