It’s a cardinal rule among Hollywood producers: Never spend your own money. But Mark Burnett and Roma Downey have other rules they live by. Commandments, to be precise. And last summer their religious faith told them to double down on the Bible.
Already the power couple—she’s an actress (best known for the TV series Touched by an Angel ), and he’s the industry’s most prominent creator and producer of reality shows (Survivor, The Voice, The Celebrity Apprentice, Shark Tank, et cetera)—has had huge success turning the Good Book into entertainment. Their ten-part series, The Bible, which aired last March on the History Channel, chalked up a record 13.1 million viewers with its debut episode. When it was released on DVD and Blu-ray, it became the top-selling miniseries of all time. Still, they felt their work wasn’t done.
“We realized this Jesus story needs to be on the big screen,” says Burnett, who’d never ventured beyond unscripted TV. “It should be seen in a community, with 5.1 surround sound. And we thought, Can we do this?”
The answer, as moviegoers will see this month, is yes. Son of God, which Downey and Burnett assembled by recutting footage from the miniseries plus adding new footage (and by investing no small amount of their own, and other investors’, cash), comes out February 28, the Friday before Lent. They made it, complete with a soundtrack that includes CeeLo Green, without knowing whether any major distributor would give it a second look. Then one did. 20th Century Fox is releasing the film in both English and Spanish in 1,500 theaters.
“The ease with which it came together—this is where you just feel that there was some divine plan at work, at the risk of sounding nutty,” Downey says.
There’s nothing nutty about the bottom line. Thanks in large part to Burnett and Downey’s success, faith-based content is on the rise across all platforms. LightWorkers Media, their production company, has two projects in the works. NBC has ordered a 12-episode sequel to The Bible, titled A.D.: After the Bible, and CBS has bought a four-hour miniseries, The Dovekeepers, based on Alice Hoffman’s 2011 historical novel about four women who work to save 900 Jews from Roman persecution. Other bold-faced names have entered the reverent fray, too. David Mamet is developing a series for Fox based on the seven deadly sins. The National Geographic Channel has partnered with Ridley Scott to turn Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s book, Killing Jesus: A History, into a series. Also on cable, WGN America, the Weinstein Company, and Oscar-winning producer Bruce Cohen are making a series based on the Ten Commandments. As for feature films, Lionsgate has acquired the rights to Reza Aslan’s 2013 best-seller, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
When you’re retelling the greatest story ever told, perhaps the toughest challenge you face is casting. Starting with Jesus Christ, so many of the characters are so iconic that it can be hard to imagine anyone who can embody them. For the aforementioned producers who are about to choose an actor to play their son of God, here’s a little advice, courtesy of Downey and Burnett: Pray.
Luckily praying came naturally to them both. Downey, who is from Northern Ireland, was raised Roman Catholic “in a house where [faith] was front and center in our celebrations and in our tragedies,” she says one recent afternoon, as the couple relaxes on the patio of their Malibu home (they call it the Sanctuary). “Jesus and a cup of tea were the answers to everything. It was like it was this Irish solution.” She and Burnett, who was born in England, where “religious education was every day,” married in 2007. His dad was Presbyterian; his mom was Catholic. “My whole life I’ve been to Sunday school,” he says. While some might see Survivor as the antithesis of spiritual, he sees the series (now in its 28th season) and The Bible as natural bookends to his career.
“Survivor is a morality play: A bunch of people who don’t know each other are dropped on an island and have to build a world,” he says. Sure, one contestant is booted off the island each week, “but at the end the final two or three have to ask the people they got rid of for the gift of the prize money. So if you treat others badly—if you cheat your way to the end—why are they going to give you the prize?”
For Burnett, the programming he and Downey have been involved with, from Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? to Touched by an Angel to The Voice (which he calls “a kinder, gentler singing competition that doesn’t denigrate people”), is “four quadrant”—industry vernacular for that which appeals to both men and women, young and old. Analyzed this way, The Bible and its offshoots fit right in (to attract audiences of all ages, Burnett says, they worked hard to get a PG-13 rating for Son of God ). “Family friendly—that’s all we’ve done, and it’s worked out really good,” he says, shooting Downey a fond look. “And The Bible, the ultimate moral story, has been the most joyful experience. We get to hang out together all the time, talk about God and Jesus. It’s like swimming in an ocean of love and faith and God just all day long.”
There were moments, they admit, when those waters got choppy. When Downey first hit upon the idea in 2009, she says, it felt like “a whisper in my heart.” That quickly evolved into a conversation with Burnett that went like this: “He said, ‘You want to do what? The whole Bible?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, the whole Bible.’ ” Then they started telling friends and colleagues, some of whom felt “we had lost our minds a little bit,” Downey says.
Burnett has always been a savvy businessman who, as his publicist puts it, “generally participates in the success of his shows”—by which she means the revenue streams. In exchange for more control, he says, he’s frequently been willing to invest money (or take a smaller front-end payout). “Since I sold T-shirts on the beach,” he says, referring to a now-famous story about his early days in Los Angeles, “I’ve always bet on myself, you know?”
The History Channel assembled the $22 million budget for the cable series with Hearst Corporation, which bought a 50 percent interest in Burnett’s production company in 2011. Burnett says he and Downey invested their own cash as well. History Channel executives promised the show would be to 2013 what the network’s megahit Hatfields & McCoys was to 2012. As Burnett and Downey, who are both 53, prepared to shoot in Morocco, they set about casting the Disciples, Pontius Pilate, the young Mary, Mother of God (Downey would play the older version), and other key roles. But with just six weeks to go before filming began, they still hadn’t found their leading man.
That’s when Downey sent an e-mail to her prayer circles, her church community (she attends Our Lady of Malibu Catholic Church), anyone she could think of. The subject line: “Looking for Jesus.” In it she exhorted recipients to “pray it up” to help find an actor with the right characteristics and skills to embody the savior. Instead of a frail, slightly built Jesus, they wanted a solid-looking man. “This guy was a carpenter!” Burnett says. “In those days there were no electric saws. This was serious work!” The actor also had to be able to project both strength and kindness—to be, as Downey puts it, both the lion and the lamb.
After she sent her e-mail, halfway across the world one of the Moroccan assistant directors they’d hired remembered a striking Portuguese actor who’d been there on another project. The A.D. couldn’t recall the guy’s name, so he went to the hotel where the cast had stayed and asked if they could look at the guest registry. Diogo Morgado’s name popped up, and Downey immediately contacted his agent, who told her Morgado was traveling. “My heart sank. I said, ‘Where is he?’ She said, ‘He’s in L.A.’ I was like, ‘Could he come over this afternoon?’ ”
A few hours later Morgado arrived. He had short hair and no beard. As Downey watched him stroll up the path of the Sanctuary, she said to Burnett, “There he is. There’s our Jesus.”
One reason you rarely hear Hollywood people talking about religion is that, frankly, it can be divisive. Mark Wahlberg espouses the power of daily prayers, sure, but mostly, unless it’s Kabbalah, people don’t mention their faith. (Or they do, and it’s a fiasco. To wit: Duck Dynasty.) No wonder Burnett warns that faith-based entertainment does not guarantee blockbuster ratings.
“Just making something about the Bible or something tangentially biblical is not a free pass,” Burnett says. “My guidance—not that anyone wants to hear from me, right? I’m sure David Mamet is saying, ‘Who are you?’—but my advice is stick to the text. Because while, yes, 100 million people showed up to watch our series and while we think Son of God will win its opening weekend, the same audience, if you mess with their story that they live their lives by, will go quickly into reverse.”
To guard against that Downey and Burnett enlisted 40 advisers—academics, theologians, church leaders—to critique the scripts. They contacted Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, which has one of the largest congregations in North America; Bishop T.D. Jakes, senior pastor of the Potter’s House, a 30,000-member church in Dallas; and Joel Osteen, one of the nation’s leading televangelists. Closer to home they sought out Rick Warren, the pastor and best-selling writer who runs Saddleback Church in Lake Forest. Later Archbishop José H. Gómez, who leads the Catholic archdiocese in Los Angeles, would also endorse the project.
“We’ve found that the movie has been such a bridge between denominations,” Burnett says. “This story of faith and love has become mainstream. We feel like the movie is going to funnel people into various churches.” Which is exactly the way he and Downey want it. When I ask if their goal is to proselytize, he answers, “Oh, completely. Completely!”
Says Downey: “The intention in the making of this was to create a loving feast, and everyone was invited to that table. It is our hope that we can find with the film a place where we can come together, and instead of what we oppose, it’s what we propose, which is this loving message of Jesus.”
Which brings us back, indirectly, to Morgado, who may be the hunkiest Jesus ever to hit any screen. Downey and Burnett worked hard to make his depiction “gritty,” so as to avoid “the way in those Bible movies from our childhoods, people always looked like they’d stepped out of a dry cleaners,” Downey says. Burnett interjects: “Roma had someone walking around with a bag of dirt!” Downey nods. “I was like, ‘Too clean!’ ”
Also working in their favor is that the only other movies opening nationwide on the same day as Son of God are a teen horror flick called Welcome to Yesterday and Non-Stop, a thriller starring Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore that takes place on an airplane, at 40,000 feet. Burnett and Downey have faced tougher competition. The premiere episode of The Bible beat an episode of the wildly popular AMC series The Walking Dead (prompting CNN to trumpet “God Beats Zombies”).
“That was one of the greatest quotes,” Burnett says. “My wife loves that.”
“That wasn’t my goal,” Downey says, smiling. “But I do love it.”