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Bringing the Forgotten Story of the Early Church to Life

Back in 2013, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s miniseries, The Bible, brought in millions of weekly viewers. Now, the husband and wife producer team is back with A.D.: The Bible Continues, a 12-episode series that delves into the story of the early church after Jesus’ death. The first episode premieres Easter Sunday on NBC.

We went behind the scenes with Roma Downey to talk about the logistics of making the series, multiculturalism in Bible movies and their hopes for the show.

Most Bible shows focus on Jesus, but A.D. picks up at the death and resurrection the time after. Tell us a little more about what the series covers.

I don’t know that this has ever been done before, that we’ve seen the book of Acts played out in this way. It really is the beginnings of the early church. What was important to us was that we create that world, this first century world and try to draw the curtain back so that the audience can step through to experience what must have been going on in those early days.

Jesus had just been killed, there was danger lurking down every alleyway for those who believed in Him. They scattered, they were fearful. This Roman regime were occupying these people, they were taxed to the hilt. We know from history at this time that the Romans were crucifying up to 500 Jews a day. These were the worst of times for these people. So it’s amazing really that if you look at our story, that 12 remaining disciples (Judas dies, of course, but they get a new man in)—so for these 12 guys left, how did they bring down the Roman empire?

It’s an extraordinary story. You know these people from Scripture, but they didn’t know they were going to be iconic biblical characters—Paul, Peter, Mary Magdalene, Phillip, Thomas, Matthew, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, and on and on. They were people like you and me, most of them struggling with the very things that we struggle with the same hopes and the same hurts.

We’ve all heard the Bible stories, but it’s the characters and the behind-the-scenes drama that go along with those stories that really make this interesting. How did you bring those things to life?

I think what A.D. does and does so well is that it has big huge epic moments: It has scale, it has sets and casts of hundreds, and Roman legions, big battles. And then it had the beauty of intimacy—these small profound moments of deep relationship, moments where the Holy Spirit comes and fills this frightened group and strengthens them.

Really, the Holy Spirit is the star of A.D. The Holy Spirit is mentioned over 50 times by name in the book of Acts alone. The book of Acts is the backbone for A.D., but we have woven other stories, drawing from history, drawing from the writings of Josephus, drawing in a way to color in these stories, to give a context of what was happening at the time.

It was madly complicated. There was such oppression from the Romans and there were people still trying to hold on to power and status, then in the midst of this you had Jesus and the messages of Jesus which miraculously prevailed in spite of everything that would indicate these guys are about to get shut down. Then, ironically, the very roads that were built by the Romans to come and oppress these people become the roads upon which the Word goes out forth to spread around the world, which is why there are over 2 billion Christians today.

You mentioned the scale and the scope. You built a first-century Jerusalem in rural Morocco, but the attention to the minutia is striking. How did you pull it off?

We had over 500 local Moroccan workers work 24/7 for about three months to create that temple set in the streets of Jerusalem. You’re absolutely right with the attention given to the detail. Actors walk onto the set with the benefit of beautiful customs with extraordinary fabric, hairdos, makeup, every element coming together.

It takes a village to do anything, and in this case we have a particularly wonderful village, group of designers, of artisans, of construction workers, painters, and artists who came together to make this as realistic, this sort of living breathing space that is a dream to work on. It’s like stepping back in time.

One of the critiques of recent Bible has been how white-washed the casting has been. A.D. has a very multicultural cast. Has that been intentional?

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Yes, it was very deliberate. When we were on the road sharing The Bible series, we had an opportunity to visit a number of churches, and among them quite a few African-American churches throughout the nation.

People were so grateful that The Bible series was on TV, but many of those African-American pastors and friends said to us, “We love what you’ve done, but it would have been nice to see some more color on the screen to reflect the world we live in.”

So we listened, we heard, and we took action. We have assembled a very diverse cast. I think it’s important when people turn the TV set on to see the beginnings of our church that they see represented there a family that looks like the family of our own church, which, of course, is diverse and beautiful.

Did you ever think The Bible series would end up sparking something of this scale?

Our very dear friend Pastor Rick Warren always jokes with us that the most dangerous prayer you can pray is “use me.” Because if you pray that prayer then you have to be ready for the fact that God just indeed might use you, and if that happens, you’ve got to get up and go do something about it.

We felt a call on our hearts to do this, we really felt that there was a potential here to take our story and to present it in a way that makes it cool and compelling and relatable and human, then bringing in these supernatural elements so we understand what the Holy Spirit is and that we understand that the Holy Spirit is available to us, it wasn’t just back in the first century.

It’s been such a privilege for us and our own faith to be able to use our talents and the gifts we’ve been given to put this TV series together. This is not just a job for us, this is our faith and this is something that we have just lovingly poured our hearts and our souls into. It’s work and it’s hard work, but it’s really been worth it.

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