The Bible Brought to Life

The producer of shows such as Survivor and The Voice tackles his greatest challenge.

- Posted on Feb 6, 2013

Mark Burnett

My wife, Roma Downey (you might know her from the role of Monica on the TV show Touched by an Angel), and I were having dinner. And Roma mentioned a documentary someone was doing on the Bible.

Roma thought the documentary focused too much on showing that God was harsh and unloving. It used examples like the millions drowned in the Genesis Flood and God’s demand of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.

She asked me, “Why wouldn’t they tell the true story of a loving God with a plan for all humanity? A God who sent his only Son to die for us all?”

Then she spoke in that quiet, persuasive voice of hers, the one that Americans came to know so well from hearing it every Sunday night for over a decade.

“Mark, we should do this. We should make a TV series on the Bible. Not unconnected Bible stories, but the overarching, sweeping, loving narrative. A dramatic rendition that goes from Genesis to Revelation. We could tell that story in five two-hour episodes. We could bring it to life.”

I stared at her. It was an incredibly ambitious idea, and it’s not like we weren’t busy enough, raising three teenagers, and also producing some of the most demanding shows on TV (including The Voice and Survivor).

“How can we possibly take this on, and how can we tell this story in only ten television hours?” I asked, shaking my head.

“Think about it, Mark,” she said. “The Bible story is all the things that great television should be. It has adventure, it has drama and it has redemption.”

I do some of my best praying when I’m riding my bike on the country roads near our home, and clearly this was something to pray about. Pumping up the hills, watching the sun break through the fog, I kept talking to God and listening for answers.

All I could come up with were reasons why I was wrong for this project. I’m a producer, not a theologian. My biblical knowledge was pretty good (generally) and dates back to my childhood in England, from Sunday school and academic studies, and from rereading Scripture as an adult.

This project, I was convinced, would require a deeper knowledge. It would require a serious time commitment and building a huge advisory team.

The biggest question was, would a channel actually green-light this? Today’s kids probably know more about Batman and Robin than about David and Goliath, and more about the Matrix than about Daniel’s prophecies. They get their stories from the screen.

But that was it! Doing this “on the screen” would allow millions of people to discover the Bible. We knew we couldn’t teach it, but we could create an emotionally connecting dramatization that might make them open (or reopen) the Book.

We also knew that with today’s amazing technology, we could do a much better burning bush or parting of the Red Sea, even with a TV budget, than has been done before.

I considered my own career. My first job in Hollywood after leaving the Army was as a babysitter. I’d had no inkling I’d ever become a producer, but that is the essence of America—a nation that provides opportunities. All you have to do is go for it.

I knew it was time to go for it again. This time it would be with a project that gave back to God for all my many blessings.

I believe that God calls those with the right skills at the right time. Could it be that everything I’d learned about producing TV shows would culminate in this one massive project? It felt like a call. I couldn’t get it out of my head, as though the Holy Spirit was saying, “Yes, Mark, yes.”

One morning I came back from my bike ride, kissed Roma and said, “Let’s do it.”

We never looked back. I’d always loved the Bible, but making a TV series out of it only made me love it more.

You see, we just had to trust the story. The story was everything, from Noah in his ark to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, from Saul’s paranoia to David’s weakness, from Daniel in the lion’s den to the gift God gave to us of his only son, Jesus. His Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension.

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.

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.

“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.

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.

I got there just as they were about to shoot the final take. I watched, and then Roma and I fell into each other’s arms. Wow. It was done. Something that seemed impossible was now in the can.

There was still much more to accomplish— the editing, the music, the narration, sound effects, special effects. Yet we knew it was all going to get accomplished. God’s hands were on this series—we would tell the world’s most powerful story with the greatest emotional connection possible.

For that is what the Bible is, a story, the story of God’s love for his people, the greatest love story ever told.


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