The Nativity Story

An intimate look into the real lives of Mary & Joseph

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By Julie Rattey


Please let the sheep go where they're told.
Clad in a sunhat, shorts, and white button-down shirt to ward off the 95-degree heat in the ancient Italian city of Matera, director Catherine Hardwicke watches as a crewman spreads his arms in front of the flock on the hill. Mary, seated on a donkey, and Joseph, leading both, wait patiently for their cue. Tanned, costumed shepherds, reclining in the shade of a rocky outcropping off-camera, shoot the breeze in Italian. Large beetles flit above calf-high grass, and the TV monitors in the blue tents where the producers are watching flicker impatiently.

“Silencio! Silencio!” The cameras are ready to roll. The lone shepherd sitting on the rock a few steps away from the couple readjusts the sheep in his arms. “Motore!” (“Rolling!”) Action. Joseph steps forward, leading his young bride carefully down the path. Only a few moments later, they’re back for another take. And another. Three hours later, Mary and Joseph will still be heading down the hill. After all, they’re on Hollywood time. In order to get everything pictureperfect for “The Nativity Story,” a film about the year preceding Jesus’ birth, cast and crew aim to spend an entire day shooting just three pages’ worth of dialogue.

Unlike projects like “The Da Vinci Code,” however, “Nativity” is not seeking publicity with controversy: Mary is a virgin, Jesus is definitely the Son of God, and there are no killer albino monks in sight. And unlike epics like “The Ten Commandments,” this film spans a fairly short period of time and focuses specifically on Mary and Joseph.

“Every time that the Nativity story is presented, it’s always presented as an event-based story,” says screenwriter Mike Rich, who in December 2004 was inspired to write the script after reading cover stories on the subject in Time and Newsweek. “They rarely approach it as a character story.”

Rich decided to change that. He began researching the story and, in December 2005, in the
midst of the holiday bustle, he sat down to work. Using the Gospels and the magazine articles as his guides, Rich completed the first draft in five weeks. He also had a little help from his parish in Beaverton, Oregon, where his pastor assured him, “You’re going on the prayer chain.”

It’s lunchtime, and Mary and Joseph, along with various shepherds and crew, are lining up for the buffet at a restaurant across the street from the set. Hardwicke, her dirty-blond hair swept into a short ponytail, pulls up a chair. It’s only the third time she’s been in the director’s seat, having made the transition from production design and, before that, architecture. But Hardwicke doesn’t scare easily, so despite the relative newness of her role, the extreme heat, and, oh, by the way, the pressure of directing a film about the most beloved woman of all time, Hardwicke seems as relaxed as if she just dropped by for tea and cookies.
It was in January that “The Nativity Story” made its way to the top of a pile of scripts for Hardwicke to peruse. When she began reading, and realized the script was about the Nativity, she was skeptical.

“I remember thinking, This can’t be that interesting,” Hardwicke says in her slight Texas twang. “I mean, I’ve read this story a hundred times. [As a Presbyterian] I read the Bible backwards and forwards … I know it so well. But then I started getting so intrigued with the way Mike (Rich) had gotten right inside the story and right inside the heart and soul of these characters…. I just thought it was so fascinating and interesting, and just a huge challenge and totally scary, and that just made me want to do it!

“I do think that, you know, as an artist,” she adds, “you should try to do things that scare you in a way, that challenge you, that raise the bar, that make you work harder than you’ve ever worked before. That’s the way you can push yourself to try to do something better.”

Hardwicke’s credits back her up. Her last two directorial projects were “Thirteen,” a gritty film about a young girl’s relationship with her mother that Hardwicke says she felt called to create as “cinema-therapy” for family friends dealing with similar issues, and “Lords of Dogtown,” about young skateboarders growing up in a tough neighborhood in California. The Virgin Mary may seem a huge departure from tongue-pierced teens, but Hardwicke unites all three projects in terms of her interest in portraying characters in their adolescent years.

“The time when you’re a teenager is the time when almost everything extreme happens to you,” she explains. “Everything is changing in your system, and your life, and your body is changing, and so, that is one of the most volatile times that anybody’s got.… And, you know, a lot of the people that go to the movies are kids, so it’s something to reach out and give them an inspiring story.

In this film, it’s Mary who’s the teenager, the one with whom most young
viewers will seek to identify. Not to mention the one who has to be believable as the mother of God. So Hardwicke set out to find the girl who fit the proverbial slipper.

At 16, Keisha Castle- Hughes is a pretty average teenager. She listens to hip-hop music, likes Johnny Depp, and records her thoughts in a diary. But few young teens have been nominated alongside the likes of Holly Hunter and Renée Zellweger for an Academy Award. Castle-Hughes was only 11 when she was selected out of hundreds of schoolgirls in New Zealand to play the leading role in the film “Whale Rider.” Her moving performance as a young Polynesian girl won her the Academy nomination in 2004 as well as the respect of audiences and industry professionals — including Hardwicke. Though actresses from age 15 to 30 vied for the role of Mary in New York, Los Angeles, Rome, Paris, Morocco, and Tel Aviv, the curly-haired girl of 16 ultimately won out.
Marty Bowen, co-producer with Wyck Godfrey, was impressed with the young actress both on and off the set. “When Keisha came in (to audition), she was effervescent in the room,” he says. “And I hadn’t seen ‘Whale Rider.’ And then I saw it that weekend. And she blew me away, because there’s an inner strength to her that is epitomized in that film, and our biggest concern was, Well, can she bring it again? And from Day One, she’s been able to do it. She operates on a different plane than just about anyone here. She’s a mother on the set. She’s constantly doing things for other people and sensitive to other people’s feelings, and she’s wise beyond her years, but still a child.… It’s really amazing to be around her.”

During the lunch break, Castle-Hughes takes a seat next to her on-screen husband, Oscar Isaac. Castle-Hughes’ dark, curly hair frames a fresh, open face of natural beauty. In a modest, rustic shift, her small frame evokes quiet grace and vulnerability. Isaac is similarly clad in rustic garb, and the pair’s dark hair and eyes complement each other perfectly. Despite the age difference (Isaac, a recent Juilliard graduate, is 26), the two make a beautiful couple.

The significance of playing Mary, Castle-Hughes is saying, didn’t really hit her until she wrote about getting the part in her diary. “I wrote it before I thought about it,” she says, “and I read it afterwards, and I said, ‘I can’t believe that I’m playing this part.’ It kind of hit me. It’s really big.”

Another revelation for Castle-Hughes is thinking of Mary as more of a real person than a remote icon. As a child she often accompanied her Catholic grandparents to Mass, but had never given much thought to Mary being a young person. “When you think of Mary, you never think of [the fact that] when she was 13 she had a child,” she says. “She was just a girl, and she was just, like, playing with her friends. And then she’s married to a guy that’s totally older than her, and then the next minute she’s got the hugest responsibility and becomes, like, the mother of the world.”

But it wasn’t enough to be mother of the world; Mary would have to know how to milk a goat. Castle-Hughes, who admits she’s “not really an animal person,” was among the group of cast members who spent three weeks on set attending what the film team playfully calls “Nazareth Camp,” where they learned how to perform tasks that accompanied daily life in first-century Galilee. The experts, hailing from Israel’s Nazareth Village, a re-creation of the first-century town located on farmland just a third of a mile away from where Jesus grew up, taught Isaac how to build a stone wall and do carpentry, and Castle-Hughes how to bake bread, draw well water, make cheese — and milk a goat.

“Keisha Castle-Hughes,” jokes Bowen, “is the best goat-milker in Hollywood.”

Nazareth Camp is just one example of how hard the film’s team has worked to create an authentic-looking product. The script was sent to numerous historians and theologians (including Catholic), and the time period was meticulously researched for customs, clothing, props, and, of course, sets.

Because Israel is modernized, the Italian town of Matera (also a site of filming for Pier Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”) was chosen for the filming of the Nazareth and Bethlehem scenes (others were filmed in Morocco). Matera, a town of about 55,000 inhabitants located toward the heel of Italy’s boot, is famous for the Sassi di Matera (Stones of Matera), a prehistoric settlement consisting of an impressivelooking cluster of houses carved into the rock. As one guidebook points out, “Matera is the only place in the world where people can boast to be still living in the same houses of their ancestors of9,000 years ago.”

It was here in Matera and its outskirts, among miles of olive trees, wildflowers, and rocky fields, that the crew built the sets for Nazareth and Bethlehem. And though at the moment these miniature villages are empty, they are so realistic that you easily can imagine Mary drawing water from the well, Joseph cutting wood, and children nearly colliding with women carrying jars and baskets as they run along the narrow streets.

A combination of real rock, fake rock, and wood was used to create the houses. Cane roofs shelter the tiny, rustic dwellings outfitted with pots and bowls, goat-milk sleeves, crude wooden shelves. Outside the houses are farming and carpentry tools, loops of garlic, earthenware. Dusty paths bordered with brush connect the small houses and the town center, where the crew created a working wine press and an olive press that the actors learned to use. A fake olive tree used in “The Passion of the Christ” was even brought in “for good karma.”

In Bethlehem, a large rocky slope houses a cave where the birth of Jesus will soon take place. As visitors admire the set, a snake appears, curving its lithe body over a rock just inside the cave.

“Don’t tell Keisha!” the visitors hastily are warned. Milking goats is one thing. Sharing your bedroom with a snake is quite another.

The snake incident, though harmless, is a reminder of the real dangers the Holy Family would have faced the night Jesus was born. Showing audiences that reality, and the human side of Mary and Joseph, enables viewers to relate to and draw closer to them, a theme that’s central to “The Nativity Story.” It’s also one that has resonated on a personal and spiritual level for many people involved with the project.

“Growing up as a Catholic,” says co-producer Bowen, “I always sort of put Mary on a pedestal…. And what’s great about the way that Catherine has worked on that character in having Keisha here is that we fully acknowledge that she was a young girl…. I hope [Catholics take away from the film] that she was a girl before she was a woman, and she was a woman before she was the mother of God.”

“I hope that that inspires people and gets people excited, and helps unify people around the world in a way.…,” says Hardwicke. “[Mary] is this model of patience, and beauty, and love, and she does inspire people all over the world, and that’s something that I really want to respect, and, you know, value — the fact that women all over the world take comfort and strength in this woman, and they have for centuries.”  CD

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.