Interview: Roma Downey and Mark Burnett on “Son of God”

Posted on February 26, 2014 at 8:00 am

downey burnett

“I just put on hand cream, so I can’t shake your hand,” Roma Downey said as I walked into the room. “You’ll just have to get a hug.” Fine with me!

I was there to talk to Downey and her husband, Mark Burnett, about “Son of God,” adapted from their ground-breaking television series, “The Bible,” and released in theaters this week, in time for Lent.

I know you had an overwhelming response to the television series. Tell me about the comments that you got that were most meaningful for you.

MB: I think the biggest comments initially were the result of the viewership; it being the number one show of the night. I think they were surprised there was a big audience. It was the number one show of the night and then of course they repeated it and the repeats beat most of the new shows. It just became like this wave and all press; faith press and secular press, like to get on board with something is that hot. And so, the big discussion’s for five weeks. Whoa, everyone is talking about the Bible! Everyone is talking about the Bible!

RD: We’ve been so humbled and excited as we travel around the country now with the film, “Son of God,” letting people know the movie’s coming up, people stepping up and shaking our hands and thanking us for having put “The Bible” on TV. And it’s a bit like I would imagine maybe serviceman returning feel. There’s been such a overwhelming sense of gratitude being expressed from people who are around the country as we go in to do interviews; the receptionists, the guy in the elevator, the driver of the taxi, everybody just responding that it brought enlightenment to Scripture, for families that it gave an entry point into a bigger conversation around the kitchen table. In office places it allowed for an entry point for conversation around the watercooler. The people at work who typically didn’t speak about faith or it hadn’t come up at the workplace. It was like it gave people permission to have that bigger discussion and that’s very encouraging.

And we had wanted to relay the story in an exciting and dynamic way, but ultimately to reveal it for the love story that it is and I think that that certainly came through in the series.  With this film, to see the Jesus narrative stand alone in the feature film experience, you really get a sense of this extraordinary life in a way that’s grand and epic and sweetening and it is surprisingly intimate.

You chose to play Mary.  In that agonizing crucifixion scene, that you have to do everything with your eyes.  

RD: I just had a few lines in the entire film and yet they speak volumes with no words.  Mary and Jesus had this extraordinary relationship between them.  What a teacher Mary is really.  It is the ultimate trusting; that she had to trust God, that she was so privileged to be the mother of the Savior, that she had to stand there as a mother and watch her son being murdered and trust that that is what he came to do. It was a very emotional few days filming those scenes for everybody.

As producers, what did you do to create the kind of spirit on the set that could be felt through the film?

RD: I think everything begins with intention.  We prayed on this from the beginning, from its beginning as a whisper in our hearts, we prayed on it and we continued to pray and asked others to pray for us and with us. And I think that has been part of the spiritual engine, certainly behind the project from the beginning.  There were moments over there we clearly could feel the presence among us. Every day we had to clear away one or two snakes, but on the day when we filmed the crucifixion, there were over 40 snakes to be cleared away.  

MB: She told this story, at the National Shrine and people gasped. 

RD: As our cast would arrive in Morocco, Mark and I wanted to do something that would be special for each and everyone of them. I have memories myself as an actor, of showing up on a location and how strange that can be sometimes when you don’t know anybody and yet as an actor you are often required to do your most vulnerable scene first or to step in pretending you know everybody and so I thought it would be nice if we greeted each person personally and it became clear that it was fine for the first few actors coming in.  But then we were actually out and working and on the set so it wasn’t possible so the next best substitute was a handwritten letter and so every actor who came into a hotel room late at night on that late flight from Casablanca would receive a little hand selected gift of some sort and letter which was just a letter of welcome. And as they started this journey with us of shining a light; because our company is called Light Workers, tired of cursing the darkness; we wanted to be part of shining a light, shining his right. And what is interesting is that we got to know them after that, a few of them that they were so deeply touched by this; the warmth of the welcome immediately put them at ease and a few others thought we were complete nut cases but once they met us and knew our hearts, that everybody immediately felt so comfortable.

And I think what also happened with all the actors.  This is where the spirit just wove itself through everybody.  There was such a camaraderie that the developed among the actors.  You know I’ve been on many sets my whole life and I can’t remember too many where we sat around on rocks in a desert reading Scripture together.  There were times we would go into a scene and we had to emotionally reset; we would say “shall we reread this Scripture leading up to the scene”  We were about to pray just to give everybody a reminder of where they are coming from and what is about to happen. And so we would sit around and read and pray and that is very, very special.

Downey wrote a piece in the Washington Post about why they decided to keep the devil out of this film.

I wanted all of the focus to be on Jesus. I want his name to be on the lips of everyone who sees this movie, so we cast Satan out. It gives me great pleasure to tell you that the devil is on the cutting room floor. This is now a movie about Jesus, the Son of God, and the devil gets no more screen time, no more distractions.

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