Nativity Story: Making an Historical Epic

During the Christmas season of 2004, writer Mike Rich found himself inspired. “I noticed a handful of magazine articles on the Nativity, on Mary and Joseph, the Magi, the shepherd; all of the characters I’d carefully placed in my family’s Nativity set every year when I was growing up,” says Rich. “And it occurred to me that while I knew, visually, how the journey to Bethlehem ended, I had very little idea of how they got there, what kind of people they were, and what kind of challenges they likely faced. As a person of faith myself, and as a storyteller, those were compelling questions.”

Rich spoke to his then agent, Marty Bowen at United Talent Agency, about writing a screenplay based on the Nativity Story. Having represented Rich through several films (Finding Forrester and The Rookie), Bowen felt Rich’s personal faith and his writing style might lead him to create something that was poignant and relatable.

Research

The idea proved compelling enough that Rich set out to extensively research the subject in an effort to discover just who Mary and Joseph really were and what they might have thought. He spent the majority of 2005 researching every aspect of the story. He read and re-read the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, looking for additional information from the Bible about Mary and Joseph’s journey.

Mary and Joseph’s Decision

“I found myself drawn to the amazing choices and decisions that Mary and Joseph made, relying solely on their faith in God and each other, says Rich. The trouble is, there is very little source material on Mary and less on Joseph. So what I had to do was really delve into the socio-political and cultural dynamics of the time. The research actually gave me quite a bit to work from, because it showed the dynamics, and from there you could get a real feeling as to what Mary was dealing with.

Rich turned to a number of experts from a variety of fields and enlisted their help to assure the accuracy of his work. Very early on, we wanted to get this script out for feedback and into as many hands as possible, says Rich. Historians, theologians, Judeo-Christian experts, Catholic experts, Ecumenical experts they have all helped elevate the authentic feel of this film. Not only visually, but from a standpoint of culture and tradition.

Personal Tragedy

Although his research proved an invaluable tool in writing the screenplay, it was a personal tragedy that gave Rich his inspiration. During that year, my father passed away and I felt compelled, both spiritually and emotionally, to tackle something. Shortly after Thanksgiving, I wrote the first draft, surrounding myself with music and the Christmas carols. It really was a very spiritual experience. It was a joy to write, not because it was a huge, epic event-based story, but because it was just the opposite: a personal, intimate story of two ordinary people carrying out this absolutely extraordinary mission.

Marty Bowen found himself increasingly drawn to the project, beyond his initial goal of simply finding a home for Richs screenplay. I started re-reading scripture and found one of my favorite calls of the day was to Mike, to discuss the journey of the screenplay and ultimately, I made a very difficult decision, said Bowen. I would rather be a part of this movie than solely represent him as a writer. So Bowen prepared to leave his job at UTA, the talent agency where he was a partner.

New Line’s Involvement

Bowen called New Line Cinema production executive Cale Boyter to set up a meeting. Over the course of lunch, the idea of The Nativity Story came up. Boyter liked the idea and immediately asked, Who would you get to write it Bowen informed Boyter that Rich was already writing it and Boyter responded that he had been an admirer of Richs other work, including such films as Finding Forrester and The Rookie. At the conclusion of lunch, the two parted ways, but by the time Bowen had returned to his office, there was a message from New Lines President of Production, Toby Emmerich, asking to set up another meeting. Quickly, a deal was reached for New Line to produce the film.

Bowen had also taken the script to his old roommate and long-time friend, producer Wyck Godfrey, and enlisted him to leave his job at Davis Entertainment and start a company together. The first project for their newly formed Temple Hill Entertainment company would be The Nativity Story. Wyck is one of the most experienced producers working today and I felt that, if I was going to make movies, I wanted to work with people I respected, says Bowen. I wanted to work with my friends, and I wanted to work with people who shared my belief in storytelling.

Godfrey, a vet producer of such films as I, Robot and Behind Enemy Lines, instantly sparked to the idea and saw it as an opportunity to make a different kind of film. This is a great first film to release, because it has the kind of values, themes and heart that we want to have in our movies as a company, says Godfrey. Its a real passion project.

Together, with their production deal in place and a first draft of the script on the way, Bowen and Godfrey turned their attention to their next challenge finding the right filmmaker to bring The Nativity Story to life.

Getting a Director

Bowen and Godfrey began their search for a director. They sent the screenplay to several top filmmakers with the idea of finding somebody who would have the proper perspective to tackle the intricacies of Mary and Josephs characters. Director Catherine Hardwicke found Mike Richs Nativity Story screenplay in a pile of scripts she was given to read. A friend of Wyck Godfreys, she gave it a read and was surprised to find it so compelling.

I saw the Nativity story just as we all do–a few simple passages with minimal detail and almost no insight into who Mary or Joseph were as people, says Hardwicke. But in Mikes script, I saw this opportunity to really get inside the heads, hearts and soul of this young couple. This story means so much to people all over the world. I thought by humanizing them, audiences could relate to the film on a personal level and find some inspiration to get through their own challenges and difficulties.

Hardwicke met with producers Bowen and Godfrey to discuss the project. She showed up with books of research and photographs, with an idea of who should be cast in the film and how and where it should be shot. She quickly won over the producers.

Not Picture-Book Version

We chose Catherine Hardwicke because she cuts against the grain of the picture-book version of the movie that could have been made, says Wyck Godfrey. Catherine has had great success capturing the lives of young people in particular, and the kind of conflict and crisis and pain of making difficult choices, leaving your family, and struggling on your own. The idea of her bringing that point of view to Biblical times intrigued us.

Hardwicke was moved by the opportunity. Hundreds of the best artists ever have been inspired by this story musicians, composers, sculptors, painters, she says. It was an amazing gift to have the chance to do an interpretation of my own.

Commitment to Authenticity

From the very beginning of the screenplays creation, there was always a strong commitment to authenticity in The Nativity Storys portrayal of this legendary event, and that attention to detail carried through to the actual production itself. Having been a production designer for many years, director Catherine Hardwicke was adamant that the locations and sets look and feel real.

We were looking for epic intimacy says Hardwicke. The story is grand and sweeping, stretching across breathtakingly beautiful terrain, yet we want to feel deeply what this young couple felt each of their physical and emotional obstacles in a very personal, visceral way.

Search for Locations

In search of the perfect locations, Hardwicke and producer Godfrey traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to find locations that still fit the era of the project. Unfortunately, there has been so much modernization in the country that shooting in Israel was ruled out early on, but they did run across something that proved invaluable: a faithful living recreation called Nazareth Village.

On top of a hillside in the modern city of Nazareth sits a contemporary hospital, and behind that hospital there remains the footprint of the original Nazareth village. Archeologists were brought in to determine how long it traced back and indeed, the rocks and building formations date back to the time of Christs birth. With the help of historians and theologians, the founders of the non-profit Nazareth Village set out to re-create a working replica of what Nazareth would have looked like during the time of Jesus. , Hardwicke and Godfrey visited homes, underground cisterns, a mule-drawn olive press and a 1st century synagogue and watched demonstrations of weaving and carpentry.

Southern Italy

Hardwicke and Godfrey flew to Italy to scout the land around Matera, a small town in Southern Italy that was previously used as a location for Passolinis The Gospel According to St. Matthew and part of Mel Gibsons The Passion of the Christ. The town itself bears a striking resemblance to parts of Jerusalem and the landscape has the same feel as the land around Nazareth: rolling green hills, protruding limestone rocks and ancient olive groves.

Matera is more authentic than the actual sites now, says Rich. Nazareth is a modern town. Jerusalem is a very modern town. In a historic olive grove half an hour outside of Madera, Production Designer Stefano Maria Ortolani and his team began to re-create Nazareth, designing and planning the citys structures from scratch. The production team took existing rock and matched it with plaster casts to create buildings and passageways.

Villages were always centered around the well, so the art department laid out a city built upon that principle and positioned other community buildings such as the olive press, the wine press and the synagogue nearby. Houses were positioned up the hill as the town would naturally expand upward, away from the flat lands that would have been used for the wheat and grape fields.

Three consultants and scholars from the Nazareth Village served as advisors on the towns construction, traveling to Italy to lead the actors and production team in a Nazareth Boot Camp. Cast members were given lessons in how to bake bread, milk goats, press olive oil, plant wheat and use ancient tools. As the character of Joseph is building his home throughout the film, actor Oscar Isaac helped construct the actual building his character would live in with Mary. The research was important because the idea of the movie is to really recreate the conditions and situations of the time, says production designer Ortolani. Catherine is meticulous about what were doing, and the consultants we brought in from Israel gave us a lot of information that helped the movie and the acting.

Constructing Bethlehem

Bethlehem was constructed next to a series of caves which have been inhabited for 8,000 years. In the city of Matera itself, there are a series of caves called the Sassi, where homes, restaurants and churches are built into the bedrock of the mountain. With some help from the art department and visual effects, this became the old streets of Jerusalem.

Morocco

After filming fives weeks in Italy, the production moved to Ourzazate, Morocco. Another unit of the art department had been busy building Elizabeths village in the Fint Oasis where a palm-lined river runs past a stunning deep-purple mountain range. Local crews built the houses in true First Century style: thick walls made of real mud from the river, floors of tamped earth and bread-baking furnaces built the same way they have been built for a thousand years.

Other existing sets were modified to become Herods palace and the Jerusalem Temple, but the greatest asset of this south-central area of Morocco was the amazing variety of unspoiled landscapes which became the building blocks for Mary and Josephs epic journey. The Baby Grand Canyon served as the treacherous river crossing where local snake charmers were enlisted to wrangle the reptilian talent. Abandoned mud villages became Mesopotamian marketplaces along the Magis journey. The Sahara Desert itself, in all its glorious 135 degree midday heat, was the beginning of the Magis journey and Mary and Josephs final escape into Egypt.

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