Mark Burnett (president of MGM Television and Digital Group), and wife Roma Downey are producers of countless TV shows and Faith-based films around the world. Burnett has won eight Emmy Awards, four Producers Guild of America Awards, five Critics' Choice Television Awards, and six People's Choice Awards. Most recently they are the executive producers of the new Ben-Hur, and were excited to talk about that journey.
Burnett additionally produced the cable miniseries The Bible and A.D. The Bible Continues, films Son of God, Little Boy, and Woodlawn. He has won eight Emmy Awards, four Producers Guild of America Awards, five Critics' Choice Television Awards, and six People's Choice Awards.
Congratulations to Downey on her walk of fame star in Hollywood.
R.D. I was so excited. I moved to Los Angeles 25 years ago and ran down Hollywood Boulevard like Dorothy on the yellow brick road never dreaming that one day I would have a star. I’m so grateful.
Q. Why was this the time to remake this movie?
R.D. With the themes that run through this film of forgiveness and reconciliation, as opposed to the 59 version with an emphasis on revenge, I think that this new way of looking at it feels relevant for the times we are living in. It’s such a dangerous, fearful, chaotic world. We need stories like this more than ever.
M.B. I think it’s a supernatural element to timing. The most read book prior to that was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Lew Wallace’s book was the most read book because it was about forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s 55 years since the last version of the movie. This is an action movie; it’s entertaining and could be a blockbuster. Very few movies have reconciliation and forgiveness by the protagonist and antagonist. Hundreds of millions of people will see Ben-Hur over the next 30 years. It doesn’t need to be a Sunday school story, and that’s why we have been involved at doing things differently.
Q. These were really big shoes to fill, any second thoughts?
R.D. Coming on board we had a little bit of a freak-out and maybe the only thing worst would have been to redo Gone With the Wind. When Gary Barber (chairman and CEO of MGM) invited us to join the producing team, he said go home, read the script to make a decision. We read the script by John Ridley, who won the Oscar for writing 12 Years of Slaves. That was a real page-turner story, character driven and incredibly emotional. We prayed about it and we told our kids we were thinking of working on Ben-Hur. Their response was Ben who? So that was sort of validating there’s a whole generation that don’t know what the story is about. Since 1959 a lot has changed in the world and cinema levels. There’s an expectation now and special effects can accomplish the nature how people perform. The chariot race as designed by director Timur Bekmambetov is brilliant. He studied Formula One NASCAR to get a sense of where to place the camera and build the most exciting race. You will not feel like you’re in your theater chair, but in the race. You can almost taste the dirt in your mouth, so incredible.
Q. The underwater scenes where Judah is chained were chilling. What did you think about that?
R.D. While watching it I would hold my breath to see if I would have made it to the top. It’s his hatred that helps Judah survive. We see his back hardening from the whiplash of the Roman soldiers. And we see his heart hardening, and it’s that resolve that he is going to come back and justice will be served.
M.B. Everything about this movie completely spirals out of control in choices being made. Then at the next moment they are lounging around in there palace “nice day in Jerusalem.” Then Judah is walking down the steps saying arrested, saying “I think there’s been a mistake. I have to see my family.” They say you are never going to see your family again this is the rest of your life. No one really survives the Roman galleys. But Judah makes it his burning desire for vengeance. Then there’s the ship and he’s chained to the vessel, it’s horrifying.
Q. Some have questioned if Jack Huston is the perfect Judah!
R.D. Jack is incredible. He’s the perfect Judah. Those are big sandals for someone to fill Charlton Huston’s shoes. It’s a star making role for Jack, and he will be a household name next week when this film comes out. He brings a dignity to the princely Judah, a passion to the angry Judah, sensitivity to the broken Judah, and a heroic resolve to the Judah who closes the movie and rides off into the sunset. He’s a multifaceted actor.
M.B. He knows how to do less as an actor and just let it play around. He has that sensibility. Even when he’s forced down on his knees in front of the cross, and it’s raining. He suddenly realizes what happened with all these years trying to get revenge of a brother he believes is dead. It’s really gut-wrenching the kind of thing that can happen in modern-day with a few bad choices.
Q. Roma what did you mean when you said those not familiar with the Bible might enjoy this film?
R.D. I think that knowing that Jesus is on the big screen for a Christian audience is very attractive. We fill encouraged by the work we have been doing ahead of the movie across denominations in the churches throughout the country. We hope that all communities will come out as it’s a film that promotes Christian values and has Jesus on the screen. But I think there’s a bigger opportunity to reach people who are not churched and don’t know the story of Jesus and will come because it’s a big epic at a grand scale of action adventure and the best of the best on the screen with a great cast, special effects, costumes, great stunts, great exciting battles, and it will certainly be appealing for the youth because it’s a summer blockbuster that within holds a deep meaningful message for an audience were hoping to reach.
Q. Is the film everything you expected it to be?
R.D. We are thrilled with the outcome of the movie. It’s been a few years for us to be on this journey and here we are in the home stretch of the finish line. I think people who see the film will talk about it for decades to come. Light Workers Media, which is our company, is committed to creating content that has its center of something uplifting and hopeful. We’re committed to telling stories that illuminate the darkness. I feel that Ben- Hur shines a light and we hope that it lightens the world for years to come.
M.B. The cross when Judah hears Jesus a father, say forgive them, Judah realizes he needs to change the direction of his life forever. We hope people will be inspired by the swirling of much for fear and anger this theme will resonate with them.
Q. What was it like being on the set while filming?
R.D. We filmed exterior scenes in Matera and it was bitterly cold but incredibly beautiful. The old town is carved into a rock and is really reminiscent of the first century Jerusalem hillside. We filmed the crucifixion and it was the same one used for The Passion of the Christ. Is a wonderful little town and they were very welcoming there. When we moved the entire company to Rome to the Cinecittà Studio, very famous right there in the middle of Rome where curiously the 1959 version of Ben- Hur was also filmed. So the hallways were filled with history and we were able to re-create the racetrack right next to the studio, an enormous stadium maybe one or two rows of seats to the crowds all of that ultimately was re-created to technology amazing CGI elements. But when you see those gates open those eight charities come out with 32 horses hurtling down the track-- they are real horses, real chariots and real men and much of the time it was our two young stars Jack Houston and Toby Kendall who trained for almost 2 months to complete principal photography and second unit photography, and it was our prayer and that everybody would be safe. And no horses were hurt in the making of the movie.
Burnett and Dwoney will be working next on a contempary film about Nascar.