Producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey consulted with a battery of theologians while preparing The History Channel miniseries The Bible. The spiritually strong couple wanted to get every detail right for an adaptation of the most popular book of all time.
The couple also heeded the wisdom of their own teenagers who gently cautioned them not to make the special effects “lame.”
Burnett and Downey understand the potential impact of The Bible, the 10-part series which begins at 8 p.m. EST Sunday. They also grasp how impressionable viewers, particularly teens, could take the project to heart.
“There’s no way anybody could watch this and not get attracted to faith and feeling,” says Burnett, the reality show innovator behind Survivor and The Amazing Race.
The miniseries devotes five hours to the Old Testament, five hours to the New Testament. Even at 10 hours in length, the production had to pare down the number of stories to better engage the audience, Downey says.
“Even though they’re thousands of years old, the hopes, fears and desires are the same we feel today. It felt accessible,” says Downey, best known for the long-running series Touched by an Angel.
The couple grew up watching Hollywood Biblical tales like The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Some films in the genre offered a sanitized view of historical realities, they argue.
“Everything looked like they stepped out of the dry cleaners,” Downey jokes.
She and Burnett wanted The Bible to have a grittier, more authentic appearance. The production team spent months in the Moroccan desert shooting the project and employed a “dust wrangler” who made sure, as Downey put it, “everybody had a good coating.”
The source material gave the couple not just the project's spiritual basis but a rich tapestry for both drama and redemption.
“There's one perfect figure which is Jesus Christ .. everyone here, every king, every prophet has flaws. You can see yourself in them, but God doesn’t abandon them. That was the through line,” Burnett says.
The happily married couple could have felt the strain of bringing such an important book to the screen, but they say their first time working on a project together proved positive, not punishing.
“It was a blessing to have each other out there in the trenches,” says Downey who co-stars as Mary. “It's the first time we’ve worked together, so to be able to bring our strengths, different strengths, to the project--we complemented each other. It certainly made our marriage stronger and deeper.”
Burnett says making The Bible allowed him to have a new relationship with his faith. Whereas he once found some spiritual rules "a bit threatening" he came to appreciate the text in a more profound way.
"It's actually a love story, God's love for us," he says. "It's great to see the same book from a different lens."