I read the Bible from beginning to end when I was a freshman in college. I wasn't seeking any type of spiritual enlightenment or take the first step down a righteous path. No, I spent the better part of my first year of college reading the Good Book so that I would better understand and spot various religious references in films and literature. But the unexpected upshot of having a semi-literate knowledge of the Bible has been in watching stories from the Old and New Testaments get turned into movies and noticing what has been included and what has been taken out.
When I saw that "Survivor" and "Sarah Palin's Alaska" executive producer Mark Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey ("Touched by an Angel"), were producing a 10-part miniseries amounting to the Bible's greatest hits, I was intrigued but not really moved to watch. I wasn't surprised to see that it actually beat out "The Walking Dead" in the ratings for the weeks when the two series went head to head. Because of the immense popularity of the miniseries, the makers revisited the five episodes that covered the life of Jesus and constructed a nearly 2.5-hour feature film called SON OF GOD, starring Portuguese-born actor Diogo Morgado as Jesus, as well as Downey as his mother, Mary (as an older woman).
My experience talking to Burnett and Downey was akin to attending an evangelical meeting, and I don't think they'd mind the comparison because that's essentially what they've become with the series and film (as well as the recently announced "sequel" to the series, "A.D.," which will air on NBC and cover the early spread of Christianity via the apostles). The couple see the miniseries as a entry point, especially for younger viewers, into the teachings of the Bible and Jesus, and their aim was always to make a series that would be accessible to the entire family (although the crucifixion sequence borders on R-rated violence, without going full PASSION OF THE CHRIST).
Burnett and Downey were certainly hospitable hosts that I could have easily spoken to for hours on the subject of wedging religion into popular culture, and the way they were steadfast against changing a single one of Jesus' words from the Bible (that is no lie; it's word for word). And with the proliferation of biblical-themed films on the horizon--from Darren Aronofsky's NOAH, to Ridley Scott's Moses epic EXODUS, to MARY, MOTHER OF CHRIST (set for release at Easter 2015), as well as rumored productions of the stories of Cain and Abel, and Pontius Pilate--being the first out of the gate with a film like SON OF GOD seems like striking while the iron is hot. Please enjoy the preachings of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey…
Capone: So you took half of the episodes in the miniseries to cover New Testament material. How did you decide what to use and what not to use? And talk about the process of pulling the film together and making it different than what we've seen.
Mark Burnett: Yes, well the first thing is where it came from. We were three or four weeks in Morocco, right Roma? It was a six-month shoot. And every Friday, LightWorkers Media, our film production company, would do a screening--not dailies, but with actual edit of the scene, with music.
Roma Downey: We brought an editor with us on the set, so he was there the entire time.
MB: So, we're unusual in that way, and we invite everybody, and we’re there and the reaction to seeing Jesus on the screen--it was just incredible seeing Diogo Morgado. And Roma said to me in Morocco, “We should have made a movie."
RD: "I wish we were making a movie."
MB: And we said to each other, “Let’s do it.” And so we spent the money and we knew we were going to shoot lots of stuff that would never get in the series--that was the intention. So, we had no deal, we didn’t know it would get in movie theaters, and we were fortunate, we've been abundantly blessed in our careers that we could do things like this. And so then it was like, "What's an appropriate length?" We had cuts at three-and-a-half hours, because a lot of movies now like LORD OF THE RINGS, and THE AVENGERS, these are three-hour movies. But we ended up realizing just over two hours was the right sweet spot. So much had to be left out that we loved, but to make a fast-paced narrative that takes you starting with John on [the Island of] Patmos, the old man looking back… You’ve seen the movie, right?
Capone: Oh yes.
MB: Him looking back makes a very clear statement here, which starts with John 1, which is “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God, and then the word became flesh.” Which allowed us to go to the Nativity, to a very clear statement of who Jesus is--an unequivocal statement, biblically accurate. And then it goes on for an hour of the mission and falling in love with this charismatic leader. The disciples, they don’t know they're in the Bible. They're following their charismatic leader. They later realize it’s the son of God. It’s God on earth. So they fall in love
Of course you’ve got the trial and the crucifixion. It’s awful, but then there's the resurrection. So we knew that was the plan, so it was really a matter of, you’ve got to start with a plan of what you want to do to get from A to B in this two-hour experience, and we have to make sure it moved fast and also had the dramatic elements. It’s a triangular drama, right? You’ve got the Romans and the Pilate, the temple authorities under Caiaphas, and the disciples being lead by Jesus, and there’s a collision, and that collision occurs in Jerusalem.
So you’ve got the whisper, “There’s this guy in Galilee who’s got a big following.” And Caiaphas is like, “Come on, nothing happens in Galilee. Relax.” The next whisper is, “Five thousand came to see him.” And you see their faces change. It’s a big following. The next thing is, “He’s coming here.” And Caiaphas is like, “To Jerusalem? At Passover?” And we’ve already established that the Roman brutality is unbelievable. They will literally kill anybody who gets in their way, and Caiaphas is scared for his people, for the temple, and Jesus, who he doesn’t believe is the son of God, is coming here at the worst time. So this is this unbelievable political, social, and biblical collision, and that’s how we made the decisions.
Capone: When you’re setting out to do the miniseries, and especially when you’re forming the film, what did you want to do differently that you hadn’t seen done in other versions of this story?
RD: Well, Jesus hasn’t been on the big screen for 10 years since PASSION, and PASSION, if you remember, dealt with three days in the life of Jesus, and we wanted to really allow an audience to enjoy the narrative of his entire life--from his humble birth and the Nativity, right through the death, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and throughout the Great Commission. We know that there’s a whole generation of kids who may be seeing the story for the first time We challenge you that if you’re thinking right now of Moses, what is it that your mind anchors on? And I would bet you it’s probably Charlton Heston and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.
Capone: Yes, although in a year it might be Christian Bale.
RD: That’s how we absorb information, and since Jesus hasn’t been on the big screen in a decade, this is an opportunity for a whole generation to learn about him and to experience him, because the movie has scale. It’s epic. It’s a big, sweeping story told with a great international cast, exotic locations, intense drama as Mark describes. But it’s also a really beautiful, intimate story. It’s a love story. It’s the greatest love story. And I think that we have seen in the pre-screenings that we’ve been sharing as we’re out doing this grassroots tour, that as the end credits roll and CeeLo Green is heard singing “Mary Did You Know,” [oh, did I not mention that CeeLo Green sings the movie's theme song?] that people sit still because the power of the story has impacted them, and I think there's a little bit of time needed just to contemplate, to reflect on what they’d just seen.
MB: It’s amazing. There's a movement happening. We’ve been now to 20 cities since pre-Christmas to now. We’d just done 11 cities in the last 13 days, so on a tight schedule with all the big churches and business groups. What’s happening is smallish churches are buying screens in advance, already and filling them. Business leaders are buying out entire theaters--
RD: And giving the seats to the church.
MB: And big churches buying out. City by city is this movement. You just don’t find that.
RD: It feels like a movement, and we’re also deeply encouraged by what is also happening across denominations; they’re coming together. We’ve had endorsements from all the major faith leaders, from all the major churches, and from the Jewish community as well. So we feel massively encouraged. The intention of the movie always was about drawing people together. It’s about sharing a message of hope to a country that’s hungry for hope. And it’s a message of inclusion. We feel like it’s a great big feast, and everyone’s invited.
MB: You asked about what we did differently. There's a very young cast. You’ve got to look back accurately; they’re all about the same age. Jesus is 33, I believe Peter was 34, and some of the others are in their 20s. It’s just a really young bunch of guys who are on this mission, but it’s very scary because clearly they don't know they’re in the Bible. Around the time in the first few decades of the first century AD, at one point, the Romans were crucifying 500 Jews a day at the seat of Jerusalem after the crucifixion. Imagine how scary it is. And you find Jesus, you realize he’s the son of God, you see him raise Lazarus from the dead, and then he says, “We’re going to Jerusalem.” That's like a bunch of people in this county in the Midwest--in Nebraska or Iowa--having a movement and saying, “We’re off to D.C. to march down the mall, and there’s a million of us.”
So thousands came into Jerusalem, and Pilate had threatened them. “If this gets out of control, I’m going to shut the temple. There won’t be a Passover.” This is a really tense time. Imagine the driest brush and someone puts a match to it. Only Jesus and probably Mary--the role Roma played--had a clue what was going to happen. Now the disciples are scared to death. It’s a very tense time, and I think our movie shows that tension. You’ve seen it, so you know. The moment where Caiaphas and Judas are face to face, Judas is scared. He’s going to betray Jesus, not because he thinks he’ll die--he thinks they'll all get arrested and kicked out and save a life. But of course that moment when he says to Caiaphas, “What do you want with him?” And Caiaphas says, “Just to talk.” And then you think, “Ah.” And then Judas says--
RD: “What’s in it for me?” he says and reveals himself really to be the snake he is. How do I really feel about Judas? Don’t get me started. I think that you have seen that building tension, that ticking clock that propels the final third of the movie, supported by the magnificent score by Hans Zimmer, which is really beautiful and exciting. We were thrilled to get to work with him as he added his talents to this project. He also brought in the singer Lisa Gerrard, who had worked with him on the score of GLADIATOR, which we loved. When we first gathered with him, we said we feel that we would love that sort of haunting female voice like Lisa Gerrard, and he said, “Why would I get somebody like Lisa Gerrard when I could get Lisa Gerrard?”
MB: And he picked the phone up.
RD: There and then, and he called her.
MB: We have the first-ever footage of Lisa and Hans doing any music since GLADIATOR. We were there that day, we happened to have a camera, we have that video footage, and that music they created with no rehearsal in the moment--
RD: It made it to the movie, and they hadn’t seen each other for 10 years, and he said it was as if they picked up in the middle of a sentence that had been started 10 years ago. For us, it was about calling in the very best to bring this to the screen. We’ve been excited as we were walking into theaters and malls across the country and seeing the poster right up there next to I, FRANKENSTEIN and SPIDER-MAN, and there’s Jesus and SON OF GOD.
Capone: You mentioned how the miniseries, for a lot of kids, might have been their first exposure to this material. We obviously know from THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST that you can make it about as graphic as you want to…
RD: Yes, well we wanted to get a PG-13 rating, though.
Capone: That's what I was going to ask. Was this something you wanted to make so that families could go together?
RD: Absolutely. We wanted it to be an experience that you could share with your entire family. PASSION was an R, and we got a PG-13. The crucifixion is still hard to watch. It’s graphic. It was a brutal way to die.
Capone: It actually made me wonder what the rating was when I saw it.
RD: We worked with them.
MB: Roma worked very close with them. I think the ratings board realized: this is the truth. Jesus was brutally crucified, and for the faith community, it would be a dishonor, and there would be a backlash if you minimized the suffering, because he suffered for all of us.
RD: Right, but also we wanted to make sure that any of the violence represented wasn’t simply gratuitous. That it was an inherent part of the story, and as one little boy commented to his father--his father was crying at the screening--and the little boy said, “It’s okay Dad; it all works out okay.”
MB: He comes back.
Capone: When you’re pulling the script together, especially for the New Testament, you mentioned a backlash if you minimized certain things, but you could also get a backlash if you change too much of the text.
MB: We wouldn’t do that.
Capone: That’s what I’m saying, I noticed that, especially anything Jesus says, it's pretty much word for word right out of the Bible.
MB: It’s sacred text, man. [laughs]
Capone: You don’t really have artistic license when it comes to this.
RD: No, we knew that bringing this story to the screen came with a huge responsibility, and it was one we took very seriously, and we worked with scholars and experts at each step of the way from the earliest drafts of our scripts. We went out and came back with notes and we made the adjustments. We did the same with the film as we were putting it together. We wanted to remain true always to the spirit of the text.
MB: I would say having seen other biblical movies that there’s a real consequence to changing the Bible.
Capone: Yes, there is.
MB: And you look at something like History Channel put on the Bible series, which was very accurate. 100 million people watched it. So, they also put on documentaries before and even after that were trying to cast doubts on the Bible. Those ratings bombed. We also see with A&E what happened with a show like "Duck Dynasty," which has a big faith audience. There’s a very powerful faith audience, but it needs to be accurate. So, any product--TV show or movie--that may change the story of the sacred text? Wow. You might get a big opening weekend, but you’re really risking the long term. It’s a pretty big community that when something that’s blasphemous is there, it’s a very serious thing. Remember, this is a nation of, on average our data shows, 150 million Americans on a monthly basis sit in a church. Think about that. That’s like half the nation. On a weekly basis, over 50 million people. So, that's a very big community, and it’s not divided between Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, Episcopal. This is the son of God.
RD: I had a meeting with Cardinal O’Malley in Boston recently, and he said that when he regards the faith community now, he thinks of it as believers and non-believers. That it’s no longer defined by denomination. I think that one of the hopes that we have putting this on the big screen--Mark mentions how many people go to church--there’s something very different about watching something on your TV or on your laptop or on your phone or all the different ways we receive content today, and seeing a story played out on the big screen and having the opportunity to watch that in community, which is a church-like experience, a shared experience with other people. That’s really powerful and very different than seeing in on television.
MB: Over three weeks with commercial breaks, and we have five-and-a-half hours on the TV, and then we have all the extra stuff. So we made a big choice, we got it down to 2 hours and 15, and it moves fast. There’s no misunderstanding. If you were a person who didn’t know the story, you’d leave the theater and go, “Whoa.” It really grabs you.
RD: And you get an opportunity to fall in love with him, I think. You understand who he is and what he was doing and that he came and did that for us. I think it’s very humbling.
MB: Diogo Morgado is the first Latin to do this. This guy’s third language is English; he speaks Portuguese and Spanish--he's a huge star in Spain, huge star in Portugal and Brazil.
RD: And the movie is also opening in Spanish. We dubbed it into Spanish. We know that the Spanish-speaking audience is huge in our nation and is somewhat under-served, and so as well as opening up in English on February 28, it opens in Spanish. We have a fully-dubbed version ready to go.
MB: And Jesus is dubbed by Eduardo Verástegui, who is the lead actor in BELLA. Did you ever see the movie BELLA? It was beautiful. So he does the voice of Jesus in the Spanish version. He’s a fantastic guy.
Capone: I saw in December that you got the greenlight to do the 12-part series "A.D." What is that going to cover exactly?
RD: It will only be 12 parts in the first year. We’re hoping it will go through 10 years.
MB: "A.D." is the story of the first 40 years after the crucifixion. It starts with him on the cross; it starts with the crucifixion.
RD: It will emotionally reset there.
MB: So one logline would be, how did 12 guys take down Rome? How easy would it have been for Rome to kill the 12 disciples? It could have been done, but it wasn’t God’s plan. But how did they survive against all odds? Because the Holy Spirit came. So now you’ve got Peter healing people. There’s people who the Holy Spirit killed in Ananias and Sapphira for lying to them.
RD: It’s all through the Book of Acts.
MB: Yeah, it’s unbelievable. And so if you take the spine of the Book of Acts, then you build around what was going on in Pilate’s mind, what was going on with Caiaphas, it’s very "House of Cards." And the through line is, this group of disciples, ever growing against all odds. So the purpose of the series is for 2.2 billion Christians to look at it and say, “Is that what those guys went through to make it okay for us after the crucifixion?”
RD: It's extraordinary that it began with 12 men, and that it is now 2.2 billion people. There’s an incredible line in SON OF GOD that comes from Pontius Pilate. He’s laying getting a massage, and his wife comes in and says, “You shouldn’t have done that. You shouldn’t have killed him.” And he says, “He’s just another Jew.” And she said, “No, he was different.” And Pilate said, “He thought he was, but he’ll be forgotten in a week.” And here we are in 2014 and it’s like, I don’t think so. I don’t think he’ll be forgotten in a week.
Capone: Are you going to be able to get the same actors to reprise their roles?
MB: Possibly. We’re looking at all of that. Certainly in some cases, absolutely. We’ve got to get through it, but in the movie, the delicious relationship between Caiaphas and Pilate, which is this absolutely unsteady and uncertain dance of politics, is all about trying to preserve their own needs.
RD: It's a real power struggle, an absolute power struggle between them.
MB: A real power struggle, and then you’ve got Diogo Morgado on the screen, who’s the lion and the lamb. We didn’t think that the word "meek" meant weak, so we have a big 6-foot 3-in. actor.
RD: Yeah, we wanted a strong actor, but an actor who could also play gentle and compassion and present the lion and the lamb, and he does both so beautifully. He gives such a lovely, nuanced performance in the central role. I had such a privilege to step into the role of Mary his mother, and those scenes around the foot of the cross in particular were so poignant to film. I can’t even begin to image what a mother would have been going through to see her own child brutally murdered in that way. We know that Mary was the mother of the son of God, but she was also the mother of the son, and playing the humanity of that was tough. And we know that Jesus only said seven things from the cross, and one of those things was that he took time to make sure his mother was taken care of, which just says so much about him. But yeah, that was amazing. So we will be going back for "A.D." to Morocco, and we’ll be filming by the end of this year. We're heading back down there, so we're very excited.
Capone: Thank you both so much. Great to meet you.