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Secrets Behind the Son of God

TV icons Mark Burnett and Roma Downey had never produced a feature film. So to make their Jesus biopic, they relied on sweat, luck—and some divine inspiration. Here’s what they learned

Still from the movie ‘Son of God’ featuring actor Diogo Morgado as Jesus
Still from the movie ‘Son of God’ featuring actor Diogo Morgado as Jesus,
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So you think it’s easy pulling off a big-screen epic about the central figure of the world’s largest religion? Think again, say Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, the hugely successful—and devout—husband/wife team who produced Son of God, opening in 3000 theaters nationwide on February 28. “I certainly think when we first decided to make this there was a sense from our own community that maybe we had lost our minds,” says Downey, who shot to fame playing the titular lead in the long-running TV series Touched by an Angel. “It was such a vast and daunting undertaking.” Together with Burnett, creator of such reality mainstays as Survivor and The Apprentice—and, with Downey, last year’s mega-hit miniseries The Bible—they practically had to learn to walk on water to beat the odds. James “J.B.” Brown, host of The NFL Today on CBS talked to the God-fearing power couple to find out how used a blend of ambition, determination and above all, faith to turn their dream project into a reality—and what we can learn from their journey. Leap of Faith #1: Plunge in. Figure out the details later Burnett: We were in the early stages of making The Bible TV series, looking at the footage one night, and Roma said, ‘You know, Mark, this should be a feature film, watched in communities on a giant screen.’ And we talked about it and said, ok, let's do it—even though we had absolutely no idea how it will be funded or distributed or how we'd get it in theaters. We just did it.See also: Dare to Be StupidDowney: When the Jesus narrative started to reveal itself, it just seemed to need a big screen presentation. Jesus hasn’t been in movies for 10 years [since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ] and it’s been almost 50 years since The Greatest Story Ever Told. So we just saw that this was a moment in time. We were already shooting, so we’d need to reconfigure the entire schedule and the budget. Fortunately, my husband doesn’t know the word ‘no.’ He hears it and he just thinks new opportunity. So he said, "That's a great idea, let's do it." We moved forward. Leap of Faith #2: Get past your fears. Fast Burnett: It’s ok to have concerns, but people who feel like they need to have it all figured out and all the answers right away will never take the first step. There's no way. Even if it's something as silly as which vacation to book, you can never be 100 percent certain it's the right choice. So with us this was certainly a big business decision, with lots of uncertainty built in. But on the other hand this is a movie about Jesus and we have great faith, and we know we're good at our jobs. And just when we were about to consider distributing this film ourselves in special event screenings, Twentieth Century Fox called. Downey: Yes, there have been fears, but I’ve learned that courage is not the absence of fear— courage is having fear and still moving forward.

Producer/actress Roma Downey and her husband producer Mark Burnett attend Meet the Filmmakers: 'Son Of God' at Apple Store Soho on February 24, 2014 in New York City,

Leap of Faith #3: Dare to Dream Huge Downey: I don’t know how we convinced ourselves to dream this big, but it’s extraordinary what’s happened. From the start, the idea that’s been driving us is that people who don’t go to church or really know the gospel, maybe they'll go to a movie. We're very encouraged by the potential for this film to transform lives.

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Burnett: We knew something clearly: there's been a number of films made on the life of Jesus, but this one had to have a sense of realism and the drama and pressures of the times and be an epic, giant feature film, but also remain intimate and personal. If we pulled it off then the film would survive decades and reach millions and millions of people. Leap of Faith #4: Strive for unconscious competence Burnett: There are a few things you need to know when you attempt anything. We had many decades of great success in television. So we were already in that skillset, but we had to go through a lightening fast learning process—a few levels of proficiency-gaining that most people don’t think about much. The first level is unconscious incompetence. That means you don’t even know what you don’t know. Then you become consciously incompetent: 'Now I know I don’t know.' Then you become consciously competent: 'Okay, I know I'm pretty good.' And the highest level to aim for in the professional world is unconscious competence. Probably in our TV world we're unconsciously competent—we just know. And in transferring to a feature film, we were quickly conscious of the things we didn’t know, but we assembled a great team around us who did.

Still from the movie ‘Son of God’ featuring Producer/actress Roma Downey as the Virgin Mary,

Leap of Faith #5: Learn to walk on water. For real! Downey: A great example of what we didn’t know was the world of special effects. Neither of us had done much with them before, but we knew we wanted to bring the miracles of Jesus to the big screen and for that we were going to need great effects. So we found a terrific Oscar-winning team out of the UK called Lola. And so with their expertise we were able to bring to the screen the miracle of Jesus walking on water and all the other extraordinary visuals that they helped us with. We needed to make the miracles real. It wouldn’t work otherwise. Leap of Faith #6: Get off that comfy sofa Burnett: There are all sorts of things you can point to to explain success. In our case there were two of us doing all this together—that was important. Also, it was critical that we are believers and love Jesus. We are merely instruments. But here’s maybe the biggest thing of all: when God calls you, you have to actually get off the couch and do something. You may be scared, you may be incompetent, but you have to move. As Roma says, we walked forward boldly, we assembled the right team, we played the game.See also: The Ultimate Transition: First Time Fatherhood after FiftyLeap of Faith #7: Be prepared to reinvent yourself, then go for broke Burnett: We’re aware that we have more resources to try new things then most people do, but we also have a lot more to lose and we're easy to throw stones at because we're in this business. So I look back, and we didn’t start at the top of the business. Roma was a coat check girl in New York City, struggling to get on Broadway and I was a nanny/housekeeper in Beverly Hills at 22 working for $125 dollars a week. So we have known and experienced the American dream. America is truly the land of opportunity and it's a country where people with ideas get a chance. That alone is something great. Leap of Faith #8: Find some real-life angels. Be one too Downey: I think that the encouragement part is vastly important. I can look back on the course of my career to this point and there were many angels along the way. I couldn’t have moved forward without them. And I think it's important to give it back—mentoring, speaking out for each other, helping each other, offering advice, particularly to young people. Just offering that kind of encouragement is invaluable, particularly if somebody's starting out a business. There’s really not much more important than having someone in your life who can raise you up and support you every step of the way. Leap of Faith #9: Don’t do it just for the cash Barnett: I’d say to people starting new businesses or trying new things, if you begin with the primary goal of just making money, you're not likely to do that well. I’ve met the guys who started Google, and I don’t think they began by thinking: 'Oh, this will make us tons of money.' I think they started off to create a new way to provide information to people and ended up with a huge company. If you love what you're doing and it's really congruent with what you're feeling and thinking about, you're primed to succeed. I know my wife was on the stage long before she was a TV star and making very, very little in those days— but she loved it. She just wanted to act. And with me, I just wanted to be in the adventure business; Television was an accident.See also: Diogo Morgado: The Next Jesus Christ Superstar?Downey: We’ve always felt that everything begins with intention. So when you can find clarity and fuel it with passion, it can be such a great engine for whatever it is you hope and dream for. Leap of Faith #10: Thou shalt not walk alone Burnett: We all had some hurdles to get through together on this. For example, my Irish wife [who plays the Virgin Mary] had to learn to speak English on this project. [Laughs] Downey: We filmed the entire movie in Morocco. We were there together for five and a half months. It was an extraordinary shoot. I had dust in places I didn’t even know existed. But there were moments when it felt like we were in the trenches together, you know? There were the dramatic climate challenges, production challenges, all of the inevitable things that come up when putting something together like this. But we had each other. We had each other's backs. We knew we could trust each other. We could rely on each other. It made all of the other problems fade away. Photos: Roma Downey and Mark Burnett Credit: Vera Anderson/WireImageStill from the movie ‘Son of God’ featuring actor Diogo Morgado as Jesus. Credit: Son of God Movie/Twentieth Century Fox Producer/actress Roma Downey and her husband producer Mark Burnett attend Meet the Filmmakers: 'Son Of God' at Apple Store Soho on February 24, 2014 in New York City. Credit: Cindy Ord/Getty Images Still from the movie ‘Son of God’ featuring Producer/actress Roma Downey as the Virgin Mary. Credit: Son of God Movie/Twentieth Century Fox