Producer Mark Burnett and his wife Roma Downey are devout Christians who took a risk when they decided to make “The Bible” as a five-hour miniseries for The History Channel, but it proved one of the surprise ratings smashes of 2013. During a recent Dallas interview Downey said, “Certainly the ratings were phenomenal. I don’t think that anybody expected a hundred million people would show up.” Now portions of the television program dealing with Christ—along with some additional footage—have been reedited into the feature “Son of God.”
Was it always their intention to make a film as well as the series? “No,” Burnett explained. “From the beginning when Roma said, ‘Let’s make the Bible series,’ my first response was, ‘Really—the whole Bible? How can we do that?’ But we were just a few weeks into it and got some footage, and we were looking with the crew at the Jesus narrative. And Roma said, ‘This is epic—these intimate scenes with the disciples and Jesus, this should be on a movie screen. We should make a movie. And we thought, we’re going to be here for six months, we’re going to shoot way more than we need. This really is good, and it would play so much better on the big screen, one narrative with no commercial breaks. We had no clue if we could get it into movie theatres. But we knew we could afford to make it, we’d finish it…5.1 surround sound, complete re-edit, special effects. And what was the worst that would happen? We’d end up with a movie and we’d pay for a couple of theatres and show it to groups.
“And then we thought, maybe we could do one of these one-night event things. And we sent it around, and Twentieth Century Fox called and said, ‘We love it, we’re going to do a wide release of it and we’d like to put it out on February 28th. And this was only in October of last year. We’d already almost finished it before the Bible series came on.”
Downey added, “I don’t know that we could have dared to dream that this would be happening on such a large scale. Twentieth Century Fox is distributing it in over two thousand theatres…and it’s going out in Spanish simultaneously. And when you consider that most things begin life on the big screen and end up on the small screen,…it’s just extraordinary.
“Jesus hasn’t been on screen for ten years, since ‘Passion’ [Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’]. We’re excited because we think there’s a whole new generation that will be ready to see the story come to life in this way. I myself am a visual learner. If I see it, it emotionally connects with me, it stays with me. I have found even as we worked on the film, that I go back to Scripture with a new alignment, and we’re seeing [the result] as we screen it across the country and see the momentum gathering around it, particularly from churches and faith leaders…because it’s such a great resource to illustrate the gospels in a way to emotionally engage and connect.
“We wanted to present the story on the one hand as a thriller—to show the political and historical context of the day. On the other hand it’s the most beautiful love story because it shows the incredible love for us, that He sent Jesus for us and ultimately to bring us home.”
Downey emphasized that the film crosses denominational lines. “What we’re for, despite the variety of denominations, is Jesus,” she said. “We share a common love of Jesus. And our movie tells the story of his life in a way that, if you don’t know him, would allow you to fall in love with him as you discover him, and if you do know him, gives you the opportunity to fall in love with him all over again.”
Burnett added, “The one unifying thing for all Christians globally is who Jesus is—the son of God. God died on that cross for all of us.”
But he added that the film isn’t designed simply for the Christian audience. “Just being Christian doesn’t give you the excuse to make something poorly,” he said. “This has been made to stand alone for a secular audience.”
Downey added, “There will be many people who come to this movie who don’t know the gospels at all. And what we were trying to achieve was a movie that would be invitational…an entry point into a bigger conversation, that you could gather around your kitchen table with your own family to discuss God and faith, or around the water cooler at your place of work to discuss it. I know that sometimes it can be hard to ask somebody to go to church with you, but very easy to ask someone to go with you to a movie.”
Part of that mission involved what Burnett called the “humanizing” of Jesus “because, you know, kids don’t want to be preached at in the movie theatre. They don’t want to be told what to think or how to feel. The movie just allows you to feel it. It’s very important to us that people get that feeling.”
Though “Son of God” contains most of the material from “The Bible” about Jesus, one sequence was omitted—that of the temptation of Christ in the desert. “We had these scenes in the ‘Bible’ series,” Downey explained, “and someone had made a poor joke that the actor we’d cast resembled our President. It created a furor in the press at that time. We were sure we’d wake up the next morning with everyone discussing Jesus, and instead we woke up to everyone discussing Satan. And it proved to be such a distraction that we didn’t want that distraction in ‘Son of God.’ This movie is about Jesus, and it’s Jesus’ name we wanted to have on everyone’s lips. So we cast Satan out—he’s on the cutting-room floor.”
Reflecting on the fact that other films on Scriptural topics are slated for release this year, Downey said, “I’m encouraged that there might be other programs that would appeal to our faith audience. I think that we as a community have been underserved in the past, and I think it would be great if Hollywood pays attention and brings us more films that tell the kinds of stories we want to see.”