Roma Downey and Mark Burnett

They swear they weren't planning to go big for their first joint ­venture as producers. So how did Mark Burnett and Roma Downey end up mounting the 10-hour, $20 million History miniseries The Bible? According to the married duo — he's the mogul ­behind Survivor, Celebrity Apprentice and The Voice; she starred on Touched by an Angel — it was a case of divine intervention.

"Mark and I never dreamed of doing something this epic together, but then, out of the blue, we were asked to participate in a documentary for the foreign market that had a very negative spin on God and the Old Testament," Downey says. "Because we're deeply religious, it triggered a huge reaction in both of us. We of course wanted nothing to do with that documentary, but suddenly I was saying to Mark, 'Why don't we bring the Bible to television? Why don't we fight this negativity and present it as the world's greatest love story?'"

Burnett, no stranger to daunting projects, was hesitant. "Roma's suggestion stopped me dead in my tracks," he says. "A series that would span from Genesis to the Resurrection and beyond was a very scary undertaking, yet I knew I couldn't live with myself if I didn't rise to the challenge. It somehow felt as if we were being called to do this, as if this was one of the reasons Roma and I were brought together."

Burnett and Downey approached History and struck a deal, which included a sizable CGI budget to bring state-of-the-art realism to the Great Flood, the parting of the Red Sea, God's destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and other Bible ­stories. The duo then formed an ­advisory board with some of America's top spiritual leaders.

"We weren't qualified to teach the Bible, but we knew plenty of people who were," says Burnett, whose interfaith panel included pastors Joel Osteen, Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes, Bishop Michael Sheridan, Focus on the Family president Jim Daly and Rev. Samuel Rodriguez.

These advisers were also supposed to appear on screen, since the original plan was to make The Bible a docudrama — reenactments peppered with lots of talking heads. But things went so well during the nearly six-month shoot in Morocco that the miniseries took a different course. "Mark and Roma pulled together a first-class group of actors and came back with extraordinary footage," says Dirk Hoogstra, History's senior vice president of development and programming. "We could see that adding interviews with scholars and religious figures would have been distracting. It was so much better and emotionally involving to just let the stories play."

Paring down the Old and New Testaments was tough, though most of the Biblical big names — Noah, Abraham, Moses, Samson and Delilah, Saul, David and, of course, Jesus and his apostles — made the cut. Downey, seen as the Virgin Mary in her later years, is the only well-known face in the international cast, which is headed by Portuguese heartthrob Diogo Morgado as Jesus.

"A lot of prayers went into finding Diogo," Downey recalls. "We needed both a lion and a lamb, an actor who was charismatic and physically strong yet humble and gentle." She and Burnett were impressed with Morgado's audition video, and a meeting was quickly set. "When we saw him walking up the pathway to our house, we knew we'd found our Jesus," Downey says. "Most young actors today have a swagger. Diogo has a wonderful humility, a stillness. He is the heartbeat of our piece."

The couple were determined to keep things authentic. "In most Biblical movies, it seems like everyone has stepped right out of the dry cleaner's," Burnett says. "We've taken a very real, dirty, gritty approach." And they chose not to temper the violence found throughout the Bible, so expect torture, beheading, eye-gouging and ­infant slaughter, plus a Crucifixion so painfully realistic that it ventures into The Passion of the Christ territory

Through it all, Burnett and Downey were hands-on exec producers, with Downey supervising on the set daily. "After half a year in the desert, we had sand in places we never knew existed!" she says with a laugh. "But the entire experience was blessed. Everything flowed beautifully, thanks to one little miracle after another." 

But the greatest miracle of all? ­"After working on this project for three and a half years," cracks Burnett, "Roma and I are still speaking to each other!"

The Bible premieres Sunday, March 3 at 8/7c on History.

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