Ever since Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea as Moses in the epic 1956 film, "The Ten Commandments," Hollywood has had a thirst for more, and now comes a husband-and-wife team who seek to do the Bible justice in a new, 10-hour series premiering on Sunday, March 3, on the History Channel.
Spanning Genesis to Revelation, the series producers may surprise many: First, the reality TV show guru Mark Burnett -- the man who made Donald Trump a TV star and "you're fired" a household catch-phrase, who changed the television landscape with "Survivor," which just debuted its 27th season, and created the ever-popular "Shark Tank" and "The Voice" -- is now taking on a project truly biblical in scale.
But he couldn't do it alone. Burnett asked for a little help from above: actress Roma Downey, the star of the TV classic, "Touched by an Angel," who is his wife.
"I'm married to an angel," Burnett said.
So why are the guy who created "Shark Tank" and "Survivor," and the woman who played an angel tackling "The Bible"?
"The Bible is the foundation of this nation, of our laws, of our society," Burnett said. "There wouldn't have been the Declaration of Independence. President Obama swore his allegiance to all of us not on one Bible, on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Bible and Abraham Lincoln's bible last month. It's on our money: 'In God We Trust.'"
They launched the project four years ago and say they were acutely aware of needing to make the special effects shine.
"We have three teenagers," Downey said. "One of the things they said to us [was], 'Oh please, whatever you do, don't make the special effects lame.'"
"We showed our kids, at the beginning of this project, a movie we had grown up on, 'Ten Commandments.' They were rolling their eyes," Burnett said. "That movie is beautiful, but it's 50 years old. So really, what we've done for 2013 is brought fresh visual life into the greatest story ever told."
Beyond the special effects, Burnett and Downey said this project was very personal to them. They said their faith is central to their lives and they took the responsibility of telling its stories seriously.
"We believe the Bible," Burnett said. "However, on this project, there's only one way to approach this. You have to take the Bible as a fact."
"We have run into people that have thought, believe it or not, that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife, or that Sodom and Gomorrah lived happily ever after," Downey said. "And [we] thought, if nothing else, just to set the record straight."
Burnett and Downey expect the series to have an enormous impact. They have recruited more than 40 theologians and academics to advise them on all aspects of the series.
How many people may watch?
"I'm telling you, a million will either open the Bible or reopen the Bible ... maybe a billion," Burnett said. "I think, to be honest with you, because I'm a very blunt person, I think a billion is a low number."
Burnett said it cost less than $22 million to produce the entire series, cheap by Hollywood standards, "although the bills are still coming in." Prayers, the couple said, were as important as the cash. Downey said that about four to six weeks before they were starting to shoot the principal photography, they had not yet cast the role of Jesus.
"To say that we were anxious about that would be an understatement," Downey said.
So she said she contacted various prayer circles and churches.
"I sent out an email and the headline on the email was, 'Looking for Jesus.' And prayer works," Downey said. "We found the most wonderful actor, Portuguese actor Diogo Morago, who has breathed such beauty and strength."
After Jesus was cast, they were still stumped on who would play his mother, the Virgin Mary. In the end, Downey herself stepped into the role.
"I went to Morocco with my producer's hat firmly on my head, but Mark said, 'You're not seeing the obvious,'" she said.
In addition to the theology both Burnett and Downey had to master, there were also a few real-life problems to overcome -- like cobras and scorpions that had to be cleared from the set in Morocco every day. But one snake ended up in a starring role as Satan, tempting Jesus, which meant on the first day of shooting their new Jesus would be sorely tested.
"His first day on the job, there was this huge poisonous snake," Burnett said. "I mean, huge. Like, 6-foot, thick snake crawling across his body and through his hair as he lay on the floor."
But they are a "Survivor" family and, with that, there has to be a little competition. A whole slew of Hollywood productions based on the Bible are launching: Steven Spielberg is doing "Moses," Will Smith is doing "Cain and Abel" and Russell Crowe will star in "Noah."
"I ran into Russell Crowe the other night and said, 'You know, our ark is bigger than your ark,'" Downey said.
And as for Burnett and Downey's kids, the couple said they let them screen a portion of the mini-series ahead of time and were pleased with the results.
"They called us after they screened it at school and said everybody loves it and have been coming up to them since, in school, saying, 'I cannot wait to see it,'" Burnett said.
"I said, 'What was the most-heard comment from your fellow teens at your school?' and they said, 'That's really cool,' so we felt, 'Hey, we got something right,' Downey said. "Because, you know what? The Bible is really cool."
- Arts & Entertainment
- Roma Downey
- Mark Burnett