The Nativity Story
Religious themed movies must be a hard sell to anyone who doesn't go to church every Sunday. Perhaps the way to bring something like The Nativity Story a mainstream hit is to treat it like skateboarding or teenage sex. That's where director Catherine Hardwicke comes in.
Interview: Catherine Hardwicke Tells The Nativity Story
"When you look at Matthew and Luke, there are these beautiful passages but really only one sentence that says a lot," said Hardwicke. "You take one sentence in Matthew that says, ‘Being a righteous man, Joseph decided to divorce her privately.’ I’m paraphrasing, of course, and you think ‘decided to divorce her privately,’ well there’s a lot more to it than just that one sentence. This is a person that he loved. He was a devout Jewish man. All the emotions that go behind that, that’s what we wanted to explore. Be true to every passage in the bible but really get in there deeper and imagine what’s the moment before that moment and what a heartbreak it was. I didn’t think it was hard to be true to the bible but then expand."
The Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown director wanted to take these biblical figures and make them human. Thus, the story of Mary's immaculate conception and journey with Joseph to the manger had to be about the real problems people in those situations would face.
"I think at the very beginning when I first read the script, in the very first scene Mary was extremely holy, pious, and the perfect saint even in the first scene. I thought, 'Well, not that she shouldn’t be a wonderful person, but she was a kid too, you know. She was 13 years old.' I mean, all scholars believe that’s how old she was because of life expectancy rates at the time. So you look at any kid that especially doesn’t grow up in our age with our troubles, there is that sense of life and joy so I thought it was important to see her that way. And also if your parents told you, ‘You are going to marry this man,’ and you didn’t even like that guy, you didn’t even know him, I think most people would feel something. As much respect as you have for your parents, you’d be a bit taken aback by the idea that you’re going to spend your life with this man. Your father starts talking to you about don’t have sex until you’re married. Those are very personal things and emotionally charged. That’s why I felt it was probably real emotions."
The film also involved some practical concerns too. For example, the ultimate casting would be Baby Jesus, with all the modern restrictions on infant acting bearing down on the filmmakers.
"Okay, we had five in the line up. We had five parents that were willing to bring their baby out there in the middle of the night, seven-day-old babies. So we had Baby Jesus #1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. So you would get a scene with maybe one of the Magi with Baby #1, right? And then Baby #1 would cry or would want to go back to Mommy so let’s bring in Baby #2. So now we’ve got Magi #2 and Baby #3 and Magi #1 and it was getting [to be a] very complicated mathematical situation. And finally Baby #1 actually is the one baby in every scene because Baby #1, that baby has a future."
Hardwicke was able to laugh about the religious parallels between making the film and the story she was telling. "I felt like I was biblically challenged. I felt like it was kind of like we got all the plagues added to our movie which in a way, that’s kind of perfect. It’s not supposed to be easy doing things. So we did have a sandstorm, and no, not when we planned them. And we had the rain, not when we wanted it. But that just made you more determined. We got to get it done somehow or another."
Perhaps someone was smiling down on the production when it really counted. "We did have one kind of miracle. You’re in the middle of the Sahara Desert and the Humane Society guy takes the thermometer, digital thermometer, puts it on the sand, it’s 135 degrees. The donkey intuitively knew it was 135 degrees, would not walk, the sun is setting. The DP says, 'You’ve probably got a half hour more or 20 minutes more to get the scenes of Mary and Joseph at the end.' And the donkey will not move. ‘Well, let’s give it some little treats.’ It didn’t care about the little treats. I said to Oscar, ‘The donkey. Pull on it.’ ‘I’m pulling on it.’ I said, 'Well it has to move. We have to get this. It’s the end of the film.’ It’s our only day to do it. We’re flying back that night. So I said to everybody on the crew translated into many languages, ‘I want everyone to concentrate. Pray that the donkey will walk.’ And I said, ‘Just roll camera. When I say ‘action,’ that donkey is going to walk.’ And everyone’s looking at me like, ‘Okay.’ ‘Action!’ The donkey walked and kept walking and everybody really wanted to pull the plug. People were packing up to go home. So maybe that was my miracle."
For the trailers, featurettes and more movie info, head over to The Nativity Story Movie Page.
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