When Roma Downey and Mark Burnett were first approached about remaking the epic drama Ben-Hur, the Hollywood power couple did what they always do before making any decision: They prayed for God's wisdom and blessing.
"I can't think of any project, big or small, that I've ever been involved in, that didn't bring with it just a lot prayer," Downey, who with her husband is an executive producer on the Paramount Picture, told The Gospel Herald during a sit-down interview in Beverly Hills, CA.
"We decided that as bold as it was, we were up for the challenge. Remember, we boldly took on The Bible series, and we're interested in stories that illuminate the darkness. Ben Hur does that, it's filled with light...We're believers, so we understand just how powerful prayer can be, and when two or more are gathered in His name, extraordinary things can happen."
Written by Keith Clarke and John Ridley, who won an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, Ben-Hur tells the riveting tale of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a Jewish prince who was falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro). Like the 1959 version, Ben-Hur is packed with action and adventure, but in the remake, the themes of forgiveness, grace, and reconciliation are front and center - making it all the more relevant today.
"We loved how [Ridley] had taken a story that at its essence was a revenge story, but he presented it in a way that it focused on themes of forgiveness and reconciliation, and that was something that was important to us," said Downey.
One particularly moving scene towards the end of the film shows the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, where the shed blood of God's only son regenerates a disillusioned Judah and renews his infirmed mother and sister. This scene, Downey revealed, moved her tremendously.
"I found myself up on that cold hillside in Matera, where we filmed the crucifixion sequence that morning," she recalled. "There was a somber mood on the set as we raised those three crosses on the hill and prepared to put Rodrigo Santoro and the other two actors up there. And, even though it's just a reenactment, you can't help but be impacted emotionally by recreating that particular scene from history and the sacrifice that Jesus made for us."
The couple, who together have produced five faith films The Bible, Son of God, A.D. The Bible Continues, Dovekeepers, and now Ben-Hur, revealed that the words 1st Timothy 6:12 guided them throughout the filmmaking process: "Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses."
"How can you get the message of Jesus and Christianity to reach more people? Entertainment is an enormous opportunity," explained Burnett. "Look at Touched By an Angel - ten years, almost 300 episodes, twenty million people a week hearing the message that "God loves you". The Bible series, a hundred, a million viewers. People couldn't believe it - they said, 'Who's gonna watch the Bible on primetime TV?' And now Ben-Hur. Here is an action, epic adventure. Yes, it's very entertaining, it's a huge movie. And it should be. But woven through it is the story of Jesus. And the story of why revenge does not work. And what a great way - the convergence of faith and entertainment can be really powerful."
Ben-Hur also stars Morgan Freeman, Nazanin Boniadi, and Pilou Asbæk. It hits theaters Aug. 19.