STRIVING FOR AUTHENTICITY< The Nativity Story< Directed by Catherine Hardwicke Its to be expected that "The Nativity Story" finds itself emblazoned on movie marquees at this time of year, along with films such as "Deck the Halls," "The Santa Clause 3," "Black Christmas" and other releases that capitalize on the holiday season like so many bedazzling department store windows. Business-wise that makes perfect sense, yet "The Nativity Story"-- which is, as its title advertises, about Christs birth-- purports to be essentially non-commercial, non-exploitive in its rather reverential and straight forward cinematic narrative of the Bibles brief and somewhat contradictory accounts of the conception and arrival on Earth of the being whom many then and now have called Messiah.
Director Catherine Hardwicke says when she first saw the script, she thought the project wasnt for her. “My agent sent it to me, and I didnt understand why– it wasnt what Im usually drawn to. But as I read the script, I was fascinated by the way the story was told– its a story everyone thinks they know, but the details in Mike Richs script connect the story to the historical period and to what peoples lives were and what they believed,” says Hardwicke. “I saw it as a kind of revelation, and I knew I wanted to bring it to the screen.”< MERIN: Cinematic portrayals of Biblical tales tend to present-- or interpret-- their subjects as miraculous or very human in nature. Where does "The Nativity Story" weigh in on that scale?< HARDWICKE: Its a balance of both. Our commitment was to authenticity. The New Testament has two brief and somewhat contradictory accounts of Jesus birth-- thats all. In writing the script, Mike used other documentation and in pre-production we researched extensively to get additional information, find the rich texture of cultures that existed at that time, and define personalities of those who played a role in what happened.< Mary and Joseph were Jewish-- and what was life like for them and their families during Herods reign? Weve got basic historical information, but the details of life were what we wanted to flesh out. We sent the cast to what we called "Nazareth Boot Camp," where they lived as people lived then, eating foods they ate, working with tools they used. Oscar Isaac (Joseph) helped build the house he and Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) lived in, and he actually carved the walking stick he uses when he and Mary make their arduous journey through the desert.< Im trained as an architect, so accuracy regarding physical environment was particularly important to me. We filmed in Southern Italy, which looks much like the area around Nazareth, which now has too many modern elements for us to have shot there. We constructed a town, using historical records and local rock.< The only elements we used to create shelter were those they had then. As an example, when the journeying Magi sit among their camels, theyre using the animals to shelter themselves from wind and sand. We had to do the same thing to shelter ourselves while filming in the desert.< So, the story has miraculous elements, but in the film the environments are authentic and the characters are very human.< MERIN: We tend to interpret Bible stories as having characters whose actions are either good or bad. In "The Nativity Story" you seem to withhold judgments-- except that Herods character is entirely brutal .< HARDWICKE: Not entirely. Herods an antagonist in the story, but he was a complex man who faced the difficulties of being a tenant king under Roman rule. He was paranoid about the prophecy of the Messiah, and other issues, and had a personal history of extreme violence-- he killed his wife, slaughtered innocents. Yet, he was a great builder and, in some ways, a visionary. We reference these aspects of his character in the film.< MERIN: Design-wise, you use a restricted, subtle color palette, even for the splendor of Herods environment. Its almost black and white; theres a pervasive quality of darkness. Yet the soldiers wear red cloaks. Were those aesthetic choices or are they intended to be symbolic in nature?< HARDWICKE: Theyre about authenticity. Colors are limited to what people had. I told my costume designer to use colors from materials available to them-- basically the colors of their sheep. People were poor and hard working, and couldnt afford time or money for anything but basics. Thats why its dark much of the time. Oil for lamps was so expensive, they used it sparingly. In such circumstances, I imagine the stars observed by the Magi seemed that much brighter.< MERIN: Almost every religious congregation in the Western world has its own interpretation of the Nativity story. Are you concerned that yours, as restrained as it is, might be controversial?< HARDWICKE: We arent challenging peoples beliefs. Some questions about the birth of Jesus dont have clear answers-- or, rather, were told that things happened that cant be explained except by belief or faith. This is a story thats been told and interpreted for centuries. We wanted to put that story into its original historical context so people whose lives are touched by it could see and feel the times that the story itself was born into. We dont think thats controversial.< MERIN: Do you believe in the immaculate conception?< HARDWICKE: Have you read Raymond Browns "The Birth of the Messiah?" Its the seminal book about the Nativity-- 500 pages of detailed analysis of every account of the birth of Jesus, of who said what, and why they said it. It gives a good understanding about why certain writers wrote what they did about the birth of Jesus-- that they were telling a story so it would appeal to masses of people and would resonate with some beliefs they already had. This book-- which is embraced by the Catholic church and other churches, too-- consistently points out that legends or oral histories like the Nativity story, are usually based on some kernel of truth. In the end, you see that this story has had emotional resonance for people for two thousand years, and I believe theres truth in it.<