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Hollywood powerbrokers bring Bible to life in new TV miniseries

Published: Friday, March 1 2013 10:45 a.m. MST

A woman is about to be stoned and Jesus (Diogo Morcaldo) confronts Simon (Paul Marc Davis) and the Pharisees in "The Bible." (Joe Alblas, © Lightworkers Media / Hearst Productions Inc.) A woman is about to be stoned and Jesus (Diogo Morcaldo) confronts Simon (Paul Marc Davis) and the Pharisees in "The Bible." (Joe Alblas, © Lightworkers Media / Hearst Productions Inc.)

For actress Roma Downey and producer Mark Burnett, all roads led to Morocco.

During their respective careers, the wife-and-husband duo has been successful by any objective measure: Downey is best known as the lead actress in the iconic CBS drama “Touched by an Angel,” and Burnett produces reality TV hits like “Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” “Shark Tank” and “The Voice.”

They’ve parlayed their accrued know-how into “The Bible,” a 10-hour History Channel miniseries for which they’re both executive producers. When the first of five episodes aired March 3, approximately 14.8 million Americans tuned in — easily outdistancing ratings stalwarts like CBS' "60 Minutes" (11.9 million viewers) and NBC's Dateline (6.1 million).

Jesus (Diogo Morcaldo) tells everyone to love their enemies in "The Bible." (Joe Alblas, © Lightworkers Media / Hearst Productions Inc.) Jesus (Diogo Morcaldo) tells everyone to love their enemies in "The Bible." (Joe Alblas, © Lightworkers Media / Hearst Productions Inc.)

"The Bible" miniseries was filmed entirely on location in Morocco.

“All the other things we’ve done — all the experience and the wisdom and the gifts that we’ve picked up along the way — have brought us to this moment,” Downey told the Deseret News during a recent phone interview that also included her husband. “We made ‘The Bible’ to glorify God, and it will go out across the globe and it will touch people’s lives — people we may never meet, in places we may never visit.”

A broad appeal

Downey and Burnett — both 52 years old, and married since 2007 — started making plans in 2009 for what would eventually become “The Bible.” In no uncertain terms, their love of biblical teachings made them want to create something that could resonate with as many people as possible.

Roma Downey as Mother Mary in "The Bible." (Casey Crawford, © Lightworkers Media / Hearst Productions Inc.) Roma Downey as Mother Mary in "The Bible." (Casey Crawford, © Lightworkers Media / Hearst Productions Inc.)

If the reaction from conservative television and radio personality Glenn Beck’s demographically diverse family is any indication, then “The Bible” stands a good chance of accomplishing exactly what Downey and Burnett set out to do four years ago.

“Last weekend I watched the first four hours with the whole family — with my 24-year-old daughter all the way down to my 6-year-old daughter,” Beck told the Deseret News in a phone interview. “Every single person in the family loved it for a different reason. … My in-laws who are Catholic watched it with us; most of my family is LDS; my 21-year-old daughter is non-denominational, and her husband is more of an agnostic. And we all found our own way to (loving) it. “It is the story of us all — in Western civilization, this is the story of how it started.”

Sarah (Josephine Butler) watches little Isaac grow up in "The Bible." (Joe Alblas, © Lightworkers Media / Hearst Productions Inc.) Sarah (Josephine Butler) watches little Isaac grow up in "The Bible." (Joe Alblas, © Lightworkers Media / Hearst Productions Inc.)

When the Deseret News queried Burnett about the potential of “The Bible” to be a unifying force for all Christians, the producer grew very emotional.

“Across all denominations of Christianity, we have been supported,” Burnett said. “Mormon, Catholic, evangelical, Methodist, Presbyterian — what unites us for Jesus and faith and the Bible is greater than the differences that may at times divide us. Really, that’s so important.”

Downey later added that “The Bible” miniseries wasn’t created with only Christians in mind — but that it also aims to make a positive impression with non-believers. “We wanted to tell these stories,” Downey said, “in a way that would emotionally connect, be exciting and feel epic in scope on the one hand but still have the intimacy and the emotional connection on the other hand.”

Moses (William Houston), right, tells Joshua (Sean Knopp) that he will need faith like he's never had before. (Joe Alblas, © Lightworkers Media / Hearst Productions Inc.) Moses (William Houston), right, tells Joshua (Sean Knopp) that he will need faith like he's never had before. (Joe Alblas, © Lightworkers Media / Hearst Productions Inc.)

Hurdles to biblical adaptations

Ever since the advent of motion picture technology, Hollywood has been dramatizing the Bible. One of the all-time giants of Bible film adaptations was the director Cecil B. DeMille, with credits like “The Ten Commandments” (1923), “The King of Kings” (1927), “Samson and Delilah” (1949) and the 1956 re-make of “The Ten Commandments.”

“The biggest obstacles (to Bible adaptations) were ones that DeMille freely admitted when he was making his ‘Ten Commandments,’ both the first version in 1923 and the second version released in 1956,” said James D’Arc, the author and film historian who curates the Cecil B. DeMille Archive for Brigham Young University. “And that is (insufficient) details of a story to make a seamless motion picture. He admitted that the early life of Moses in Egypt was one that presented some very perplexing problems: What was it like growing up? And why exactly was he banished?”

William Houston as Moses in "The Bible." (Joe Alblas, © Lightworkers Media / Hearst Productions Inc.) William Houston as Moses in "The Bible." (Joe Alblas, © Lightworkers Media / Hearst Productions Inc.)

Whereas the 1956 movie “The Ten Commandments” had to account for a lot of unknown details in order to stretch the dramatization of a single life across 220 minutes, “The Bible” miniseries runs the gauntlet from Genesis to Revelations in 10 hours. Thus, Downey and Burnett were more burdened with selecting which stories to include in their work than figuring out how to account for circumstances and situations unrecorded in scripture. Yet in order to ensure historical accuracy, “The Bible” consulted a team of 40 religious scholars and theologians on an ongoing basis — a strategy less concerned with maximizing dramatic effect than DeMille’s modus operandi for “filling in the blanks” in Moses’ life.

“In those areas,” D’Arc explained, “DeMille had to go to research, fiction and to credible suppositions by screenwriters to fill in those years that are sparsely documented.”

Behind-the-Scenes; Mark Burnett in the Babylon Throne Room on set at the Ouarzazate Museum location. (Joe Alblas, © 2012 Lightworkers Media UK) Behind-the-Scenes; Mark Burnett in the Babylon Throne Room on set at the Ouarzazate Museum location. (Joe Alblas, © 2012 Lightworkers Media UK)

'This is not cheesy'

Compared to the biblical film adaptations of yesteryear, “The Bible” miniseries distinguishes itself with cutting-edge chops. The England-based Lola studio — purveyor of special effects for visually stunning films like “Gladiator” and “Troy” — rendered the CGI animation for “The Bible” that brings stories like Noah’s Ark to life like never before. Additionally, Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer scored the new miniseries.

“This looks like it’s a $100-million movie,” Downey said.

By virtue of the fact of the fact Glenn Beck owns a values-based media empire that includes cable television station TheBlaze TV, he is frequently approached with Bible-themed projects seeking either his endorsement or financial backing. In that context, Beck is emphatic in asserting there’s nothing normal about “The Bible” miniseries.

“This is not cheesy,” Beck said. “I see a lot of cheesy Bible stuff; this is not one of those things. This is (for people) who believe in the Bible and want to see really good, quality stories that reflect who we are.”

“The Bible” continues playing every Sunday throughout March on the History Channel. The broadcast schedule is available on the History Channel website.

Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.

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