Traveling with 'God': Behind the Global Production of Morgan Freeman’s New Series
When a crew follows Morgan Freeman across the world—as he poses existential questions in that infamous voice—something interesting is bound to happen.
"Playing God" can have ominous implications. For Morgan Freeman, it’s just a fact. He has been cast as the almighty presence in multiple films, which has to get a guy to thinking.... Who is God? What does God even mean? And while I’m at it, why are we here?
Freeman turned these musings into a six-part docuseries called The Story of God with Morgan Freeman for the National Geographic Channel, traveling to almost every continent to uncover the fundamental relationships between humans and spirituality around the globe.
Series co-executive producer James Younger, along with Freeman and Lori McCreary, answered some questions from No Film School about the show’s production, how filmmakers can prepare for their own shoots abroad, and the challenges of shooting doc-style with an international icon in tow.
"We all might be Zoroastrians, which could be the oldest religion in the world, whose central tenets are 'Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.'"
NFS: How involved was Morgan Freeman in the show’s production?
Younger: Morgan Freeman was involved throughout. He helped guide shooting scripts and researched every interviewee before meeting them in the field. It was a big departure from working on feature sets, where he would be secreted away in a trailer until the director was ready for his lines. He was out with the crew all day long in most cases, be it on the narrow streets of Varanasi, India, or the ruins of the Mayan civilization in the Guatemalan rainforest.
NFS: How did people respond to Freeman’s presence in different countries?
Younger: Traveling with an international icon makes documentary photography difficult in public places—we tended to get swamped with smartphone-wielding selfie hunters in Italy, Egypt, and Israel, and, of course, all over the US. When we were in the more remote parts of India—for example, in Bodh Gaya—Morgan got some respite from usual crowds, which I think he found quite pleasant!
NFS: What was your shoot process like? How many people were on your crew, how long did you shoot for, and how many separate journeys did you take?
Younger: We had a dedicated crew of about 18 people traveling from country to country, and usually around 10 local hires in each country. Our core team included a camera team of 4, sound, production manager and coordinators, first and second unit directors, plus Morgan’s wardrobe, hair and makeup team. Our fixers in each country secured the locations and provided transportation and security.
Our shoot began with a trip to Guatemala, which also acted as our test run for our staffing needs, technical workflows, and just nailing the creative style. We then embarked on one 5-week international trip, which took us from Rome to Turkey, Egypt, Israel, and India. Our US shoot days were done in smaller batches and peppered throughout the year.
"It’s vital to have locals in those countries who are familiar with the approval process and can work behind the scenes to make sure what you’re asking to do is allowed."
NFS: What was the most difficult shoot location and why?
Younger: Probably Israel. We arrived at a time of increasing tension between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and we were not able to travel to the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem. Plus, our access to some important archeological sites was cut off. So we had to change our shoot plans considerably; safe routes for travel changed by the day.
We also had a hard time filming at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which is controlled by three main Christian groups, who aren’t always in agreement. We got asked to leave on our first day there, as we apparently said something that was unacceptable when discussing the history and traditions of the site. Luckily, we managed to get back in a couple of days later and finish what we needed to finish.
NFS: From your experience on this show, what should filmmakers take into consideration when planning to shoot in several global locations?
Younger: Advance planning! Lots of it!! Most of the countries we visited required both visas and film permits. The governmental film permits can take months to approve. It’s vital to have locals in those countries who are familiar with the approval process and can work behind the scenes to make sure what you’re asking to do is allowed, or likely to be approved. In our case, religious topics are highly sensitive in some countries. No matter what your subject is, give yourself a lot of time to prepare in advance.
NFS: What technical gear did you use for the show?
Younger: We shot principally on two Sony F55 cameras (in 4k UHD), each equipped with a Canon 17-120 zoom lens. We had a selection of prime lenses, but for run-and-gun documentary scenes covering Morgan and a contributor, where we could not control the action, primes were not usually practical. We also had a Ronin setup with an Alexa Mini for gimbal-stabilized shooting, and a Red Epic for high-speed photography.
Post-production was done on Avid 7.5. All episodes were finished in 4k, and color graded with Nucoda. We also did extensive sound design work and mixed in 5.1.
"I hope people will come away from the show understanding more about other faiths, and more about their own traditions."
NFS: The series deals with some pretty provocative topics. What surprised you most during production in terms of the stories you covered?
Younger: So much was surprising. That Hindus don’t desire reincarnation—they want to live life in such a way that they are liberated from Earthly existence, and go to eternal life in the heavens. That we all might be Zoroastrian, which could be the oldest religion in the world, whose central tenets are “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.” That going to a megachurch is really fun, and an incredibly uplifting experience. I could go on, but you should watch the series and find out for yourselves!
NFS: What do you hope viewers will take away from the show?
Younger: Different faiths of the world have much more in common than we think. For all their surface differences, they all stem from fundamental human questions, like: Why am I here? What happens when I die? Why does evil exist?
I hope people will come away from the show understanding more about other faiths, and more about their own traditions.