Over three seasons of National Geographic’s docuseries The Story of God, the filmmaking team and host Morgan Freeman have traveled widely, exploring faith traditions around the world. But there’s some parts of the globe they generally avoid—anywhere with arctic temperatures.
“I’m allergic to it,” the Oscar-winning actor confesses. “That’s me and cold. I don’t do it.”
That prohibition notwithstanding, Freeman and fellow executive producers Lori McCreary and James Younger have managed to cover a lot of ground, from the Vatican, to Paris, London, the Judaean desert, Turkey, India and Kathmandu, and Nepal (in summertime), among many other destinations. Their quest is seeing how divine beliefs manifest themselves across different cultures.
“My curiosity about God goes way back,” Freeman explained Wednesday night at a special screening of the first episode of Season 3 at Television Academy headquarters in North Hollywood. “Amazing, you look at this, how similar people are around the world. They have belief systems that may be different from each other on some level or other but they all aspire to goodness and almost every religion promises life ever after.”
The Story of God was nominated for an Emmy in 2016 for Outstanding Informational Series or Special and it will be on ballots when 2019 Emmy nomination voting opens on Monday. The show holds the record as the most-watched series in National Geographic’s history, besting even the new scripted series The Hot Zone, which debuted to strong ratings last week.
“We’re delighted that people have been reacting to it,” Younger tells Deadline. “It’s really a work of passion that we’ve been doing the past four years.”
Each episode focuses on a different spiritual theme—heaven and hell, the power of miracles, the existence of evil, holy visions, and holy laws, for example. Freeman introduces each segment and narrates the show, but his involvement by no means ends there. He’s on camera throughout most of it, interacting with a variety of monks, priests, religious experts, people touched by divine encounters, and even a four-year-old living goddess in Kathmandu.
“Morgan is so interested in people and their experiences and it’s great to see his personality come out on screen for us,” McCreary comments. “He’s a very good, natural interviewer… There’s something about talking to Morgan that I think people open up even more when they’re sitting with Morgan face-to-face.”
Shooting the series on multiple continents presents an immense logistical challenge, with enough hopscotching involved to dub the show The Amazing Grace.
“We have a fairly big team to move around the world—about 15 or 20 people, which is quite large for a documentary team,” Younger notes. “Then we have to get access to places—to the Vatican, to monasteries in Kathmandu, Notre Dame [de Paris]… Collaborating with the top local producers in different countries who can help us secure access through foreign governments.”
“It was 62 shooting days this year,” McCreary adds. “Out in the field, not one day were we ever rained out, which I think tells us that hopefully God was with us weather-wise.”
The series contains dramatizations that help illustrate religious beliefs, like the biblical story of Jesus in the desert being tempted by Satan. Those are filmed not abroad but in Tennessee.
“We shoot all of the reenactments in Nashville. There’s a great group we work with,” Younger notes. “If we need a type of ethnic group we try to cast them locally in Nashville.”
McCreary says the series has proven inspiring for her.
“I was really heartened to see so many people around the world practicing their religious faith in ways that help their communities, bringing people together in such beautiful ways,” she observes. “[That] kind of lifted my own spirit in a way that when I came back to my ‘real life’ in California, I had a desire to connect even deeper into my own community.”
Making The Story of God has allowed Freeman to draw some conclusions about profound questions.
“We as humans as a group don’t really have a concept of not being. It doesn’t exist for us,” he told the audience at the TV Academy. “You’re going to die, but there’s someplace to go [afterwards], so that means you’re not really dead, right? But it is the truth that you will find the world over. Everyone has a place to go [after death] and my personal belief is in life everlasting because life feeds itself—ever will, ever has and it’s not going to die—life itself—and that’s what we really celebrate, life itself.”
If the show continues with a fourth season, McCreary says she would like to explore mystic traditions. Younger says if it were possible, he’d visit remote Amazonian tribes to explore their spiritual beliefs. As for Freeman?
“I personally would like to go to Australia and spend some time with the Aboriginals,” he shares. “I’ve spent a little bit of time there with them…There’s magic there.”