(by Steve Beard, WorldMag.com) MATERA, Italy— During the filming of The Nativity Story, director Catherine Hardwicke’s silent prayers included an appeal for one more hour of sunlight so that she could film another scene before dark. “I didn’t want to pray for things,” she told WORLD, “but sometimes you just have to.” She was baking in the late afternoon heat of the Sahara Desert in Morocco when the donkey accompanying Mary and Joseph refused to walk on the scorching sand. “I don’t blame him–who would?” said Hardwicke. After all, when the Humane Society representative put a digital thermometer in the sand, it read 135 degrees.
To make matters worse, her cinematographer said she had 30 minutes before the sun would be gone. The donkey, meanwhile, wasn’t budging. “I’ve got to have this shot,” she told her crew. She sent out a directive, translated into the seven languages spoken on the set: Everyone has to pray and believe that the donkey is going to move.
“When I say ‘action,’ you’re going to roll the camera,” she told her crew. “They said, ‘It hasn’t walked yet, Catherine.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s going to walk.'” With the crew muttering prayers under its breath, the donkey moved on cue. “It continued walking for the whole half hour,” she recalls with a grin, “and you see the beautiful shot.”
That was just one of the answered prayers surrounding The Nativity Story–the first Bible-themed film produced by a major Hollywood studio (New Line) since Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. Recent religious movies such as The Passion of the Christ were bankrolled with independent financing, but depending on the success of Nativity’s Dec. 1 release, that may change. Studio executives will watch (and perhaps pray) for a box-office miracle.
Nativity graphically explores the tense conflict and steadfast love of Mary and Joseph leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ–in an ambitious and gritty film with an international cast from 23 nations: Oscar-nominated Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) as Mary, Oscar Isaac (Syriana) as Joseph, and Oscar-nominated Shoreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) as Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist.
On the set of Nativity during spring filming in the ancient city of Matera, Italy, with its homes carved out of rock, it’s easy to see why the location also was the backdrop for The Passion. The joke was that Matera looks more like Jerusalem than Jerusalem does.
Screenwriter Mike Rich (Finding Forrester, Radio, and The Rookie) was inspired to write the script after seeing the birth of Christ on the cover of 2004 Time and Newsweek Christmas issues. He spent the following year researching every aspect of the biblical and historical background of Christ’s birth. Rich felt a keen sense of responsibility to get the story right while writing a script that would visually captivate an audience. “Instead of ‘What would Jesus do?'” he said, “for me it was more like, ‘What would Luke write?’ It had to be consistent with the tone and tenor of both what Matthew and Luke had written.”
That was not always easy. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke emphasize different aspects of the story. Blending the two narratives–having the shepherds and wise men arriving at the same time, for one thing–was done for cinematic effect, not out of ignorance. “We have the Magi arriving earlier than they probably did,” says Rich. “We had to compress.”
Although Mary’s perspective is well-known enough to reach iconic cultural status, Nativity presents an equally compelling character portrait of the quiet heroism of Joseph. “Talk about limited source material,” Rich confessed. “The only description of Joseph in the Bible is that ‘he was a righteous man.'”
The challenge, said Rich, was to write a majority of scenes that are completely speculative. “I wanted to look inside these two individual characters–Joseph and Mary–and explore the doubts, fear, and faith that drove them on the journey that extends far beyond the end of our movie.”
For Juilliard-trained actor Oscar Isaac, the role of Joseph was a welcome challenge. “How do I play this?” he asked himself. “I’m going to have the Son of God? It’s such an abstract idea. . . . And then I realized, that’s exactly what Joseph was thinking!”
Isaac concluded that Joseph’s decisions not to publicly humiliate or divorce Mary stem from a divine dream, but also from his righteousness. “I just loved her so much, that suddenly I realized that righteousness just means selfless, humble love.”
Isaac was not the only person involved with the project whose vision of Christmas was rejuvenated by a fresh perspective on an age-old story. Director Hardwicke was raised in a church-going home in McAllen, Texas, where her father still sings in the First Presbyterian Church choir. “I loved the songs and I loved everything about Christmas, but I did not think so deeply about it,” she said. “I didn’t think that this must have been difficult for Mary. I didn’t see her as a human. I didn’t even think about what Joseph must have gone through. I never thought about the humanity of the holiday.”
There is a heavy emphasis on the humanity and somber conflict of the Christmas story. The slaughter of the innocents, the disdainful looks of Mary and Joseph’s friends and family, the arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and the political oppression of Herod’s tax-gouging despotism are all prominent.
During the filming, the Magi’s approach to the manger rattled Hardwicke’s perception of Christmas. “They stop and see that their expectations are completely inverted,” she recalled. “They were looking for a king and they found a humble situation, a baby born with animals. It’s an overwhelming notion that God chose this manner of sending His Son. It really struck me for the first time on a deep level how amazing that was, why the story is so enduring, why it moves people so much, and why it is so inspiring.”
–Steve Beard is a writer, columnist, and creator of Thunderstruck.org.
Copyright ©2006 WORLD Magazine, December 2, 2006 issue. Reprinted here November 28th with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at www.WorldMag.com.
NOTE: The Nativity Story is the story of the birth of Jesus. Nativity is defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the process or circumstances of being born: BIRTH; especially capitalized : the birth of Jesus” (from m-w.com)
Before answering the questions, read The Story of Christmas below under “Background.”
1. a) Which movie studio produced The Nativity Story?
b) How might The Nativity Story cause movie studios to make more religious movies in the future?
2. a) Who wrote the screenplay for this movie?
b) What inspired him to write the script?
c) What research did he do before writing the script?
d) Why did he say it was difficult to write the script?
3. a) Define tone and tenor.
b) Why do you think the screenwriter placed such great importance on making the script for The Nativity Story consistent with the tone and tenor of what both Matthew and Luke had written?
4. How do the people connected with the making of The Nativity Story come across in their attempt to portray the story of Jesus’ birth?
5. Major movie studios used to make biblical/religious movies such as The Ten Commandments, The Bible, The Story of Ruth and Ben Hur.
Why do you think big studios have not made these types of movies in the past 30 years? (Mel Gibson could not get a major movie studio to produce “The Passion of the Christ” – the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection – and had to produce it on his own.)
6. What biblical story would you like to see made into a movie? Why?
THE STORY OF CHRISTMAS
(excerpts taken from the Bible, from the books of Matthew and Luke in the New Testament)
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”
Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him [Mary as] his wife… (Matthew 1: 18-24)
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, every-one to his own city. (Luke2: 1-3)
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. (Luke 2:4-5)
So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6-7)
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8)
And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:9-14)
So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. (Luke 2:15-16)
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:1,2)
Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshipped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country. (Matthew 2:7-12)
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given and the government will be upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called wonderful, counselor, mighty God, the everlasting father, the Prince of Peace.