The Nativity Story: The Making of the Movie
By Rose Pacatte, F.S.P.A movie to be released this month offers a new perspective on the familiar Christmas story. Our media critic interviewed the screenwriter, director and several actors on the set in Italy.
Q U I C K S C A NGenesis of a Script Getting the Location Right A Day on the Set of The Nativity Story Learning to Ride a Donkey Getting Inside the Characters
IF YOU ASK first-time film producer Marty Bowen what he would most like to see happen as a result of New Line Cinema’s The Nativity Story, he will say quite candidly and with characteristic enthusiasm: “I would like even the nonbeliever who sees it to be touched. I would like it to be a film my sister will take her kids to see, and one that her children will take their kids to see one day. I hope it will be a classic that theaters will show every year because of its authenticity, because we have tried to avoid the clichés of biblical films, tried to humanize the characters and revere them at the same time. They have, after all, earned the right to be on a pedestal.”
The Nativity Story, released on 7,000 screens worldwide on December 1, tells the story of the year before Jesus’ birth until the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, plus the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath.
The film’s focus is on the spiritual and actual journeys of Mary of Nazareth in particular, and imagines the role of Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, as well as those of Elizabeth, Anna and Joachim, in ways that provide insight into God’s amazing intervention in their lives. Unlike some of the one-dimensional low-budget Bible movies of the past or the obligatory Christmas play at church, however endearing, The Nativity Story hopes to allow us to experience the characters’ emotions and the difficulties they face in the context of their time and place.
Last May I was invited to visit the set of The Nativity Story being shot at that time in Matera, Italy. (Filming later moved to Morocco.) Our group of Christian journalists, representing Catholic and Protestant media, became pilgrims to a movie set where a journey from a different time, yet one for all ages, was being filmed.
Matera in May is dry and hot. Archaeologists believe that the first people to populate Italy built their homes, which were more like caverns, directly into the stone mountain in the old part of this city. These dwellings, and the area, are called “Sassi.” The unique look of Sassi suggests how the ancient city of Jerusalem may have looked and has attracted filmmakers such as Mel Gibson (The Passion of the Christ, 2004) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964).
As we prepare for Christmas, I invite you to visit the set of The Nativity Story, seeing it through the lens of a Catholic film reviewer and someone who loves great storytelling. This article is based on reading two versions of the script, my trip to the set and interviews there, as well as information from follow-up phone conversations. Last August I saw a six-minute trailer for a film that was still being edited.
Genesis of a Script
The Nativity Story was written by Mike Rich, a former radio news announcer in Portland, Oregon. His previous medium-budget films, Finding Forrester (2000), The Rookie (2002) and Radio (2003), had all done well at the box office, but Rich wanted to move outside the sports genre for his next feature. “As a screenwriter, I love stories about ordinary people who do extraordinary things; this is my consistent theme as a cinematic storyteller. And I had always wanted to write The Nativity Story, which is about ordinary people who did extraordinary things,” he tells me in an interview.
In December 2004, both Newsweek and Time ran cover articles about Christ’s birth. This sparked Rich’s interest in taking a different approach to the Christmas story. Early in 2005, his father, Jack, passed away at the age of 67. This event, says Rich, made him feel that he could take on a subject of such magnitude “...to write more spiritually about things that matter, because my father was always a strong supporter of my writing and the stories I was trying to tell. He was a great father, who held a very special place in his heart for the Christmas season.”
Rich belongs to the Southwest Bible Church near Portland, Oregon. His wife, Grace, and their three children, Jessica, Caitlan and Michael, are Catholics and active members of St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton.
When Rich began researching his topic, he knew that the primary source material was very limited, mostly Chapters 1 and 2 of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Over the 11 months he prepared to write the script, what he calls the “nuts and bolts” phase of screenwriting, he consulted the works of Jewish scholars, as well as books by Raymond Brown (Birth of the Messiah), Peter Richardson (Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans) and John Meier (A Marginal Jew), all Catholic biblical scholars.
“I felt a little trepidation as I approached the actual writing,” Rich admits. “If I kept only to the Gospels, I would have a 20-minute movie. So I decided to tell the story of Mary’s journey from the perspective of character. I realized it would take some speculation and visualization to do this, and at the same time I was committed to staying completely true to the story and faithful to its tone.
“I wanted to write during the Advent season so I could be immersed in its spirit,” Rich tells me over the phone. “Shortly after Thanksgiving in 2005, I made my way through my home office—there is barely a path to get from the door to my desk because it is surrounded with research and junk,” he says with a laugh—“with a sense of peace and purpose. This is not always the case, because scripts are difficult to write. But I began each day by playing Amy Grant’s song ‘Breath of Heaven,’ what she calls ‘Mary’s Song,’ about Mary contemplating the wondrous thing that had happened to her. I also surrounded myself with figurines from the crèche to visualize what I wanted to write.”
Rich typically writes no more than five hours a day. He spends the rest of the day formulating the next day’s scenes. He takes a very disciplined approach to writing. Many people are surprised to learn that most screenwriters write no more than four pages a day—four minutes in film time. A two-hour movie is based on a 120-page script.
Rich usually finishes the first draft of his scripts in about five weeks; revising takes 12 or 14 weeks. The Nativity Story came together in about six weeks, however, and he notes, “The usual angst was not there.” New Line Cinema accepted the script on January 6, 2006, but they wanted this movie to be released 10 months later.
Getting the Location Right
Producers Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey were longtime friends, Godfrey already a producer and Bowen a talent agent. Bowen, in fact, was Mike Rich’s agent. When Bowen asked Godfrey if he’d be interested in producing The Nativity Story, Godfrey replied, “I’d quit my job to make that movie.” They both did.
Bowen, a practicing Catholic, grew up in Ft. Worth, Texas. Later his family lived in Tokyo, where he attended St. Mary’s International School.
Director Catherine Hardwicke, whose breakout 2003 film, Thirteen, was nominated for numerous awards (including a Golden Globe and an Oscar), began her professional career as an architect, and then became an art director and production designer. That background served her well on pre-production details for the set of The Nativity Story.
Hardwicke and a crew traveled to Israel to visit and study Nazareth Village for two days. Nazareth Village, built in the 1990s (http://www.nazarethvillage.com/
), is an authentic re-creation, based on archaeological and literary sources, of the first-century village where Jesus grew up. Hardwicke’s team studied the details of the town and then traveled to southern Italy to re-create it. Three people from Nazareth Village came to the site in Italy to make sure that the construction crew got the details right. Nearby they reconstructed Bethlehem, using natural rock formations as the backdrop.
“The reason I agreed to direct The Nativity Story,” explains Hardwicke, “is because of the way the screenwriter, Mike Rich, got inside the heart and soul of the characters, this kind of miracle that happened so long ago. How do you get inside a leap of faith? I wanted to do that.”
Oscar Isaac is the only actor from the United States in the film; other actors hail from New Zealand, Italy, Iran, Morocco, Israel, Northern Ireland, Canada, Sudan, England, Trinidad and other countries. Other cast members include Academy Award-nominated actress Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) as Elizabeth, Ciarán Hinds (Munich) as Herod, Shaun Toub (Crash) as Joachim and Hiam Abbass (Munich, Paradise Now) as Anna.
On the set, the temperature kept climbing under the burning sun and cloudless sky. The storyboard showing a sketch of each shot (even though the director might not stick to it entirely) stood outside the tent, near a corral of noisy sheep. “Lights! Camera! Action!” became “Attenzione! [Get ready!] Motore! [Rolling and turn off your cell phones!] Silenzio! [Silence!]”
The trip’s highlight was talking with Mike Rich and his wife, Grace, plus Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey in between takes. Their passion and enthusiasm for the film were obvious from the moment we arrived. Bowen admitted that he was making this movie because of The Passion of the Christ (parts of which were filmed nearby). “Mel Gibson,” says Bowen, “gave us a platform from which to tell this story, so ‘Thank you, Mel.’ Moviemaking is a business and an art form. I’m glad to be making my living right now telling the story of the birth of Jesus rather than, say, a film about murders, though it’s not to say I won’t ever make films about different subjects.”
Rich agrees that Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ influenced him as well when writing the script: “When Jesus falls in the film, carrying the cross, and Mary has a flashback to Jesus being in danger as a small child, and her maternal instincts kicked in to save him, I felt that was completely true to their relationship; this was a Mary I could believe. I knew then that I wanted to risk taking a speculative approach to developing the characters of Mary, Joseph, Anna, Joachim and Elizabeth.”
Over lunch, the director, Catherine Hardwicke, tells us she is a “Texas Presbyterian.” She thinks, “God challenges our faith every day, just like he challenged the people in this film. You can feel the risk Mary is taking when she says, ‘There is a will for this child greater than my fear of what they may do.’ I don’t want to make a sugarcoated version of the nativity story. I hope that people will get excited about this film, and that it will help unite people from around the world; I hope people will be drawn to faith.
“This is my third film,” Hardwicke says, “and the third film about adolescents. I hope this will say to them, ‘Try to follow your heart; hold on to your faith.’”
She continues, “Presbyterians don’t really get into the cult of Mary. But she is this model of patience, beauty and love. Women from all over the world take their inspiration from her....Joseph stands by Mary when no one else does; he is a great role model.”
Learning to Ride a Donkey
It was Hardwicke’s idea to cast Academy Award-nominated Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider), then 15, as Mary. Hardwicke was impressed by the actress’s quiet, reserved personality, by how seriously she took her role in Whale Rider and by the fact that she projects a maturity beyond her years.
She and Oscar Isaac joined us as we were finishing lunch. Keisha said that she was at school when the call came for her to play the part of Mary, and she accepted right away. Castle-Hughes admits that it wasn’t until she was on the plane to Italy and writing in her diary that she realized the enormity of the role she had been given.
“I told myself, ‘I can’t believe I am playing this part. We don’t really know who they were or what they looked like, and we have to become these people now for people all over the world.’ Mary...you never think that she was 13 and had a child. She was just a girl, playing with her friends, then suddenly she has this huge responsibility...to become the mother of the world.
“My grandparents are Catholic,” Castle-Hughes tells us, “so we grew up knowing about the Church, but my parents leave us kind of free. Of course, Christmas is very important in our home.” The actress’s mother had been with her for a month during pre-production but had recently returned to New Zealand to give birth to her fifth child. (In October, it was announced that Keisha and her boyfriend are expecting next spring.)
Castle-Hughes makes us all laugh when she tells us that she is “not a huge animal fan”—and this after she had to ride on a whale! “For The Nativity Story I had to learn how to milk a goat and talk at the same time and that was a little hard....and ride—and stay on—a donkey!”
As part of pre-production, Keisha had to work with an accent coach. Two experts developed an accent that all the actors used.
Oscar Isaac, 26, is a Julliard-trained stage actor playing in his first major film role. “It’s an honor,” he says quietly as he finishes lunch, still in costume and seeming to be in the role of Joseph, “to be part of a biblical film, to be one of these walking icons, to experience what their daily life was like and get into how they thought.”
Isaac may well be one of cinema’s rising stars. His reverent and deeply felt interpretation of Joseph, the most silent man in sacred Scripture, is perfectly tuned and a refreshing surprise. After seeing the six-minute trailer in late August, I found Isaac authentic, warm and convincing in the role. (Read a full review of The Nativity Story
When we headed out to “Nazareth,” Bowen and Rich led us on foot, enabling us to approach the town by passing the watchtower, the wheat field and vineyard. They showed us how the well actually worked. We also saw a “molded” olive tree, that is, a manufactured prop that was used in the Garden of Gethsemane sequence in The Passion of the Christ and donated to the city of Matera. In addition, we also visited Mary’s house.
By agreement with the local government, the re-creations of Nazareth and Bethlehem will be torn down and the environment returned to its natural state once filming is completed.
The film’s Bethlehem was a totally different architectural style since the stables in those days were probably natural caves or hewn from rock. The crew constructed a new ridge below the existing one, and from the access road it was impossible to tell the difference.
We returned to Rome that evening. My next morning’s flight to Los Angeles concluded the fastest trip to Italy I had ever taken.
Getting Inside the Characters
The Nativity Story is not event-based. Rather, it is the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke blended, with the timeline compressed. Through this, the inner, spiritual journeys of the characters emerge. These are manifested during their real journeys: those of Gabriel from heaven to Nazareth, of Mary from Nazareth to Ain Karem to see her cousin Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the shepherds to the grotto, the Magi to the stable and the Holy Family from Bethlehem to Egypt.
The Nativity Story, a film on the move, may well become an enduring Christmas classic.
Rose Pacatte, F.S.P., writes St. Anthony Messenger’s “Eye on Entertainment” column. Sister Rose is also the author of The Nativity Story: A Film Study Guide for Catholics and editor of The Nativity Story: Contemplating Mary’s Journeys of Faith, both available from Pauline Books & Media, www.pauline.org.