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Autumn 2006 | Volume 29, Number 4 | Books, Film & Music

Response onScreen

(Also in this issue: Israeli and Arab Children Ponder Prejudice and Hope in Promises.)

Don't Call The Nativity Story “a Prequel to The Passion”

It may be hard to believe, but The Nativity Story is the first full-length feature film about the birth of Christ to ever play on big screens across America.

The Nativity

Imagine the pressure, the responsibility, and the challenges that faced screenwriter Mike Rich as he sat down to write the story of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men, and the Christ child. Imagine being asked to illustrate characters and events that have inspired passionate debate, changed millions of lives, and lived in imaginations around the world for centuries.

Having proven his ability to inspire audiences with a nuanced character study called The Rookie, which starred Dennis Quaid, Mike Rich was an insightful choice for New Line Cinema, which paired him with director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown). And their collaboration has given us a film that is surprisingly faithful to the details of Scripture.

Just days before the film opened, Mike Rich spoke with Response about the privilege, the pressure, and the experience of working with Hollywood studio executives and talented artists to make a film about this beloved Bible story.

* * *

Response: Did you encounter any pressures from the studio to alter details of The Nativity Story? Did the studio want you to make it more movie-like — more entertaining, dramatic, intense, or romantic — than the scriptural story would suggest?

Rich: In fact, it was actually just the opposite. Of all the projects that I’ve worked on — Finding Forester, The Rookie, Radio — there was less studio interference with this one.

New Line assembled a team of Catherine Hardwicke, the director, Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen, the two producers, and me, and basically put their trust in that team. Once they wanted to make this film, they just said, “OK, you guys, it’s your film now. Go make it.” That kind of support and freedom was really critical to the overall end-product of the film.

Response: Would you say that your experience should be an encouragement to aspiring Christian filmmakers to get involved and pursue projects for the screen that are faith-related?

Rich: I don’t think there’s any question that they should take encouragement from this. Filmmakers such as myself and others certainly owe a debt of gratitude to The Passion of the Christ for opening that door. I think our film is the first major studio release since that film to walk through the door. But I think they should be encouraged because I have noticed the amount of talk there is right now [in] the Hollywood mainstream studio system about various story ideas [that are] biblically based. So, it really does represent a night-and-day shift.

Response: For a lot of these aspiring artists, there seems to me to be a fair distance between the concept of “getting the gospel message out” through movies and the art of storytelling. Films about faith tend to “tell” us about faith, while accomplished artists know that the unwritten rules of art are “Show, don’t tell,” and “Less is more.” What would you counsel them as far as how to approach their filmmaking?

Rich: I think that the first order of business when you’re making a film in this particular genre is to make a good film. The audience is a smart and demanding audience, and they’re not going to be led to a film in this genre simply because it has a spiritual message to it. The film has to be a quality film.

The other thing is that when you’re making a film in this particular genre, one of the worst mistakes you can make is preaching to the audience.

It’s one of the reasons why, in the script that I wrote for The Nativity Story, the dialogue is so very spare. I think there are plenty of things that are said with just the exchange of a glance, or in the quiet of a particular moment.

There is an old rule in movies that less is definitely more. I think it applies even more when you’re talking about this particular genre.

Response: In many of the reviews and articles about The Nativity Story, writers are calling it “a prequel to The Passion of the Christ.” I suspect that’s not exactly what you had in mind.

Rich: Well, I agree. To put us instantly into a comparison mode with The Passion of the Christ … I don’t think that’s fair to The Passion of the Christ. And I don’t think it’s fair to us, because they’re certainly two different films in both tone and style. It was never, never our goal to match the success of The Passion of the Christ. That film was such a phenomenon. And frankly, the two stories demand a different telling.

I think Mel Gibson did strike the proper tone with his telling of The Passion of the Christ, but our story … it’s that glorious story of hope and peace that many of us grew up with when we were children. We wanted to make sure that the tone we presented was consistent with that.

Response: It appears that you and Catherine Hardwicke were clearly very careful in your portrayal of Herod’s slaughter of the children. We don’t see any graphic bloodshed on the screen, so there was no danger of the film earning an R-rating. Were you intentionally crafting the film so young children could attend with their parents?

Rich: Absolutely. The last thing we wanted to do was to make a film that was going to [be] inaccessible for entire families, because the Christmas story itself is so important to children. They want to participate in that. It’s one of the reasons why we filmed “the slaughter of the innocents” in a way that still got across the intensity and the chaos of that particular incident, but didn’t push it to such an extreme that parents would be reluctant to take their children.

Response: Christian film reviewers are often criticized when they praise a film that has been rated “R” for violence. There’s an idea amongst many Christians that it’s a bad thing to portray violence in films. But then there are others who argue that there are films in which it is quite appropriate to include graphic violence. You steered around the violence in this story in order to make it accessible to children, but it sounds like you respect The Passion of the Christ, which was unflinchingly violent and deservingly R-rated. How do you discern the difference between a proper portrayal of violence and one that is inappropriate?

Rich: It’s really hard to answer that because it’s something that I think we all view differently. For me, there’s just kind of a “gut feeling” as to whether [filmmakers] have crossed over a line that they didn’t need to cross over. Having written the screenplay for this particular story, it doesn’t mean that I don’t like a wide array of movies. And the Christian audience is, I think, very much the same way.

I watched The Departed a couple of times recently. That’s a tough movie. And it’s a really wonderful film. I think that’s it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes you can have a film that does have a large amount of violence in it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s excessive.

Response: Was it challenging to illustrate the marriage of Mary and Joseph for audiences, knowing that, in all likelihood, Mary was a teenager and Joseph was a much older man?

Rich: It was. It was a little tricky on the page, but it wasn’t that tricky on the screen, because of the natural chemistry between Oscar Isaac and Keisha Castle-Hughes. In reality, there is about a 10-year gap in their ages, but they have such a natural look together onscreen. And, frankly, we wanted to make sure that people didn’t view it so much as a “love story” between the two as a “faith story.” In that regard, it didn’t prove to be as much of a challenge as we thought it might.

Response: One of the strengths of your 2004 film, The Rookie, was the way that it avoided the kind of sentimentality that often comes with stories about sports heroes. It’s an inspiring tale, but the film didn’t feel like it was manipulating the audience or playing out in a predictable fashion. The audience had an authentic emotional experience with the film. I imagine it was difficult to approach The Nativity Story, knowing how easy it is to sentimentalize it.

Rich: Well, it’s a high-wire act. It really is. It was with The Rookie, and it was with this one as well. The last thing you wanna do is have your characters be overt with their message. I think it’s one of the reasons why I took a similar approach with this script that I did with The Rookie — the dialogue is incredibly spare.

In this film, you’ll rarely find instances in which Mary or Joseph have more than a couple of sentences strung together. Some of the most powerful and intimate moments in the movie are where they just kind of sit in the quiet of the moment, if you will, and you see in their faces and in their eyes this immensity of the mission that they’ve undertaken. They don’t have to sit there and tell each other, “This is the most incredible mission we’ve been selected for.” You see it in their eyes. I think that’s one of the important ways of approaching this story.

Also, I might add, that Mychael Danna, who provided our musical score, did the same thing, writing this elegant, powerful score. When he did on rare occasions dip into hints of classic Christmas carols, it was almost as if they were just kind of passing, just enough where the audience said, “Wasn’t that ‘Carol of the Bells’?” or “Wasn’t that ‘We Three Kings’?” It’s just enough that it didn’t hammer you on the head.

Response: Are there other films about Christ’s life, or specifically about the Nativity, that influenced your approach? Or do you have any specific titles you recommend people to watch after they go see The Nativity Story just to see another perspective?

Rich: [Franco] Zeffirelli’s film, Jesus of Nazareth, is just a landmark in that regard. I’ve seen a number of those films, and I made it a point where I didn’t go back and revisit them. I didn’t want to be unduly influenced by other tellings of this story. I wanted to make sure that the approach I was going to take was my own approach. While there have certainly been countless tellings of this story, I wanted to make sure that the approach I took was my own on this one.

Response: Looking at the films you’ve done, is there a particular thread that you see, or particular idea or question that makes the projects you’ve chosen — and that you’ll continue to choose — attractive? What is it that draws you to a project?

Rich: I’ve thought about that a lot. I think that when I look back, if there is a common theme to the movies that I’ve made, it’s this theme of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The Rookie was appealing [because] you have this one man achieving his dream not in the seventh game of a World Series, but in what is basically a throw-away game late in the season. That, to me, is really interesting — taking a look at ordinary individuals being selected for these remarkable achievements.

Response: Were there films you saw growing up that influenced you, or that made you think, “Man, that’s the kind of movie I want to make”?

Rich: I like to think that I’m able to write strong compelling characters. So, movies with strong compelling characters … Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and films like that. It didn’t matter if you knew how the movie was going to end. You just wanted to experience that moment with the character.

That was one of the challenges in writing The Nativity Story. The audience goes in, and they know how this movie’s gonna end. It puts a burden or responsibility, if you will, on the writer to make certain that they write characters that are so compelling and so interesting that when you get to that particular moment you just want to experience that moment with the characters. It’s not so much that you’re concerned that you know how it’s going to occur.

Response: Filmmakers often like to talk about the things that surprise them along the way. I guess that’s a phenomenon for artists in general … the moment when art takes on a life of its own. Was there a particular moment in this project when it took on a life of its own? Or when you look at something in the finished product and say, “Man, I sure never planned for that, but that’s great”?

Rich: Yeah, a couple of things. The evolution of Joseph’s character in the script. He’s really a blank slate from a standpoint of biblical source material. I didn’t have a character that evolved more in this script than Joseph. It was just such a joy to write that character, and to expound upon Matthew’s one-word description of him as a righteous man.

Also, the writing of the Magi … writing one as a seeker, another as a scientist, and another as a cynic. In writing these characters, I [came to think] that the audience is probably going to align themselves with one of those three guys. That’s the intent that I approached it from.

Response: What kind of effect did it have on the cast and crew, meditating on this story for so long?

Rich: We had individuals of different faiths. Many, many faiths. And we had individuals, of course, that did not have a religious background. But what we all shared was this respect for the story.

The story was so powerful, and we had such an awareness that it’s held with reverence by millions of individuals. It was unlike any other production that I’ve been involved with. Ego and tempers and things that can sometimes be commonplace on a set just weren’t there on this particular set, simply because I think everyone had such a respect for the story.

Response: Is there another Bible story you’d like to bring to the big screen?

Rich: There are a number of stories. There’s a story to be written about Paul. There’s a screenplay to be written about John the Baptist. I’ve long felt that the time period between the Resurrection and the Ascension would be an interesting subject.

— BY Jeffrey Overstreet (

Read past columns in Response OnScreen.

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