Christmas Story: Catherine Hardwicke and Mike Rich Discuss Bringing The Nativity Story to the Screen
From a Catholic World Report article
By Steven D. Greydanus
For decades, movies and televised specials have been an integral part of the yearly cycle of holiday traditions. Christmas and Easter, especially have their own cinematic fixtures. Easter and Holy Week traditionally belongs to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” — and, more recently, The Miracle Maker and The Passion of the Christ. Christmas has a plethora of films: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, and (for many, though not for me) more recently the Tim Allen Santa Clause films.
The disparity between the two lists is striking. The Easter films tend to be about the reason for the season — Jesus Christ, Good Friday and Easter. Even The Ten Commandments is about the prototypical Old Testament paschal mystery, if not its New Testament fulfillment.
By contrast, as Christian critic Matt Page, author of the highly informative Bible Film Blog website, recently observed, “although there is a superabundance of Christmas films, virtually none of them are about the Nativity. In fact most are about this thing called ‘the “real meaning” or “true spirit” of Christmas’ — which turns out not to be about Jesus, but about ‘family,’ ‘being together,’ ‘thinking of others,’ ‘love,’ etc.”
Page went on, “All of these are very commendable, but are actually only derivatives of the real meaning of Christmas. So it’s interesting that the moral side of Christmas that society is trying to persuade us to return to is not the story of Jesus, but these other concepts.”
Not that the birth of Jesus has been entirely ignored. In particular, Zeffirelli devoted almost the first ninety minutes of “Jesus of Nazareth” to the infancy narratives. A pair of lesser-known TV movies made around the same time, “The Nativity” (1978) and “Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith” (1979) also focus on the Nativity story — though not to any great effect.
All things considered, the neglect is remarkable. Even in the heyday of Hollywood biblical films, the subject of the Nativity was tackled only in passing, as in Ben-Hur. “The significance of Christmas to our society is huge,” Page said, “so the Nativity story, as a story, should rightly have been told more often than in a couple of TV movies from the late 70s and a couple of obscure art-house films.”
The Nativity Story, from New Line Cinema, represents a major effort to redress this oversight. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen) and written from Mike Rich (The Rookie), the film stars now-sixteen Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) as the Virgin Mary, Oscar Isaac (All About the Benjamins) as Joseph, Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) as Elizabeth, Ciarán Hinds (Munich) as Herod, and Alexander Siddig (Kingdom of Heaven) as Gabriel.
Speaking to Decent Films, Hardwicke and Rich — both church-going Christians — commented on Hollywood’s historic neglect of the Christmas story.
Alluding to Hollywood’s golden era of biblical epics, Rich noted, “Hollywood’s approach when it came to this genre of film — and you have to go back decades — was, bigger is better, and really big is preferable.”
Hardwicke concurred. “I think that maybe on the surface people might have thought [the Nativity story] doesn’t have the big, huge, violent dramatic beats” that Hollywood costume epics were expected to have. “Maybe that’s what discouraged people from the story. Or they didn’t see a way in, or they weren’t inspired how to tell this as a big dramatic epic, or something like that. And I think that what Mike Rich did was that he looked at it in a different way.”
Indeed, it’s hard to see what a showman like Cecil B. DeMille would have done with the comparative intimacy and simplicity of the Nativity story. (The King of Kings, DeMille’s silent life-of-Jesus film, simply skips the infancy narratives, instead opening with a wildly melodramatic look at Mary Magdalene’s imagined life of early debauchery and subsequent exorcism.)
With the decline of the Hollywood costume epic, biblical subjects generally were largely consigned to made-for-TV films and occasional independent efforts by Christians. Unfortunately, few of these efforts have been very successful, either artistically or commercially.
In particular, though independent Christian filmmakers have become more prolific in recent years, the quality of their work continues to be consistently mediocre, with preachy scripts and uneven production values. “I think that a lot of times we fall into the old habit of having our characters preach to the audience,” Rich said. “Audiences are pretty savvy nowadays, and you don’t need to be overt with your message.”
What shattered this status quo, of course, was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Though a non-studio film, it was made and marketed by Hollywood professionals, and achieved unprecedented blockbuster status for such a film, despite such potential obstacles as subtitled dialogue and hard‑R gory violence.
The Passion of the Christ “broke down a barrier that had existed for decades in Hollywood,” Rich said. “All of a sudden, I think Hollywood was receptive to this genre that we need to revisit, and to take a close look at how we present these films.”
In the case of The Nativity Story, Rich said, “One of the things that I think perhaps was appealing to New Line when it looked at this script and this approach that we were taking was that it was just the opposite of what we talked about as far as big spectacle. It’s a small, intimate character piece. And that was a new way of looking at the story — instead of an event-based drama. … We took a close look inside the emotional framework of Mary and Joseph, and really went out of our way, instead of visually romanticizing areas like Nazareth or Bethlehem, to present them for what they historically were — small, poverty-stricken out posts of the Judean kingdom. I think seriously that Hollywood is on the brink of perhaps a new era in presenting biblically based films… I think it’s going to be a different era, in which the films are smaller and much more character-attuned.”
For Hardwicke and Rich, The Nativity Story was an opportunity to try to offer viewers a way to return to the meaning of the Christmas season.
“We’ve all watched the Nativity pageants and we read the passages,” Hardwicke said, “but one amazing thing about film is that you can go into a dark room and feel like you almost live inside of another world, inside of another person. We can create as much as possible a full experience that you can’t just get from words.
“This is a story that has inspired all those musicians, writers, scholars — everyone — for two thousand years,” Hardwicke added. “What an amazing opportunity, to try to make a modern version of this story, to make it in our modern [artistic] ‘language,’ not with paints or violins, but as a film.”
Amid the overwhelmingly secular avalanche of Christmas-themed movies — not to mention the general commercialization of the “holiday season” — Rich hopes that The Nativity Story may offer viewers an “oasis” of genuine Christmas spirit.
“When I look at the Christmas holiday over the past ten or fifteen years,” he said, “it’s just increasingly become this hectic period. The season of Advent has become this period in which we impose deadlines on ourselves — we have to have the shopping done by this time, we have to do this, we have to do that. If we can create an oasis from that…”
One of the main challenges in adapting the Nativity story, both Hardwicke and Rich acknowledged, is the paucity of biblical source material.
“You have such a short passage in the Gospel of Matthew, you have an equally short passage in the Gospel of Luke, and that is pretty much it,” Rich observed. “I think there has been perhaps a hesitation to really take this on because of the reality that whoever took this on was going to have to write a tremendous amount of speculative scenes. That’s a daunting proposition, especially when you are dealing with a story that’s held with as much reverence as this story is.”
With that level of storytelling speculation, the authenticity of the characters’ historical and cultural milieu looms large as a factor in the film’s credibility. Accordingly, Rich spent close to a year on “exploratory research” for the story and its setting before starting work on the screenplay.
Though a nondenominational Protestant, Rich made substantial use of Catholic scholarship, notably the “seminal text” on the subject, Fr. Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah. “I didn’t just isolate my research to Catholic theologians and historians, but certainly they were a major part of it. But I also opened it up to Protestant historians and theologians, and Jewish historians as well.” A resident of Portland, Rich also credits “individuals at the University of Portland” who were “incredibly valuable” in his research efforts.
After the first draft was complete, Rich said, he and the studio sought input from religious consultants to ensure the most credible finished product. Although both Hardwicke and Rich are Protestants, they seem to have relied primarily on Catholic religion consultants in reviewing the screenplay. In particular, both filmmakers credited Fr. William J. Fulco of Loyola Marymount University (who also provided language support for The Passion of the Christ) and Sr. Rose Pacatte, director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, California.
Sr. Pacatte “saw probably the earliest cut of the movie, and read the script,” Hardwicke said, adding that she and Rich looked to Fr. Fulco and Sr. Pacatte to provide a Catholic perspective on the film’s depiction of the events. “We listened to them and tried to find solutions if there were any issues,” she said, adding, “There weren’t that many issues.”
It’s not hard to see why. Although Catholic and Protestant beliefs about Mary diverge on a number of points — notably Mary’s Immaculate Conception, perpetual virginity, and bodily Assumption — none of these is particularly likely to crop up in a problematic way in a simple retelling of the Nativity story, whether by Protestants or Catholics. (For more on this, see “The Nativity Story and Catholic Teaching.”)
Asked about Mary’s perpetual virginity and the common Protestant assumption that Jesus’ brethren were children of Mary and Joseph, Hardwicke said, “Our story ends before we would even have a chance to think about that.” Similarly, regarding the Immaculate Conception and Catholic belief in Mary’s sinlessness, she said simply, “She doesn’t sin in our movie!” (Despite consulting with Catholic sources, on the other hand, neither Hardwicke nor Rich was immediately clear regarding the common confusion between the Immaculate Conception of Mary and the virginal conception of Jesus.)
Non-dogmatic second-century tradition, particularly in the apocryphal Infancy Gospel or Protevangelion of James, suggests some additional context for Catholic Marian beliefs: The Protevangelion portrays Joseph as an older man — a widower whose sons by an earlier marriage became Jesus’ “brethren” — while Mary is depicted as a consecrated virgin even before the Annunciation.
Though these notions are associated with early Marian belief, they are not themselves integral to Catholic Marian dogma. Rich said that while he was aware of these traditions, he didn’t follow them in his screenplay.
“The Infancy Gospel of James talks about each element of Mary’s childhood, of her parents, etc.,” Rich said. “From our standpoint, this story and the timeframe we were dealing with didn’t deal so much with Mary’s upbringing — that very narrow window of a few months in about a year’s time which dealt with the Annunciation, her visit to Elizabeth and Zecharias, and eventually her journey to Bethlehem. So while I was aware of that, it wasn’t something that we felt was terrifically applicable.”
Regarding the tradition of Joseph as an old man, Rich said that — in view of the paucity of New Testament evidence, and the absence of scholarly consensus — he chose to go with “something that was probably much closer to the Jewish traditions of the time. So we created a character who was in his late twenties, and an arranged marriage that was consistent with the cultural traditions of the town at that time.”
At the same time, both filmmakers emphasized that the film deliberately eschews a romantic interpretation of Joseph and Mary’s relationship — in contrast, for example, to both 1970s nativity TV movies.
“A lot of times when this story is told,” Rich observed, “it can sometimes deteriorate, if you will, into a simple love story between Joseph and Mary. We wanted to avoid that at all costs, because we don’t think it’s a love story — we think it’s a faith story.”
Far from an apocryphal romance, Hardwicke emphasized, in this retelling Mary “actually does not want to marry [Joseph], does not love him. This is a big deal in our movie — that Mary is young, like a thirteen-year-old girl, like it seems most scholars think that she was at the time. And this was an arranged marriage with a man that she didn’t feel anything for, or any relationship to… Joseph is older, but he’s not possibly as old as some people think he was… he’s in his late twenties.”
Over the course of the film, the director explained, Mary “grows to respect [Joseph] and respect God’s plan that this is a good man and this was part of His plan. And she grows to love him and respect him.”
Even then, though, the filmmakers wanted to avoid romantic entanglements. “We went out of our way,” Rich said, “to make certain that they really didn’t touch each other in the film — until very, very late in the film, and even then it’s just a gesture of commitment and respect.”
Did the Protevangelion of James inform the film in any way? “We used the names of [Mary’s] parents,” i.e., Joachim and Anna, Rich said. “If we’ve got some scholars of the Infancy Narrative of James, they’ll pick up on the names of her parents.”
Hardwicke, though, said that the names aren’t used much, if at all. “I think Joachim says ‘Anna’ once. I wanted Mike Rich to put some name in the script just because it was getting confusing to read… We were debating that, should we put Joachim and Anna or not? So we just went for it — we put it in. You hear almost whispering in the background, one time you’ll hear him whisper ‘Anna.’ ”
Despite the academic angle, Rich described writing the screenplay as a spiritual experience. “I first had the spark to write this story in December of 2004. The very initial spark was when I went to the mailbox one day, and Newsweek and Time both arrived on the same day, and they both had cover stories on the Nativity story. And I remember thinking that it had never really been approached from a character-based standpoint. So right about that time, during the Christmas season of 2004, I started dabbling in research, not convinced yet that I was going to write this script.”
Almost a year later — again during the Christmas season — the screeenwriter went to work. “Typically when I write a script, the first draft takes anywhere from 12 to 14 weeks to write… When I was writing this last December — number one, I’m writing it in the season of Advent. I lost my father earlier in the year, so it was an emotional time anyway… I can only describe it as a feeling of amazing peace as I was writing the first draft of the script, which took about half the time that a normal script takes for me. I wrote this first draft in a little more than five weeks. I did absolutely feel guidance and feel a daily presence as I was writing this.”
Hardwicke, too, attested a sense of guidance and inspiration during filmmaking. “A lot of inspiration came to me all through the film. Ideas that I’m sure that didn’t just come from me, about how to solve this problem or how to create this feeling.”
Certainly production on the film went ahead fairly smoothly, notwithstanding some publicized difficulty with animals in the stable. “I think every film is a miracle in a way — just if it gets done,” Hardwicke laughed. Despite an aggressive production schedule, though, The Nativity Story went remarkably according to plan. “It’s kind of a record time that we’ve had, a very short time to make the film.”
“We were a little scared of the ambitious nature of the schedule,” Rich admitted. “I had only finished [the screenplay] right around the first of the year, and we were going to go out worldwide on December 1. But I have to tell you, it came together…
“We just never had a bad break. We never had bad weather. We never had anybody twist an ankle…” Was anyone struck by lightning, like Jim Caviezel on the set of The Passion? “Nobody struck by lightning,” Rich laughed, adding, “The closest we came was one day right before we were filming, when a black snake going through the grotto… which we thought was unique symbolism.” Did anyone crush its head? “Not me! We brought in animal control for that.”
Early in the production process, Hardwicke and her production turned to a number of historical and religious experts for assistance in recreating the world of first-century Palestine. Among these were representatives of a project called Nazareth Village, run by the Center for the Study of Early Christianity.
Nazareth itself is now a modern Israeli town. Hardwicke described arriving in the real Nazareth hoping to “feel something close to the [childhood home] of Jesus” — and being chagrined to find “modern apartment buildings, telephone poles.”
Within this modern setting, though, is an outpost of first-century Jewish life. According to Hardwicke, Nazareth Village is “a foundation of archaeologists and anthropologists” who have “actually tried to create a living reenactment” of life in Jesus’ day, “rebuilding houses in the same time period, with the same tools. It’s a very fascinating reconstruction, an ongoing project, people from around the world come there and work there for months at a time that are interested in the subject.”
Consultants from the Nazareth Village project came to Matera, Spain (where other recent biblical films including The Passion of the Christ and The Gospel of John have also shot) to help the filmmakers build their own “Nazareth.”
“Three of the people from [Nazareth Village] — Mira Abu Sinni, Rani Isbanyoli, and Samir Hawa — all came out to our location and when we had built our Nazareth village,” Hardwicke said. “They were our consultants there. They taught us all about daily life — how to milk the goats, how to build with the same tools that Joseph built with. They trained Oscar [Isaac, who plays Joseph] so that he literally built one of the walls of his house. They taught Keisha and myself and Shohreh [Aghdashloo], who plays Elizabeth, how to milk goats, weave the wool from sheep, how to bake bread in that way.”
Details of first-century Jewish religious practice were also important to Hardwicke. “That was my biggest concern from the first moment I started to work on the movie,” she said. “Of course Joseph and Mary were Jewish… and I did not know anything personally about the Jewish religion at that time. Of course I had read the whole Old Testament, but I didn’t have it in my bones — what did the Jewish people at that time do? How did they practice? How did they eat? How did they separate their food? All those details… How did they pray? What were their gestures when they prayed in the synagogue? Did they have a synagogue in a small town like Nazareth, or not? Would there be a separate rabbi who did the circumcisions? All those kind of details.”
For such details, the production looked to the Nazareth Village consultants, as well as “a Jewish religion advisor, Ray Doliner, who leads study groups all over Rome,” Hardwicke said. “He came down and taught us all about the ancient Jewish customs of the time. We had classes — we built a little synagogue in our Nazareth village. We had Roy come down there, and Rani also, two people who were quite educated in this world, and they took us through various services and ceremonies, and taught us really kind of cool things… all these great details that I never knew, and that were very moving for myself and Keisha and Oscar to go through.”
Details of first-century Jewish life weren’t the only area of concern. What about the Magi? What was the state of Oriental astrology in the first century? The filmmakers turned to Dr. Lorenzo Verderame, lecturer of Assyriology at the University of Rome with a doctorate in Ancient Near Eastern Civilization. “He came down and helped us with the Magis’ instruments and tracking the stars,” Hardwicke reported. Among the film’s other historical advisors, Hardwicke also credited Enrico Bruschini, an art historian who works with the US Embassy in Rome.
In the end, though, historical and cultural authenticity by itself isn’t enough. The film has to evoke the spiritual significance of a story that is, after all, about the birth of a baby — always a miraculous event, to be sure, but this particular birth is absolutely unique in human history. How do you capture something like that on camera?
For Hardwicke, the sign of Christ’s hidden glory is seen in the witnesses drawn to the newborn king by the signs in the heavens, the angels and the star. “For me, the moment when I was sitting in the stable behind Mary and Joseph with the camera, and then watching the shepherds start coming over the hills in the middle of the night, and approaching with this reverence, approaching this baby — it kind of gave me chills.
“Just imagine,” she added, “if you really were in this scenario and all of a sudden shepherds started appearing from all over, coming to pay tribute to your child that you just had. It was kind of a stunning moment. And then the Magi come and pay tribute… we have these kings, dressed in their beautiful embroidery and brocade and costumes, and they are humbled by this vision. It was chilling for me. I hope that feeling comes across.”
For Rich, the hardest scene to write was the Annunciation itself. “When you read the text of the Annunciation — here you have Mary, who runs the gamut of emotion from fear, to awe, to acceptance, in a relatively short period of time,” he said. “Well, if I expound upon that, if I add dialogue, then I’m opening myself up to amazingly well-justified criticism. But it puts such amazing pressures on the actors to run that gamut of emotions. At the end of the day, when we did that scene, we just had to trust and give it as much time as possible and stick with the biblical text, because we had no other option.”
Another challenge the filmmakers faced involved depicting Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. “I thought it would be great for kids to be able to see the movie,” Hardwicke said, “but I didn’t want them to just be totally scarred for the rest of their lives!”
Rich agreed that while he considered the film’s family appeal “critically important,” the slaughter of the innocents was also “a critical part of the film and a critical part of the story… If we push that too far visually, then suddenly we end up with a film that is not as accessible to families as we had hoped, and we risk getting a PG-13 rating.” On the other hand, “we wanted to make sure that we didn’t have a scene that was so family-friendly that it lost its impact.”
Hardwicke said that the film’s restrained approach to the slaughter of the innocents was dictated simply by the involvement of “real children under two” on the set. “I can just tell you right now that you can’t do much, because they get pretty scared just to be in a movie!” she said. “Even by nature of filming with these children, you become sensitive — very sensitive to the children and their parents. The parents were there; the mothers were dressed in costume beside the children, to try to help them feel comfortable… Even so, they still got scared. Even if they hung out with the soldiers for two hours before, got to pet the soldiers’ horses and look at the soldiers’ swords, they still were very nervous and started crying right when we said ‘Rolling,’ even though we’d rehearsed so many times.”
The end result, Hardwick said, was a depiction that “leaves a lot to the imagination. It [implies] more than it shows.”
If The Passion opened doors for films like The Nativity Story, it also polarized viewers and provoked much antipathy — especially in Hollywood. Anticipating fallout for The Nativity Story, ChristianityTodayMovies.com critic Jeff Overstreet made some pithy predictions some time back, suggesting that some critics will seize on the film “as a chance to complain about Christians and paint this as some sign of a right-wing takeover of entertainment and culture. President Bush’s name will come up more than once, as if he had something to do with this.” Have the filmmakers experienced any politically tinged fallout as a result of the film’s religious subject and reverent approach?
“I’ve more just been trying to make something beautiful and strong and good than hearing what other people have said about it.” said Hardwicke. “When I was the same age as Mary in this film, when I was thirteen years old, I read the whole Bible, forward to back. What we really tried to do is really without politics, and just goes back to Matthew and Luke, and makes it beautiful and tells the story with as much humanity and depth and soul as we can. Really in my mind nothing to do with politics. I was just trying to go for the pure story.”
Rich said there had been no resistance or skepticism — so far. “We knew going into this that there may be a level of cynicism attached to this project simply because we’re really the first in line after The Passion of the Christ. We understood that in making this story there would be some who would say, well, this is just a film that is trying to take advantage of The Passion. There’s nothing we can do about that. The only thing we can do is create a film that will stand on its own and speak for itself.”
Are the filmmakers worried about charges of insensitivity to Judaism, what with the infant Jesus being acclaimed King of the Jews? “I feel that our film is very reverent to the Jewish religion,” Hardwicke said. “We treat the Jewish religion with a lot of reverence. I was very moved by things that I learned from our Jewish scholars, and actually put in several Jewish prayers… I hope people find it as a positive experience, a positive treatment of the Jewish religion. Because of course Mary and Joseph were Jewish.”
While the international cast includes various Middle-Eastern nationalities, for the most part the Jewish characters tend to be played by ethnic non-Jews (for example, Castle-Hughes is half Maori, and Aghdashloo is Iranian). Ironically, while Jewish actors are involved in the production, they seem to be in non-Jewish roles — the Roman soldiers, for instance.
“Hm. That didn’t work out exactly the way we would have expected,” Hardwicke admitted with self-deprecating humor. “Some of our priests… hm, none of our priests are actually Jewish, which is kind of strange. Oops. What happened? We tried to get it all right.”
“Getting it all right,” for Hardwicke, was more than a matter of creative or professional challenges. “Pretty much every day” during filming, she said, she sought to “make it a gift that was worthy of God, and of people’s time… that could be a gift to peoples’ lives… I was on the prayer chain for more than just one church, I can tell you that. My cousin who’s a pastor — I was on the prayer chain for his church, for my parents’ church, for my aunts’ and uncles’ all over the United States. So that made me feel good!”
Rich’s hope for the film, he said, is that families will “not just see the film, but talk to each other, and really focus on some of the themes in this story that we don’t do a lot of talking about any more. The faith of Mary. The courage of Joseph. We do to a greater degree now with Easter than we do with Christmas… we spent more time talking about [spiritual meaning] with other holidays than we do with Christmas. So I thought it was very important to create something that could engage a dialogue within families.”
Perhaps The Nativity Story will do just that — and not just this Christmas season during its theatrical run. Perhaps The Nativity Story will take its place as the missing Christmas film — the one that actually is about the real “real meaning of Christmas.”