Dec 06 A remarkable story of faith

The Nativity Story is the latest in a line of movies that have been inspired by Bible accounts. On the eve of the film’s UK launch, SHARON BARNARD spoke to the screenwriter, Mike Rich

What led to your decision to write the screenplay?

The idea sparked off during the 2004 Christmas season when I was surrounded by all the usual nativity images. It occurred to me that very often the story is told from an event standpoint and is rarely looked at from a character standpoint. I wanted to explore that.

How much research did you have to do?

I spent 11 months researching and talking with many historians and theologians. We didn’t want people to speculate about the film – we wanted them to be involved. I’m really pleased to say that the final product was enhanced by the input of lots of people. The core text for us was absolutely the Gospel narratives. There are only those short passages in Matthew and Luke but we made sure our foundation was built on the two Gospels.

Did you gain any fresh insights that you felt were important to convey?
As I took a close look at Matthew I found one character that really evolved for me was Joseph. Matthew describes him as a ‘righteous man’. Never was that more evident when you look at the man in the historical traditions of the time. The faith was quite staggering. A young woman was betrothed to him and the traditions were that she should remain pure. When she came back to Nazareth after being at Elizabeth’s she was three months pregnant. When Joseph sees her he has to be assuming the worst has happened. Mary could have been stoned in the street for adultery. The easy way would have been to present it as a love story but it’s a remarkable story of faith. The aspect of love in this story is of God’s love extended to all mankind.

You must have felt a huge sense of responsibility to ‘get it right’.

It was a challenge writing the script. When you watch the movie you see that it’s speculative in nature. I put my trust in God that the words I was putting down on the page were to his glory. Approaching scenes where I had to give dialogue to Mary and Joseph was quite intimidating. My goal was to make certain that I maintained the overall themes and tone that were included in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

You’ve said elsewhere that you didn’t want ‘bit parts’ for the characters. Can you explain this?

Sometimes we don’t give much thought to the shepherds and the magi, they’re just those clay figures we put on the mantel at Christmas. In the film each of these characters is a human individual with emotions and doubts. For me one of the more powerful scenes is where one of the magi, a cynic, arrives at the grotto and you see a man transformed. That’s what the film is about – the transformation of man.

Has the film turned out the way you hoped it would?

It was a pleasant surprise. I wanted to make sure we didn’t visually romanticise elements of the story as it wasn’t an easy life for the people living in Nazareth and Bethlehem. Catherine Hardwicke [the director] wanted it to be as authentic as possible.

What impact do you hope the film will have?

The nativity story has become inconsequential – it’s been relegated. The Christmas season is hectic and we lose sight of the story and its core message of faith, forgiveness and respect for our fellow man. There are some amazing acts of kindness in this film – Joseph, Mary, the Wise Men, the shepherds. If there’s a theme that resonates with people all over the world it’s this one and if this comes across then I’d feel I’ve succeeded.
  • The Nativity Story starring Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) as Mary and Oscar nominee Oscar Issac as Joseph, opens on December 8, certificate PG.
Mike Rich has written screenplays for a number of films including Finding Forrester (starring Sean Connery) and The Rookie. He is married with three children and lives in Oregon where he attends Southwest Bible Church.

(Interview: Sharon Barnard)

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