To film the Bible series, they set off for the southern tip of Morocco in Africa with a similar-size crew and hundreds of extras. Not to mention the chariots and horses.
"It was epic," Downey said.
"Our experience with large-scale productions was very, very important," Burnett said.
To help further bring the story to life, they brought in Lola, an Oscar-winning CGI team from London who created similar scenes for the film "Gladiator."
They went with an international ensemble for the cast because they didn't want to distract the audience with recognizable celebrities.
Jesus was played by Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado. Many other actors came from the Theatre District in London.
The most recognizable face to most in North America will be Downey herself, who stepped into the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary is portrayed in the series as a young woman at the Nativity, then later in life.
"It was a privilege to play it," Downey said. For nine seasons, Downey starred in the CBS show "Touched by an Angel," then went on to star in a number of TV movies.
"The scripts at one point just said Young Mary, and then as the scripts progressed it said Old Mary. I said, 'OK, we have to change that right now.' The last thing I need to see is 'Old Mary' played by Roma Downey," she said with a laugh. "So we changed it to Mother Mary."
The budget for the 10 hours was under $22 million, Burnett said, a small price tag for a production on such a grand scale. (NBC paid $4 million per episode for the show "Smash" this season, according to an estimate by the New York Times)
"It's not easy, even for us, to sell and get placed on prime time television, 10 hours -- Genesis to Revelation," Burnett said. "Do we wish we had 25 or 100 [hours], yes but we got 10. We got a great budget. It looks like it's a $200 million movie. Of course it's not. It's just our combined experiences, our hearts and efforts that make it look like that."
Getting it right
As they considered which parts of the Bible to shoot, they had to pare down hundreds of stories.
"The first decision was, it's one story," Burnett said. "It's not a series of unconnected stories, it's one grand narrative."
"You could call it the meta narrative."
The series encompasses five hours of the Old Testament and five hours of the New Testament.
They took many artistic liberties to compress the story lines while hoping to remain true to the story.
A public relations manager for the project described the liberties to me as "extra-biblical but not contra-biblical."
For instance, in the series opener, the Book of Genesis stories of Adam and Eve and Noah unfold together. Noah and his family are already on the ark while the flood waters batter their boat. To calm his family, Noah tells them the story of creation: "In the beginning! ... " Noah bellows as he runs around plugging leaks and comforting his family and the animals.
Similarly, in the story of David and Goliath, when David heads out to face the giant Philistine foe, he clutches his sling and quietly begins to recite the 23rd Psalm, "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil." David is considered the author of the psalm, but nowhere in the text of the David and Goliath story does it address what he said as he walked out to battle and slay Goliath.
The dialogue in much of the story is similarly constructed along the lines of the bare-bones text. When Jesus calls Peter to be his disciple, Peter asks, "What are we going to do?" Jesus answers, "We're going to change the world." Those lines never appear in the Gospel accounts, but Burnett and Downey insist it is consistent with the text.
"Every step of the way we've had scholars and theologians working with us," Downey said.
Burnett and Downey consulted a wide range of pastors and academics, including a major evangelical leader and a Catholic cardinal.
Their advisory panel consisted of many people from varied backgrounds familiar with sharing the stories of the Bible rather than of a "who's who" of Biblical academics.
Joel Osteen, a popular television preacher and pastor of the 30,000-member Lakewood church in Houston, was among those consulted. Osteen and Burnett are friends and were developing a television series together that went on the back burner during the production of this series. Osteen even took his family to Morocco during some of the filming.