Making the Movie
How Do You Recreate the Nativity?
By Lori D'Augostine
CBN.com Associate Producer
CBN.com It was just two years ago that screenwriter Mike Rich (The Rookie, Miracle, Finding Forrester) first conceived the idea of adapting the Nativity scene he saw on the cover of Time and Newsweek to the big screen. He was familiar with the passages from the books of Matthew and Luke, but wanted to delve in beyond the familiar Christmas card manger scene.
"So often this story is told in narrative form as event-based, and I wanted to make it more character-based," said Rich.
Placing these characters within the backdrop of a poverty-stricken town under the oppressive rule of Herod, makes them less iconiclastic and more relatable, he said.
"If you look at some of the grand epics from years ago, there's a tendency to visually romanticize certain elements," said Rich. "I think it undercuts the spiritual impact. The truth is, Nazareth was anything but a pretty Hallmark picture."
And Mary and Joseph were not always the happy, one-dimensional couple depicted in the Nativity scene. Rich paints a love story between Mary and Joseph that is bore out of struggle and an insatiable dependence upon God amidst grave and uncertain circumstances. By the time they are cradling the infant Jesus at the end of the movie, it seems unquestionable why God would choose this couple to parent the Son of God.
Rich says he approached his writing process with humility and reverence, and depended on God to help him fill in the blanks of the 80 percent of the story that remained speculative. He believes that behind the making of this movie, there was a Divine author at work.
"Recreating the Nativity was a faith journey for me as well. This movie is not just about Mary and Joseph."
Remarkably, Rich wrote the screenplay in only one month, after 11 months of intense research. He was influenced by Raymond Brown's "The Birth of the Messiah" and consulted "historians, theologians, Judeo-Christian experts, Catholic experts, and Ecumenical experts" to assure Biblical accuracy.
When New Line Cinema first received his script last January, they signed immediately. Rich knew it would take a cast and crew to come together in record-breaking speed to make a December 2006 release date possible.
Producers Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey were certainly not strangers to Rich's work. Bowen was Rich's former agent at United Talent Agency, having just reunited with his long-time friend Godfrey to start a company called Temple Hill Entertainment. Together they are committed to making movies their families would be proud of.
Next came the selection of a director. Godfrey had a long-standing relationship with Catherine Hardwicke but admits she was not an obvious first choice.
"She loved the material and was the first person who was emotionally connected to the story. Many directors didn't want to get in the skin like Catherine. The others were more distant," recalled Godfrey.
Hardwicke, known for directing teen flicks like Lords of Dogtown and Thirteen is also hailed in Hollywood for her production design in the movies Three Kings, Vanilla Sky, Tombstone, and Laurel Canyon. Immediately, Hardwicke brought to the table a Christmas wish-list of her own.
"I wanted to see Mary as a young girl and not perfectly pious. I wanted to see that moment when Joseph saw Mary pregnant. I wanted actors that looked like they were from the Middle East," she said.
Once Hardwicke stepped aboard the production team, Godfrey joined her on what he called a faith journey to Israel and Italy in search of the most authentic set locations that fit Hardwicke's vision of "epic intimacy."
Matera, a town in Southern Italy seemed suitable, because it bore a striking resemblance to Jersualem and Nazareth around the time of Christ and was used as a location for Passolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew and part of Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ.
To track down the right talent for the film, the production team hired casting directors to audition in Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, Rome and Tel Aviv.
For the crucial lead role of Mary, Hardwicke and the producers were adamant that the actress be able to carry the weight of such a dramatic turn of events. They found that rare combination in Keisha Castle-Hughes, the youngest Academy Award Best Actress nominee in history for her work in Whale Rider.
"Keisha projects a fierce strength behind a quiet exterior," Godfrey said.
Hardwicke discovered another strong female to take on the role of Mary's cousin Elizabeth when she casted Academy Award nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo. This Iranian actress is best known for her previous work in House of Sand and Fog and television's "24."
Hughes and Aghdashloo gelled almost instantaneously.
"Life imitates art and art imitates life. She found the mother in me, and I found the daughter in her. The minute we started working, the bond was there, and it worked," recalled Aghdashloo.
When Hardwicke and Bowen were in New York for auditions, they discovered the recent Julliard graduate, Oscar Isaac, and found his theatrical background to be an asset in capturing the character of Joseph.
Since very little Biblical text is given to Joseph except that he was a "righteous man," Isaac discovered some challenges.
"How do you play righteous? Do you stand up straighter?" he joked. "It was nice seeing the character of Joseph fleshed out. If you look at all of the Nativity paintings, he's usually the creepy, older guy in the back."
Isaac leaned on his own Christian family roots, while also turning to the Bible to discover Joseph. "I rediscovered what Biblical love is. Righteousness meant love. Joseph doesn't stone or humiliate her. Even though I had anger, fear, and doubt, I just loved her so much," he said.
When casting was completed, the filmmakers found themselves with every bit as multicultural and diverse a cast as they would have hoped with actors hailing from Trinidad, Iran, New Zealand, Guatemala, Cameroon, England, Jordan, Sudan, France, and Italy.
From May 2 to July 10, the towns of Nazareth and Jersualem were convincingly recreated in Italy and Morocco. Three consultants and scholars from the "Nazareth Village" in Israel, served as advisor's for the town's construction, and also led the actors and production team in a "Nazareth Boot Camp." Cast members were given lessons in how to bake bread, milk goats, press olive oil, plant wheat, and use ancient tools.
"We were all there to learn from the experts. I was always asking them, what kind of mannerism should I have to enter the temple? Where do women sit? It was a great opportunity for me as a seeker of the truth," Aghdashloo who plays Elizabeth said.
She chuckled upon remembering how many questions she'd ask the experts. When one of the advisors told Aghdashloo she'd find her answers in the Bible, she smiled in agreement because she has not been able to stop reading her Bible since her days on the set.
Although she'd always celebrated Christmas, Aghdashloo believes her understanding of Christmas has changed as a result of this film.
Remembering back to long, tiring days on location in Morocco, often with sand-filled eyes, Aghdashloo would question her ability to go on. She said that she was inspired to keep working when someone reminded her, "someday your children will be watching this film. And the following Christmas your grandchildren." Aghdashloo then thought, "My God, every Christmas will be different."
Even prior to its release, this film is setting trends and proving to be a classic. This is the first time in nearly 50 years that a big-budget, Biblically-based story is being made into a major motion picture. According to Christian Today, "New Line Cinema’s The Nativity Story has been called the best movie about the birth of Jesus since nativity movies were first produced in the 1890s." It is also the first film to ever premiere at the Vatican.
The Nativity Story will come to life for audiences next Friday, Dec. 1 and will run throughout the Holiday season on over 8,000 screens worldwide. The production team believes they have been successful in making a film the entire family will enjoy.
Producer Bowen said, "We hope that for years to come, many families will watch this on Christmas Eve and see why this story is so important."
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For more Nativity movie information, go to CBN.com's Special Nativity page.
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