When Mark Burnett and Roma Downey set out to make a TV series called The Bible, many of their Hollywood colleagues thought they were crazy.
But Mark, the producer of The Voice, Survivor, Shark Tank and The Apprentice, knew a thing or two about making good television – and the power of prayer.
He and his wife Roma, star of the immensely successful 1990s TV show Touched By An Angel, prayed for guidance.
Believing that God was calling them to the audacious project, they took a giant leap of faith, and it paid off.
To date, The Bible: The Epic Miniseries has attracted around 100 million viewers and has even helped people, in their thousands, to make commitments to the Christian faith.
What Inspired The Bible Series?
Talking to Hope Media, Mark said he and his wife were first inspired to make The Bible, by another TV show that actually aimed to discredit the holy book.
“We heard of a documentary idea which was tearing God apart,” said Mark, “trying to use the Bible to show all the mean things that God did – the flood, destroying Sodom, [those] kinds of things.
“And my wife said, “you know, it really is a love story. We should just do it properly”.
“I said, “Roma, the whole Bible? You have to be joking”.
“She said, “you know what, I just feel we could do this”. We prayed, and we decided quickly “we should do this” and we never looked back.”
In the USA the 10-part series broke records, with its debut episode attracting 13 million viewers – including Oprah Winfrey, who tweeted her admiration for the show while it aired.
In Australia, 1.2 million tuned in to the first instalment, after only a week’s notice.
Mark credits the show’s success to the hand of God.
“In retrospect, it almost seems crazy that you’d take on a global TV show on the Bible; there’s so many mistakes we could have made, so much criticism that we could get,” he told Open House presenter Leigh Hatcher.
“But somehow it all worked out. There’s no other way that works other than The Holy Spirit.”
The Secret Behind Their Success
Mark and Roma now head up the production companies LightWorkers Media and United Artists Media Group.
With several accolades including six Emmy Awards under his belt, Mark said he believed God had allowed he and his wife to have great success, so that they could bring stories of faith to the screen.
“We have had a very blessed 20 years in this business,” he said. “We realised it was that previous success which gave us the ‘juice’ to get [The Bible] made.
“Had we not had those previously successful shows, I don’t think anybody would have wanted to listen to putting the Bible on public network television. But that’s why we were blessed.”
Making Sure They Got The Story Right
With the Christian community consisting of more than 30,000 denominations worldwide, Mark said he was careful to make sure the show struck a chord with the majority of believers.
He spoke with many church leaders about the project, including Rick Warren, TD Jakes and others.
“We consulted across the Catholic church, Evangelicals, Baptists, Presbyterians, across many many sects – academics and church leaders – and we really tried to find a middle ground everyone could agree upon,” he said.
“We’re smart enough to realise that telling people how they’re supposed to feel or do is a big mistake. It’s far better just to tell the stories – the incredible stories of the sacred text of the Bible.
”We tried to make it relatable, and gritty – it was very gritty – and relate dark times as well as times of light – and let people feel how they want to feel.
“And it’s worked. Rick Warren told us at one point, that after the series aired in America, 3000 people came to Christ through his church alone.”
A Peek Behind The Scenes
The Bible miniseries spends half of its 10 hours on the Old Testament, and the other half on the New Testament, telling the stories of characters like Daniel, Samson, David and Goliath, Abraham and Isaac, and of course, Jesus.
The 10-part series took four years to make, and cost $22 million – a figure that’s considered inexpensive in Hollywood.
Despite its efficient budget, Mark said he made sure the series was made to the highest level of quality.
“Being Christian and wanting to spread the Christian message doesn’t give you permission to make it crappy,” he said. “You’ve got to play at the same level as secular stuff, whether you’re running a radio show, a TV show, or whatever.”
The filming phase in Morocco, which took five months, had a strong emphasis on reality.
“There’s nothing more annoying than looking at Bible movies where everybody looks like they just stepped out of a drycleaner’s,” Mark said.
“Having shot out there in the desert, everything takes you three hours and everything’s covered in dust. You end up with dirty fingernails, dirty feet.
“We had a man with a bag of dirt walking around, throwing dirt on people all the time. We made it gritty, made it real, we tried to make it as if you could relate to these characters, these figures from the Bible.”
Bathing The Show In Prayer
Roma and Mark wrote in an article in the Huffington Post that there were many times during the filming in Morocco, and the editing in London, when “the work felt so big and we felt so small”.
“It was during those times we learned the real power of prayer,” they wrote.
“Not only praying individually, and together, for guidance and strength; but being honest enough and humble enough to ask friends and even strangers to pray for those things on our behalf.
“We felt the warm reassurance that this was not just another TV show to us, but something much, much bigger.”
How The Series Strengthened Their Love For Each Other
Mark Burnett first met Roma Downey, the Irish-born, Roman Catholic star of Touched By An Angel, in 2004 in a hair salon.
“I was having a haircut and she was having a manicure,” he told Hope Media’s Breakfast team.
“I looked in the mirror and saw this really, really hot woman, and looked away quickly; I didn’t want to be caught looking at her. But when I looked back she was looking at me. I caught her once, twice, three times and she looked so embarrassed that she was looking over.
“I got her number, but I didn’t want to be rejected. So I asked the receptionist could she call Roma and ask her “if I called her, and asked her on a date, would she say yes.”
“And Roma’s message was “of course I’ll go out with you”. It gave me some confidence. I know it sounds terribly weak but it’s true.”
The pair married in 2007.
They wrote in the Huffington Post that making The Bible series deepened their love – both for each other, and for the Bible.
“Part of what we hoped to accomplish with the series was to show the Bible is not simply a collection of unconnected stories,” they wrote.
“We wanted to show how the Old Testament connects seamlessly to the New Testament. How they are one sweeping story with one grand, overriding message: God loves each one of us as if we were the only person in all the world to love.”
Drawing On Her Mothering Instinct
Roma, who played the part of an angel throughout the 1990s in Touched By An Angel, said that portraying Jesus’ mother was one of the more amazing experiences of her acting career.
“For me to be able to step into playing the role of Mary the mother of Jesus was just extraordinary,” she said.
“I can’t begin to imagine what she must have been feeling in those days.
“I’m a mum myself so all I could do was bring a mother’s heart.”
Influenced By A Personal Faith
Mark Burnett told Hope Media he doesn’t remember ever being without a Bible.
“Growing up in England, my dad was a Scottish Catholic, my mum a Scottish Presbyterian, and I always had the Bible around,” he said.
His strong faith influences every project he has worked on.
“Even though much of my work is secular, I don’t do anything other than family-friendly programming.
“Take The Voice. You can watch that with your kids, and your grandparents. Survivor, same thing. Celebrity Apprentice, it’s all good fun.
“Other shows I’ve done in Australia are Eco-Challenge and Are You Smarter Than A 10-Year-Old. It’s all family-friendly, that’s what we stand for.
“We’ve made an enormous career out of family friendly.”
He said his aim with The Bible series was to introduce people to God’s book, and get them thinking and talking.
“The Bible is a very comforting thing,” he said. “Most people want God in their life. Our job is to get the message out there and attract people, and we’ve done that in every country it’s been in.”