"The voice you hear inside you is God": Mark Burnett Takes On The Bible
By Joel Keller, Fast Company, March 1, 2013
How do you boil the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments into 10 hours of television? Mark Burnett, who co-produced the new miniseries The Bible, talks about how he harnessed the storytelling skills he uses on shows like Survivor to do just that.
If you haven’t leafed through the Bible recently, you’ll probably be surprised at how much sheer material there is in it. In the King James version, there are 66 books between the Old and New Testaments, brimming with wars, betrayal, miracles, sacrifices, plagues, and even more betrayal.
There aren’t many television producers who would have the confidence to take this volume of work, familiar to billions around the world, and boil it down to 10 hours of scripted TV. Mark Burnett, though, hasn’t faced a production challenge he hasn’t been able to meet, and he says it’s his faith that has helped him achieve the clarity he’s needed to produce ambitious reality shows like Survivor, The Voice and The Apprentice.
"I think if you’re a person of faith, which I am, you understand that the voice you hear inside you and instinct you get is God," he says. "Many people just don’t act upon that. That’s all. And why don’t they act upon being called? Well, they feel it’s inconvenient or they tell themselves they didn’t really feel that or hear that or it seems too difficult." But after the notion of producing a miniseries about the Bible kept popping up in Burnett’s head, "in this case it felt clear."
The result is the History channel miniseries The Bible, which begins on March 3. The ten-part series covers both testaments, dedicating half its time to the Old Testament, where the Israelites constantly fight for their freedom and right to build a state for themselves, and the New Testament, where the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is documented.
Burnett and especially his wife, Roma Downey—who also plays Jesus’ mother Mary—were concerned that documentaries about the Bible were “maligning” the work. “We should do the love story of the bible, the true love story of the bible, Genesis through Revelation as a drama,” is what he recalls her saying. At a certain point, he knew he could take this on.
"I’m a very straight, clear person; it’s not like there’s a blinding light goes off and you hear a loud voice, like sometimes it says in the Bible. I haven’t heard that. I just felt and knew it was the right thing to do," he says. "And once I decided, something said to me are you really sure you want to do this? This is kind of a bit out there and people are going to say well why would the guy who makes The Voice or Shark Tank or Survivor and do this? What gives you the qualifications to do this? You know actually you only need one qualification. Qualification is for me do you believe in it? Yes. Do you have experience in making complicated television in remote far away places? Yes. Do you have a heart for the story? Are you good at stories in general?"
The series begins, well, in the beginning, but to winnow down the wealth of material, Burnett and Downey, who co-produces the series, needed two years and a team of writers and producers to figure out how to creatively tackle such sweeping stories.
"I mean you’ve got to realize it took a year of thinking about how to approach the ten hours," says Burnett. "Obviously we wanted more hours but we ended up getting ten. So, [we had] a year of how to approach that and then you have to pitch it and get it sold so it’s going to be on television." There was a thought of covering all the stories in short segments, but they liked the idea of doing "less stories which are emotionally connected as an arc. Then the question was, okay, which ones and how do they connect and what’s the entry point? We decided to do five hours [of] Old Testament and five hours [of] New Testament. We decided that the bridge, the pivot point between old and new would be Daniel surviving the lion’s den," which he feels anyone familiar with the Bible knows is an obvious choice.
He and his writing team have had to make some creative decisions; for instance, in order to cover the earliest parts of the creation story, he has Noah, in a tradition of oral storytelling that kept the Bible stories alive for centuries before the King James bible ever existed, relay the story to his family as they’re rollicking in the ark he built to survive the epic flood God sent to cleanse the earth of sin. “You know it’s much more complicated than a quick conservation with you. It’s not stories. It’s one story. You know clearly your end point is [John of] Patmos and you know the beginning point is creation. Except we did [the creation story] on Noah’s ark because we knew we needed to grab people for a few minutes, and so an incredible ark in an incredible storm in the telling of creation which I think is really, really beautifully done.”
To Burnett, the most important factor in picking the stories and making them dramatic was how they’d resonate with the audience. “We have to make an emotional connection to make something last 50 years, because I’ve met more people in the last year going city to city, church to church who have told me ‘We’re glad you made it because my life changed by seeing Jesus of Nazareth or The Ten Commandments’ or whatever it was. Art has been a big connector and attractor to faith for centuries.”
It’s the storytelling that matters, according to Burnett, and he feels his ability to tell a story is matched by few in the entertainment industry. “It’s an experience, but I’ve made 2000 hours on American primetime TV. Character and story are the key to storytelling. Well, I don’t know where you’re ever going to find better character and better story than in the Bible. There’s only one perfect character; that’s Jesus. Everybody else is flawed and through the story line we chose to take is [that] despite all those flaws, God didn’t give up.”