Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, under their LightWorkers Media banner, are two of the most successful producers of faith-based entertainment working today. Their miniseries The Bible was a massive hit for the History Channel, while A.D.: The Bible Continues was seen on NBC. They’ve dipped their toes into theatrical films as well with Son of God and Little Boy, but the new film version of Ben-Hur, on which they are executive producers, is probably the biggest single project they have ever worked on.
Screen Rant spoke with Downey and Burnett about taking on a project like this and remaking an already iconic (and often-filmed story), as well as whether it appeals to both faith-based and mainstream audiences and if there are other Biblical epics they might consider remaking.
I read that the 1959 Ben-Hur had a budget of around $15 million – what does that get you today, a couple of horses…?
Roma Downey: (laughs) Yeah. But with inflation does it say what it would have been? I’m sure it was up there, it must have been up there.
I just thought that was a funny thing to look at. But on a more serious note, what made this the right time to do this and take on this iconic property?
Mark Burnett: Part of it has to be that for the last eight years, we’ve made very big faith projects. And so I guess that was part of the training for it, our experience, our confidence...and then Gary Barber, chairman of MGM, approached us following those other projects and said, “You know, there’s a strong faith element in Ben-Hur – maybe you guys would be interested in coming on as producers?” And first of all, we were freaked out. We were like, “Ben-Hur, whoa, that’s like a big step forward.” But we read the script written by John Ridley, who got the Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave, it was a page-turner, and yeah, we prayed on it, we talked about it and we said, okay, we’re gonna jump on it and go for it. Two years later, it’s coming on the screen and we’re so grateful.
The faith component was not as strongly present in the 1959 film. I didn’t see the silent version or read the novel. Are there two different meanings in this story, one for a faith-based audience and one for others?
Burnett: Well, the novel is called Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The most important Christian fiction novel of all time. And so our movie sticks closer to the novel.
Downey: And I think perhaps where the ’59 film really had an emphasis on the revenge element of the story, while we touch upon that of course, our movie ultimately delivers a message about forgiveness and reconciliation. And I think if you look at the world we’re living in, there’s so much hurt and fear and confusion and danger out there, I think that a movie that delivers a story of hope and an understanding that vengeance isn’t the way – that forgiveness is the better way – I think, you know, for such a time as this, this movie is well-timed.
Burnett: If you think about the novel – this novel was written in 1880, so that’s what, 15 years after the Civil War? So that novel was written at a time when the nation must have been so torn apart and wondering, “Could America continue? Did it go too far?” And here we are now, 2016, we feel like really torn apart as a nation, and the movie comes out at this time with a message of reconciliation. Maybe it’s meant to be.
Would you be interested in taking on The Ten Commandments or a film like that for a new audience if this goes well?
Downey: Well, I think, you know, we did The Bible in ’13, Son of God in ’14, AD and Dovekeepers ’15 and now Ben-Hur ’16, I think there are parts of us that would love to do something where there aren’t sand, sandals or donkeys...
Burnett: Or Romans.
Downey: Or Romans. You know, I think maybe we’re ready to tell some contemporary stories. But what we are interested in always at LightWorkers is to tell stories that illuminate the darkness. We’re interested in content that’s uplifting, that’s unifying, and that is inspirational. And Ben-Hur, while it’s a great, big action drama with danger, battles, sword fights, romance, revenge, all of that, it still holds within it a story about hope and reconciliation, and we’re very encouraged by that.
Ben-Hur opens in U.S. theaters August 19, 2016.