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After 40 years, Jesus’ birth returns to the theaters

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP)–In an age when movie theaters have become saturated with exploitive and profane content, several new motion picture companies are giving birth to films for families. Actually, that would be a rebirth, as there was once long ago a time when films for families were central to Hollywood’s success.

While spiritually themed film and promotion companies such as Fox Faith and Edify Media are springing up, so too is Temple Hill, a production company formed by friends and one-time roommates Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey. Their first project is “The Nativity Story.”

Screenwriter Mike Rich (“The Rookie,” “Radio”) began writing a script concerning the faith journey of Mary and Joseph. Rich’s agent, Marty Bowen, became increasingly drawn to the project. New Line Cinema’s production executive Cale Boyter was open to the idea of a story that hadn’t received major studio attention in more than 40 years. And Bowen’s producer friend Wyck Godfrey was compelled to leave a comfortable position at Davis Entertainment in order to make The Nativity Story a reality. Like the Magi and the shepherds, each was being guided toward a life-changing event.

Whatever resistance normal to the birthing of movies cropped up, it was miraculously overcome. The Nativity Story would be written, Temple Hill Productions would be making it and New Line Cinema would distribute it. And on Dec. 1, the birth of Christ will take center focus where the night before such fare as “Saw III” or “Employee of the Month” played before movie-going audiences.

With the green light they received, Bowen and Godfrey searched for the chosen director and found that person to be Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen,” “The Lords of Dogtown”), who jumped at the opportunity to tell Mary and Joseph’s story. Turns out, the talented director has a solid place in her heart for Christian values.

“We had spoken to several people about directing the film, but Catherine was the first person we felt was emotionally connected to the story and this journey of faith,” Bowen recounts.

“What made it even more of a dream for us was that when this script was originally conceived, Mary was the one with the least character arc in terms of her journey of faith. Then Catherine suggested, ‘Let’s take Mary off her pedestal and show her as the 14-year-old girl who’s been thrust into all this responsibility. Let’s see how she handles it.’ Literally she goes from playing in a field with other children to discovering her father has a husband lined up for her, then discovering she’s having not only a child, but the Son of God.” Bowen says Mary finds herself in an environment “where her condition is incredibly taboo.”

Then came casting.

Hardwicke and the producers needed someone who could portray a young maiden who is suddenly thrust into a miraculous turn of events. They were pleased to find that ability in Keisha Castle-Hughes, the youngest Academy Award Best Actress nominee in history for her work in “Whale Rider.”

“Keisha projects a fierce strength beneath a quiet exterior,” Godfrey says.

In New York, the filmmakers quickly chose a recent Juilliard graduate, Oscar Isaac, for being what Hardwicke calls “soulful and alive.”

As Isaac recounts: “Reading over the scene after Joseph learns Mary is pregnant, I couldn’t figure out what to do. I called my professor at Julliard and told him I just can’t figure out this scene. He said you need to find a reason to stay. Suddenly I realized that Joseph’s whole being is one of humility. And that was one of Christ’s major teachings. I think for Joseph, righteous meant love. So when I did those scenes, even though I had the rage, the fear and the doubt, I just loved her so much that I realized that righteous just means selfless, humble love.”

“There’s very little source material on Mary and less on Joseph,” Rich says. “So what I had to do was really delve into the socio-political and cultural dynamics of the time.”

Godfrey: “We feel you really get to know these people as real people, not just icons. We used the Scripture to make sure we had those parts of the story correct, then we filled in the blanks where you can imagine human behavior.”

Hardwicke: “Obviously, Mary and Joseph were devout Jews. It was important for us to portray that reverence. After all, that’s where the Christian faith came from. But I also wanted to see Mary as a girl, not perfectly pious from the very first moment. I wanted to see another side of her life. I wanted to see that moment when Joseph saw Mary pregnant. I thought that would be a powerful moment. And I wanted to see him with friends and a part of the community.”

Bowen: “I’m really proud of the love these two characters share in this movie. The first two acts present a very gritty, difficult way to live and we wanted the film to feel of that time and place. We wanted to show you a few layers of the individuals and show you the journey of faith and then have that faith rewarded at the place of His birth. I know that if I’m sitting with my family watching this movie on Christmas Eve I want to be at that point reminded why Christmas is such an important event in our lives.”

Made in response to the artistic and financial success of “The Passion of The Christ,” insiders believe that if The Nativity Story meets with equal acclaim and manages to further add to Hollywood’s coffers, then the Christian community can expect further tales exploring biblical themes.

As for Temple Hill, the question arises, “So how do you follow up the greatest story ever told?”

Godfrey: “When we formed our company we said, let’s make a movie that our parents would be proud of. Now I have kids and you get to an age where you want to put something good into the world.

Bowen: “It’s not always going to be Christian-based entertainment, but hopefully the themes of the movies we make will reflect well on our own Christianity. We want them to be uplifting or patriotic or hopeful. ‘Cause certainly there’s enough lack of hope in the world.’”

    About the Author

  • Phil Boatwright