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.