Catholic Filmmaker Roma Downey on ‘Resurrection’: Hope Didn’t Die on the Cross
Discovery+ movie focuses on timely message ahead of Holy Week and Easter.
“This film,” Roma Downey says, “is the perfect film for such a time as this.”
Downey is talking about her latest project, Resurrection, a feature film she co-produced with her husband, Mark Burnett, which premieres on March 27 on Discovery Plus.
In an interview with the Register, Downey pointed to society’s need for renewal and resurrection in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced individuals and families into isolation. “The last year has been challenging for everyone,” she said. “It’s almost as though we’ve all been locked in in our own lives — but now, we’re all ready to step out into the light. We’re looking forward to returning to Mass in person, returning to the classroom, returning to the office. We’re looking ahead to a ‘resurrection’ in our businesses as we get the economy back up and running.”
Downey drew encouragement from the Resurrection, following just days after Christ’s horrific crucifixion and death. Viewers could also take comfort, she thought, in reflecting on how things can improve, how God can bring good from the challenges facing people in their daily lives.
Drawing on the Scriptures, the film picks up where Downey and Burnett’s 2013 five-part docu-drama The Bible left off.
Resurrection actually spans events in salvation history from the Passover dinner on Holy Thursday through Christ’s crucifixion, death and resurrection, on to the Ascension, and culminating with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room at Pentecost. Downey called the Pentecost footage the seminal moment in the film.
“For an Easter release,” she said, “we felt that was the greatest miracle in the Bible and the cornerstone of our faith in so many ways. Jesus left his disciples with the Great Commission: Go tell the world; go spread the Gospel. So we see the disciples gathered in the Upper Room. Thanks to our amazing special-effects team, we see the fiery flames circling in the sky, coming into the room and filled with the Holy Spirit, then spilling out into the street to tell the world about the story of salvation.”
At the end of the film, Downey added, they appended images of the church today. “No spoiler alerts!” Downey said. “At the end of the movie, we reminded the audience that what began with just a handful of believers has now grown to 2.2 billion followers today. We cut to images of worship around the world.”
A Family-Friendly Production Company
In addition to her highly successful acting career, Downey cofounded with her husband a faith and family film and television production company, LightWorkers Media. Downey and Burnett had originally intended for Resurrection to open in theaters at Eastertime; but with most major theaters still closed because of the pandemic, LightWorkers instead entered into an agreement with Discovery Plus to introduce the film on the small screen. Downey told the Register that they were especially pleased to partner with Discovery because of the network’s family-friendly platform. “Their shows are appropriate for families, especially kids,” Downey said. “So we’re delighted that in the comfort and safety of their homes, families will be able to gather around the TV and watch the Resurrection story unfold.”
Downey expressed hope that Resurrection will attract a wide audience, as had The Bible miniseries, which drew 100 million viewers in 2013. “I certainly hope and pray that it will reach a lot of people,” she said, “and that it will reawaken anyone who has stepped away, that it might draw people back to God.”
Downey recalled that when LightWorkers Media made The Bible series in 2013, their friends in Hollywood told them that it was a crazy idea: first, because it would negatively impact their careers; and, secondly, because it would fail. Friends asked, “Who wants to see the Bible on television?” Downey said she was proud that the success of The Bible series proved those friends wrong, paving the way for Hollywood to consider other faith-based projects, including LightWorkers’ A.D.: The Bible Continues.
Production Challenges in the Era of COVID
An interesting fact: Because of the pandemic, Hollywood studios were unable to shoot live footage; but Downey was able to craft Resurrection by piecing together film footage from their library that had been recorded earlier.
“We filmed entirely on location in Morocco,” Downey reported, “and we were able to replicate the Temple in Jerusalem. Once we added camels and donkeys, goats and chickens, actors, extras, gorgeous costumes ... we could have pointed the camera in any direction, and it would have seemed that we were stepping back into the first century.”
“The story really plays out like a thriller,” Downey said. “There’s a triangle: There were the Romans on the one hand, very cruel. There were the Temple authorities like Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, who arrested Jesus quickly and murdered him quickly to get rid of him before the Passover. And there were the disciples.
“Unlike other movies in this genre (Passion stories), this movie really picks up with the Crucifixion. It goes on to tell the story of the disciples, relating to them and showing viewers their fears and their individual personalities. We know from the Scriptures that the only disciple at the foot of the cross was John, the beloved. And Jesus’ mother, Mary — what strength and courage must have been required as a mother to stand at the foot of the cross and watch her kid brutally murdered!”
“All of our actors worked incredibly hard in challenging circumstances,” she recalled. “There were dust storms, extreme heat. I returned home with dust in my teeth, dust in my ears! But we do what we have to do, and it was such a privilege to have been able to tell these stories.”
Cast of Characters
Resurrection brings together people of every race and nationality among its cast. John, the beloved apostle, was played by an African American, as was Mary Magdalen.
When asked whether it was her intent to represent the nations of the world among Jesus’ followers, Downey responded: “We had taken some criticism for The Bible series. Some reviewers were concerned because we didn’t have diversity in our casting. We wanted our audience to see the movie and to see reflected in it the world in which we live. It’s a great reminder that we’re all sons and daughters of our loving God.”
Telling Stories of Faith
Downey describes herself as a lifelong Catholic. Her oldest brother back in Ireland is an ordained priest. She was convent-educated by the Sisters of Mercy. She smiled as she admitted that, had her fellow students been surveyed, no one in her religious-education class would have considered her the most likely student to go on and produce five biblical dramas.
But Downey has built her career on telling the story of God’s love. She loved portraying the angel Monica on Touched By an Angel from 1994 through 2003. More than 25 million viewers tuned in to hear that message: that there is a God and that he wants to be a part of your life. Downey remembered, “Della Reese (as the angel Tess) and I would hold hands each week and pray – simply that there would be less of us and more of God. We wanted to be a conduit that reached into people’s hearts.”
As president of LightWorkers Media, Downey produced with her husband the Emmy-nominated miniseries The Bible for the History Channel. The couple also produced feature films including Ben-Hur starring Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell and Morgan Freeman; Son of God; Little Boy; and Woodlawn. They also produced The Dovekeepers for CBS, A.D.: The Bible Continues for NBC, Women of the Bible for Lifetime and Answered Prayers for TLC.
As to what projects LightWorkers Media will next turn its attention, Downey gave the Register a peek into her plans for the coming year.
“There’s lots of great work coming down,” she reported. A major project is a new film titled Disciples. Disciples has already been edited and will pick up the story of Jesus’ followers, including St. Paul. Disciples will take a viewer deeper into the Book of Acts.
If Resurrection can pull in an audience for Discovery Plus during the Easter season, the network has indicated that it will provide a platform for future projects. “We’re so pleased by that,” said Downey. “To have partners in the streaming world who are willing to do that is exciting.”
Resurrection premieres on Saturday.
“We know that we are in a world that needs stories of hope,” said Downey. “And we want to remind people that hope didn’t die on the cross.”
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