The massive success History had with The Bible miniseries in 2013 was a road to Damascus moment in many ways for broadcasters and Hollywood studios. While Mel Gibson had hit big box office with The Passion Of The Christ in 2004, faith-based productions weren’t heavily explored by the industry until Mark Burnett and Roma Downey came along with their series, which was partially inspired by the married couple watching The Ten Commandments together. Despite skeptics and controversies, The Bible ended up being a cable blockbuster, from the 13.1 million who tuned in for its debut in March to subsequent strong ratings and Emmy nominations. The Survivor producer and former Touched By An Angel star’s scripted effort even had huge DVD sales at a time when no one buys DVDs.
In search of a ratings miracle or two, in July 2013 NBC picked up the sequel Burnett and Downey had been putting together. Debuting this Easter Sunday, the 12-episode A.D. The Bible Continues centers on the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the aftermath and intrigue as the Apostles find their way and the might of the Roman Empire comes down on the growing new faith.
Just before heading off to Rome to work on their Ben-Hur feature, Burnett and Downey chatted with me about what they learned from making The Bible and how that informed A.D., the seeds they and NBC are planting for a second season, and why the Satan controversy of The Bible turned out to be a good thing in the end.
DEADLINE: With the success of The Bible two years ago and now A.D., not to mention films like Exodus, your own Son Of God feature, The Dovekeepers on CBS and more, it does seem the two of you have brought Bible stories back to mainstream entertainment.
BURNETT: There’s no reason the story of Christianity wouldn’t be more prevalent in film and television considering the audience size who love and believe the stories. This is a broad audience and deserves to be on broadcast TV. With A.D., we wanted an opportunity for those people who don’t have cable to really get the chance to watch these stories and we’re really, really grateful.
DEADLINE: I think it is fair to say that everyone was surprised at how big the numbers were for The Bible when it debuted on History and how impressive the ratings remained through its run.
BURNETT: Yes and you know, we were told by almost everybody we knew in town that’s never going to work. You guys have lost your minds. No one’s going to watch The Bible on primetime TV. It’s a joke, and we said we don’t think so, and of course, it comes out, and 100 million people watched it. In Canada, by the way, The Bible was up against hockey and beat hockey, which is astounding if you think about it. It just shows you that the audience is there.
DEADLINE: In your case, yes but projects like the features Noah and Exodus didn’t get the same kind of traction.
BURNETT: Well, but look at Exodus and Noah. Here are two movies about two of the very important stories from the Bible, especially the Exodus story. Both films changed the story, and neither did well. So therefore it shows you, you can’t just decide to take the subject matter of The Bible and figure out you can just change what you want. I mean, the audience knows, and if you give them a Biblical story, you better get it right.
DEADLINE: So having had that success with the greater Bible story, why focus in on the story of the early church for A.D.?
DOWNEY: With The Bible, we’re madly ambitious in having only 10 hours to try to bring to the screen the stories from Genesis right through to Revelation. A.D. has allowed us the chance to take a deeper dive into the Book of Acts. And this first 12 episodes, of which we hope it’s the first of many, takes us on a linear narrative on the first 10 chapters on the Book of Acts. We wanted to re-set emotionally the crucifixion of Jesus and bring us right through the resurrection, which, of course, occurs on Easter Sunday night, which is the perfect night for this show to premiere.
BURNETT: We wanted to get it right, we had massive advisory boards on this. Dramatically and historically, there’s a lot of HBO’s Rome in this. There’s a lot of House Of Cards in this because you could literally change the clothing, and the struggle for politics seems like half the cast.
DEADLINE: The struggle for power never really changes even if the backdrop and the personalities do, but network schedules can change. Did you consider going big from the beginning and having the Easter Sunday debut be a 2-hour debut as opposed to the one hour?
DOWNEY: Well, to be honest, originally we had thought we would be debuting in September, and God bless Bob Greenblatt who had the brilliant idea to pull it forward and to give us this Easter Sunday night. So we’re very grateful to our partnership at NBC. It put a little bit of a challenge on our postproduction department because, while we began filming principal photography in September, we have only just wrapped on St. Patrick’s Day. So they’re working furiously to put the episodes together and to implement the special effects.
DEADLINE: No disrespect to History but the leap to NBC is big. With all your relationships there with The Voice and The Apprentice, did you originally pitch The Bible to NBC?
DEADLINE: And it was solid “no”?
DEADLINE: Obviously a very different response with A.D.
BURNETT: Yes, true but listen, every other network passed on The Bible too. So you should be clear it wasn’t just NBC. Every other network and several cable channels passed on it. I got to say, a lot of credit goes to Nancy Dubuc at A+E. Nancy bought The Bible in the room in 30 minutes. She said The Bible is a huge part of history. We’re a secular channel but we do think this is a very important part of what this channel stands for. We’ll do it with you. We’ll not get in your way. We’ll give some notes, but it’s your show. And that’s what happened.
DEADLINE: In terms of from the creative process, was there a difference in the way you made The Bible for cable as opposed to how you made A.D. for a main network?
BURNETT: We hired more experienced writers, more experienced actors, some more experienced directors, but the way Roma, and I, and Richard Bedser, who’s the third EP, worked, it’s the same team that did The Bible, did Son Of God, and A.D. Exactly the same approach, except for we, as Roma said earlier, did not fly through decades like we did on The Bible. Because, as you see, by the time you get to the finale of Season 1 of A.D., we’ve only reached Act 10, which is when Peter converts the first gentile, who was the Roman Centurion Cornelius, a member of the Italian regiment who you saw in Episode 1. It is an incredible finale and we’re already in the scripting stage of Season 2 right now.
DEADLINE: Has a Season 2 been officially greenlighted by NBC?
DEADLINE: But hope springs eternal?
DOWNEY: Hope springs eternal, and we are already…
DEADLINE: Sounds like more than ready…
DOWNEY: Well, we have been able to bring our writing team back to get the second season blocked out. So we’re very hopeful that the good news can’t be far away.
BURNETT: And Dominic, just so you know, going on Season 2, it’s actually more than hope springs eternal. The fact is if indeed this gets re-ordered, it’s going to be wanted for next Easter, right? So the only possible way to achieve that was to have already started writing the first six episodes. So we have a team on that. NBC funded that because everyone’s thinking, “OK, what we don’t want to have happen is have an enormous success and then we can’t possibly follow up in time.” It’s just the logistics. So while we’re wrapping, editing, delivering Season 1, we have the teams fully engaged on writing Season 2, and prepping, and getting ready. So we are fully expecting that it will carry on. We think this could become NBC’s Game Of Thrones where you’ve got this 12 episodes a year, year after year, always premiering on Easter.
DEADLINE: Have you guys considered also taking A.D. and turning it into a feature the way you did with The Bible to last year’s Son Of God?
BURNETT: Obviously, we’ve thought about it because we had such a good time with that, but it’s just time. I mean, we anticipate that A.D. II will be on in ’16. I don’t know how we’d possibly have time to ready a feature film and get it out, and plus, we’re releasing Ben-Hur next spring. So, there’s no way we could possibly put A.D. the movie out and do it justice while we’ll be making A.D. II. Just doesn’t make sense I think
DEADLINE: When The Bible came out, there was some degree of confusion in some circles, and outrage in others, about the Satan character. Some said it looked like President Obama. In A.D., are we going to see a Satan character?
BURNETT: Look, the Lord works in mysterious ways, right? So when that happened, it was the end of Episode 4, beginning of Episode 5 of The Bible, and it was the first time you ever saw Jesus on the screen. So we’re assuming the big talk on Twitter is going to be Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. We wake up to stories about Satan all over America, and we’re like as if Satan hijacked the entire new cycle to talk about himself instead of Jesus, which is just like what you’d expect, right? Now, that really bummed us out. Really bummed us out, but you know what’s strange about it? It backfired. It backfired on Satan because it let more people talk about The Bible series, and the viewership is stronger than ever. But we didn’t want that kind of distraction. A.D. is the story of the resurrection, and Satan does not appear in the Act of the Apostles, and so there was no place for that.
DEADLINE: With the massive ratings and viewership response that The Bible got, are you worried about the expectations and comparisons to A.D.?
BURNETT: No. I mean, listen, we have no control over that. Monday morning will be A.D. ratings. In the end, all you can do is do the best you can do, and obviously, it’s not hype. It’s really good. A.D. is better than The Bible, and so it should do equally as well as, if not better. Regardless of what the ratings are, over the next 20 years, billions of people will see A.D. Billions.
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