"And the question is, would this be better served on a big movie screen, seen in community, or would it be better served on TV?"
They obviously opted for the former, wrote in and shot extra scenes and re-edited a number seen in the series, adding additional footage and perspectives.
The result is the first feature film to depict most of the key moments in Jesus' life since "The Greatest Story Ever Told" back in 1965. The 1973 film version of the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" wasn't exactly gospel, Martin Scorsese's 1988 film "The Last Temptation of Christ" was considered heretical (at the very least) by many and Mel Gibson's hugely successful 2004 film "The Passion of the Christ" zeroed in on Jesus' final hours.
In fact, "Son of God," which opens Friday, spends a lot of screen time on the period from the Last Supper to Calvary. But it also shows the first Christmas, Jesus gathering the Apostles and other followers, key miracles from feeding the multitudes to walking on water and raising Lazarus from the dead, and a whole lot of insight into the tense political situation in Roman-occupied, first-century Judea.
And in Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, we see a very relatable Jesus: charismatic, yes, but also approachable; certainly not as tormented as Willem Dafoe in "Last Temptation," but vulnerable to doubt and fear.
"The whole thing comes across as more human," Morgado said. "I'm not a fan of that word, but it is true. Accessible, that's definitely the word. He was, 100 percent, the son of God, but he was 100 percent in a human condition.
"He had to face the same things we do every day," said Morgado, who identifies himself as a believing Christian. "I mean, doubt is part of belief. We know who we are, we can separate the good from bad, but at some point we're not sure if this is the right path — is it the right way or not in our own lives? So why not the son of God, at a certain point, be overwhelmed by his own miracles?"
To ensure that their movie stayed on the right path, Burnett and Downey, who already had consulted with a range of religious leaders for the miniseries, asked Catholic, Evangelical and other Protestant leaders for guidance. They also approached Jews, in the hope of avoiding the charges of anti-Semitism that greeted Gibson's "Passion."
"We had raised sensitivities that, historically, the story of the Crucifixion and the way it's been used through the centuries has never been good for the Jews," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "Therefore, any film that is not sensitive to the abuse of the story could be hurtful. So we engaged in a conversation and we made some recommendations on their original script. They said they would try to incorporate them, and they have.
"I've seen the film, and again I would say to you that the story is never good (for Jews), but they did do a lot of things to show the historical perspective and sensitivity," Foxman added. "They make it very clear that Jews were occupied by the Romans, that the Romans engaged in crucifixions every single day, and that Jesus was Jewish and loved by the Jews.
"But at the same time, in the eyes of the Sanhedrin, it wasn't a question about him as about how the Romans would respond."
Burnett described the movie as equal parts political thriller, epic adventure and a love story between Jesus and his followers.
"The first part of the film is about the kind of life the Jewish people had living in Judea at the time," Burnett said. "It was really very much like the 99 percent and the 1 percent we heard of a few years ago. They were awful times; the Romans were brutal."
That noted, the production strove to stay faithful to the biblical accounts — a decision that not only reflected the producers' sense of calling (Burnett was raised in the Church of England and Downey, who plays Mary, mother of Jesus, in the film, is a lifelong Roman Catholic), but certainly seems wise. Already, there are complaints in some religious quarters about the tone of Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" movie, which opens next month. And it remains to be seen whether or not Ridley Scott's upcoming "Exodus" will resonate the way Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" has since 1956.
"Something we know is that, while the stories are sweeping and fantastic, the community don't take kindly to changing the story," Burnett said in his unpretentious London accent. "Though I've not seen any of the other movies, I hope they learned something from what happened last year with 'The Bible,' that this is sacred text."
Not that he feels like passing judgment.
"All of it drives viewers to open the Bible and look it up for themselves," said Burnett, who with Downey has future broadcast network series about the Apostles and Masada in the works. "You've got to know that, as a result of 'Noah,' many will open Genesis, and that in itself is good."