Mark Burnett is an award-winning television
producer and president of MGM Television and Digital Group. He has produced a
variety of well-known television and cable shows, including Survivor and Celebrity Apprentice. He is married to Roma Downey, an actress
perhaps best known for starring in the television series Touched by an Angel (1994-2003). The pair are prominent Christians
in Hollywood, and have produced successful religious-themed projects such as The Bible, A.D.: The Bible Continues, and Son
They are serving as executive producers for Ben-Hur, a remake of the classic 1959
movie starring Charlton Heston. The 2016 movie stars Jack Huston as Judah
Ben-Hur, who is betrayed into slavery by his former childhood friend (played by
Toby Kebbell). The story takes place 2,000 years ago during the life of Christ,
with much of the action taking place in Jerusalem. Judah Ben-Hur encounters
Christ at key moments in his life.
Ben-Hur is based
on a best-selling 1880 novel by former Civil War General Lew Wallace. It has
been brought to the big screen multiple times, the first being in 1907. While
the 2016 version follows the same general story line as the famous 1959
version, there are significant differences between the two, including a larger
role for Christ and stronger Christian message in the new version. There are
new characters, too, including Morgan Freeman as Sheik Ilderim, who becomes a
friend and mentor to Judah.
scheduled for release on August 19. Burnett
and Downey recently spoke to CWR about the film.
CWR: Why did you
want to be involved with Ben-Hur?
Roma Downey: We wanted
to impact our culture with a message of love and forgiveness.
Burnett: (Laughing) We like to joke that we’re the noisiest Christians in
Hollywood. It’s our fourth project of this kind, and it took a massive army of
people to make.
Christ is not a major character in the movie, he still plays a key role.
Burnett: Yes. Ben-Hur is a big action epic, with a
through-line of Jesus interacting with the major characters in our story. It
blends an exciting action epic with a message of love and forgiveness coming
from Jesus. We knew that many viewers would not show up if we billed the film
as having a message of love and forgiveness, but hopefully they’ll come to see
a great action film and be exposed to the message as well.
Whoever you are, I think you’ll enjoy the film.
It has some great action sequences, most notably the chariot race. Our two lead
actors, Jack Huston (Judah Ben-Hur) and Toby Kebbell (Messala), are experienced
horsemen and actually drove the chariots. And, although it looks otherwise on
the big screen, no horses were injured in the making of this movie.
CWR: How did you
get recruited to be executive producers?
Barber, chairman and CEO of MGM, had seen our Bible series and Son of God. He knew that Ben-Hur has a Christian message, and
asked Roma and I to be involved. We’ve since formed a partnership and merged
our companies, and soon we’ll be launching a faith and family channel.
We came in during Ben-Hur’s script development, and worked with the movie’s writer,
John Ridley. We were involved in the production each step of the way. We shot
the movie at locations in Rome and Matera, Italy. It’s a great story, and after
nearly 60 years since the Charlton Heston version, we think it’s ready to be
retold for the next generation.
Downey: There are
many bad things going on in the world today. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. But
our perspective, and one we bring to Ben-Hur,
is that it is better to light one candle than curse the darkness.
Ben-Hur’s message is
one of reconciliation, mercy, and love. If we want to be happy and at peace, we
must let go of ugliness and hatred. My favorite scene in the movie occurs when
Judah Ben-Hur encounters Christ as He is carrying His cross to Calvary. He
wants to give Christ water, as Christ had done for him earlier in the film. A
Roman soldier, however, won’t let him. Judah Ben-Hur, in anger, picks up a
stone to strike the soldier. But, at Christ’s urging, he drops the rock and
lets go of his anger. I can think of times in my own life where I’ve held on to
anger towards others, but I bring it to the foot of the Cross and I let go of my
There is such division and anger in our country.
I hope this film contributes to efforts to build bridges between us. We have to
remember that we are all children of a loving God.
younger people may be unfamiliar with the story of Ben-Hur.
Downey: Yes. The
2016 film is a story for a new generation. In one of our recent screenings, we
had an older man attend with his adult son. The father had emotional memories
of the 1959 Ben-Hur, but for the son
it was “Ben Who”? We have a great opportunity to reach our young people with
the story of Jesus, and bring them to the foot of the Cross.
Heston’s Ben-Hur is one of my
all-time favorites. It was truly an amazing spectacle, especially for the time
in which it was made. As much as that film means to me and so many others, my
own teenagers had never heard of it. I realized there was a massive audience
ready for a fresh approach to this classic story and with all the advances in
filmmaking since then, we can create a spectacle even more thrilling for a
CWR: How does
Judah Ben-Hur change over the course of the film?
Huston gives the most extraordinary portrayal of a man on a journey. Through
the course of the film, we see him change physically and emotionally.
Physically, we see him go from this handsome,
charming, debonair prince, to a man broken and brought to his knees. Through
the years he spends on the galley ship, we see his body tighten and his heart
harden. He knows that the only thing that will allow him to survive is to
harness his lust for revenge.
CWR: And Toby
Kebbell plays Messala, his friend turned rival.
sizzles on screen. Physically, he just brings it. He’s good-looking. He’s
grounded. He’s strong, and he inherently has such intelligence and depth.
We believe he loves Judah, and the thing that
drives him through the second half of the movie is that love and
CWR: What was
the budget for Ben-Hur?
Burnett: I don’t
know that MGM is releasing any specific numbers, but I will say it is a very
large-budget movie. One of the big-ticket items is special effects, which
younger audiences have come to expect. But we have to have them, because it is
important that our movie be able to attract an audience. There is a lot of
competition from other movies, and people are only willing to spend so much
going to films.
brought in a number of religious consultants from a variety of Christian
Burnett: Yes. When
we started working on The Bible, we
brought in some faith consultants to advise us. We started with several, but
over the course of the production we wound up with 40. They included Catholics,
Protestants, and Jews. Our purpose was to find common ground, which would help
us in telling the story. It was also a sound business approach, as we wanted to
appeal to multiple audiences!
We continued this practice with A.D., Son of God, and Ben-Hur.
Downey: Since both
Mark and I are Christians, we wanted to be sure we got the life of Christ right.
While Judah Ben-Hur is a fictional character, his story is interwoven with
life-changing moments as he encounters the real historical person of Christ
If you look at biblical stories that did not
accurately portray what was in the Bible, they weren’t well accepted by
CWR: Do you and
Mark work well together as a couple?
although we spend more time together than most couples we know. We often joke
that it is a miracle that we’re still speaking to one another. My girlfriends
tell me they can’t even do yard work with their husbands! But, we respect one
another and love what we do.