Filming the birth of Jesus Christ certainly presented myriad challenges for Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen), but what was the most hair-pullingly difficult? Was it marshaling experts in biblical scholarship, Aramaic dialects, and ancient astronomy? No sweat. Launching a worldwide casting call for the perfect Mary? Not an issue, since she knew all along Oscar nominee Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) was her one and only. How about getting a cow to lie down on cue? Bingo. That was, in fact, just step one in preparing to film the nativity in Matera, Italy, which the irrepressible Hardwicke breathlessly recounted for us here:
''Waking up that morning, planning to go film the birth of Christ, not realizing that, okay: The sun goes down at, say, 8:30, so we had a window from 8:30 p.m. to midnight — that's when the real babies have to leave, by Italian law. So around 8 p.m., we decide to get the big mama cow to go lie down in the back of the grotto. It takes four large men, farmer-type guys, maybe 25 minutes to get her down. Then her calf has to come up — or she gets upset — so we wrestle the baby cow down. Finally, those two are tranquil enough that we can bring in the donkey. All this is under the watchful eye of the Humane Society guy from Canada, who's on set with us 24/7.
''So we bring the donkey in, and we try to get the donkey to lie down. This donkey's been trained to lie down. But this night in particular, it does not want to lie down. So we bring backup donkey in. Finally, they get that one down, but it's an older donkey, and suddenly I hear the Humane Society guy yelling 'Bring me a cushion!' The old donkey had hemorrhoids. Now the sheep come in. Sheep are insane, mentally. They go into a spiraling vortex when they get agitated. It's the strangest phenomenon I have ever seen, and the most annoying.
''So then we've got all the animals lying down. Now the real baby, which is seven days old. Its beautiful Italian parents are there just hovering; they can't believe they agreed to let it come on the set, but it gets to be Baby Jesus, a Catholic fantasy, so they're excited. We're about to roll film. And the mother cow stands up and takes a dump all over the set. The Humane Society guy goes, 'That's it, she's been down too long, she has to get up.' And the only way she can get out is the baby has to leave, the donkey has to go away, so mother cow and calf can go and have a walk around the set. [Laughs] Oh, my God.
''That night, I'm telling you, the first night we tried to do it, the babies went home at midnight before we got to roll any film and we had to use a rubber baby instead.
''But the next night, we did it all over, and we got the real baby in there!''