Roma Downey and her husband and producing partner Mark Burnett have become moguls due to the smash hit success of their televised Bible epics. Cahir O'Doherty talks to Downey about their forthcoming series A.D. The Bible Continues, the story of Christianity in the days after Jesus, and The Dovekeepers, a moving tale of persistence in the face of adversity that inspired them to turn it into a miniseries.
“It's Game of Thrones meets The Bible,” actress and executive producer Roma Downey, 54, tells the Irish Voice, speaking about the epic new television series she’s created with her producing partner and husband Mark Burnett.
The dramatic billing gives you a clue about Downey’s ultimate intentions for the new 12 part series A.D. The Bible Continues, which premieres on Easter Sunday night. She wants it to be true to the biblical source material, but she also wants it to entertain easily distracted modern audiences.
In fact Downey and Burnett’s own kids, children of the Internet age, reminded her just how important that last aspect was in the only advice that they gave her as she started out on the new project. “Just don’t make it corny,” they deadpanned.
Check out the two minute trailer for A.D. The Bible Continues and you’ll see she took their advice to heart, working with wind machines, lightening, archangels, sword battles and disciples making life or death decisions that will change the course of history. Dull it won’t be.
For that reason, when Downey and Burnett’s A.D. The Bible Continues premieres, it’s certain to attract the kind of record audiences that their 2013 series The Bible and 2014 film Son of God attracted.
In fact the networks are expecting it to surpass the previous self financed smash hits the producing pair delivered, with lots of potential to go the profitable cinema route the Son of God movie went.
But amid all the success and the eye-popping box office figures, Downey has always kept faith with her Bogside, Co. Derry childhood. She may live in Malibu and crisscross the world these days, but there’s no one more aware of the unlikely journey she’s made than she is herself.
“It’s insane but great fun and everything is so good,” she tells the Irish Voice after her typical Derry greeting of “What about ye?” To say it’s a busy time for her would be an understatement.
“In 2013 we brought you The Bible, in 2014 we brought you Son of God and now it’s 2015 and we’re about to launch on network television A.D. The Bible Continues,” Downey says.
“There couldn’t be a more perfect day to tell you this story than Easter Sunday. And it runs then for 12 weeks and it’s our hope then that it will get renewed and run for many years to come.”
Unlike The Bible, A.D. The Bible Continues is not a closed ended series. It has the potential to keep going indefinitely.
“There’s no better story than this segment of scripture from The Book of Acts woven together with stories from history that we’ve pulled in from the writings of Josephus (the first century scholar) and others,” Downey says.
The show follows the cruel regime of the Roman Empire, which oppressed the known world and demanded taxes, mixing it up with the Zealots (a first century political movement) and the Temple Authorities (shepards of the Jewish faith in the first century).
Tensions, power struggles and political maneuverings are what Jesus’ remaining disciples have to contend with.
“Their courage in the face of persecution at the beginnings of the early church is great stuff. It has drama, action, poignancy, and great special effects. When it’s all put together it’s House of Cards meets Game of Thrones meets The Bible,” Downey says.
These were tumultuous times after all, when danger lurked around every corner, and as every good Bible scholar knows every disciple would ultimately perish (with the exception of John, who ended up in exile).
“Our story picks up at the crucifixion of Jesus and takes us though to the resurrection. We hear how aware the Roman authorities were of the prophecy that he might rise. They go to great lengths to ensure the tomb is well guarded,” Downey says.
“We have this extraordinary scene where we see the light radiate behind the stone, poring out from the cracks of the opening of the tomb. Then the heavens start moving and the cloud formations give way to a ball of light coming down. What emerges is a great, beautiful, triumphant angel in his armor who pulls his sword.”
The guards are awed and unable to move. The angel opens the tomb and those watching are blinded by the radiance all around them. When they come-to, the seal of the tomb has been broken and the body is gone.
This isn’t a Sunday school account in other words; it’s an incredible journey that’s sure to excite believers and non-believers alike.
“Our job was to research the period for detailing, what the sets would look like, amazing costumes. We built the largest freestanding set in Morocco, once the home to the Star Wars series,” Downey says.
In fact the set was so big that occasionally people would get lost. Turn a corner and suddenly you’re in a labyrinth of first century streets that serve as the streets of Jerusalem, Damascus and Galilee.
Once you add hundreds of extras, camels and donkeys it comes alive. It’s an invitation to step back in time and walk in the footsteps of these incredible characters.
“What we don’t want to see is a preachy series. We want to see something exciting. Audiences are sophisticated and they demand a high quality production and we have delivered a high quality cinematic experience that they can enjoy,” Downey offers.
Downey remembers her own family gathered on the couch in their tiny kitchen in the Bogside in Derry watching The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur and all those old biblical movies that left a profound impression on her.
“It’s been such a thrill to breathe visual life into these stories for a new generation,” she adds.
Most biblical epics tend to end with the disciples going out into the world to spread the gospels, but Downey and Burnett’s story picks up there.
“What’s amazing to me is how few people know about these brave men and women went through, their sacrifices, to ensure that the Good News spread.”
In an irony not lost on Downey, the international system of roads and ports that the Roman’s created to administrate their empire became the Internet of its day, allowing the new Christian gospel to spread to every part of the empire.
“There were eleven remaining disciples. Now there are two-plus billion people who are Christians,” she says.
It’s with real horror that Downey’s been watching what’s happening overseas with the persecution of Christians in 2015. “You can’t help but see the parallels to these early believers and how brutally they were tortured. It’s inexcusable that it’s happening and that we’re not making more noise about it in this country.”
Meanwhile, Downey and Burnett have another show coming up on CBS called The Dovekeepers that also tells a story about persecution of a people.
“A group of Jews escape the fall of the temple in 70 A.D. and they take refuge in a hilltop retreat built by one of the Herods. Their hope is to be left in peace but the Romans pursue them,” she says.
“This four hour miniseries will screen on March 31 and April 1 and tell their story.”
Downey fell in love with the bestselling book The Dovekeepers is based on when she first read it on a flight to Ireland.
“I sobbed the whole way, so much so the flight attendant came to ask me if I was okay,” she laughs.
On the ground she reached out to the author Alice Hoffman to see if the rights were available. It didn’t take long until it was on their production slate.
Next on Burnett and Downey’s horizon is the ultimate biblical epic Ben Hur.
“My kids when I told them we were teaming up with MGM and Paramount to produce Ben Hur said, Ben who? That made me know it’s time. This new generation of movie goers will get to see it reimagined on the big screen in spectacular ways.”