Mark Burnett is the king of reality television. His shows and spinoffs command hours of prime-time television real estate. The seal of his production company One Three Media appears at the end of "Survivor," "The Voice," "The Apprentice," "Shark Tank," "The Job" and "Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?"
He will tell you each show was No. 1 in the time slot. He will tell you he will take on all comers in his bare-knuckle, ratings-driven world and beat them. He will tell you on any given day he has 150 video-editing systems churning through edits on his dossier, which spans the three major broadcast networks.
But if you suggest he may not have the chops to take on a massive scripted dramatic presentation of the Bible as a 10-hour miniseries, his eyes will tell you he wants to throttle you.
Burnett and wife, Roma Downey, have been barnstorming the country like roving preachers on horseback trying to evangelize the West. Their gospel is spreading the news of "The Bible" - their ambitious project that aims to tell the story of the Bible in 10 installments. It begins its weeklong premiere on the History Channel Sunday night.
We met in the lobby of the Washington Hilton the night before last month's National Prayer Breakfast. They were in town to speak to Washington journalists and show clips from their project.
Burnett and Downey's project tackles the narrative of the Bible, a story woven through 66 books of the Old Testament and New Testament. It's a story revered by billions as divine revelation -- and one they've compressed into 10 hours of television. What could possibly go wrong?
Many have taken aim at dramatizing the stories of the Bible. Few of those productions stood the test of time. They knew all that going in 3 1/2 years ago when "the light bulb went off," as Downey puts it.
"It's been a great fun journey right, Roma?" Burnett said to his wife of nearly six years.
"And we're still talking to each other," Downey said, smiling.
Both Downey and Burnett were raised Catholic, Burnett in England and Downey in Ireland. They still regularly attend Mass in Los Angeles. Growing up, both watched the classic Biblical films that the Hollywood of yesteryear churned out, like "The Ten Commandments" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told."
"In Ireland, we used to sit up and wait for John Wayne to say, 'Surely that man was the Son of God,' at the end of 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' every Easter," Downey said, with her thick Irish brogue dipping into a delightfully terrible John Wayne impersonation.
After showing their kids "The Ten Commandments" with Charlton Heston, their three teenagers had one request for the Bible project. They told their parents, "Please don't make it lame."
Making it work
The project is personal for Burnett and Downey, coming from a deep spiritual desire for more people to see and experience the stories of their faith. As Europeans, now naturalized U.S. citizens, they are stunned the Bible is not taught in public schools.
"It was time for an updating. Adding fresh visual life to a sacred text," Burnett said.
"People have great hearts and great knowledge but no experience of filmmaking and no budgets," Burnett said of past telling of the stories on film and television.
"Or the resources," Downey chimed in. "We wanted to create something that was gritty and authentic. We certainly didn't want everyone to look like they stepped out of the dry cleaners."
Burnett and Downey may not have been high on the list of many studios as producers and directors to put a massive scripted project like this together. "All-Star Celebrity Apprentice" starring Donald Trump and Gary Busey is not exactly" Ben-Hur," and Adam Levine and Cee Lo Green spinning in chairs on the singing competition "The Voice" isn't often (or ever) compared to the "Ten Commandments."
When I asked Burnett about this, he seemed genuinely insulted.
"Based on viewership, maybe I should be giving a few lessons to the people who are doing stories. Because we have five nights of No. 1 wins on prime-time television," he started. "As a family we've made over 2,000 hours of American television and 8,000 worldwide."
As he cooled down, ticking off a list of reasons why he and his wife were best suited for the job, he delved into how this project was made.
The production, he insisted, was a lot more like the production that goes into "Survivor" than nearly any feature film or television show in production.
"Survivor" typically includes a cast and crew of 400 people in a remote location with multiple helicopters and boats.
To film the Bible series, they set off for the southern tip of Morocco in Africa with a similar-size crew and hundreds of extras. Not to mention the chariots and horses.
"It was epic," Downey said.
"Our experience with large-scale productions was very, very important," Burnett said.
To help further bring the story to life, they brought in Lola, an Oscar-winning CGI team from London who created similar scenes for the film "Gladiator."
They went with an international ensemble for the cast because they didn't want to distract the audience with recognizable celebrities.
Jesus was played by Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado. Many other actors came from the Theatre District in London.
The most recognizable face to most in North America will be Downey herself, who stepped into the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary is portrayed in the series as a young woman at the Nativity, then later in life.
"It was a privilege to play it," Downey said. For nine seasons, Downey starred in the CBS show "Touched by an Angel," then went on to star in a number of TV movies.
"The scripts at one point just said Young Mary, and then as the scripts progressed it said Old Mary. I said, 'OK, we have to change that right now.' The last thing I need to see is 'Old Mary' played by Roma Downey," she said with a laugh. "So we changed it to Mother Mary."
The budget for the 10 hours was under $22 million, Burnett said, a small price tag for a production on such a grand scale. (NBC paid $4 million per episode for the show "Smash" this season, according to an estimate by the New York Times)
"It's not easy, even for us, to sell and get placed on prime time television, 10 hours -- Genesis to Revelation," Burnett said. "Do we wish we had 25 or 100 [hours], yes but we got 10. We got a great budget. It looks like it's a $200 million movie. Of course it's not. It's just our combined experiences, our hearts and efforts that make it look like that."
Getting it right
As they considered which parts of the Bible to shoot, they had to pare down hundreds of stories.
"The first decision was, it's one story," Burnett said. "It's not a series of unconnected stories, it's one grand narrative."
"You could call it the meta narrative."