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The Making of Mark Burnett’s and Roma Downey’s ‘Son of God’

By Dan Wooding, Founder of ASSIST Ministries, January 25, 2014

How Englishman Mark Burnett and Roma Downey from Northern Ireland, came together to produce a love story about the greatest person in history — Jesus Christ

Mark Burnett, with Dan Wooding, and
Roma Downey after the interview

LOS ANGELES, CA (ANS) – On the face of it, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, should never have come together, got married, and then produce a major new movie called “Son of God,” which tells the compelling life story of Jesus Christ, from his humble birth, through his teachings, crucifixion and ultimate resurrection, which is due for a much-anticipated release on February 28, 2014.

You see that Mark, a wildly successful British-American television producer, now based in Los Angeles, and the visionary behind “Survivor,” “The Voice,” “The Bible,” and “Shark Tank,” was from the wrong background for his lovely Ulster-born wife, Roma Downey, a star of “Touched by an Angel,”) who hails from the Bogside, a once troubled neighborhood outside the city walls of Derry, Northern Ireland.

Before his meteoric rise in the entertainment business, Burnett, who was born in Dagenham, a large suburb of east London, England, joined the British Army Parachute Regiment at 17 and served from 1977 to 1982. He was even awarded active service medals in both the Northern Island and Falklands conflicts.

The Daily Mirror’s front page

Roma’s home, the Bogside, had been a focus point for many of the events of “The Troubles” – which began in 1969, when a fierce three-day battle against the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and local Protestants, which became a starting point of the violent struggle in Northern Ireland that spilled over at various times into the Republic of Ireland, England and mainland Europe. “The Troubles” began in the late 1960s and is considered by many to have ended with the Belfast Good Friday Agreement of 1998, although some violence continued and between 1969 and 2001, 3,526 people were killed as a result of the conflict.

Between 1969 and 1972, in what was known as the “Battle of the Bogside,” the area, along with the Creggan and other Catholic areas, became a no-go area for the British Army and police. Both the Official and Provisional IRA members openly patrolled the area and local residents often paid subscriptions to both.

A young Fr. Edward Daly (who became Bishop Daly) carries a blood-soaked handkerchief as he leads a group of men trying desperately to carry John ‘Jackie’ Duddy to safety. Duddy (17) was the first fatality of Bloody Sunday after being shot from behind by paratroopers

Then came what was known as “Bloody Sunday,” when on the January 30, 1972, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association organized a march against internment that was put into effect the year before turned into a blood bath. The British government had decided that imprisoning people without trial was the only way they could restore order to Northern Ireland, but it had the opposite effect.

On that terrible day, the British Parachute Regiment shot dead 14 unarmed protesters and injured 14 more; this resulted in a large surge of recruitment for both wings of the IRA in the city. After Operation Motorman and the end of Free Derry and other no-go areas in Northern Ireland, the Bogside along with the majority of the city experienced frequent street riots and sectarian conflict lasting all the way to the early 1990s.

During an interview with the couple at a pre-release screening of “Son of God” at the Dream Center Angelus Temple in Los Angles, Roma revealed that Bono, with his Irish band, U2, had immortalized the event with the release of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” It was the opening track from their 1983 album “War,” which was mainly focusing on the “Bloody Sunday” incident in Derry.

Roma said, “The song came about when there was a civil rights march in the early 1970s and 14 people were killed that day. Outraged by that day, U2 created that song that really has become anthemic around the world.”

A recent picture of the happy couple

So, having been raised in such a situation, Mark certainly did not appear to be the kind of person that a girl from the Bogside would have married, but then, that’s when God’s love came into play and in a 2007 Malibu beach ceremony officiated by actor Della Reese, also from “Touched by an Angel,” they linked their lives together.

They says that their deep-rooted Christian faith came into play and overcame any differences and eventually this resulted in this Emmy Awarding husband and wife teaming up to produce the “The Bible,” an epic five-week, 10-hour television miniseries which premiered March 3, 2013 on the History Channel. For two hours each Sunday night millions of viewers saw the Bible from Genesis to Revelation come to life in a way never before seen. The final episode of the series aired on Easter Sunday and featured the death and resurrection of Jesus.

So I asked Roma, how they came to produce “The Bible” miniseries and now “Son of God?”

Roma Downey in Touched by an Angel

“For ten years, I played an angel on ‘Touched by an Angel,’ and the premise of that show, at its simplest, was that there is a God and that He loves you and that He wants to be part of your life,” she replied. “It was a privilege for me to be playing the angel — to be messenger — and delivering that message every week. And so, when that show came off the air, I was wondering how I would be called again and what I might do next.

“And Mark and I felt this whispering in our hearts to bring to the screen the stories of our Bible and over a cup of tea, where all the best decisions are made, we decided that we would that we would produce together the series on the Bible.

“I’m gentle by nature and I might still be there politely knocking on doors if it had been left to me to just try to sell that concept to a network. However, my husband, on the other hand, is a former military man and is much feistier by nature. So while I would be politely knocking on the doors, he was right next to me kicking the doors down, and we eventually we got a deal with the History Network and we aired the Bible miniseries this past year in the United States and it drew in, by the time it finished, about a hundred-million people who watched it in the United States alone. And it’s since gone to air around the world making ripples and really touching people’s hearts. It’s been wonderful.”

Mark then chipped in, and said, “We are Christians and it was a calling and we felt that our job was to use our enormous secular success on television and in the entertainment industry, to get the Bible series made.”

So how did the “Son of God” come about?

“While shooting the Jesus portion, we realized that this really needed to be a big feature film,” said Mark. “So we started overshooting and planning for this film which comes out February 28th and is a two hour movie on the life of Jesus which is made in a very fantastic way; very gripping very dramatic.

Poster for the film

“We remembered that the disciples at that time didn’t know they were in the Bible. They were a bunch of tough guys following a charismatic leader who later is revealed to be the Son of God. Imagine the fear they were going through when they discovered this and imagine the Romans hunting them down and the temple authorities trying to get rid of them.

“This was a very tense time and the only person who knew what was happening was Jesus. He led them into Jerusalem and soon they were so frightened and, of course, He knew He was going to his death. The movie takes you from after the crucifixion through to the resurrection, and then to the ascension, and the great commission.”

I then raised the topic of the violence that was so graphically portrayed in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” and wondered how they had dealt with His terrible suffering in the streets of Jerusalem and then on the cross at Calvary, in their new movie.

Roma said that they were, of course, deeply aware of Christ’s anguishes, but added, “We wanted families to be able to experience the movie together and so we worked with the ratings guys to ensure that we got a PG13 rating for the film.

“The crucifixion is hard to watch. It was a brutal way to die, but our movie moves through that and into the hope and promise of the resurrection through to the ascension and the great commission and it’s really beautiful.

“I think you know that Jesus has not been on the big screen for ten years, when ‘The Passion of the Christ’ came out and we believe that there’s a whole new generation of young people that will be inspired by seeing this film. We’ve tried to present it in a way that emotionally engages an audience.

Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado portrays Jesus

“We cast a beautiful and extraordinary Portuguese actor called Diogo Morgado and he gives an amazing performance and gives us the qualities of strength, kindness, and compassion. He’s an actor who plays the lion and the lamb and when you see this, you’re reminded of what an extraordinary love story this is.”

Roma added, “The movie actually begins on the Island of Patmos [a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea] and is told through the memory of the disciple John who is there living in exile and he’s remembering how extraordinary Jesus was, and is, and how his life was changed and so through his eyes we go back and it then begins at the nativity.”

Mark explained that the idea for the movie was a joint one with him and his wife, and also, of God. “We worked on the initial story, lovingly and prayerfully for five years. Some things just worked out — its God’s plan — and it just came in the edit and we realized this was the best way to do it.

“This is a very dramatic film. This is not your old 1960s donkeys and sandals story, but this is something for young people. This is a 2014 movie and it looks like it with big special effects. This is a story that can really affect the world in getting to know and love Jesus.”

Roma then said the movie was shot entirely on location in Morocco, and she recalled that when they first arrived there in February, it was very cold.

“By the time we finished filming early to middle of July the temperatures were soaring you could have fried an egg on the ground,” she smiled. “As we were bringing scripture to the screen, we had scholars and theologians we worked with in the shaping of the scripts. I think that, perhaps dramatically and emotionally, the most complicated scene was probably the crucifixion. It was extraordinarily moving for everybody there.

“It took us three days to film that particular sequence. We were on a lonely hillside on the outskirts of town and we had to deal with, on one of those shooting days, very high winds. So there were always concerns for our actor’s safety because logistically we had to put a man up on a cross and we had to make sure the cross was bolted to the ground and was safe.

“Even though this was a reenactment, there wasn’t a person there who didn’t feel the enormity of what He had done for us. And then, for Mark and I, as believers, to be there at the foot of the cross we were reminded of how much we were loved; that He [Jesus] would have done that for us.”

Roma played Mary, the mother of Jesus in the film, and Mark said, “There was such a connection between Diogo Morgado the Portuguese actor who plays Jesus, and Roma as Mary. It was so emotional to see the pain of the mother who knows who Jesus is. Gabriel had told her that she was to be the mother of Jesus, and she knows exactly who Jesus is she, but she also knows this must happen.

“But it’s still her son she doesn’t feel any better about it. So this is a very emotionally connective film, wrapped in a drama, because it was a dramatic time in that first century Jerusalem. And this also is a movie that young people will be talking about for decades as for many of them, this will be the first time they get to really understand who Jesus is.”

I then shared with the couple that I had recently released a book called “Mary, My Story from Bethlehem to Calvary” – www.marythebook.com – which tells the story of Jesus through the eyes of his beloved mother.

And then I asked Roma what it was like playing Mary.

“It was such a privilege to step into that role,” she said. “I can’t begin to imagine what she must have been feeling on that Jerusalem road when she witnessed Jesus falling with the cross, and then standing at the foot of the cross. I know that, while she was the mother of the Son of God, she was also the mother of a son and so I tried as an actor to bring a mother’s heart to the role.

“I’m a mother myself and to try to feel those scenes through a mother’s heart was to see those scenes was extraordinary. It was a great privilege and was one of the most moving and profound roles I will ever play.”

I then asked the actress if she felt that Mary ever understand why she had been chosen for this role in life?

“I don’t know that she understood why, but she’s a great teacher for all of us because she said ‘yes’ and the Holy Spirit came into her. She had such trust and she showed it every day. What we can learn from her is that we need to step out in faith each day and also say ‘yes’ to God.”

I then asked Mark what he would have asked Jesus if he ever had the opportunity, and he replied, “Wow, there are so many things, but one of would be, ‘Why did you always speak in parables?’ In Mark 4, we understand that He only spoke in parables except in very small groups, mainly with the disciples when He would untie the fishing knots of the complications of what he was saying.

“But clearly Jesus is God and God knows best and God decided to only speak in parables to large groups in an enigmatic way and it clearly worked because here we are, some 2,000 years later, and there’s 2.2 billion Christians and it all started with 12 disciples. And how on earth they survived the Romans and why didn’t they just kill all of the disciples after they had killed Jesus, but it was always in God’s plan.”

Then back to the movie, Mark said, “We encourage everybody to go the movie as I believe it is a game changer for the next couple of decades on spreading the word of Jesus.”

We ended the interview by talking about the start of this story – the fact that an Englishman and an Irish lady were working together on such a project, which in itself seemed to be quite a miracle after all of the violence in Northern Ireland.

“That’s right, it is absolutely a miracle,” said Roma, with a laugh. “My husband also served in the British military so there was a good chance I threw a stone at him.”

Mark then added, “It just shows you that love can overcome anything. Look at Ireland today, which is in peace with a vibrant economy, and it shows that this is all about love. And the story of Jesus is a story of love. What a blessing for us both. We got to be married and are very much in love and then we got to work on the story we love the most. We’re so blessed.”

To find out more about the film, and see the trailer, just go to www.sonofgodmovie.com.

To listen to my radio interview with Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, please go to http://www.assist-ministries.com/FrontPageRadio/FPR01.26.14MarkBurnettRomaDowneyMono.mp3

Note: I would like to thank Robin Frost for transcribing this interview.
See all ASSIST News articles at www.assistnews.net


Dan Wooding, 73, is an award-winning journalist who who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for 50 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. He is the founder and international director of ASSIST (Aid to Special Saints in Strategic Times) and the ASSIST News Service (ANS) and he hosts the weekly “Front Page Radio” show on the KWVE Radio Network in Southern California and which is also carried throughout the United States and around the world. He is the author of some 45 books, the latest of which is a novel about the life of Jesus through the eyes of his mother called “Mary: My Story from Bethlehem to Calvary”. (Click to order)

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