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To hear the word of God, just press play

April 18, 2007|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Finding the perfect Jesus was no problem for Carl Amari -- he just called up Jim Caviezel, who starred in "The Passion of the Christ" -- but making a deal with just the right devil has turned out to be harder than hell.

"And you need a good Satan," Amari said with a bit of exasperation, "because Satan has some of the best lines in the Bible."

Amari is a 43-year-old Chicago entrepreneur who made a fortune in the late 1980s by salvaging old-time radio shows and repackaging them on cassette tapes. Now Amari sees a golden opportunity in giving the family Bible a serious digital upgrade -- he's behind "The Word of Promise," a lavishly produced, word-for-word dramatic reading of the Bible by Caviezel and other Hollywood stars that, when it's completed, will fill 70 CDs.

The first part of the project, a 20-CD set of the New Testament for $49.95, will arrive in stores in October. Considering the proven potency of both the audio-book marketplace and Christian retail, it might be a holiday-gift sensation. The presence of Caviezel should give it instant cachet in many Christian circles; the 100-person cast also includes Terence Stamp as God, Michael York as the narrator, Luke Perry as Judas and Marisa Tomei as Mary Magdalene. The recording sessions began in July, but, to the consternation of Amari and director JoBe Cerny, the role of Satan is still up in the air.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 20, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Bible on CD: An article in Wednesday's Calendar about an audio-book production of the Bible identified the Bible edition being used as the St. James Version. The Bible being used is the King James Version.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 21, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Bible on CD: An article in Wednesday's Calendar section about an audio-book production of the Bible identified the edition being used as the St. James Version, and a For the Record on Friday said the Bible being used was the King James Version. The audio book is a reading of the New King James Version.

"We're still experimenting," Cerny said Tuesday from the studio in Chicago. "We have some ideas and someone in mind, but nothing is for sure yet. It's a challenge because it needs to sound really devious and seductive and, uh, you know, devilish. But you don't want to be too over-the-top."

York, who noted that Americans seem to cast Brits as both deities and devils in movies ("I think it has to do with diction"), said he was surprised to hear that the fiery role was still available. He also offered a wry casting suggestion for the ultimate evil. "How about that fellow from 'American Idol,' Simon Cowell? He's seems up for the job."

Celebrities clearly goose the sales of audio books, but there's also the danger of shoehorning a famous name into a biblical setting that might come off as cheesy. It's been more than 50 years since Edward G. Robinson squawked his way through his role in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments," and comedians are still mocking his jarring delivery of such lines as "Where's your messiah now, Moses?"

The Christian consumer market has tight circuitry, and Amari knows that, depending on whether his project clicks there, it could become a hugely lucrative pop-culture phenomenon, a la Mel Gibson's "Passion," or a largely ignored curiosity piece, such as the film "The Nativity Story." A team of Bible scholars was brought in to fret over every inflection and pronunciation and to ensure that every line is true to the St. James Version of the Bible.

"When it comes to the Bible, you really can't get it wrong," Amari said. "You'll have people burning down your building. You don't want to get these people mad."

Dramatic potential

Amari is an unlikely shepherd for this project. He describes himself as religious but, unlike Gibson, hardly believes he is on a holy mission. Instead, he came up with the idea because one night he was reading the Bible to his young children and realized that, reading alone and in the challenging language of Scripture, he could never communicate the drama and sweep of the Bible.

Making the Bible into audio theater was his first instinct. Amari had grown up loving old radio shows and, in college, he started a company called Radio Spirits that cheaply licensed more than 60,000 programs featuring the likes of George Burns, Milton Berle and Orson Welles. He sold them on tapes and CDs and became a millionaire by age 30. He branched out into producing new shows of his own and dabbling in film with his Falcon Picture Group, which is how he met Caviezel and saw firsthand how Christian consumers were ready for projects that "shook the world."

If Gibson's goal was to create a cinema moment so powerful that it would be a global moment of biblical theater, Amari's goal was to reinvent the family Bible and create a keepsake for an era when most entertainment is heard and not read. "Word of Promise" has state-of-the-art audio effects so the listener will "hear" ships at sea, the clang of ancient battlefields, the rattle of slave manacles and the fires of hell. There's also a sprawling original score by Stefano Mainetti, one of the two composers who scored the "Abba Pater," the 2005 CD that blended Pope John Paul II's voices and chants with original music. "It's a milestone work," said Wayne Hastings, senior vice president of the Bible Division for Thomas Nelson Publishers Inc., the world's largest Bible publisher, which is putting out Amari's project.

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