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The prophet project: An interview with Mark Burnett & Roma Downey

History Originals: In the Making

When it comes to television, it’s hard to intimidate Mark Burnett. But when his wife, actress-producer Roma Downey, suggested they take on Bible for a TV project, his initial response was: “That’s crazy. It’s so big and difficult.”

That was in 2009. The pair rose to the challenge, working with an advisory board of religious leaders and biblical scholars to craft a narrative that depicts seminal moments from the Old Testament and New Testament. Burnett and Downey spoke with Variety’s AJ Marechal about the making of 10-hour, $20 million miniseries that bows Sunday on History.

AJ Marechal: “The Bible” has been a passion project for you two. What inspired you to do it?

Mark Burnett: Roma had heard someone talking about a project where it was sensationally anti-Bible, making God appear very angry. … She said, “Wow, I wonder why people would do that kind of thing? Why don’t we do a miniseries about the Bible, but about the actual story from beginning to end?” The more I thought about it, the more I realized no one had tried it before. If we had the right approach, it’d be a groundbreaking project.

Roma Downey: Individual stories from the Bible had been made into movies, but no one had taken on the arc of the Bible story as one meta-narrative from Genesis to Revelation. That’s what we’ve done here, over 10 hours of programming.

AJM: What was the development process like?

MB: The miniseries was in development for a solid year. Then we sold it, then we did another year after the sale to really think through how to take 66 books of the Bible and turn it into one story. We’re really grateful we took that year. It made the project come out better.

RD: It’s more of a wonderful introduction to the Bible. We chose to tell it as a great big love story — it’s a story of God’s love for mankind. We took off about this time last year and went to Morocco where we filmed it … there are beautiful landscapes there that can create a biblical film, and we were able to dip into incredibly experienced crews and pre-existing studios and sets.

MB: It’s amazing that various journalists in our industry say, “There’s no way you’ve only spent $20 million on that.” It’s a matter of how we did it, how we approached it, and shot it all at one time.

AJM: How did doing this compare to working in reality TV?

MB: There are a number of similarities between “The Bible” and the reality shows, in terms of epic scale. I doubt there are many other producers who go off to remote locations with 400 people for six months at a time (for “Survivor”). In terms of storytelling, we’ve made like 2,000 hours of primetime TV, so we knew about storytelling. The difference for me was the actors. Roma has been in hundreds of hours of TV and produced seven major TV movies. We joined those skill sets together.

AJM: Did you envision this as going to History from the start?

MB: We got quite a few offers, but having worked with History before, they really are able to market things and, since they have fewer big specials, they can put a lot of muscle behind it. You saw that with “Hatfields & McCoys.” It was their past success that really led us to decide to work with History.

AJM: Did your religious faith make this project more personal to you than other projects you’ve both worked on?

MB: We completely believe the Bible and are people of faith. I think that’s very important if you’re going to approach a biblical project. This is a nation based on the Bible — our presidents are sworn in on Bibles, our money says “in God we trust.” Our legal and moral code is based on the Bible. This is a serious project, and you need to be people of faith in order to approach it the right way.

RD: We wanted to (treat it) with the utmost respect and there is a huge responsibility to get it right. We worked with a team of advisers, scholars and theologians to make sure we were accurate and always considered the spirit of the book. We hope that it will ultimately entertain, but also inspire.

AJM: This is the first time you’ve worked together as producers. Did it lead to any arguments?

RD: We really had a great time, and it gave us a whole new respect for one another. But really, the greatest miracle is that we’re still speaking to each other!

History Originals: In the Making
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