Survivor producer brings Bible to the small screen
Mark Burnett is one of the biggest names in television, creating and producing such reality television hits as Survivor, Celebrity Apprentice, Shark Tank, and The Voice. His next project, which begins airing on the History Channel on March 3, is The Bible Series, a ten-part, five-week presentation of the Bible from Genesis to Revelations.
Burnett and wife Roma Downey, who is also a co-producer, were recently at Christian broadcaster CTS in Burlington, Ont., to promote the project. When The Interim asked him if he thought the public might not take his presentation of The Bible seriously considering his reality TV background, Burnett answered “you won’t ask me that question after seeing the preview” later that day. He was right; The Bible Series is not cheesy, and accurately depicts what happens in The Bible. Well almost. They took several liberties, such as when Jesus tells Peter upon meeting him on his future apostle’s boat, “I will change your life,” which is true but never uttered in Scripture.
Downey, who starred as the angel Monica in Touched by Angel from 1994 through 2003, said that the couple hoped The Bible Series, which will air two hours each Sunday night culminating on Easter Sunday when the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection are aired, will spur “Monday morning water cooler talk about The Bible.” Downey plays Mother Mary – she does not like the term “old Mary” as the original script called the character – during Christ’s ministry.
Burnett said on Huntley Street that it is, “important to tell it in a youthful, vibrant, emotionally connective way.” But the series also had to be true to The Bible story – which Burnett insists is singular not plural – so they were advised by dozens of theologians, including Dr. Craig Evans, professor of New Testament Studies at Acadia University and Divinity College in Nova Scotia. Downey said they endeavoured to tell the story in a way acceptable to most members of Christianity’s 33,000 denominations.
Downey also said that she is confident that the faithful will enjoy the show, it will also be accessible to “those who haven’t opened a Bible, who haven’t been to church.”
While a ten-hour epic series of this scale might usually cost $100 million to produce, Burnett and Downey produced a top-notch quality show on a budget one-fifth that size. Filming began in Morocco nearly four years ago. The special effects were done by Rob Harvey, who won an Oscar for his work on Gladiator in 2000 and the musical score was composed by Hans Zimmer who has won an Oscar for The Lion King and four Academy Awards, including for Dark Knight Rises.
The cast is drawn from around the world and features Portuguese actor Diego Morgado as Jesus (he’s brilliant) and black British actor Nonso Anozie (Samson). Some might see the multicultural audience as a nod to political correctness, but Burnett’s goal is to attract a global audience.
At CTS, media and church leaders were able to see three segments (more clips are available online at www.bibleseries.tv), and the stories are compelling. The challenge, Downey explained, was to have the audience emotionally invested in the characters that we might only see for 20 minutes or so. That means often focusing on the human element such as the anguish of Abraham (played by Gary Oliver) and his wife Sarah when he prepares to sacrifice his son Isaac.
There are obviously omissions when condensing the Bible down to 10 hours, and in one clip we saw, the story of Genesis is retold by Noah on the ark, and it is compelling although brief. The action of the bobbing ark, animals in the background and rain pouring down, is juxtaposed with the dramatic creation of Earth. It was captivating.
Downey said The Bible Series is not “your typical donkey-and-sandals” depiction of The Bible, and Burnett said it is sometimes necessarily “brutal.” Viewers do not see John the Baptist beheaded, but there is also no doubt what is happening. It is up to viewers whether the shadow of a head dripping blood is too much.
In the United States, evangelical leaders such as Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, and Bishop J.D. Jakes, as well as organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals, the World Evangelical Association, Focus on the Family, and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, are promoting the series. Burnett told the preview audience in Burlington – and later the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge and Variety magazine – that he expects more people will watch The Bible Series over the next 25 years than the combined audience of all his unscripted shows on TV today.
Downey asked the audience, and has gone online to urge church-goers, to “keep this project in your prayers.” Burnett said that while he considers this is the most important thing he’s done professionally, the broadcasters only care about ratings. He said, “if you want more of this programming, watch it and we’ll produce it.”