Forty-five days, a $30 million budget, two continents, one underage actress… For director Catherine Hardwicke, planning and shooting The Nativity Story, New Line’s earnest (and PG-rated) take on the Bible’s most famous birth, was epic. Thrust into an expedited shooting schedule, the 51-year-old filmmaker was also inundated by a legion of scholars and religious groups constantly peeping over her shoulder. The former production designer and director of Thirteen spoke to EW about reconnecting with her Christian roots, dealing with donkeys with hemorrhoids, and what she learned from Tom Cruise.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve screened this film for a lot of different audiences. What are people most curious about?
CATHERINE HARDWICKE: Everyone is always curious about how I got involved, especially those that have seen [my previous films] Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown. They also like for me to compare it to the biblical epics and to The Passion of the Christ. But this film is very different from the Passion, especially the quarts of blood per frame. I mean, that movie had a superstar and the super-violence and the sensationalism. Instead of being divisive, our film is trying to be more uniting. We really tried to learn a lot about the Jewish faith at that time and I had an ancient Jewish scholar that came down to our set and taught us how to pray, which was very individualized — I didn’t know that you prayed with your eyes open and were supposed to find your own gestures to get closer and more personal to God.
Did you consider any actresses besides Keisha Castle-Hughes to play Mary?
I don’t want like a Swedish blond-haired Mary; I want someone with olive-colored skin who looked like she came from the area, and Keisha immediately came to mind. She’s got that inner strength and calm, and looks like she could be a Jewish peasant girl working in the field. It’s funny, when I first called her from Jerusalem, she had this thick Kiwi accent, I was like, ”Oh no, this is not going to fly.” But then we had a dialect coach work with her for just one hour, and she had it down. And I felt such relief! Because we looked at girls all over the world just to be sure, and because I originally thought it would be better if I could find someone who was from Israel. So we had casting directors in six cities: Rome, Paris, L.A., New York, Tel Aviv, and London, and there wasn’t even a second choice. There was no group of semifinalists. There was nobody else that could really have that poise and the skill to pull it off.
Screenwriter Mike Rich has talked about how you helped bring a woman’s voice to his script.
In his first draft, Mary already had the halo and was already a saint. I was like, ”Wait a moment: she was a real kid by all scholarly accounts. I want to see her as a kid.” That way you can see how her spirituality does deepen. I also had to add the scene where you see the baby kicking, to prove that the baby wasn’t just a vision, and I wanted to have that scene where she comes back and Joseph (Oscar Isaac) sees her pregnant because that is impactful. For a guy to see this girl you love suddenly pregnant — and you know you are not the father — that’s a public humiliation we can all relate to. Hearts just smashed and broken.
This film is much bigger in scope than your previous two films.
This wasn’t much bigger than Dogtown. And I’ve worked on other movies of this scale, such as Vanilla Sky and Three Kings, as a production designer. The difference was that we had a very condensed prep time for this film. I only got the script in the middle of January so it was a crash course in filmmaking. In a way, I learned a few techniques from Tom Cruise [in Vanilla Sky]. I had taken over from a different production designer and had over the Christmas holiday to redo all the sets, and Tom just did not take no for an answer. He wanted things to a certain standard and would just look at you with those Tom eyes, and somehow I found a way do it. This was the same kind of attack.
It was a like a general going into battle. Just imagine you’re in a jeep, the laptop is plugged into the cigarette lighter, you’re taking pictures on a digital camera, and the crackberry is going full steam. It just took a wild amount of modern technology to make this biblical epic. And of course, there was the Nazareth boot camp.
Whose idea was it to put the actors through the Nazareth boot camp?
It was mine. That’s what we did on Dogtown. I set up a two-month skate and surf camp, and made the actors live in Venice with ’70s posters. I also told them not to wash their hair, because they were surfers and the ocean washes their hair! And of course for Thirteen, we had slumber parties. Boot camps are really the only way to go back in time and fully immerse yourself in the lifestyle. Everyone had to wear the tunics and leather sandals. We really tried to get into it.
Did all the scholarly research affect the filmmaking process?
I had a lot of ideas that naturally got shaped as we started learning more. And all the actors really researched their parts, so they brought these gifts to the table. Oscar found this nice prayer in a 2,000-year-old book, so it was fascinating to keep adding additional layers of depth. Then there were the environment-related changes: We had sandstorms, 135-degree heat, and untrainable farm animals, including donkeys with hemorrhoids. I also did not know there were no camels in Italy, and since we didn’t have the four months needed to quarantine the camels in Canada before bringing them into the European Union, we found some mangy camels in a German circus that promptly bucked off the 65-year-old actors playing the Magi on the first day. Everything was the kookiest disaster.
Were there any disasters that nearly sent you over the edge?
Every day in Morocco, snake check call was 6:45 a.m. and there was a snake guy that would cruise around and catch them. So one day, when things got really bad and I was told I only had two and a half days instead of four to shoot all the Elizabeth scenes, I thought to myself, ”Hey, if I get bitten by one of those snakes, then I’m positive I would get at least another day to prepare.” So I literally snuck over to the river where the snakes lived and was looking for a snake. But then a line producer saw me and came running across the river bed, and I went back, I just started crying because I couldn’t even get the snake bite to go right. There are some moments where you’re so depressed, you cannot see the way and you’re like, ”Whatever. Bite me.” I think all directors feel that way sometimes.