You may recognize her as Monica from the nine-season television series “Touched by an Angel.” Very likely, you watched her in the role of Mary in “The Bible,” a ground-breaking television mini-series that she produced for The History Channel. But Roma Downey is also a co-producer of a stand-alone cinematic adaptation derived from that show — a major motion picture entitled “Son of God.”
While “The Bible” covered the entire span of the Old and New Testament, “Son of God” focuses on the story of Jesus. The two-hour film depicts his birth and expands to his ministry, miracles, trial, arrest, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. For believers, it is an homage to their Lord in local theaters and around the world. For Downey, it is an opportunity to share the greatest story ever told — the narrative of Jesus for a whole new generation.
Downey Visits Houston
This past Valentine’s Day (and following weekend), Downey, an Emmy and Golden Globe nominated actress, visited Houston to attend pre-screenings of “Son of God.” Gospel music advocate Carl Davis, who is chairman of the Gospel Music Heritage Month Foundation, invited Houston area pastors and Christian news organizations (including Katy Christian Magazine) to meet and interview Downey.
Governor Rick Perry traveled to Houston on February 15 for a prescreening, while church leaders nationwide rallied to fill theaters for the official opening February 28, just prior to the beginning of Lent. Joel and Victoria Osteen, who are friends with Downey and Burnett, had spent time on the movie set and were profoundly impressed with the project. An anonymous Lakewood Church donor picked up the tab for 200 tickets per showing for opening weekend at Edwards Greenway Palace 24, Edwards Marq’e 23 IMAX and the Regal at West Oaks Mall, which totaled 8,800 seats.
Advanced ticket sales are nothing short of phenomenal. Other Houston area churches also bought out shows on single screens and in conjunction with multiplexes in 10 cities across the country. In total, “Son of God” debuted in 3,000 theaters on opening day and had a miraculous $26.5 million at the box office on Oscar weekend, coming in second after the action thriller “Non-Stop.” It was the second-biggest opening weekend ever for a Christian film, behind Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and remained in the top five for its second weekend.
“We do not have the ability to rally so many diverse people of faith to a single cause, but the subject of our movie does,” says Downey. “God is, after all, a miracle-worker, and we know this is a testament not to us, but to Him.”
Made by Christians
As an Irish-born Catholic, Downey has loved Jesus her whole life and feels compelled to share Christ’s message. She and her husband Mark Burnett (producer of “Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” “The Voice” and “Shark Tank”) were astounded when “The Bible” mini-series debuted to 13.1 million television viewers, and later 11.7 million fans for the Easter finale last year. In total, 100 million people watched the series in its entirety around the globe. Suddenly everyone was discussing “God” around office water coolers and on living room sofas. Obviously, people were hungry for faith-based themes.
While filming “The Bible” in Morocco, Downey realized it would make a spectacular movie. After all, other Christian films had been wholeheartedly embraced by audiences. For instance, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which covered the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life, became a huge commercial hit in 2004. So the Hollywood couple, who are outspoken Christians in a secular industry, relied on God to lead them. “We wanted to tell Jesus’ story in an exciting and dynamic way,” says Downey. “But also reveal it for the love story that it is.” Rather than an “R” rating like “The Passion of the Christ,” Downey wanted the film to be accessible to families, which the PG-13 rating allows.
Adventures on Set
The task of creating “Son of God” was daunting. Downey and Burnett combined footage from “The Bible” miniseries and shot additional footage solely for “Son of God,” At first, Downey and Burnett had no idea how it would be distributed… until Twentieth Century Fox stepped in. This, plus the international stir caused by “The Bible,” ensured that the “Son of God” movie would reach men, women and children all over the world. The cast returned to Morocco to shoot the film, and the whole crew frequently prayed together. “The spirit just wove itself through everybody,” says Downey. “There was such camaraderie as we sat around on rocks in the desert and read the scriptures leading up to each scene.” Every day they had to clear away a few snakes and scorpions, and Downey feels that a spiritual warfare waged during the making of the film, especially on the day of the crucifixion scene, where 40 live snakes had to be removed from the set before they could safely film.
It took a year to figure out how to edit the scope of the production, the sweeping locale, the powerfully riveting performances, the visual effects and the musical scores into a two hour movie.
Jesus, Mary and the Ultimate “Mother’s Day”
The casting of Jesus was a top consideration in both “The Bible” television series and the “Son of God” movie. Downey sought an actor who was a mixture of qualities, both “the lion and the lamb,” and once again asked Diogo Morgado to play the role of Jesus. The actor (from Portugal) speaks Portuguese, Spanish and English, and is humble about his good looks. When interviewed on the Oprah Winfrey show, he nearly broke down in tears as he explained what it was to portray Christ during the crucifixion scene, which took three days to film. The challenge was to put an actor up on a cross and make sure it was securely bolted to the ground, even in high winds. The production crew had to figure out how to get Morgado on and off the cross, and how long to keep him on the cross, especially in the intense sun on the second day of filming.
Morgado and Downey were inspired by the extraordinary relationship between Jesus and Mary. Mary’s character had only a few lines, yet spoke volumes. “What a teacher Mary is,” says Downey. “She had unshakable trust in God even while her son was being brutally murdered.” Needless to say, it was an emotional few days while they filmed those scenes. Prospective audiences who haven’t yet seen the film may want to view it on Mother’s Day as a tribute to Mary’s journey as Jesus’ mother.
Downey wanted all of the focus to be on Jesus, how it felt to be his mother, and also how it felt to be his disciple. For instance, it must have been paralyzing to the other disciples when Jesus summoned Peter to walk on water, for fear he would drown. She and Burnett made sure Pontius Pilate, Caiaphus and the Roman forces were also more than just a one-dimensional characters.
As “The Bible” series was in production, lyrics from the song, “Mary did you Know” became an inspiration: “Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water? Mary, did you know that he would come and save our sons and daughters?” Burnett enlisted CeeLo from “The Voice” to sing a rendition of the song for “The Bible,” which has received over 3.5 million hits on You Tube. The song was also included in the closing credits of “Son of God.”
Downey and Burnett are working on a four-hour special event mini-series based on the historical novel “Dovekeepers” by Alice Hoffman. It will air in spring of 2015 on CBS. They also have a twelve-hour commitment from NBC to make “AD: Beyond the Bible,” which is a sequel to “The Bible” mini-series and will follow the Biblical accounts of Acts through Revelations, and perhaps beyond.
The couple absolutely love dramatizing Biblical times, and their prayer is that these television series and motion pictures will drive viewers to study and connect with the the Bible. After months of traveling to promote “Son of God,” they are happy to be back home in with their blended family of children.