By Madelyn Ritrosky
Talk about a rush job. It’s just one year from screenwriter Mike Rich working on the first draft of his script for The Nativity Story to its worldwide release this Friday, December 1, 2006. Originally, New Line Cinema slated it for December 2007, but quickly lopped off a year and everything shifted into high gear for this $30 million production.
The Nativity Story, as its title suggests, is a Christmas movie. Unlike secular holiday offerings such as The Santa Clause 3 or Deck the Halls, The Nativity Story harkens back to religiously inflected Christmas classics like It’s a Wonderful Life or The Bishop’s Wife. But it’s even more religious than those, because it falls in the same genre as The Passion of the Christ or Ben-Hur. It’s a Biblical story.
The director is Catherine Hardwicke, whom I met at the Heartland Film Festival. She has directed Lords of Dogtown and Thirteen (which she also co-wrote), and was the production designer for numerous films before turning to directing. At Heartland, she related her Nativity Story adventures at a special preview for the film.
It was in mid-January that Hardwicke read the film’s first draft from Mike Rich (Finding Forrester, Radio). They immediately talked, Rich made some revisions, and an initial pre-production meeting quickly followed. She had to make up a backward calendar, starting with the December 1, 2006 release date, to make sure everything could be done on time.
Three days after the meeting, she was on a plane to the Holy Land. While she was researching and scouting locations in the Middle East, Italy, and Morocco, she had casting directors in Rome, London, Paris, New York, and Los Angeles loading auditions and resumes onto a secure website for her perusal at night. She would then line up actors to see in, say, Rome while she was in Italy. Flight time was also valuable, for that was where she could squeeze in reviews of Biblical films like The Ten Commandments and Jesus of Nazareth.
But unlike the big spectacle of The Ten Commandments, where everything and everyone seems larger than life, Hardwicke said they were “going for epic intimacy.” The film includes a number of scenes that are not, strictly speaking, from the Bible, but which flesh out how Mary and Joseph, as real people in unusual historical circumstances, come together, deal with divine intervention, and travel to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. In other words, The Nativity Story takes as a given the whole Mary and Joseph and immaculate conception basis for the birth of Jesus and then adds human emotional detail.
King Herod, played to perfection by Ciaran Hinds (Munich, The Phantom of the Opera), is troubled by the prophesized savior and ruthless in trying to stop what he cannot see. The Three Wise Men provide excellent comic relief as they journey many months to arrive at the manger and pay tribute to the newborn Jesus (the film obviously compressing timeframes here so it can end on a traditional nativity scene).
Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) is Mary and Oscar Isaac plays Joseph. In following the story of Jesus’s birth, the film traces the developing relationship between Mary and Joseph. It was not an easy path for them, but one which the film depicts as a determined struggle by two honorable people who, by the time they must leave Nazareth for Bethlehem, hold affection and respect for each other.
Hardwicke said she and Mike Rich looked at the scriptures, including contradictions, commentary, and research. They wanted to “make it a real human struggle as the characters came to the decisions they did,” as suggested in the Bible.
The film took 45 days to shoot. Animals in basically every scene made the filming that much more difficult. Hardwicke gave a detailed example of this with the final manger scene, which included a donkey with hemorrhoids and the use of the back-up donkey when donkey #1 skinned her knee. In addition, Castle-Hughes is 16 years old, so could only work so many hours per day on the set.
The Nativity Story is rated PG, but there are several scenes which could easily disturb younger viewers. There is no graphic violence, but things like Herod’s slaughter of children as he tries to cast his net for the rumored king is clearly implied in fast cuts showing soldiers going into homes and ripping babies from their parents.
The Nativity Story opens in theaters on Friday, December 1, 2006.