The Nativity Story: Directing the Birth of Christ
By Belinda Elliott
CBN.com Daily Life Producer
Some people would shrink from the task of recreating the birth of Christ for the big screen, but not Catherine Hardwicke. As soon as the director read the script from screenwriter Mike Rich for the upcoming film, The Nativity Story, she knew she wanted to take on the assignment.
Hardwicke said she was immediately drawn to the complexities of Mary and Joseph and the internal struggles that they faced.
“I had seen the Nativity story just as we all do – a few simple passages with minimal detail and almost no insight into who Mary and Joseph were as people,” Hardwicke said. “But in Mike’s script, I saw this opportunity to really get inside the heads, hearts, and soul of this young couple.”
Depicting the struggles of youth was not new territory for the director. Having directed Thirteen and the Lords of Dogtown, which are both centered around the lives of rebellious teens, Hardwicke was well versed in portraying the emotional highs and lows of adolescence.
“Catherine has had great success capturing the lives of young people in particular, and the kind of conflict and crisis and pain of making difficult choices, leaving your family, and struggling on your own,” producer Wyck Godfrey said. “The idea of her bringing that point of view to biblical times intrigued us.”
It was this point of view that Hardwicke brought to the character of Mary in particular. Too often, people see the mother of Christ as an icon, the director said, but they forget she was also a child. Traditionally Mary is thought to have been a young teen at the time of her betrothal to Joseph. Hardwicke said she was fascinated when she considered how a girl Mary’s age would handle the pressures of an arranged marriage and a hard-to-explain pregnancy.
The director lobbied for actress Keisha Castle-Hughes to take on the part. The 16-year-old became the youngest actress ever to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her work in Whale Rider, and she portrays the young Mary exceptionally as both rambunctious and responsible.
Hardwicke was also immediately impressed by Julliard-trained actor Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of Joseph when he auditioned for the part. He, too, she said, had a remarkable understanding of the character’s emotional struggles.
In addition to her penchant for portraying internal emotional conflict, Hardwicke also brought a keen eye for production design to the film. With a background in art and architecture, she designed sets for Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky and David O. Russell’s Three Kings as well as numerous other films before turning to directing.
Raised in a Christian home in McAllen, Texas, Hardwicke built nativity scenes each year that filled the living room of her parents’ house. She approached The Nativity Story with the same creativity. She was adamant that the locations and sets accurately reflect biblical times.
Her meticulous attention to detail extended to the actors as well. They spent time in an intense Nazareth Boot Camp where they learned how to bake bread, milk goats, press olive oil, and use ancient tools. Hardwicke felt it was an important experience for the cast.
“They would go to the well and get the water so that Keisha would know how heavy a jug of water is and Oscar would know how hard it is to build a wall out of those stones,” Hardwicke said. “That would make the whole experience more real for them, so that’s what we did for a month.”
Perhaps the most challenging part of creating the film, Hardwicke said, was the day she began directing the nativity scene.
Hardwicke said she woke up startled that morning. The enormity of the moment suddenly hit her. “I just thought, ‘We are filming the birth of Christ!’” Hardwick said. “How am I doing this? How did I get here? How did I have this opportunity? It was pretty daunting.”
She immediately turned to prayer for guidance.
It wasn’t the first time she had prayed about an element of the film. She had also once instructed all of the cast and crew, regardless of their religious beliefs, to stop and pray for a donkey that refused to walk across the desert sand on a day when the temperature had reached 135 degrees. The filmmakers only had 30 minutes of daylight left, and Hardwicke was determined to get the shot. When she shouted “Action,” after praying, the donkey walked for a half hour.
Working with live animals also proved to be challenging during the filming of the manger scene.
The filmmakers were limited in their work involving newborn infants. The babies were only allowed to be filmed for 15 minutes at a time, and they could not be on the set past midnight.
“But the mother cow didn’t really care about Italian child welfare laws,” Hardwicke said, “and the mother cow didn’t want to lie down until she wanted to lie down.”
Once the mother cow settled down, the donkey decided it would rather stand also. Then, Hardwicke said, when the donkey started to cooperate, the sheep would become restless.
“Finally when you get every animal more or less calmed down you bring this real baby in -- this precious tiny little baby -- and then it starts crying and that scares the cow. Then the cow gets up, and it just starts the whole cycle again,” Hardwicke said.
But aside from the challenges, the director said the entire experience was very rewarding.
She said the film has caused her to think about her faith on a deeper level, and she hopes it inspires audiences to do the same. Perhaps, when people place the nativity scene on their mantles this year, they will have a new understanding of the real-life people who inspired the figurines.
“This story means so much to people all over the world,” Hardwick said. “I thought by humanizing them, audiences could relate to the film on a personal level and find some inspiration to get through their own challenges and difficulties.”
She said she is honored by the part that she was allowed to play in bringing the characters to life.
“Hundreds of the best artists ever have been inspired by this story – musicians, composers, sculptors, painters,” she said. “It was an amazing gift to have the chance to do an interpretation of my own.”
The Nativity Story opens in theaters Dec. 1.
More about The Nativity Story on CBN.com
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More articles by Belinda Elliott on CBN.com
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