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Interview: Mark Burnett & Roma Downey For “Son of God”

The second my roundtable interview began with actress/producer Roma Downey (Touched By An Angel) and her husband, producer Mark Burnett (Survivor), something was different. Maybe it was the sudden fire alarm in the hotel, which caused us to go across the street and conduct the interview over bagels, or maybe it was the couple’s strong passion for their new film, Son of God, and their faith. Either way, I couldn’t have asked for a more interesting and insightful discussion about the process for getting this biographical film, on the life of Jesus, made.

Being that there hasn’t been a feature film about Jesus in over ten years, it seemed this was the perfect opportunity to bring Son of God to the big screen. With Mr. Burnett’s immense success creating such entertaining television shows as The Voice and Survivor, it was interesting to hear him talk about venturing out into another medium.  Film is a whole new ball game for the couple, one that presented a host of new challenges and successes.

Son of God combines footage of Jesus’ life from The Bible miniseries, which aired on the History channel last year, with additional footage shot solely for the film. This may not be the first time you see “the greatest story ever told”, but it will be one of the most memorable. Check out our interview with Mr. Burnett and Ms. Downey below and make sure you go see Son of God, opening in theaters this Friday, February 28!

Rebecca Cusey ( Can you talk about when you decided you wanted to turn Son of God into a feature film and the process for doing that?

Roma: Yes, well when we were in Morocco filming, we had an editor on set with us and each week we would gather the crew and the cast and we would look at rough assemblies of what we were doing. It was a way to really get everybody enthusiastic to see how amazing it looked, and it did. And as the Jesus narrative was unfolding on the screen, I said to Mark, “I wish we had been making a film. This is so beautiful. It’s spectacular and really deserves to be on the big screen.” So we decided there and then that we would do that as well. And so we shot…

Mark: With no clue how impossible it would be to get the movie in theaters. But we just knew… We’ve been very blessed with our careers, so we knew we could afford to get the movie made and somehow we could certainly get it in a couple theaters.

Roma: We thought at the very least we could do special event screenings. You know, not really even daring to dream that it would become what it has become with 20th Century Fox distributing it.

Rebecca: So as you were filming, you were filming with both the miniseries and a feature film in mind?

Mark: Yes! Just because we thought it looked so great and because Roma said, “This should be on the big screen!” Then, you know, it took us a year for the edit to figure out how to do this in two hours. Then when we saw it, we realized this is really emotionally connecting and it just flies by with the pacing. Then, of course, it came true! It is literally coming out February 28th in 3,000 theaters!

What’s really great is people are seeing this that have been going to church their whole lives, or pastors/theologians, who have said, “I’ve never thought of these details of moments like when Peter gets out of the boat when Jesus walks on water. What are the other disciples thinking? They’re like, Peter what are you doing? You’re going to drown!” How scary it was and also from the political point of view… this is not a one dimensional story that Pilate is just evil or Caiaphus is just evil. They’ve got their own fears and concerns and it’s layered so you see a whole different aspect of it. I think it’s really important the way it feels…

Roma: We decided to tell the story as a three pointed drama with the occupying Roman forces (led by Pilate), the temple authorities (led by Caiaphus), the disciples (led by Jesus) and all on this collision path in Jerusalem at the time of Passover, which created that ticking clock which really gives the film pace. So on the one hand, I think the film plays like a political thriller and on the other hand, I know it plays like a love story because it’s the greatest love story there ever was. I think we wanted to make sure you felt that epic scale that a feature has; it’s gritty and it’s big and it’s sweeping and the locations are impressive and Hans Zimmer’s score is just spectacular. So it has that big movie feel and yet it’s a very intimate story and I think we’ve seen from the screenings that we’ve done, we’ve maybe done like 20 screenings across the country for different church groups and so on, that people are sitting through the end credits profoundly moved by the experience…

Mark: In discussion!

Roma: Yeah, an entry point for the bigger discussion, which is encouraging.

Jesus hole in hand

Lauren ( Could you guys talk a little bit about the Hans Zimmer score and CeeLo’s “Mary Did You Know”? I loved the music in the movie; it was really touching.

Mark: Thank you!

Roma: We were so thrilled to get Hans Zimmer on board. We are big, big fans of his work. Gladiator is one of my all-time favorite scores. When we met with him initially, we were talking through the project. We said to him, “We’d love to get a female voice on board like you did on Gladiator… someone like Lisa Gerard to add that haunting female vocal sound.” And he said, “Why would we get someone like Lisa Gerard when we could get someone like Lisa Gerard.” [everyone laughs]

So he phoned her there and then and even though she was on tour, she’s a Christian and was profoundly moved by the idea of being involved with the project. You know, the score is just so evocative. I think that the score is like another character in the picture. In this case, she has that androgynous sound that when the wail goes up at the crucifixion, when all of the onlookers come up and crest the hill, her voice just comes in and it’s like the mournful cry of humanity. It’s something that gives you goose bumps. But he’s extraordinary. Lorne Balf that works with him is extraordinary. Then of course, Mark had a few inroads to CeeLo Green. [everyone laughs]

Lauren: Just a few!

Mark: That song’s amazing. Roma had had that song in her mind…

Roma: I just had it stuck in my head…

Mark: … during filming. “Mary Did You Know”, because she was playing Mary! It made perfect sense. I remember mentioning to CeeLo when I came back for The Voice that I had been hearing this song over and over that Roma’s been playing while filming.

Roma: I had been playing it because those are all of the questions I was asking myself in playing Mary. Mary, did you know? Did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water? Did you know that he would come and save our sons and daughters?

Mark: As it turns out, see everything is meant to be, CeeLo said, “I’m going to work on a Christmas album.” I said, “You should do maybe this song as a part of it. It’s perfect!” He said, “You know, I haven’t thought about that song in ages. It’s kind of a country song. I could redo that.” So he did it and we actually put it out as a video for The Bible series, which went viral. Now it’s in the closing credits. It’s a lovely way to end the movie because it resets the thought process of, “what is this about?” You see the video moments come up in the credits. I think the film is a beautiful experience for people. It’s only 2 hours 15 minutes so it’s a much easier way to share around the world than 10 hours.

John (  Roma, can you talk about filming the Crucifixion scene because that’s intense for moviegoers to begin with and you were onset dealing with it. How did you get into that mindset?

Roma: Yeah, it was the most intense scene in the entire picture. It took us three days to film it. It was challenging, not just physically but emotionally and spiritually. I think everybody who was present was deeply impacted by the scene. The challenge is that we had to put an actor up on a cross. We had to make sure the cross was bolted to the ground. There were high winds one afternoon. There was intense sunshine on the second day. We had to figure out how we were going to get him up and down off the cross. We had to build a platform. How long could we keep him on the cross? How could he balance on the cross? There were many, many rehearsals. We had different people up on a cross.

The most moving thing for all of us was to just imagine what the experience must have been. You know, we were speaking about the lyric of that song… it’s like I’ve considered the cross my whole life but I’ve never fully considered what his mother must have been thinking… to be the mother of Jesus and see your son so brutally murdered in such a way. We know that she was the mother of the son of God but she was also the mother of a son. Yeah it was really…all I could do was bring the heart of a mother to it. I’m a mother myself. We know all of the disciples (except for John) were not present, so the courage of His mother, of Mary, to remain with Him and be there for Him. We also know that Jesus only said seven things from the cross. One of those was to take time to look out for His mother, to make sure that she was okay, which says so much about Him as well.

Rebecca: I’m thinking about the trajectory of your career. When you came to Hollywood and you started out… Did you picture that you would ever do this one day and to come to the place where you have kind of the position in Hollywood to pull something off like this. Can you talk about that arc and I guess what I really want to know is ‘is there a cost?’ You’ve built up a career. Is this a cost to saying ‘I’m gonna do this religious film’… Somebody wants to make a significant Bible movie. How do they get there so that they can do that?

Mark: Roma had intended to come here to act with the National Theater of Ireland, but to pay the rent, was a coat check girl in Manhattan. My first job was as a house keeper/nanny in Beverly Hills— as a servant for $125 dollars a week so cut to where we are now. It’s America. If you think of what we’re doing now, only in America is this possible. In terms of making this film and this series, if it wouldn’t have been for Touched by an Angel and The Voice and Survivor, and The Apprentice and Shark Tank, I don’t think that we would’ve had the leverage to have gotten this made. I know that’s true. It certainly gave us an entry point to get it made so therefore you have to look at. Things happen for a reason. It’s for such a time as this that we met. And two careers… if you also think back, interestingly enough, we both had huge success on CBS so the only show that was really beating Survivor was Touched by an Angel. [laughter]

Rebecca: Does that come up a lot in your house?

Mark: I’d rather be beaten by Roma.

Roma Downey as Mary in Son of God

Lauren: Could you guys talk a little bit about the MPAA rating of this because I was really happy that it’s rated PG-13 so then a lot of families can go see it because Passion of the Christ was rated R and a lot of other more violent movies are rated R. I was just wondering if that was a choice.

Roma: Absolutely! It was very important to us. Also, we wanted this to be a family experience so that you could bring the kids because we know that there’s such an opportunity here for the movie to become the entry point to a grander conversation for families to gather around the kitchen table and discuss faith, discuss God, discuss Jesus. Jesus hasn’t been on the big screen for ten years and his whole life hasn’t been on the big screen for almost fifty years since The Greatest Story Ever Told. Unlike Passion of [The] Christ— which was just three days in Jesus’ life— we have attempted here to tell the greater narrative from his birth through the death and resurrection and through the ascension. The scene that was the most challenging was the Crucifixion and we know that it must’ve been a brutal way to die so there was no way to sugarcoat that but I think that— in the cut for the film— that nothing is presented gratuitously. It’s edited in such a way that you can see the hammer being raised and the nail being placed in the hand of Jesus but we don’t have to see the nail entering the hand of Jesus. We cut to the reaction of somebody watching, so we thoughtfully and sensitively tried to put that together but we were also very pleased because we think there’s such an opportunity here for this to be a family experience

John: Roma, a few years ago, I talked to you about Little Angels and we also talked about Touched by an Angel and I asked you if any Christian show had kind of replaced that on TV. There hasn’t really been a show. Do you find that there are going to be more Christian movies after something like this because after the success of The Bible, people know that these are stories that people are looking to see on the big screen.

Roma: I think the answer is yes. I think that when we first had the idea to put the Bible on television, many people thought we’d lost our minds and had said to us, “No one will show up to watch a series like this on television.” As we know, 100 million people watched the series in its entirety and it has continued to ripple around the globe. It beat hockey in Canada!

John: Nothing beats hockey in Canada.

Roma: And it did very well in Australia. It was number one in Hong Kong. I think that God is moving and I think that as a result of that success, a very strong message has been sent to Hollywood. Consequently, we’re seeing, coming down the pipeline already, a number of faith films. We haven’t quite seen that in television series yet. Clearly, there’s an appetite and clearly there’s an audience— an audience that’s being under-served so I hope the answer is yes. I’m encouraged that it is so.

Rebecca: That was kinda going to be my question. How about The Dovekeepers and A.D.? How much is going to cross over?  Do you have any actors that you think are going be coming back? How much of the same material are you using?

Mark: A.D., first of all… We had a busy time in Morocco. We came up with the idea ‘let’s make a movie as well as a series’ and we absolutely had started to write the outline for A.D. while in Morocco because we were living in that moment and thinking ‘Boy, how did 12 guys take down Rome?’ Because really… wouldn’t it be obvious? Jesus is crucified. Resurrects. There starts being all these problems growing around realizing the Son of God had been on Earth. It’s strange they didn’t just kill them [the early Apostles] all and try to get rid of it that way. They weren’t exactly above killing everybody, were they? They crucified about 500 people a day at one point.

But it’s amazing… you look at it and you look at the four groups: the people of the way (the growing disciples), the Herod family (who are completely insane), the Romans (who just wanted to keep peace and collect taxes), and the temple authorities (who literally were battling the people of the way and Rome at one time), which led to 40 years later, the temple finally falls, right? So that’s A.D. A.D. really is the through line of Acts through Revelation. We built around it a huge drama about what was going on. By the way, it’s amazing the amount of Church leaders that have said to us ‘Well, that’s a really important story because no one’s really considered that much what they really went through. Then The Dovekeepers takes place actually, well it starts at the destruction of the temple.

Roma: Clearly we love this period of time and stories that show the triumph of the human spirit in spite of the terrible times they were living in. Both stories have that as the heart beat. The Dovekeepers is a beautiful novel written by Alice Hoffman and in fact, we’ve just gotten our first draft outlined of the screenplay from Ann Peacock.

Mark: Today.

Roma: Today. So we’re eager to get to read that on the flight back and it’s a great story. That’s going to be a four-hour miniseries, a special event miniseries in the spring of 2015 on CBS. And A.D., we have a twelve-hour commitment from NBC to make that series and we’re hoping that that will be an ongoing series… that it won’t just be a one-off.

Rebecca: So is it through Revelation or does it go past? Does it go into the early Church fathers?

Mark: Revelation was written around 95 AD, which we’ve planned to get to 70 AD as the temple falls… However, like with everything on TV— we’re about to film season 29 and 30 of Survivor— so if people are watching, it could absolutely go on. We really originally thought of taking it to A.D. 337. You know what happens then, right?

Rebecca: Constantine.

Mark: You passed. Your teacher is so happy.

Rebecca: I’ve gotta tell you I’m fascinated by the early Church history. I would love to see that.

Mark: That’s what we’re working on. You would’ve passed that test. Your family would be very happy that you listened.

Rebecca: I was in Italy this summer so I–

Roma: Did you see the Pietà?

Rebecca: Yes.

Roma: Because you know the moment when we have Jesus dropped down—lowered down— from the Cross, we wanted to pay homage to Michelangelo’s Pietà in that moment. The camera lingers for just a moment while Jesus is placed in his mother’s arms. [to John] Have you ever seen the Pietà?

John: I haven’t.

Roma: Well, you’ll have to look it up. It’s a beautiful statue that’s in Rome that is Mary holding the dead Jesus in her arms and Michelangelo — it’s the only statue he ever signed and he said he signed it because he said he really felt that it was inspired by God to create the statue.

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