WASHINGTON (CNS) — It took the combined clout of an actress best known for playing an angel and her big-ratings executive-producer husband, but Roma Downey and Mark Burnett have pulled off the making of a 10-hour miniseries, “The Bible,” that gets its premiere Sunday, March 3, on the History cable channel.
The miniseries runs 8-10 p.m. Eastern time each Sunday in March through March 31, Easter Sunday.
Downey’s career role was playing the angel Monica for nine seasons in the TV drama “Touched by an Angel.” Husband Burnett, whose U.S. TV hits include “Survivor,” “The Voice,” “The Apprentice,” “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” and “Shark Tank,” added his Hollywood muscle.
“He doesn’t take no for an answer. When he hears ‘no,’ he just thinks of a new opportunity. When it was a tough sell, he just persevered,” Downey said of her husband. “He’s just like (St.) Paul, very courageous.”
Unlike other biblical films and TV miniseries, “The Bible” splits its 10 hours evenly between the Old and New Testaments.
Another difference, according to Burnett: “For example, in a lot of older biblical films, it looks like a lot of the disciples, Jesus, the Romans, stepped right out of a dry cleaner. Not a speck of dust on them. And the lighting didn’t feel real.”
He surmised that such films were made “over the years (by) people with great hearts for service and faith, but with very little budget and very little experience, and sometimes the result isn’t optimal, and it’s not the best movie or show. … History Channel provided us with a great budget, and I knew we wanted to make this emotionally connective, and very real for today’s audiences.”
Burnett and Downey were interviewed by Catholic News Service prior to an invitation-only screening Feb. 5 in Washington. The day before, they were in Dallas, showing a 45-minute grouping of miniseries scenes to about 60 U.S. Catholic bishops.
Downey singled out “Cardinal (Donald W.) Wuerl (of Washington), who has been a great supporter and adviser to us for the last year or so,” said Downey. She and Burnett added later there were about 40 theological and biblical advisers who helped before and during filming.
“We had a very great and warm reception,” Downey said, adding she had told the bishops that, while growing up in Derry, in Northern Ireland, “I went to a convent school and was educated by the Sisters of Mercy; the girls fondly named them the ‘Sisters of No Mercy,’ and it got a big laugh in the room.”
“The Bible” used the same special effects team that won an special-effects Oscar for the period film “Gladiator.” It borrows a page from “Gladiator” and “The Passion of the Christ” in its depictions of violence and brutality. While some violence takes place off-screen, the fighting between the Israelites and their opponents, including the Roman occupiers of Jesus’ time, sliced, diced, thrust and gouged their way to victory or conquest; what’s not visible on the screen is still made plain by the sound effects.
Even for Christians such as Downey and Burnett, “it’s very daunting to take on the Bible,” she told CNS. “We only had 10 hours to tell the story. We wish we had ten hundred hours.
“We had to break it down. We wanted to make an emotional connection with the audience, to draw the audience in and tell the stories from a very human point of view. That meant we had to tell fewer stories.”
Downey portrays Mary, the mother of Jesus, in “The Bible.” “We had a younger actress playing Mary during the Nativity and so on,” she said. “And in the early stages of the script, she was referred to as ‘Young Mary,’ and in the later stages the script referred to ‘Old Mary.’ And I said, ‘Well, you know, that’s gotta change.’ So, we rewrote that, that it would be ‘Young Mary’ and ‘Mother Mary.’
“Oh, vanity, it’s a terrible thing, you know?” she chuckled.
“I certainly tried in my career to make choices that would be pleasing to God,” Downey said. “One of our central intentions in making this series was to make something that would glorify God.”
— By Mark Pattison Catholic News Service