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The Nativity Story

Jennifer Hooks

Children's Ministry Magazine recently sat down with Catherine Hardwicke, director of The Nativity Story, to discuss her new film, currently ranked #4 at the box office. Ms. Hardwicke spoke with Jennifer Hooks, managing editor of Children's Ministry Magazine.

CM: Mary is one of the most compelling figures in all religious history. How'd you approach this movie? As you went in with your vision for Mary, where did you start?

Catherine: I grew up with nativity scenes. I loved Christmas, I had my nativity scene -- we built big ones in south Texas called nacimientos. They got bigger and bigger every year. I loved Christmas carols. I loved Christmas. But I don't think I ever really thought about it. When I started reading this script, I realized that I didn't even know the first thing [about the real nativity]. I didn't think of Mary and Joseph as Jewish. I didn't know Mary's age, which now almost all scholars believe she was a girl of 12 or 13 or 14 years old because of the life expectancy rates then. I just -- I didn't know anything about her. I realized I knew nothing about how she lived.

Artists throughout history have depicted her in so many different ways -- to be Swedish looking, to be wearing 14th century bodices -- yet I was interested to know, to find out about, the conditions that she really lived in. How did this story come about? How did she feel about it? That one of the most fascinating things -- to go to Jerusalem and then find this place called Nazareth village, which is kind of amazing...You could actually stand in the rest of Nazareth, and it's so large you don't even feel like you're connected to any place where Jesus was -- but this place, there's a carved winepress in the stone and a wall and an observation tower nearby. There's a passage in the New Testament where it talks about Jesus being near a place in Nazareth that had all these three elements, and they found pottery shards in the winepress dating back to the first 20 years of the first century. So at that moment I felt, maybe I am connected to where Jesus stood and lived and worked.

And the people there are very inspired. the houses with stone in the same way and have the sheep and a few of those people came over and helped us with our natural food camp where the actors had to learn how to milk goats, make the cheese, and bake the bread the same way they did.

That was kind of a basis that we shot. It's good to learn the real activities needed to survive in those days so that when you're doing a scene that stuff just comes naturally. So that was really fun -- Nazareth bootcamp! And Joseph really built the half wall that you see. He really learned how to do that with the old tools -- no power drills. But I think that was the interesting thing -- all of us had to go back before there were cell phones and before TV and think, what did people do all day long? What did the kids do? You see them running around chasing the chickens and playing with the animals. They were really connected to their lives.

CM: Tell me about the cast.

Catherine: My first thing was I wanted people who don't look like the blue-eyed, blonde-haired Mary, [I wanted them to] look like they really came from the Middle East. That was a challenge because we went to the Middle East, we went to Israel and Tel Aviv, and we tried to find actors that would be right. And many of the actors from Israel have scattered all over the world to find more work. So we had casting directors in New York, L.A., London, Paris, Rome, and Tel Aviv. And every night as I was location scouting, I'd go on the Internet and like, here are the actors that are auditioning in London, here are the ones in Paris. I'd try to see the ones that felt the best, and then when I got to that city...I would meet the people and try to find people who had a connection to the story, a spiritual connection to the film -- which really everybody did, even if it wasn't their religion. They were connected to the spirituality, the beauty of the story.

CM: You've previously mentioned that your hope with this film is to unite rather than divide.

Catherine: To be more unifying. Filming in a Muslim country, we found that the people there are really into the story, too.

CM: You grew up going Sunday school.

Catherine: Yes.

CM: What was most enjoyable and most challenging about making this film?

Catherine: Maybe they were the same: The actual nativity scene. You know, it was something that we all love and I loved to do as a child. But making the real life one was so much harder that I thought. Because I didn't think about cows. How do you get cows to lie down and be still? And how many Italian farmers does it take to get the mama cow to lie down? And how long will it stay down? The donkey. How do you get the donkey to lie down? And the sheep? And then suddenly, if you finally can get all the animals' biorhythms settled and you can get everybody calm, then you've got a live baby that's only seven days old and the parents are standing right there -- gasp! A 16-year-old is holding our baby! -- and finally you get the baby, and then of course when the baby finally gets into Mary's arms, it starts crying and wakes up the cow, and then the cow stands up, and then the Humane Society says, "Okay, the cow's gotta have a walk." And you just have to start the whole thing over. So the first night, nothing. We couldn't film anything. And then luckily we had another night, and that night I think the biorhythms kind of worked. It was crazy.

CM: Controversy seems to follow religious-themed films. Your film is not controversial. Even so, there's been a situation in Chicago about the film's sponsorship of a Christmas market there. What's your take on that?

Catherine: The thing that seems so weird about that, and I haven't been to Chicago to really see it with my own eyes, but I think that they sell beer, and it's sponsored by beer and liquor companies, and it's sponsored by luxury cars and all that, yet they won't let the Christmas story be there, so it is a bit confusing. I don't quite understand it.

I don't know...People are so worried about "taking the Christ out of Christmas," but I think the message of Christmas is something...the story transcends religions, and it's actually more of a unifying factor than a dividing factor. I think people really want something spiritual, and don't want to just feel every second, buy, buy, buy, buy. I almost can't go shopping during Christmas because I feel it's just about money, money, money. And that's not what it's all about. I don't understand it.

CM: What do you hope people take away from your film?

Catherine: I hope that when you go though the Christmas season with all the buying and all that stuff, it makes you think, just for that moment, you can go to a dark theater...and just reflect on what the meaning of Christmas really is. And the humility of the story.

When the wisemen say, "The greatest of kings born in the most humble of places," they're in all their fancy dress and gold threads, but they suddenly get struck, too: We're not seeing a king in a palace with all this power and gold, we're seeing this baby on the straw with the animals.

It was very humble and very beautiful, and that's even a revolutionary message today. People are so blinged-out -- which we love all those things -- but there are other sides to life, too. So I hope people see that. I hope they see the inspiration of the relationship and marriage where Mary and Joseph, their relationship grows stronger and deeper even if they go through tough things. I hope people can be inspired by their own challenges and find ways to get through them.

Learn more about The Nativity Story at



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