Mike Rich keeps thinking it's all a dream.
"I pinch myself everyday," he says when asked about his success as a Hollywood screenwriter.
His surprise is understandable. Rich looks nothing like your typical Hollywood heavyweight. You'd never guess that the 40-something family man who drives a pickup truck, attends a Bible church, and lives in Oregon, exchanges phone calls with Sean Connery and plays golf with Dennis Quaid. Of course, Rich's image is not the reason he rubs shoulders with Hollywood ilk. He's there for one reason, and one reason only. As Connery once told him, "Mike, if the words weren't there, you wouldn't be either." Mike Rich has a singular gift: He tells great stories.
If you're a moviegoer, chances are you've been treated to one or two of Rich's stories already. His writing credits include Finding Forester, Radio, The Rookie, and Miracle.
Even though he has experienced considerable success in Tinseltown, Rich was a latecomer to the industry. A radio anchor by trade, he started writing screenplays in his late 30s as a creative outlet. Every day after work and before his children returned from school, he would sneak in two hours in front of the computer. After a few practice scripts, Rich wrote Finding Forester, a story about the relationship between a fatherless teen and a reclusive author. The screenplay won the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship award and Rich's career was launched. Soon after, he was hired to write The Rookie for Disney, which grossed $75 million and further advanced his career. He's been busy ever since.
From Ordinary to Extraordinary
His latest project finds him tackling the opening chapter of perhaps the most extraordinary story of all. You know the plotline: A virginal conception, a trip to Bethlehem, an inn famously short on rooms, and the humble birth of a King. The Nativity Story, a New Line Cinema production that opens on Dec. 1, recounts the events leading up to Jesus' birth. Call it a prequel to The Passion of the Christ. In fact, the movie was filmed in Matera, Italy, the same village where Mel Gibson shot his controversial epic. Matera's quaint stone houses and walled streets bear an uncanny resemblance to those of ancient Israel. Rich, who is also an executive producer on the movie, spent lots of time on location during filming.
The cinematic scribe, who describes himself as a devout Christian, felt a spiritual responsibility while writing the script and working with director Catherine Hardwicke to bring the story to life. "I wanted to make sure we were faithful to the tone and spirit of the Gospels," he says. "If you don't feel that pressure writing this type of story, you're not approaching it the right way." In an interview with Portland Monthly, he joked about the weight of divine expectation. He said that writing Nativity was different from adapting other true stories because he wasn't going to have to face the person he was writing about. Then, after a pause he added, "Well, at least not in this life."
Yet, as Rich points out, when it comes to the biblical material on events before Jesus' birth, "there's not much there." For instance, Joseph is described merely as "a righteous man." Rich concedes that, as a result, many of his film's scenes are speculative. Still, he insists the story is anchored by the biblical accounts. To ensure accuracy, he adopted what he calls "an open script policy" with a number of theologians and Christian leaders. He also consulted an array of scholarly works, leaning most heavily on Raymond Brown's classic book, The Birth of the Messiah, which shed light on the dynamics of the ancient Near East at the time of Jesus' birth.
Some things, like Mary's young age, took Rich by surprise. "Typically movies have portrayed Mary as being in her 20s," he notes. "But she was actually much younger." Accordingly, Mary is played in the film by 16-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, who received an Oscar nomination in 2004 for Whale Rider.
Writing from the Heart
Writing the script was a very personal experience for Rich, who was dealing with the recent death of his father. In the wake of the loss, it seemed appropriate to delve into a project that had spiritual significance.
After 11 months of research, Rich began writing the screenplay and finished it in only one month. Fittingly, that month was December 2005. He wrote the story basking in the ambiance of the Christmas season and with hymns ringing in his ears. "It was very conducive to writing the story," Rich remembers. "I felt great peace while I wrote it."
That peace was interrupted when he was informed that The Nativity Story's release date was set for exactly one year from the time he started the script—breakneck speed for a large Hollywood production.
Rich has high hopes for The Nativity Story, which he calls "an intimate and blessed" film. He worries that in our consumeristic culture the real message of Christmas is often eclipsed. "I believe that if families can see the film together, it will generate conversation and hopefully remind them of the true meaning of this incredible story."
A committed husband and father, Rich lives in Beaverton, Oregon, with his wife, Grace, and their three children—Jessica, Caitlin, and Michael—and attends Southwest Bible Church, a community of believers "united by a passion for the Word." He adds, "For us, it's about spending time in the Scriptures and finding how they apply to daily challenges."
That devotion to the Scriptures seems appropriate for a screenwriter audacious enough to take on one of the Christian faith's most important stories. When asked about his mission as a screenwriter, he cites advice he received from a longtime friend: "Make films you'd be proud to show your grandchildren." That's exactly what he's doing.
For more about the film, visit http://www.thenativitystory.com/.
Drew Dyck is a writer based in Pasadena, California.