The Nativity Story

Covering the 2006 movie "The Nativity Story," about the story of Mary and Joseph
and their journey together as they bring the Messiah into the world.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Infuze interviews Catherine Hardwicke

After directing the gritty, arthouse films Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, director Catherine Hardwicke has transformed the birth of Christ into a feature film with The Nativity Story. In this exclusive interview, she discusses the movie with Robin Parrish telling us the premiere at the Vatican, the intense scouting processes involved and what she's working on next.

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Robin: I wanted to ask you a little bit about your process. What does your process as a director look like for a film like The Nativity Story?

Catherine: I got the script in the middle of January of this year. It was sent to me in a stack of scripts from my agency. I read it, and started getting really excited. So I did some research and found out that Mary really was only thirteen or fourteen years old, according to all of the scholars. I started downloading pictures, and I researched the stars. What could have made the Star of Bethlehem shine so brightly? I got a lot of images and photos together, even before I went to the interview.

Then I went in to the meeting with the studio saying, "These are some of the ideas that I have, this is what I think we could do to make the script better and richer. Here's visually how it could look. Here's where we could film it..." I went in to my initial job interview with a lot of ideas, a lot of pictures and books and things to get them excited. So they picked me to do it.

Next I had to make a schedule explaining how I would get the movie done in time to come out this Christmas. I realized I needed to get on a plane and get to Jerusalem to do some research in two days. I needed to understand what the Holy Land was like. So I was on a plane two or three days later. I took my camera and I took a zillion photographs of everything, tried to talk to everyone I could. I was even researching on the plane ride. I had to know what was life like? I needed details of that life, I needed to absorb it so that I understood it all the best I could.

I also worked with the writer, Mike Rich, who was in Seattle. Any notes I would come up with, things I would learn, I would email to him. "Oh, this would be a great detail!" Basically, during the prep time, you're just using everything you can to learn about the subject, to absorb it, and to make the script better, richer, and deeper.

Also, you're trying to figure out who should be in the movie. You're meeting with casting directors. In our case, we were meeting with casting directors in six different cities: Rome, Tel Aviv, London, Paris, New York, and L.A. It was a worldwide search to find really great actors that looked believable to be from the Middle East. So every night I would come back from location scouting, and I would go to a secure website we had and look at the girls that had auditioned in Tel Aviv earlier that day, for example. I watched their auditions, and then I would say something like, "These three seem to be the most powerful or the most interesting. When I get to Tel Aviv, I'd like to meet these three."

At the same time, you're scouting locations. We had to decide very quickly, where we were going to shoot this movie. I took my little digital camera everywhere, to the locations that I thought would work. The locations we went with were in southern Italy and Morocco. But I would photograph everything, and then scan it all into my computer at night and try to organize it into which scenes each location would be useful for. Then I would go back to the map and try to figure out how to make all this make sense from a realistic point of view. How could we do it without having to move to new locations every five minutes, what could we consolidate to help with finances and resources... It's all about making a real plan for shooting the movie.

Then I met with the actors. You do auditions, and they read through scenes for you, and I try to get a sense of who would be great for each role. In the meantime, I'm sending emails and phone calls back to the studio, and try to talk them into things like, "But I think this guy would be great for Joseph!" Then you hire all of the crew people that are going to make it all happen. You need a few different choices for costume designer and production designer and the composer and all those things. And they'll come to their interview the same way I did, with lots of ideas of their own based on their own research. Each craftperson brings their own level of expertise, so you try to pick the right person for that job.

Then you start actually working! (Laughs.)

(Laughs.)

Once you hire your lead actor and actress, the costume designer can start making drawings of costumes and making actual clothes. I told the costume designer that I wanted the people's clothing in Nazareth to match the color of the sheep. Because that's where they got all their wool. The stones at the location are what their houses would have been made of, so the houses had to match the color of the land. You have to make it come alive and be organic and real. The shooting process, which is two months or more. On our movie, it was only two months. Some movies spend almost a year filming; it depends on how much money you have in the budget.

So you're filming every day, trying to get the shots, moving to different locations. Once that's done, you go into an editing process, which is another two or three or maybe many more months, where you get all of the footage back and you start cutting the scenes together, trying to get the story to come alive. You put pieces of music to it as that comes in from the composer, or you re-record some sound where it was too windy that day on set and you couldn't understand the actor's dialogue. So you have to get them back in the studio to lip-synch over their action on film.

It's very detailed work. Many, many sounds often have to be replaced. We might have to come up with a perfect horse sound, if we didn't get it that day on the set. Maybe we didn't have a microphone on the horse, because we had a microphone on Keisha [Castle-Hughes]... There are all of these different layers to it, and after you've worked through them all, then finally, hopefully, you get your movie done.

So you've got to be really good at multitasking to be a director.

Oh, completely. A good example: I would be riding around in the back of a four-wheel drive out in the desert in Morocco, looking at locations. At the same time, I would have a jack plugged into the vehicle's cigarette lighter so my computer could be powered up and I could be working on the script. And I'd have one of those wireless cards plugged in so I could be emailing my thoughts on the script back to Mike Rich. It's just wild! (Laughs.)

I understand you had an accelerated schedule on this one, as well.

I had nine months and two weeks. That's why I was definitely multitasking.

How do you view that side of the work? Is it something to dread, or do you take it in stride?

Very up and down. (Laughs.) Some days you feel like things are just going so well, and then the next day nothing works out and it feels like a big disaster. It's very much a rollercoaster. Which is kind of cool, I guess. It's just like life.

So looking back, now that it's all done, what are you most pleased with about this project?

I really loved meeting all of these actors from around the world, and finding each person had a connection to the story. Even if it wasn't their religion. Filming in a Muslim country, it made me realize that there are more similarities between most religions than differences. People were moved by the emotional elements of the story, by the spirituality of the story, by the messages and the themes, regardless of their religion. That was very inspiring to me.

I also felt like the actors really gave their hearts and souls to the project. They worked really hard to get inside the skin of Mary and Joseph and help you feel what it could have been like to be a real person going through this noble, difficult experience.

We've never seen this perspective of the nativity on film before -- that very human aspect of Mary and Joseph and what they went through.

I went to sunday school and church my whole life, and I always assumed that Mary and Joseph were happy and everything was great. They had these visions and everybody applauded and brought them gifts.

(Laughs.)

(Laughs.) But if you study the culture at the time, or even if you just study the book of Matthew -- you'll read a line that says Joseph was planning to divorce Mary, privately. That one sentence has a lot of anguish in it. This is a woman he loved. He was a strictly religious man, and for him to decide he might need to divorce her because she came home pregnant... He knows he's not the father. That's a huge deal, even now, in our time. There's a very visceral reaction to seeing the person you love pregnant with someone else's child. How do you struggle with that moral dilemma? How do you trust her? How do you believe her? Those moments were what really drew me in to the idea of making this film and making the story come alive for people.

It's interesting to see the story put in the proper historical and cultural context. I'm not sure that's something we've ever delved into before, this deeply.

I was fascinated by all of that. These people were living hand-to-mouth, planting seeds, saving every bit of grain they had. On top of that, Herod came in and taxed them, taking half of what they had. Living under that kind of pressure, with those economic realities, that kind of connection to the land where you knew where your food came from... It's so foreign to us now.

What was the premier at the Vatican like for you?

A very surreal experience. (Laughs.) I thought they must have been exaggerating when they said there were going to be seven thousand people there, but you walk into this space, there were seven thousand people there. It was several rows of people in their beautiful black robes and cardinal's hats, and of course I was about to faint!

(Laughs.)

(Laughs.) It was a "what am I doing here?!" moment. So they're watching the movie, and I'm getting so nervous wondering what everybody is going to think. "What if this detail isn't right, or what if that scene doesn't look good?" But then at the moment the baby was born, it started to rain outside. I heard rain pattering on the roof. I said to the person next to me, "It's raining." And they said, "No, that's applause." It came from the back of the theater along this kind of curved roof, and it traveled over the whole audience. People just burst into applause when Jesus was born. It was really neat.

Then people stood up and tried to take photographs of the moment on the screen when Jesus was born.

(Laughs.)

It was amazing!

If it wasn't at the Vatican, they'd get arrested for that sort of thing.

I know! Usually you get patted-down before you go into a premier, but I guess they didn't worry about the nuns taking pictures. But really, it was an amazing, beautiful experience. And the best thing about it is that the whole thing was done as a benefit for this school in Israel that's in a war-torn area. The school will help kids from all different races and faiths -- Muslims, Jews, and Christians. I love that.

So what's next for you?

Working on The Nativity has reinforced in my mind what I was planning to do before. It's a movie about the environment. As we tried to find locations that hadn't changed in two thousand years, we found that that's pretty difficult in this world, because we haven't taken very good care of it. Even in the middle of the desert in Morocco, there would be trash heaps. Plastic bags would blow at you. It was crazy the things that we saw, just scouting for locations.

So that's what I'm working on next. It's called The Monkey Wrench Gang, and it's based on a novel about four people in the Southwest, who were idealists in the seventies, trying to save the land around the Grand Canyon. It's a comedy. It's going to be really fun.

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