Jennifer Merin interviews Catherine Hardwicke re “The Nativity Story”

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STRIVING FOR AUTHENTICITY< The Nativity Story< Directed by Catherine Hardwicke It’s to be expected that "The Nativity Story" find’s 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 it’s title advertises, about Christ’s birth-- purports to be essentially non-commercial, non-exploitive in its rather reverential and straight forward cinematic narrative of the Bible’s 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 wasn’t for her. “My agent sent it to me, and I didn’t understand why– it wasn’t what I’m usually drawn to. But as I read the script, I was fascinated by the way the story was told– it’s a story everyone thinks they know, but the details in Mike Rich’s script connect the story to the historical period and to what people’s 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: It’s a balance of both. Our commitment was to authenticity. The New Testament has two brief and somewhat contradictory accounts of Jesus’ birth-- that’s 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 Herod’s reign? We’ve 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.< I’m 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, they’re 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 Herod’s character is entirely brutal….< HARDWICKE: Not entirely. Herod’s 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 Herod‘s environment. It’s almost black and white; there‘s 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: They’re 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 couldn’t afford time or money for anything but basics. That’s why it’s 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 it’s own interpretation of the Nativity story. Are you concerned that yours, as restrained as it is, might be controversial?< HARDWICKE: We aren’t challenging people’s beliefs. Some questions about the birth of Jesus don’t have clear answers-- or, rather, we’re told that things happened that can’t be explained except by belief or faith. This is a story that’s 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 don’t think that’s controversial.< MERIN: Do you believe in the immaculate conception?< HARDWICKE: Have you read Raymond Brown‘s "The Birth of the Messiah?" It’s 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 there’s truth in it.<

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).