Hooray For Holy-wood
Movie studios, usually pegged as disciples of Mammon, are now trying to reach the faithful
By REBECCA WINTERS KEEGAN
And on the seventh day, they caught a movie. When the lights go down at Pope Paul VI Hall on Nov. 26, The Nativity Story will become the first feature film ever to premiere at the Vatican. The creation tale of this movie is, by Hollywood standards, pretty miraculous. Screenwriter Mike Rich told his agent last November that he would like to write a story that many Christians have seen performed every Christmas Eve of their lives--but this time without first-graders playing the wise men. "If I had brought this subject matter into the mainstream studio system four or five years ago, I don't know if I would have gotten my calls returned," says Rich, who wrote the 2002 baseball movie The Rookie.
Instead, his script, a spare, character-driven retelling of Mary and Joseph's trip to Bethlehem, was rushed into production by New Line Cinema and entrusted to an edgy director with a knack for youth culture, Thirteen's Catherine Hardwicke. Despite the challenges of reconciling Scripture with story, casting actors to play icons, constructing a Christ-era Nazareth in the Italian countryside, wrangling donkeys and camels, and figuring out how to market the first major-studio Bible epic since the genre's peak in the 1950s and '60s with films like The Ten Commandments, The Nativity Story will arrive in theaters on Dec. 1, just about a year to the day after Rich started his first draft. "God's hand is on this movie," says Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of the Rev. Billy Graham and one of several religious leaders and scholars invited to the set and early screenings.
Mel Gibson's hand is on the movie too. It was the success of Gibson's 2004 Crucifixion film, The Passion of the Christ--which no studio wanted to touch and which earned $1 billion in worldwide box-office and DVD sales when the director funded it himself--that made believers out of Hollywood executives and ushered in a flurry of faith-based filmmaking. "I could kiss Mel on both cheeks for showing Hollywood the size of this market," says Matt Crouch, son of televangelists Paul and Jean Crouch and producer of One Night with the King, the story of Esther. The movie opened in 900 theaters on Oct. 13 and has grossed $10 million so far, with lush costumes and sets, newcomer Tiffany Dupont in the title role and cameos by Omar Sharif and Peter O'Toole, their first screen pairing since Lawrence of Arabia. In September, 20th Century Fox announced plans to release about half a dozen Christian-theme films a year in theaters under the banner FoxFaith. Facing the Giants, an independent evangelical football movie written and produced by a couple of Baptist ministers from Georgia, has made $7.6 million since it opened in limited release on Sept. 29. Sony has signed a production deal with Bishop T.D. Jakes, whose 2004 inspirational film, Woman, Thou Art Loosed, drew theatergoers through grass-roots marketing in black churches; and the studio has Resurrection, a film from Left Behind author Tim LaHaye, in development. Lions-gate is betting on Tyler Perry, whose first two films, Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea's Family Reunion, delivered well at the box office thanks to spiritual themes and enormous support from black churches. Hollywood, it seems, is ready to give God his close-up.
"The Passion made what was theoretically an audience very real," says Jonathan Bock, whose Grace Hill Media has helped market films like The Chronicles of Narnia and Walk the Line to religious audiences. What became clear was that the 43% of Americans who attend church on any given weekend like films as much as the other 57% but are seeking a certain kind. "Not everything needs to be a bathrobe-and-sandals kind of movie, but there have to be some family-friendly parameters," Bock says. "Something in the film should challenge or elevate the human spirit, some kind of through-line that would work for the faith community."
To get a sense of the diversity of filmgoers of faith, take a look at the minds behind Nativity. Screenwriter Rich, who attends a nondenominational church in Oregon, says, "I'm a man of faith, but I've seen [Martin Scorsese's violent, R-rated Mob drama] The Departed twice. Would I like to see more biblically based, spiritually based stories? I sure would. As long as they're of quality." The two producers who spearheaded the film are a Catholic altar boy from Texas turned Hollywood agent and a Tennessean who grew up attending a charismatic Christian church and recently produced Alien vs. Predator. And then there's Hardwicke, raised by Texas Presbyterians and best known for her gritty portraits of young people in Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown. For her, the most religious experience in making Nativity was sitting under an ancient olive tree in the town of Matera, Italy, where most of the film was shot. "If I were an angel, I thought, I'd go visit Mary there," says Hardwicke. That's where she set the Annunciation.
What this group of filmmakers shared was a desire to take Nativity beyond the Godsploitation genre, the extended Sunday-school lessons into which many independent Christian films devolve and in which the laughable acting and dialogue and the anticipation of a big payoff at the end feel closer to shtick than art. FoxFaith's first theatrical release, Love's Abiding Joy, a western based on a novel by the Christian writer Janette Oke, made only about $250,000 on 200 screens this fall, perhaps because it was a little like a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie--without the edge. "I'm not sure people want to pay $10 on a Friday night to be preached to," says Reuben Cannon, who produced Woman, Thou Art Loosed and Perry's films.
For Hardwicke, this meant making the icons of the story as real as possible. "People don't think of the character of Mary or the character of Joseph," she says. Since no one knows how Mary explained her pregnancy to her parents or what she and Joseph said to each other on that 110-mile journey to Bethlehem, it was up to Rich and Hardwicke to speculate, with the help of historians and theologians. "We'd ask, 'What was the mind-set of a religious Jewish person at that time?'" says Hardwicke. Despite the accelerated production schedule, she spent a month setting up a kind of Nativity sleepaway camp, where the actors improvised scenes, got religious training and learned to milk goats.
Rich grappled with Scripture and script decisions. Should he stick with one Gospel? The Magi are only in Matthew, the shepherds only in Luke, but both Magi and shepherds appear in the film. Rich's first draft did not include The Magnificat, the verses Mary sings when her cousin Elizabeth feels a child stirring in her own womb, because it didn't match Mary's character arc. When a nun advising the film weighed in on the importance of the passage to Catholics, Hardwicke incorporated some of the verses in a voice-over later in the story.
To market the film, New Line is borrowing a page from The Passion and other faith-friendly indies and setting up "shepherds' screenings" for pastors and providing Bible-study guides, sample sermons and group-rate screenings. And then there is, of course, the unprecedented Vatican premiere. Whatever the papal equivalent of two thumbs up is (two raised miters?), Nativity clearly has it. There has been one wrinkle along the way. Keisha Castle-Hughes, the star of Whale Rider, now 16, who plays Mary, is pregnant and home in New Zealand rather than out promoting the film.
While marketers work to lure in the Christians, the person who best explains the spiritual impact of seeing Nativity may be Shohreh Aghdashloo, the Muslim actress from 24 and House of Sand and Fog. Aghdashloo, who plays Elizabeth, grew up reading her grandmother's Bible in Farsi as literature. "A good piece of art should make a revolution inside you," Aghdashloo said after seeing the film for the first time. "I felt light this morning when I left the theater, with a peace of mind. I was worried about it turning into preaching, but it didn't. It just told a story."
Copyright © 2006 Time Inc. All rights reserved.