The Nativity, '100 Percent Without Cynicism'
'The Nativity Story' director and screenwriter discuss the joys and challenges of filming one of the most famous stories ever.
BY: Interviews by Michael Kress
Though the "The Nativity Story" looks to the gospels of Matthew and Luke as its primary source material, someone had to take those passages and forge them into a modern movie. That job fell to screenwriter Mike Rich and director Catherine Hardwicke. Rich's previous work includes family-friendly fare such as "Radio" and "The Rookie," while Hardwicke's earlier movies--including "Thirteen" and "Lords of Dogtown," both of which offer edgy takes on teens' lives--made her anything but an obvious choice for this faithful retelling of Jesus' birth.
In separate interviews (combined here), Hardwicke and Rich spoke about what this story means to them, what surprised them about delving into the gospels in depth, and how Hollywood sees faith-focused films since "The Passion of the Christ."
Why tackle a story this huge and this familiar?
In a way it seems familiar, but it's not that familiar. I grew up in the First Presbyterian Church, McAllen, Texas, and I went to church every Sunday, every Christmas. But I never really thought very deeply about the story. I loved the mythical, gorgeous, mystical elements of it. But I didn't really think these were real people, with real emotions and problems and issues. And that's what I thought was so interesting about Mike's screenplay, that it drew you into the story. And it made you think about things that connected it to our lives now.
I was foolish enough to [take on this story]. The reason I say that is it's a pretty daunting project, because it's held with such reverence by so many millions of people. I was looking for a new challenge as a writer, and I'm a person of faith myself.
In December of 2004, when Newsweek and Time both had cover stories on the Nativity, and I said, "Wait a second, the Nativity story? I grew up with that story." It was a childhood story for me. Still to this day I put the Nativity set up on the fireplace mantel. But in reading those accounts, it dawned on me that we never look at the story from a character standpoint. We always look at it from what happened instead of who these people were. And that was really of interest to me. So I started this combination of biblical and historical research to find out more about these individuals. And that put me on the path to writing the script.
Why did you choose to go the route of such a faithful adaptation--especially in this day and age, where even a lot of Christians would say they believe in a figurative reading of it or metaphorical one?
There are so many beautiful elements to it that capture the imagination. To take the gospels, Matthew and Luke--and they're beautiful, but they have very few verses in them--and then fill in and breathe the life into them, I thought this was an exciting challenge. There's something in everyone's heart that those scenes really touch. They have a power, and it has endured for 2,000 years. We just went for it 100 percent without cynicism.
In that same Newsweek article that I referenced, they did a survey, and it was astounding to me how many of the people surveyed believed in the literal truth of the story. It was a wide majority.
But also, regardless of your faith and regardless if you even have religious belief or background, I think that that Nativity set has become iconic. It's one of the reasons why we selected to put the Magi at the birth, on the night of the birth, which is not biblically accurate. But it's consistent with that image we all have in the traditional telling of this story.
I was never in the business of gospel revisionism with this particular story. Whether it's a literal truth, whether it's a figurative truth, we'll let the audience decide, or they probably have already decided. But at this time of year it's nice to offer a traditional telling of that type of story.
During the Christmas holiday, unfortunately, we don't take enough time I think. It's become such a hectic season of deadlines that we don't pause to really reflect on what I think is the centerpiece of this story, which is faith. Mary's saying the words, "Let it be done to me"--I think that's one of the most remarkable statements of faith in the New Testament. And Joseph's decision to take her as his wife and, in effect, sacrifice his own reputation--an incredible statement of faith. And so, I think the key theme for me, and it's one I hope that the audiences reflect on during this Christmas season, is the incredible faith that both these individuals showed.
How familiar were you with the story beforehand?
I was really familiar. When I was 13, I read the Bible, the Old Testament all the way through, the New Testament all the way through. My cousin's a minister. My mom still teaches Sunday school. But there's so many elements that I didn't think about, like the one sentence in Matthew that says--I'm paraphrasing--that because Joseph was a righteous man, he decided to divorce Mary privately. That's a lot of stuff in that sentence. That's a man that loved her, that was a devout religious person and had come to this obviously very difficult conclusion, soul searching, is this the right thing to do?
What you see in the film is, you see an exploration of that. What could have really happened? And what did he really think about? What were the real rules at that time, and the socio-economic situations and conditions? A woman coming back, pregnant, not married, and he knows he's not the father. And she's telling this story that sounded incredible. How could he believe it? And so you can just see all the conflicts.
To what extent was this movie an act of faith to you?
I grew up in the church and it's in my bones. It's in my life, and I feel like the movie helped me connect more deeply with it. In a way, I felt many things in a much more profound way by working on this film.
There was an example, when the Magi come over the hill, and they look at the Nativity scene, and Melchoir says, "The greatest of kings, born in the most humble places." It really struck me. These guys were probably expecting a palace, with riches and wealth and this king. And they found a baby, lying on the straw with animals. And what an amazing idea that, God sent his son, for everyone and for the lowest people. It was such a beautiful, powerful moment.
It's incredibly important to me from a faith perspective, because of what it represents to my faith. But it was such a challenge, because Matthew and Luke almost tease us with clues. It's almost like they're saying, "You need to look deeper into this."
When they're talking about Mary returning from Elizabeth, and she's three months pregnant, well that begs a closer look as to what were the Jewish marriage traditions at the time? What was it like for a young teenage girl, three months pregnant, to return to the man that she's betrothed to, who doesn't expect her to be pregnant? And to return to her village, what's she going to encounter? Matthew doesn't answer those questions. But it's almost like he's asking us, through his gospel account, to look into it even more.
Were there other surprises for you in delving into the story again?
Honestly, I didn't even have the most basics down. I didn't even think of Mary and Joseph as Jewish. Of course, they are. But that really wasn't talked about that much in Sunday school class, or maybe I missed it.
I really wanted to learn about Judaism from the first century, so that we could understand the basis of where Christianity sprang from. So we had a Jewish scholar come down, and we made a synagogue at our Nazareth village. And he taught us how people would pray at the time and how they were trying to have a closer connection to God.