They Have Seen the Light, and It Is Green
By SHARON WAXMAN
Published: November 5, 2006SANTA MONICA, Calif.
If more proof were needed that Hollywood has gotten religion, look no further than the curious mix of people behind “The Nativity Story,” brought to the screen by a former high-octane agent, a disillusioned producer and a director better known for her take on teenage sex and skater boys.
“The Nativity Story,” to be released by New Line on Dec. 1 (in time for Christmas), is no Hallmark telling as it follows Mary and Joseph through the sandstorms and raging rivers of biblical Palestine. But neither is it kin to “Thirteen” or “Lords of Dogtown,” the last two movies made by its director, Catherine Hardwicke.
Keisha Castle-Hughes (“Whale Rider”) plays a saintly version of the mother of God, and Oscar Isaac, an unknown, is ever faithful as Joseph. The journey, and the birth of Jesus in a manger, will not shock or offend anyone familiar with the tale.
In many ways, the movie is testament (no pun intended) to the profoundly changed attitudes in Hollywood toward religion as mainstream entertainment, which this is certainly intended to be. And it is attracting some strange bedfellows. “The Nativity Story” may have its premiere at the Vatican on Nov. 21, said a New Line spokeswoman, and the pope has been invited.
The film’s screenwriter, Mike Rich, is a practicing Christian from Portland, Ore., who has written sports movies like “The Rookie.” In previous years, he said, “I didn’t entertain the idea of doing the Nativity as a screenplay. I didn’t feel it was something that was possible, certainly not at a mainstream studio.”
But after “The Passion of the Christ” became a blockbuster in 2004, Mr. Rich — along with everybody else — understood that something had shifted: the market demonstrated that there was an underserved audience for religious fare, however problematic Mel Gibson’s movie proved to be for some viewers, particularly Jewish ones.
And something else was shifting among certain Hollywood insiders and decision makers. Marty Bowen, a Harvard-educated partner at United Talent Agency, with clients like the screenwriters Charlie Kaufman (who named his obnoxious agent Marty in “Adaptation”) and Larry McMurtry (“Brokeback Mountain”), took a close look at his life and decided he wasn’t happy.
“I wasn’t getting the same rush from it as I had in the past,” Mr. Bowen recalled. “I loved the money. But at a certain moment, I bought the expensive car, the expensive watch, the more expensive house. And I realized: I’m doing a job I’m not sure I want to do so I can buy a more expensive watch?”
He said Hollywood should be trying to duplicate the success of “The Passion of the Christ,” which it clearly was not. “I thought, if no one else wants to do movies like ‘The Notebook’ ” — the love story based on the Nicholas Sparks novel — “or ‘Passion,’ those are movies I’d love to do,” he said. “Movies I’d be proud of making. Movies my mother would go to.”
Coincidentally, one of Mr. Bowen’s closest friends in Hollywood, the producer Wyck Godfrey, was going through a similar period of self-scrutiny. Mr. Godfrey, a former executive at New Line Cinema, had been president of Davis Entertainment, helping to produce big, commercial studio movies like “Daddy Day Care,” “I, Robot” and “Alien vs. Predator.”
“I felt the need to do something new,” he said, a realization that struck him in mid-2005. “I’ve done a lot of genre movies. I felt we’re in an age where we’re making cynical, youth-oriented, disposable entertainment you saw Friday and forgot by Saturday. I was proud of the ones that were about something and stick with you.”
The two decided to team up and produce movies that were meaningful to them and would speak to the heartland communities in which they grew up. Mr. Bowen came from a traditional Roman Catholic family in Texas, where he was an altar boy and his parents served as lectors at Mass. Mr. Godfrey was raised in a charismatic Christian church in east Tennessee, where parishioners, he said, spoke in tongues and were filled with the Holy Spirit.
Both had strayed far from their roots to Hollywood Babylon.
Mr. Rich had been nurturing the idea of treating the Nativity story as a character study rather than a religious revelation. After the Nativity tale appeared as simultaneous cover stories in both Time and Newsweek in December 2004, he proposed the idea as a screenplay to Mr. Bowen, his agent.
Not only did Mr. Bowen encourage him, he also decided to make it his first project when he finally left the agency world less than a year ago to become a producer.
Mr. Godfrey remembered a dinner they had six months before Mr. Bowen took the leap: “He said Mike Rich had called and wanted to write the Nativity story. I jokingly said, ‘I’d leave my job to produce that.’ ”
And so he did, too.
Just as surprising as their career about-faces was the eager interest of New Line, a division of Time Warner that built its reputation on horror and urban-youth-oriented fare and was known to have a corporate culture of intense partying.
Mr. Godfrey had had enough of that by the mid-90s, when he was based in New York as a New Line executive. “I was burned out on the lifestyle,” he said. “Going out to screenings and parties and drinking every night. It’s what I was doing. And it’s not what I wanted to do with my life. It was fun at the time. But it got to the point where I felt empty.”
By 2005, though, New Line — now seeking to follow the success of “The Lord of the Rings” — had also gotten religion, apparently. Over lunch in late October with Cale Boyter, a production executive, Mr. Godfrey pitched the movie. Unexpectedly, Mr. Boyter showed strong enthusiasm.
The project proceeded at warp speed. That afternoon, Toby Emmerich, New Line’s president of production, scheduled a meeting about the project for later that night. New Line wanted the movie for Christmas 2006. It was November 2005, and Mr. Rich didn’t even have a first draft.
The producers sought out Ms. Hardwicke, a spirited and often subversive filmmaker whose other recent projects had failed to get a green light. Speaking in an editing room in Santa Monica where a King James version of the Bible sat beside the keyboard, Ms. Hardwicke said that she initially had not understood why she had been sent the script, which she received in mid-January of this year. (On the wall of her office next door is a framed article about her from High Times magazine.) “I thought, I’m not going to be interested,” she recalled. “I’m not going to read another page.” Unlike Mr. Rich, she had found Mr. Gibson’s crucifixion movie “violent and difficult,” she said. “Hard to watch.”
But she liked the one page she read. “And another little voice said: ‘This is kind of cool. You’re making icons into real people,’ ” she continued. “I’ve known this story my whole life, I’ve seen a thousand Christmas pageants, but I’ve never thought of Mary as a person. Or of the obstacles she faced.”
She took the job, and quickly got on a plane to Israel to scout locations. (They eventually filmed in Italy and Morocco.)
Ms. Hardwicke herself comes from a churchgoing Presbyterian family in a small town on the Texas border with Mexico. “My parents are over the moon” about the movie, she said. “They’re moved and excited. They can brag about us at church.”
Making the movie has drawn those involved in it closer to their personal faiths, they said. Mr. Godfrey goes to church more often. Ms. Hardwicke has, ironically, learned a lot about Judaism, and rekindled a connection to her family’s religion.
“In a weird way, this movie has brought a lot of people who were not on the straight and narrow a little closer to their roots and the things that are important to them,” Mr. Godfrey said.
And it has convinced Mr. Bowen that Hollywood can make movies about sincere belief. It’s certainly what he intends to do.
“I’d rather be corny than cynical,” he said. “I’d rather make a movie that’s patriotic rather than partisan. There’s a human story in the middle that’s worth telling. I’d like to find the human story underneath the controversial ones. Are there other biblical stories I’d like to tell? Absolutely. John the Baptist. He’s the first rock star.”