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Viewers watching the Easter Sunday conclusion of the History Channel's "The Bible" miniseries will find the crucifixion scenes "painful" to watch, producer Mark Burnett says.
They should know that filming the scenes was just as painful, and emotional, an experience for the series' actors.
"I was on that cross for a long time, long hours," says Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, who, as Jesus, has been the breakout star of "The Bible." "We shot the crucifixion sequence in three days. And I don't know how many hours I stood there. But it was really excruciating. By the way, do you know that the word 'excruciating' means 'out of the cross'? Anyway, as I was on the cross, I can tell you that at one point I stopped, and I looked around, and I looked at everybody working, trying to do their best, I looked at their eyes, and suddenly it struck me … I just saw my whole life in a flashback in front of my eyes.
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"It's so strong when you feel that you're where you should be, you know, and you feel that this is what you were kind of … that you were born to, at one point, to touch people's hearts. If the goal of an actor is to tell the best story ever, there's no higher story than Jesus Christ. It's the ultimate love story, and the way he can touch people, it's just a privilege, it's just beyond words, having this opportunity of doing this. It was really a personal journey and a spiritual journey. And it touched me, in a way that I'm still digesting. It didn't end with the shooting. It's still alive."
Filming the crucifixion scenes in Morocco was also a powerful experience for "The Bible" co-producer Roma Downey, the "Touched by an Angel" star (and Burnett's wife), who took on the role of Mary in the miniseries.
"We had snakes and scorpions on the set, and we had a snake man whose job it was to clear the set of snakes," Downey says. "Maybe on any given day, he would clear one or two snakes from any given location. On the morning of the crucifixion, when I got up to the set, he called me aside, and he had a writhing bag on the road … he had pulled 48 snakes from the foot of the cross that morning! It was an exhausting few days for everyone involved, and emotionally draining, but it was very important to us that we got that right."
Watch a preview of Sunday's finale:
Burnett says the toughest thing about filming the crucifixion scenes was keeping everyone safe, even before the snake issue popped up. "You've got an actor up on a cross on a mountain in high winds and freezing temperatures," he says. "Roma put prayers out into prayer circles in churches all over America, praying about [filming] the crucifixion."
Other incidents on the production -- a huge wind suddenly kicked up on an otherwise still night during the filming of a scene in which Jesus tells Nicodemus, "The Holy Spirit is like the wind"; and an irreplaceable part of one of Jesus's costumes floated away during filming but was returned several days later by a young boy who had traveled quite a distance to return it -- added to the feeling, Burnett says, that the cast and crew were working on a very special production.
"People knew. People knew, people who don't necessarily believe," he says. "Remember, these are actors and production people of all faiths … but people knew something was happening."
Adds Downey, "It's unusual to shoot chronologically on anything, because usually you're at the mercy of locations, but as it happened, on the very last day we filmed the last scene of the movie … we also were coincidentally filming the very first scene with Adam and Eve, and so we had a double crew in the interest of time, and Mark was over manning the Adam and Eve sets and I was on the [finale] set.
"It struck me that we had stepped out on this journey together to bring the Bible to the screen, from Genesis to Revelation, and here we were on the last day bookending, shooting the beginning and the end, the first and the last, the alpha and the omega."
A wide audience
Burnett, who is also the producer of "Survivor," "Shark Tank," and "The Voice," points out that despite what he and others on the crew of "The Bible" might make of the unusual occurrences that happened during filming, the production's aim was not to impart a specific point of view to the tens of millions of TV viewers who've watched the series.
"We made a conscious choice that on television, people don't want to be told how to feel," Burnett says. "You have to present the story and allow them to feel. And so we did that. Our hope was that people would start conversations and seek more. Had we been proselytizing on the series, I think it would have had the opposite effect. I think the fact that we have just shown the stories and people get to make up their own opinions … it's a great discussion point."
And that goal to spark discussions was also part of the motivation behind Burnett and Downey's decision to include the crucifixion scene, as well as everything through the Book of Revelation, in the miniseries. While most TV shows and movies focus on a less broad telling of the Bible, or sometimes avoid the harshness of the crucifixion and Revelation scenes, Burnett says it would have been a disservice to viewers to omit them from "The Bible."
"People would have been upset with us for minimizing the suffering of Jesus Christ, because the word 'passion,' the translation of what that word actually means, is 'suffering.' And imagine being crucified," says Burnett. "I've seen artifacts of nails from that. They're enormous nails that go through someone who'd been crucified by the Romans on their hands and their feet. Enormous. And the pain must have been absolutely excruciating. [But] during that suffering, the first thing he said is, 'Forgive them. They know not what they do.' That is so critical, because in the worst possible situation of torture and death, [his] first thought is to forgive others, which as you know is one of the main, most important parts of Christianity.
"This is a global series, and people would be extremely upset if we minimized that. This is a tough week, a very tough week, and it's painful to watch, but there's only one way to show that, which is in truth."
NEXT: Burnett on tackling the Bible in 10 hours...
Burnett and Morgado also talked to Yahoo! TV about what else viewers will see in the Sunday finale of the miniseries, why they think millions of viewers continue to tune in to "The Bible," and what projects they're tackling next.
Diogo, how did you approach the crucifixion scenes? Did you watch how the crucifixion was portrayed in other movies and TV shows before you started filming?
Morgado: No, I didn't watch anything else before we starting filming. Our goal was always to try to go into the emotional perspective more than the visual and graphical perspective. So in that scene specifically we tried to bring something different in terms of emotions … we try to establish the relationship between Mother Mary and Jesus Christ in that scene. Obviously it's painful, a really painful thing to watch, and hopefully it will touch people's hearts.
[Overall] I tried to bring out the humanity in Jesus … he knew who he was. He knew what he had to do, but he didn't know how or when it was going to happen. I would try to go to the source. … I tried to go to what would be the energy and the feeling that would come up with [the] words, you know? Sometimes I [thought it would] play more strongly in what I didn't say than what I did say, because for me, what Jesus said was a consequence of who he was. So the words don't define Jesus. It's Jesus that defines the words.
Tackling the Bible in 10 hours is ambitious. Why go all the way through to the end of the book?
Burnett: Very few films or television series ever deal with what happens after the crucifixion. They just sort of nod to it. We have an entire hour on the resurrection, and I think nobody's ever seen someone do Pentecost the way we've done it, after Jesus ascends, and he tells the Apostles that the Holy Spirit will come to them. And they're waiting. And on the Feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes in to the disciples in the upper room and starts to speak in all different languages.
When you see this week, I mean, it's painful to watch. Seeing Diogo as Jesus and Roma as Mary … extremely difficult to watch this week, a mother watching her son brutally crucified. And it goes on then, and it goes into the resurrection and the ascension and right on into Revelation. It's a very, very powerful week of television.
The series has been a huge hit, obviously -- tens of millions of people have already watched the episodes going into the final two hours. What do you think is the main reason why people have been drawn to "The Bible"?
Burnett: Clearly there are a lot of people in the country in need of hope. No question about that, right? And I think ["The Bible"] has given people permission to openly talk about God and the Bible. Even if they're disagreeing, they're talking about it. I have three teenagers. One's in college, and some of his friends, who are really, really highly educated, one of them was saying, 'Who are Samson and Delilah?' And I thought he was kidding. I made sort of a joke. I said, 'Now, do you know the name of the child that Mary…' Everybody started laughing, because everyone knows that's Jesus. But I realized a lot of young, very educated people just don't know the stories. There are plenty of examples where people just don't know Samson and Delilah, David and Goliath … but you only would know it if you had been exposed to it. And that was one of the main reasons we released the series on iTunes. We hesitated about it at first, but a lot of people don't have access to cable, and they wanted to see the series.
It must be interesting to get a younger demographic feedback right in your own home -- what do your kids think of the miniseries?
Burnett: Our kids are teenagers, 15, 16, 19. They're used to all of the big movies like 'Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit,' and when we left for the production in Morocco, they said, 'Whatever you do, don't let the special effects be lame.' We laughed, and they said, 'No, we're serious.' We really focused on that, and it was gratifying when those same kids, the 15-year-old and the 16-year-old, took parts of the series into their high school and screened it for the entire high school.
The DVD and Blu-ray of "The Bible" will be released on April 2; do you have any other plans for the series? A "sequel" to tell some of the stories you had to leave out of this series, maybe?
Burnett: One thing we're talking to History about right now is, there's such a demand for this series, we're looking at going right back in, opening the entire series up and having experts like Bishop [T.D.] Jakes, [Rev.] Sam Rodriguez, and Rick Warren comment on the stories. Like, unlocking it, because it would expand it, and explain what's missing and what else there is. The History Channel is very used to that on their series; they normally would have people talking. We made this as a drama, but we were talking today about this. I think that will happen.
Diogo, have you and Mark and Roma talked about doing something else together?
Morgado: Mark is like, he's a raging spirit. Just like … he's always, he's like a volcano. He's always thinking and projecting. So I know that he has a couple of things up his sleeve, and he mentioned something about me, but nothing is definitive yet.
You have a couple of movies -- "Red Butterfly" and "Born to Race: Fast Track" -- coming up, but where do you go after playing Jesus and earning such positive feedback for your performance? That's a tough role to top.
Morgado: I don't make plans in my life about what I'm going to do next. I just live day by day, grateful to be alive and doing what I love to do. I'm just enjoying the moment. And I mean, whatever comes, it will come. Probably in the next month I'm going to be learning Chinese for a Chinese production. But I've never … when I started acting when I was 15, I took six years to decide that acting was what I wanted to do with my life. So this can tell you what a nonplanning man I am (laughing).
Are you interested in doing more TV work? You've been in Los Angeles for pilot season. Do you hope to do a series?
Morgado: Actually, my first pilot season was when I got this role. I was in L.A. for two weeks, and in the second week I got this, so I didn't get to experience pilot season at all. And [during this pilot season] I'm spending more time promoting ["The Bible"] than I am auditioning. (Laughing) But what I hope is just to continue to do what I love to do. Obviously, the better stories we can tell, the more happy we will be. But I've spent half my life just working on television, movies, and theater, so I don't have any preference. I just love to work with people that love what they do. I've been in big-budget movies that [weren't] a really good experience, and I've been in low-budget movies where it was a really awesome experience. I learned from a really young age, don't create any expectations, and just enjoy and be grateful for what you have. And I'm happy to be here.
The finale of "The Bible" airs on Sunday, 3/31 at 8 PM on the History Channel.