2016-06-30
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."

Nativity Story On "The Nativity Story" set: Director Catherine Hardwicke (left) and screenwriter Mike Rich (right) work with actors. Photos copyright 2006, Jaimie Trueblood/New Line Productions.

Why tackle a story this huge and this familiar?

Catherine Hardwicke: 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.

Mike Rich: 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?

CH: 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.

MR: 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?

CH: I thought 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?

CH: 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.

MR: 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?

CH: 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.
So being grounded in that helped me to understand that Mary would have gone there every week and prayed and wanted to be close to him. Of course, she didn't expect to be quite that close--a little closer than she imagined.

MR: I think a lot of the surprises for me came with Joseph, because Joseph was, biblically, a really blank canvas, and the more I looked into the logistics of what happened, he became this really courageous individual. The way that he stood by Mary. The fact that his visitation occurred in a dream--I think a lot of human beings would rationalize that and wake up and brush it off, but he didn't do that. The fact that he decided not to publicly accuse her, which, may have spared her life. His decisions were very consistent with Matthew's favorite word, righteous. When there was an honorable decision to be made, he made it.

In Mary and Joseph's journey, what do you think was the most difficult thing for them?

MR: The little things that we might expect: water, food, and not the easiest of terrain. And the census put stress on everyone. And a growing realization in their own minds that the two of them were closing in on a chapter of their lives. They really had no idea, "How do we raise the son of God?" "How do we keep him from harm?" "What do we teach him?" Those are very natural questions that would have been asked.
 
It seems like everyone's looking for the next big religion movie, after "The Passion." How do you feel being part of that trend?
 
CH: "The Passion" was very special circumstances. You have a superstar, Mel Gibson, involved. You have the hyper-violence that, obviously, attracted people for various reasons. And you had this high level of film making that was transportive and beautiful. But I don't know if that set of circumstances will ever come together again, not to mention the hatred that it had spawned on so many levels. I don't think anyone thinks that that could be repeated. Because of many other films, Christian things come out, you know, and they're not going to be mega successes like that.
 
MR: I have no doubt that had I come up with idea three years ago and brought it into the mainstream studio system, the response probably would have been different. So filmmakers such as me and Katherine owe a debt to Passion of the Christ for opening that door. I don't think you could understate the impact of that film.
 
I feel a responsibility because we're the first the mainstream studio film to walk through that door. There's a responsibility, number one, to get it right. Number two, to make a good film, because I think that the faith-based audience is a demanding demographic. They're not going to come to a film just because it carries a spiritual message. It has to be a good film.
 
In the gospels and in the movie, there's never really any sense for why Mary was chosen for this role. Why do you think that is?

CH:
We considered [this issue]: Should we, in the very earliest scenes, see her doing something more extraordinary? Does she have more of a sense of nature or a touch of nature? But, that would have been, in a way, an invention. Maybe that was the beauty of the whole idea, that God found this wonderful girl, who was almost an ordinary girl, a humble person, who could be anybody. It could have been me. It could have been anyone.
 
MR: It's a great mystery. But, also, it makes perfect sense when you consider that Jesus' birth really represents a gift to all mankind, not just to the powerful, not just to the rich. And it would make perfect sense that the most humble of servants would be the one selected for that mission.
 
How did you chose Keisha Castle-Hughes for the role? And what qualities were you looking for in a Mary?
 
CH: Most scholars seemed to think that Mary was 13 or 14 years old--because of child survival rates, you would get started early. I thought, "Wow! That's amazing. You know, I really want to have an actress that feels very young, at that tender, vulnerable age." And I also did not want a Swedish Mary and Joseph, with blonde hair and blue eyes. I wanted them to feel like they're from the region. And I thought, "Who am I going to find to do that? Who in the world is going to have that presence and that beautiful inner strength and intuition?" One day, Keshia just popped into my head. I loved her in "Whale Rider." And I thought if anybody has that peace and beauty, she could do it.
 
Keisha, 16 and unmarried, recently acknowledged that she is pregnant. Are you at all afraid that her pregnancy will keep conservative Christians away from the film?

CH:
Pretty much the whole basis of our religion is that you should not cast judgment on others. That's even what the movie's about, too. So I don't think that Christians will cast judgment on her. I think that they would be supportive, because it was a very brave thing that she did. She knows that people will be sitting around talking about her, and she still did what she felt was the right thing to do. This is what she felt was right, to have this child and raise it, love it, not try to hide it or anything. Of course, it's a different culture, too, in a way [in New Zealand, where she is from]. Sixteen is the age of consent down there. Everyone there's happy, so I respect it, and she's brave.
 
Did you consult with Christian Bible scholars on the movie? What was that like?
 
CH: My cousin's a Baptist minister, and I sent him this script. And Mike sent the script to many different people, and to writers, and we had a Catholic priest and nun. But we tried to just be as pure as we could and really go with the gospels, not what happened later, not what churches might have added later to it, but really just go with Matthew and Luke and add historical data.
 
MR: I think our Jewish consultants, obviously, were critical in our presentation of traditions. How you prayed, what you said, what were the rights carried out in the Temple.  Our Protestant and our Catholic consultants were very much attuned to our presentation of the story itself. We wanted to make sure there weren't decisions that we made that raised any red flags.
 
There's a lot of really nice foreshadowing of the things that are going to happen later on. How did you decide to put those in?
 
MR: It was a decision on my part to include as many as we could. Because Jesus is only in this movie for about two minutes, and he doesn't have a lot of dialogue. But we wanted to try as many times as possible to put the spotlight on what are the core themes of Christ's ministry--humility, faith, courage, forgiveness. And so each opportunity that we had to, whether it be an empty manger shadowing the empty tomb or, Joseph's comment about the temple. And there's probably eight or 10 of them that we have in the film.
 
Catherine, obviously this movie is very different from previous movies you've done, like "Thirteen" and "Lords of Dogtown." Are there parallels between them that might not be obvious to us?
 
CH: I think both of those other movies were about teenagers going through difficult times. In their case they had more dysfunctional families, but they were facing the things that were relevant to them at that time.
 
The kids in "Thirteen" had the pressures of all the issues that kids are trying to navigate through now. And in "Dogtown," these kids had dysfunctional families, or no families, and they were trying to find their way in the world, in a rough neighborhood. But in "Nativity," this one is the most famous teenager in history, and she's facing a set of obstacles that were relevant to her, in her time.
 
In each case, I try to really try to put you in a time machine, and make you really feel like 13. What would it be like to be a girl that gets bombarded by all these sexy images? How do you process that? How do you deal with? And in this case, Mary, how did she deal with? So, I do see a connection, that tender age, coming of age, where, you have your chance to become the person you're going to be as an adult.

When it comes to religious art, even the most faithful adaptations can provoke strong reactions. Are you prepared for what may come?
 
MR: Yes. And I think we all knew that going in. I think that we have made a film that is as accessible to individuals across faiths as we possibly could. It's been really gratifying. But I think we all knew what boat we were getting on.
 
CH: We did have a lot of religious consultants involved. And it has been selected to be the first movie premiered at the Vatican. The people have given their seal of approval. I'm sure not everybody will because it is so personal. But I hope people understand that we tried with our hearts, and so did all the other actors, to try to true to the spirit, make it feel as real as we could, so I hope people will appreciate that.


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