Television producer Mark Burnett has proven to be an innovative hitmaker – he’d brought ratings colossuses like “Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” “The Voice” and “Shark Tank” to the airwaves over the past decade. But when he and his actress wife Roma Downey decided to turn one of the oldest stories in recorded history and the foundation of the world’s largest religion into the film “Son of God,” all of that combined success still required a major leap of faith.
Burnett admits that when he and Downey – who headlined the faith-centric series “Touched by an Angel” for nine seasons – found themselves moved to produce a sweeping dramatization of many events depicted in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible for a ten-hour miniseries airing in 2013 on the History channel that the couple financed themselves, neither expected just how popular the venture would become: “The Bible” was ultimately one of the most-watched television series of the year, and received multiple Emmy nominations. But Burnett and Downey took their gambit even a step further, choosing to expand the series’ treatment of the messianic story of Jesus Christ into a full-fledged feature film long before they knew just how powerfully “The Bible” would resonate with audiences.
“We decided to make this movie way before the series came out – way before,” says Burnett. “We’re actually in Morocco, filming the early parts of the Jesus story and ‘The Bible’ series, and Roma said, ‘We should’ve made a big feature film. This is so good, this should be on the big screen.’ And we thought about it and we thought why not? We knew we had the resources. So we went ahead and started to work on the feature film version.”
During the year that it took to deliver the finished miniseries, Burnett was able to strike a deal to distribute the two-hour spin-off project through 20th Century Fox. “Now we have a movie. We had no idea when we made it and spent the money if it would even get released – no idea! Just took the risk and [it turned out] bigger than we ever dared to dream.”
As a feature film, “Son of God” both expends upon and abridges the Jesus-driven portions of the miniseries, from birth to resurrection, with a considerable amount of new and alternate footage. “It’s a completely different experience,” explains Burnett. “We’d shot so much – different shot choices, different scenes added, the scenes taken away. It’s only two hours, but when you look at this in totality, it’s like this epic cinematic experience.”
As he and Downey turned their focus to telling Christ’s specific story, Burnett says he couldn’t help but notice certain similarities to popular contemporary entertainment. “The feeling of the movie and the pace, it’s like ‘House of Cards,’ that political intrigue, the political drama,” he chuckles. “It’s a political thriller wrapped in an epic – and it’s pretty epic, the scale: hundreds and hundreds of extras and special effects with miracles. Feeding the five thousand people, walking on water, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the crucifixion, the Ascension –these are epic moments, Biblically, but all wrapped in this very personal, intimate love story of God’s love for us.”
A crucial factor for the success of their efforts was, of course, casting Jesus, which required some nearly divine timing. “We were very close to filming and we had not found the actor we thought would best portray Jesus,” he says after scrutinizing scores of aspiring messiahs. “I’m saying, ‘Roma, we’re four weeks away [from shooting]’ and Roma says ‘We haven’t found him yet.’”
Downey, he explains, was determined to hold out as long as possible for the right performer, turning to prayer and spreading word of their search as far and wide as she could. Finally, an assistant director on the project recalled working with a performer on another project shot in Morocco who might fit the bill – but couldn’t remember the actor’s name. Scouring through a local hotel registry, the A.D. finally turned up the right name, Portuguese actor and former model Diogo Morgado. Burnett and Downey tracked down Morgado’s agent, who mistakenly thought they were calling from London and reluctantly informed them that his client wouldn’t be able to audition because he was traveling – in Los Angeles. “And Roma said, ‘We’re here! Can we see him today?’ And as he walked up our garden path, Roma looked out the glass door and said, ‘It’s him.’ And it was.”
Burnett reveals that his own passion for the project grew out of a religious faith that has grown stronger in recent years. “I grew up in a Christian family, went to Sunday school, and religious education was every day in our public school in England,” he says. “But just growing up in the Christian world doesn’t make you practicing Christian. In the last several years, my faith has deepened so much, and there’s no question that as a result of working on ‘The Bible’ series and ‘Son of God’, I’ve been swimming in an ocean of faith. My heart has opened, which allows grace to move in, and it’s a very deep and important part of my life.”
He and Downey wanted to be particularly sensitive in the way the events of the Bible were interpreted and depicted for both the miniseries and the film. “We knew it was an enormous responsibility,” he says. “We put together a board of about 40 or more very high-level advisors to look at scripts and to advise us theologically, spiritually, emotionally and sensitively, including Rabbis, Catholic leaders, evangelical Baptists, Presbyterian leaders, university professors, theologians. People would never do this on a film, sending out the script to forty people for notes! Most people making a film are allergic to any notes – but it was smart.”
Indeed, the producers ultimately gathered written endorsements from who’s who of high-level theologists, including Washington D.C.’s Archiosese Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, Evangelical Christian pastor and author Rick Warren, televangelist Joel Osteen, The Potter’s House pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference’s Rev. Sam Rodriguez and Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman. “It shows you those years of hard work and sensitivity and focus paid off, because this is not just any movie. This is the Word of God, a sacred text, and needs to last decades,” says Burnett, who believes the movie will live on long past its theatrical run and be used as a teaching tool to both introduce and reinforce the Biblical messages. “This is very gritty and very real, and I think it may be for some people the first time they know the story. And for millions of more people – or probably billions more people – who know the story, they will reconnect.”