Before this year, Catherine Hardwicke had directed two films—Thirteen, an intense depiction of a seventh-grade girl rebelling against her single mom and getting into all sorts of trouble, and Lords of Dogtown, an edgy drama about skateboarders in the 1970s. Both films featured sex, drugs, and plenty of profanity.
So, when veteran producer Wyck Godfrey went looking for a director to bring the story of the Virgin Mary and the birth of Christ to the big screen, guess who topped his list?
"Catherine has had great success capturing the lives of young people in particular, and the conflict and crisis and pain of being that age and growing up," Godfrey says. "The idea of her bringing that point of view to biblical times is very interesting."
Hardwicke thought so too, and signed on to direct The Nativity Story, which opens worldwide on Friday, Dec. 1. The film covers a little over a year leading up to the birth of Jesus, focusing primarily on Mary (played by Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Joseph (Oscar Isaac), and with concurrent subplots inside Herod's palace and following the journey of the magi.
When CT Movies visited the set in Italy in May, Hardwicke, 51, joked that The Nativity Story sort of completed her "teen trilogy" of movies. When we caught up with her again recently on a media day in Los Angeles, we wanted to explore, among other things, how the making of Thirteen—which she directed and co-wrote—prepared her for directing this assignment.
Thirteen was a very personal film for Hardwicke, based primarily on her friendship with a neighbor's daughter who almost literally changed overnight from a sweet, innocent preteen to an angry, rebellious seventh grader obsessed with beauty and boys. Hardwicke remained friends with that girl, Nikki Reed, trying to steer her to good choices, and the relationship ultimately ended up as a working partnership: Reed co-wrote and co-stars in Thirteen, which received widespread critical acclaim and positioned Hardwicke as a director to watch.
And now she's "befriended" another young teen—while doing her research on the Virgin Mary—and tried to bring the revered icon to life, in a very real and believable way, in The Nativity Story.
The following conversation is primarily drawn from our exclusive interview with Hardwicke, and is supplemented by a few comments she made in a roundtable discussion with several journalists.
How did your friendship with Nikki Reed and making Thirteen—getting into the heads of young teenage girls—prepare you for making this movie?
Catherine Hardwicke: Good question, and nobody's ever asked me that before. Nikki was my friend, and I've known her and both of her parents through the traumatic process of divorce and all kinds of things. I think that is what made me want to make this movie, because when I finished reading the script and started researching Mary, who would have been 13 or 14 at the time, I thought, What if Nikki or one of her friends received this calling? You're trying to figure out so many things in your life at that age. Knowing Nikki really made it real and personal for me, and exciting to try and explore that.
What was it like watching Nikki suddenly change from a sweet little girl to a rebellious 13-year-old?
Hardwicke: I couldn't believe it. I had been out of town for about six months, and when I came back, Nikki was a new person. She literally woke up at 4:30 in the morning, and spent two hours on her hair and make-up till she looked just like J-Lo—in 7th grade. I thought, What's happening to girls, and what pressures are on them that feel they have to look as good as that girl in a magazine to be anybody?
I started hanging out with Nikki's friends, trying to become more involved and understand what's going on with kids. What are the pressures? All of the advertising: 3,000 images a day are hitting kids. And then there's maybe one voice of the mom: You know, honey, you're beautiful on the inside. Well, it's hard to hear that kind of message. I think that's what really compelled me to be interested in teenagers and what they're going through these days, which is really a difficult thing to navigate.
So how'd you bring that knowledge to your portrayal of Mary in this film?
Hardwicke: We wanted her to feel accessible to a young teenager, so she wouldn't seem so far away from their life that it had no meaning for them. I wanted them to see Mary as a girl, as a teenager at first, not perfectly pious from the very first moment. So you see Mary going through stuff with her parents where they say, "You're going to marry this guy, and these are the rules you have to follow." Her father is telling her that she's not to have sex with Joseph for a year—and Joseph is standing right there. That's very personal and startling, and you can imagine how that would make a person feel.
And then Mary sort of stalks out of the house. Was that meant to indicate Mary's rebellion against her parents, or just that she was upset or overwhelmed?
Hardwicke: I think all of it. I think it's something Keisha just felt and went with. It was as if so much information is coming at you, and it all happened so fast.
Joseph is just a background character in other movies, but he's very much in the foreground here. What do you like about that?
Hardwicke: That's the human part of the story, that there was this relationship. The Bible says that Joseph was a righteous man. But go beyond that sentence: What was in his mind? What was in his heart? What soul searching did he do? He loved Mary, and yet that was a hard thing to see this woman pregnant. And he knew he wasn't the father. The Bible also says Joseph considered divorcing Mary quietly. Well, what did that look like? What torment did he go through, struggling with his religion, his beliefs, his love for this woman, his love for God. I mean, so much comes from that sentence. And that's what we tried to show, the best we could to imagine it.
Was it a balancing act for you to try to portray Mary as a real person and yet maintain reverence for Mary the icon?
Hardwicke: It's amazing that somehow Mary's heart and soul provide comfort for so many people, who have such love and reverence for her. Yes, we wanted her to feel like a real person, but of course, you wouldn't want to see her doing something that would make us cringe. In the beginning of the film, you see her playing in the fields with the other kids, and you see another girl flirting with a boy—but I didn't want to have Mary flirting with a boy. That didn't feel right; that would have crossed the line.
Keisha played Mary with a beautiful serenity and an inner peace and strength that even when these problems came upon her and people were doubting her, she still said that line we use in the movie, "There's a will for this child that is greater than what people may say." She said it with such dignity and grace that it made me feel, That's what Mary would be like.
The film does not show the "heavenly host" of angels from Luke 2:13-14. How come?
Hardwicke: We don't portray a visual multitude of angels, but we do have an oral multitude—you hear a whole choir singing. We have one angel appear, and then we have the beautiful choir of heavenly hosts singing.
We had thought of different ways to portray it visually, but visual effects have become almost a convention of sci-fi movies. I didn't want people to start thinking, Oh, I saw that effect in Batman 2 or in Contact or something. I don't want viewers to lose the thread of where we were 2000 years ago. So I think I thought simpler was better—that you can hear the multitude singing, but not see them.
Several people associated with this film have said that in some ways it's been a spiritual experience. What about for you?
Hardwicke: Definitely. I've just seen my little Nativity scene from my childhood come to life. I've always loved this story, but I didn't ever think so deeply about it. I didn't get inside … till now.
Before this, I didn't even think the first little simple thing—that this must have been difficult for Mary. I didn't see her as a human. I didn't even think of what Joseph must have gone through. So taking this story that I've loved my whole life, and really trying to go inside the words of the Bible has meant a lot.
There were moments making the film, especially when the Magi come over the hill and see the Nativity setting, and one of them says, "The greatest of kings, born in the most humble of places." As a director, you ask the actor, "What would you feel at this moment?"
It was so striking; you see these men dressed in their gold and finery, and they were probably expecting a palace with riches, a baby born in an amazing place. But you see the baby right there on the straw. It's so powerful, the idea that God would send his Son to this most humble place, and for all people. It really brought it home for me.
You had to make this movie in record time. How much stress did you feel in these 10 months?
Hardwicke: It was a very ambitious schedule, but somehow we pretty much stuck with it. There were many days where I had to find the strength beyond what you think is there. And as a director, you cannot take no for an answer. If people tell you, "This isn't possible, you're not going to finish," you cannot accept no, and you just have to say, "I think there's a way you could do that." You just have to think of another way around every single problem.
How will you avoid the temptation to watch this movie down the road and think, Man, if only I had more time, I might have … Is that just something any director is going to do?
Hardwicke: I think you do. You think, If I had a little bit more time with Keisha I could have asked her to try it this way or that way. But then, the idea that it's finished and done, that's a relief too.
So, what do you think of the finished product?
Hardwicke: I really like it. I'm pretty proud of it. I feel a lot when I see the film, and I hope others do too.
What's your biggest hope for this film?
Hardwicke: Well, there's a lot of really good movies with a lot of big stars that come out in December. And there's a lot of hustle in December where people are running around buying as many presents as they can. But I hope people can carve out a little time to go see this, and I hope they could have the experience where they try to think about the first Christmas and what it means, to have a little bit of peace and to contemplate on that. That's what I hope that people find in it.
And what if it becomes a Christmas classic, a DVD that a lot of people will own and pull out every December—or maybe a holiday staple on network TV?
Hardwicke: That would be pretty cool. If Rudolph and Charlie Brown get their own special; you'd think may the birth of Christ should get one too.
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