'The Bible': Mark Burnett and Roma Downey talk Pope Francis, Satan and an Easter finale

diogo-morgado-as-jesus-christ-in-the-bible.jpgAlthough it was down a tick in the ratings on Palm Sunday, March 24 (10.3 million total viewers vs. 10.9 and 10.8 on the Sundays prior, respectively), History's "The Bible," a dramatic retelling that spans Genesis to Revelation, finishes out its run on Sunday, March 31 -- also Easter Sunday in the Christian world -- as an unqualified hit.

Of course, it didn't hurt that executive producer Mark Burnett -- of "Survivor," "The Apprentice" and "The Voice" fame, among others -- is a savvy marketer, or that he and wife Roma Downey ("Touched by an Angel"), also an executive producer and starring in the role of the Virgin Mary, toured the country previewing the 10-hour miniseries to faith groups and giving endless interviews.

On top of that, by pure coincidence -- unless Burnett and Downey have deep-insider status at the Vatican -- Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI resigned his office effective Feb. 28, meaning the Sunday that "The Bible" premiered, March 3, was the first in many centuries that the Roman Catholic Church had a living former pope, but no pope in the Chair of Peter.

The papal conclave and election, taking place during the season of Lent, which leads up to Easter, the biggest Christian holiday, focused the world's and the media's attention on the Vatican. Today, newly elected Pope Francis celebrated his first Easter Mass in St. Peter's Square.

"It certainly feels like there's divine planning in all of it," Downey tells Zap2it, in a joint interview with Burnett. She's also very happy with Pope Francis, who caused a ripple through the Catholic faithful when he celebrated Holy Thursday Mass by washing the feet of young inmates -- including girls and Muslims -- at a juvenile penal facility outside of Rome, rather than in the cathedral church of the Diocese of Rome, St. John Lateran.

"The new pope," says Downey, "he's been wonderful, hasn't he? He's just inspiring such hope and belief. People are reconnecting. People are being inspired by his leadership and his humility, by the tenderness with which he's approached his office, and the choices he's made so far. "He's showing a servant's heart. He's certainly demonstrating how the rest of us can be in the world. We have a new pope of hope, and what we're going to see are seeds of hope flourishing in people's hearts and in people's lives."

Regarding the actual marketing of "The Bible," Burnett says, "The most important thing was grassroots and letting people know it was on. From a promotion point of view, the most important thing was to not allow any promotion that would not be taken right or didn't feel right. There's more of that managing what not to do than what we did.

"It really is in God's hands. There's no way that we could have planned years ago that it would be airing Easter Week. There's no way we knew that History would agree to air 10 hours over five weeks versus over 10 weeks. There's no way anybody could have predicted that the Holy Father would retire before he passed, and that there would be a new pope elected during the run of the series, and on and on and on."

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According to Burnett, the first nation other than the U.S. to air the miniseries was Spain, and it doubled the audience share for "Big Brother," normally its highest rated show.

"We closed a deal with Portugal, too," says Downey, speaking of Spain's neighbor, which has a special connection to the actor playing Jesus in "The Bible." "They'll be thrilled to have it as well, because of their very own Diogo Morgado, their native son, shining in this role, touching people's lives with his performance as the Lord."

The concluding episode of "The Bible" obviously contains the trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, which is the heart of the Easter narrative, but it doesn't stop there. "It takes us through the time when the Apostles, now fearful, hide in the upper room," says Downey. "They know Jesus promised the Holy Spirit, and we see Pentecost. Empowered, they go out to to spread the Good News."

It may also help people who've always wondered what a "road to Damascus moment" is, as it shows the sudden conversion of Saul of Tarsus, a persecutor of early Christians, into the Apostle Paul. "We see Paul on the road to Damascus have his vision," says Downey, "and his heart is transformed. We see the conversion. We go right through the end of the series, with Revelation."

From anecdotal reports, "The Bible" has become whole-family viewing. According to Downey, it's not just moms and dads plunking the kids down in front of the TV set. "We've even heard from parents," she says, "that it's their teenage kids that are dragging them to the TV to watch the show, because the show is so cool."

Of course, the news hasn't been all rosy. Right after March 17 episode, in which Morgado made his first major appearance as Jesus, a Facebook and Twitter meme spread claiming that Mehdi Ouzaani, the actor playing Satan, looked like President Barack Obama. Burnett and Downey dismissed the notion as, says Burnett, "total nonsense."

And since episodes of the miniseries had been screened to faith leaders of various denominations, and to thousands of people in faith groups and faith-based media for weeks prior to the premiere, it's interesting to note that the supposed similarity was never publicly mentioned prior to this.

Thumbnail image for Roma-Downey-Mark-Burnett.jpgAs a producer whose shows, like "The Voice," often benefit from social media, Burnett says, "There's a positive and a negative with that. ... All you can do is give an honest response, which we did, then just keep on the message of what you are doing, and it passes." But it didn't pass without pain.

"I was so excited," says Downey, "that the next day, waking up, that the word Jesus [would be] on the lips of everyone, and it was so upsetting to wake up and to realize it was Satan that was on everyone's lips."

To critics who say that "The Bible" glosses over and/or condenses Biblical stories, Burnett says, "Clearly, we understand that it's not the Bible. It's more of an introduction to the Bible or a commercial for the Bible, I guess. Taken as such, it can be very well used to educate, and that's great."

Burnett says that the scenes of the Jewish people's release from Babylonian captivity coincidentally were filmed on Purim, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the event. Also, production on the crucifixion took place over he Easter holiday last year, and the scenes depicting Adam and Eve and Revelation were shot on the final day of principal photography.

"We were like biblical bookends," comments Downey. "We had the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, all in one day."
Photo/Video credit: Photo credit: History Channel, Mark Burnett
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