Making the Bible A Reality: Mark Burnett and Roma Downey
Written by Mei Ling Starkey
What do you get when you combine Mark Burnett, producer of Survivor, The Voice, Shark Tank and other successful reality TV shows with actress, Roma Downey of Touched by an Angel? The answer: an extremely talented married couple passionate about using their gifts to inspire others and make the Bible come to life. Their new television series, The Bible, airs on the History Channel and features stories from Genesis to Revelation. Risen talked with them about how they handle critics of their work, dispelling misconceptions about faith in Hollywood, and their hope for their upcoming project.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: How did you come to faith and what has that looked like as you each navigate Hollywood?
Mark Burnett: It’s such a funny question, because it makes the assumption that most people in Hollywood have no faith. I come across people in this business everyday that have lots of faith. People assume that Hollywood lacks faith, which I hope is not the case. When I spoke at Catalyst West a year ago, I was sharing about The Bible and I remember people coming up to me saying, “That’s so cool. The guy who makes Survivor and The Voice is a Christian.” I said, “What’s so weird about that?” They said, “You just don’t think that people who make good TV could be Christian.” If you think about it, some of the greatest written word and visual art in history were made by Christians… C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien just to name a few. It’s an interesting reoccurring question though because people assume that when you are in Hollywood, people in the business don’t have faith. I think that’s a misnomer. I don’t think that’s true. I think some people don’t, but a lot of people do.
Risen Magazine: I think what you shared will actually help others to understand that there are people in Hollywood that do have faith and help dispel that misconception.
Mark Burnett: Roma and I have collectively made thousands of hours of highly-rated, top-level television, but I would say The Bible is our best work ever collectively. We love the Bible. We love that it is God’s love story for us and I think we’ve told it in a really exciting and compelling way so that you can emotionally connect with the story. People who may need to reconnect with the Bible or have never even read it, can enjoy it and maybe will want to connect with it. Because in the end, the Bible is beyond a sacred text of faith, it is the underpinning of our society; it’s the foundation of all of our law. So, The Bible is a very important project. I think it could do very well not only in terms of viewership, but spurring on more biblical projects, which I think could be a very good thing.
Risen Magazine: You’ve shared that you want to push television further, do more. How do you foresee The Bible doing that?
Mark Burnett: I feel that success makes people replicate. With Survivor for example, [look at] the amount of people who have made Survivor-like or Apprentice-like shows. Imitation is a form of flattery. If that’s the indicator, wouldn’t it be great if hundreds of other television producers made biblical-based epic television projects? That would be great.
Risen Magazine: Yes, that would be amazing! Speaking of Survivor, you initially faced some criticism when you set out to do the show. How did that experience help you as you approached this project?
Mark Burnett: For Roma and myself, being in a creative art form means you put yourself out there, especially for Roma as an actress. You’re out there and get judged. As a producer, you make things that people either like or they don’t like. As you get older in this business you receive these criticisms, not completely, but better in that you make what you think is great and that’s what it is. And if someone else criticizes it, it’s okay. You have to live in the artistic truth of what you think is the best you can do and the right way to do it. Many people are not in the arena. They are sitting in the seats. It’s very easy to watch the people in the arena and criticize. They watch the gladiators in the arena for example and say, “I would have done that differently.” Or the person on the football field and say, “Oh they should have thrown the ball differently.” Well, you know what, you’re not on the field. If you know so much, get on the field.
Roma Downey: It’s very easy to criticize and it’s very hard to create. We have come together here with a wonderful team. Nothing comes together without a village and we have had a great village. We drew the right people into the project. That was our prayer all along. If we didn’t know how to do an aspect of the project, [we wanted] the right person to show up. Continually, throughout the entire process, we have drawn in the right people for the project and a beautiful series has been created. It has the potential to touch people’s lives in the most extraordinary way and hopefully encourage people back to the book. If we’ve done anything, it is to try and tell these stories in a very human and authentic way. What was critical was that we would make the emotional connection so that the audience wouldn’t think of them as characters from thousands of years ago that are disconnected from them or aren’t relevant to our life. We are those people. This is our story. People of the faith have the same struggles. They have the same hope, same dreams, and same fears. Sarah loved her son Isaac just as much as the next mother loves her son. It’s in that place of relating to the characters that it brings the book alive to people on screen. It connects with their hearts. We have tried to do that creating wonderful, fresh imagery with amazing lighting, and landscape. Our visual teams, sets, costumes were amazing. Lola, on our visual effects team, won the Oscar for Gladiator and [with her] we were able to create the most amazing visual effects… the burning bush, Moses parting the Red Sea, Jesus walking on water, and Daniel with the lions. Some of these things have never been seen before. Families of all generations will gather around the TV and it will have something for everybody. Ultimately, when we weave all the stories together, it’s the absolute amazing wonder of God’s love for us.
Because in the end, the Bible is beyond a sacred text of faith, it is the underpinning of our society; it’s the foundation of all of our law.
Risen Magazine: Roma, how do you feel faith has been represented on screen since Touched by an Angel until now? Have there been any significant changes?
Roma Downey: It was such a privilege to have been a part of Touched by an Angel for all those years. We really were the “little train that could” at that time. I remember when we first aired there was criticism in various publications that thought by the time you read the interview; the show would be off the air. We really got the last laugh though. We were on CBS for almost ten years with such a huge, core audience. The audience was so loyal. They tuned in every week for the central message, there is God, he wants to be part of your life, and that God loves you. There was just such an enormous privilege for me as a person of faith to be the messenger and get to deliver that message on a weekly basis. I don’t know if anything really has taken that space in that same way on network. That’s not to say that there aren’t very good quality programs out there, but I don’t know if anything has come out that speaks directly to faith. Certainly for us in the past few years, it is a privilege for Mark and me to be able to come together in our marriage, in our faith, with our love and our particular skill sets. We bring different skill sets to this, but we have been able to share those and step forward and produce this ten-hour series together. Ultimately, it will glorify God. A part of our daily prayer is that we could be used, that we would get out of the way, and that the project would come through us. That there is something much bigger at work here and we have many instances while in Morocco that we felt the [Holy] Spirit move through us in the most extraordinary ways. From being able to cast the right actors, including who would play Jesus… it was a challenge initially to find the perfect actor for that. Another time was on a still evening shooting a scene around a campfire, a wind inexplicably blew through just at the moment Jesus was talking about being born again of the Spirit and how the Spirit blows like the wind. Everyone stopped. It was almost supernatural. We all could see that God showed up that evening. It has been a marvelous journey.
Risen Magazine: Most people would be happy to be a part of one show that has been a success and both of you have been able to have very successful careers. How do you view success?
Roma Downey: We are fortunate to be able to do what we love to do. Success ultimately is coming home to happy, well-adjusted kids and to be a part of a beautiful family. Success is measured in the most important things such as love, family, and friendship.
Risen Magazine: What are your hopes for this series?
Mark Burnett: We feel confident that if you took Touched by an Angel, Survivor, The Voice, Apprentice, Shark Tank, Emmys, Movie Awards, all the things we do and added it all together, that more people will see The Bible, than all those shows combined. That’s preordained. That’s a fact. Also, it’s probably the best work we’ve done. The best outcome for me, Roma, our family, and friends is that when we look back on the twilight of our years, we will know that people have really been affected by this incredible love story of God. I already think it’s true.
Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Spring 2013