TORONTO – Filming in the Moroccan desert with hundreds of extras, dozens of horses and carriages, burning buildings and firebombs made for an “epic” experience on the set of the new miniseries “The Bible,” say creators Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.
“It was a production of biblical proportions,” Downey, former star of “Touched by an Angel,” said during a recent stop in Toronto with Burnett.
“And a lot of danger,” added Burnett, the famed reality show producer who’s married to Downey and has three teenagers with her.
“You’ve got 50 chariots with Arabian horses, thundering at 30 miles an hour across the desert — anything could happen. We were so glad when those sequences finished.”
Premiering Sunday on History, “The Bible” is a 10-hour/five-part docudrama that covers Genesis through Revelation.
Downey, who co-produced with Burnett, plays Mother Mary alongside Portuguese TV star Diogo Morgado as Jesus.
“It was such a privilege for me,” said Downey, who hails from Northern Ireland.
“I have loved Mary my whole life, and the story of the Passion of Jesus.”
The international cast also includes Sean Teale, David Rintoul, Amber Rose Revah, and Simon Kunz.
Emmy Award-winning actor/vocalist Keith David narrates to a musical score from Grammy- and Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer.
“It’s a story that so many books — from Shakespeare (to) ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, ‘Narnia’, ‘Lord of the Rings,’ on a bizarre level, ‘Matrix’ — are biblically based (on), because these stories are so good,” said the London-born Burnett.
“So we chose a selection of these stories. We can’t tell the entire Bible in 10 hours. But the stories are so full of characters that you can just see yourself in.”
“Ultimately, these stories are our stories,” added Downey. “They’re thousands of years old but it’s the story of humanity and the struggles they had. And the hopes and the dreams that these people had are the same that we have today.”
Downey said they consulted scholars and theologians “every step of the way” so they would remain as truthful as possible to the spirit of the book.
Canadian-born Tony Mitchell was among the directors on the project, which took about 3 1/2 years to complete.
The most challenging part of the six-month shoot in Ouarzazate, Morocco last year was the crucifixion sequence, said Downey.
That scene, which will air on Easter Sunday, took three days to create on a hillside on the outskirts of town.
“The winds were picking up on the first morning and we were concerned, because we literally had to put a man up on a cross and the cross had to be bolted very securely into the ground and so on,” said Downey.
“So there were a lot of issues that day. But over the three days I’m sure we were all emotionally, spiritually and physically exhausted.”
The Oscar-winning special effects team behind “Gladiator” added CGI to scenes including Moses parting the Red Sea, the burning bush, Daniel in the den of lions, and Jesus walking on water.
The result is a series that “looks like a $100 million feature film,” said Burnett, who also co-wrote (with Downey) the book “A Story of God and All of Us Reflections: 100 Daily Inspirations based on the Epic TV Miniseries ‘The Bible.'”
“We loved making this,” he said. “We made this for the world and I feel extremely beyond confident, I know, more people … are going to see this than all our other series combined. No question. This is the story.”