Exclusive Interview: Producer Mark Burnett on Bringing The Bible to Television

March 20, 2013

The Bible takes the audience on an epic journey from Genesis to Revelation. DIRECTV spoke to the producer of HISTORY’s new 10-hour docudrama, Mark Burnett. Find out what it was like working with his wife—Roma Downey—translating The Book to television, and going on a worldwide search for the man who would play Jesus.

Don’t miss The Bible, Sundays at 8/7c on HISTORY (Ch. 269).

Where did the idea of doing an epic series on The Bible come from?
Mark Burnett: We make television. That’s what we do. A while ago, in 2009, my wife—Roma Downey—suggested we should do a miniseries on The Bible. And initially I thought, “Wow, that’s really daunting.” It seemed like a huge undertaking, but we thought about it and we took it on. Since the airing [of the first episode], over 80 million people have watched The Bible. We’ve also been involved with the official app for The Bible and that has 85 million downloads. It has been great. And we didn’t make this to give any angle, we didn’t make it to preach. We just made it a love story and clearly many people are moved. These are stories that every American should know. It’s the foundation of our literature, the foundation of all other arts.

What have been some of the challenges of bringing The Bible to television?
MB: What we did is assemble an enormous team of church leaders, academics, theologians, and decided to  make five hours of the Old Testament and five hours of the New Testament. We went through it and made it one story, a story of love. We couldn’t make it bigger because of time and money. We’ve already done a great job and it’s great to see ourselves as number one on Twitter. The whole conversation that happened between Oprah and Bishop Jakes while the show was on [March 11], it was incredible! They were talking about Sunday’s episode. You know, in the past, The Bible has really been portrayed in a very Caucasian way. And Jesus, for example, he’s from Portugal. We have a very diverse cast.

It’s always refreshing to see diversity on television and it’s great for this show because people from all over the world are going to be tuning in.
MB: We tried to make it the best we could. Obviously with a limited budget—it’s a cable miniseries. But we put a lot of special effects in it and Hans Zimmer, the great Hans Zimmer, created the score for The Bible, which is incredible.

Was it difficult to cast Jesus—Diogo Morgado?
MB: This is such an important role. We had to get the right actor. We were six weeks out from filming and Roma sent out requests worldwide. Within a couple of days, we heard from an actor from Portugal, Diogo Morgado. He lived a long way from Los Angeles! His agent thought we were in London, so we had to tell them we were sorry, that we were in L.A. Within a day we had met with him and given him the job. Diogo Morgado gives such an inspired performance in the series. He’s an incredible actor and he’s about to get extremely famous here. He’s playing Jesus! He just brings this amazing subtlety of the way he plays it. I don’t think anybody has seen Jesus being played this way. Ever.

How so?
MB: In that he’s the lion and the lamb. In previous productions they would make him, somehow mistranslated a bit, this weak and small and slight [character]. Jesus was a carpenter. Diogo is 6’2″ or 6’3″, he’s a big guy, strong and yet gentle. He’s a lion and he’s a lamb.

Your wife, Roma Downey, plays the role of Virgin Mary. How did she prepare for such a role?
MB: Roma was brought up Catholic her entire life. Her brother is a priest and Roma’s mother died when she was 10 years old. Roma turned to Mary her entire life. She took this role very seriously. When you see the relationship on the screen, between Jesus and his mother Mary, played by Roma, there’s something really connective.

Clearly there is an elaborate production behind The Bible. What was it like shooting in Morocco? Did you shoot anywhere else?
MB: Everything was shot in Morocco. We cast out in London, we operate from there, from a U.K. company. We shot everything on location in Morocco. The entire post-production and special effects, mixing and everything, was done in London. The sound and the score was done by Hans Zimmer and his team, along with Lisa Gerrard, who was the voice you may remember from Gladiator, and Hans and Lisa reunited since they worked on Gladiator together for this project.

You’ve been traveling all over the world for this project.
MB: Yes, and during filming, Roma stayed every day over there [in Morocco]. She only left for five days in five months for our daughter’s confirmation. I also came back every three weeks to make The Voice in Los Angeles. Those were really long journeys, going back and forth.

Mark, when do you sleep?
MB: Not much lately. But it’s ok. We’re doing ok. The fact that the two of us are working together is great.

What is that like, working with your wife? Is it the first time you worked so closely together?
MB: It’s the first time we’ve worked with equal responsibilities. I’m married to an angel. In the production, everybody would take Roma’s side, obviously. We love each other. And we’re actually best friends.

What’s your favorite Bible story?
MB: I’ve got four years working on it. Oh, there are so many. Obviously Jesus. Outside of Jesus, probably Daniel. Daniel misses so much by being taken as a prisoner back to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar and surviving through that. Surviving through two Persian kings. It was the reason that the Jewish people were released from Babylon back to Jerusalem. And you know, Daniel predicted through God, and he predicted the coming of the Son of Man.

How did you choose what went into the 10-hour docudrama? You probably had to be very selective.
MB: It was one story for us. We thought, clearly, the midpoint between Old and New Testament, which became Daniel with the prediction of Jesus Christ and the Romans coming. That allowed us to transition into the Nativity from Daniel. The New Testament is relatively easy because it’s really the story of Jesus and the disciples, and of Stephen and Paul. We also dealt with Zedekiah, who was the final king of Israel, the one who lost Jerusalem, and even that’s because Daniel ended up in Babylon, so there’s a link to that story. And then we went back from there. We dealt with Samuel, Saul and David. Prior to that, we did the creation with Noah and the storm, then we went onto Abraham. A story that we had prepped and our team had written was that of Joseph, but we couldn’t include it because of lack of time and money.

It’s very impressive what you managed to compress into this story.
MB: And this is a big responsibility. We know that a billion people are going to see this. Right now it is the number-one cable event of this year. And almost the number-one paid cable show ever. In Easter Sunday, it will be. There is no question. The ratings will grow and grow and grow. It’s History Channel’s biggest web experience ever. It’s The Bible, we just took it really, really seriously.

The Bible‘s finale airs on Easter Sunday. How do you usually celebrate this holiday?
MB: I’m going to England to visit my father, who is 89. Roma can’t come. She needs to stay here with the children.

You’ve done pretty much everything. From writing books to producing some of the greatest reality shows on television. What’s next for Mark Burnett?
MB: There’s stuff in the works but the main thing right now is carrying on. Right now we have Celebrity Apprentice on Sunday, The Voice starts next week on Monday, Survivor is Wednesday, Shark Tank is Friday, and then we’re prepping for the award shows that we do and, of course, The Bible on Sundays. We have enough to keep ourselves busy. The foreign distribution of The Bible is a huge priority. The DVD comes out April 2 and we have to make sure it has Spanish subtitles so that more people can see it. We also plan to dub it in Spanish for the Spanish market.

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