Oregon Screenwriter Mike Rich on “The Nativity Story”

An Interview by Bill Gallagher

Why Mary?

Why did God choose Mary to give birth to his only son?

Mike Rich, the screenwriter and one of the executive producers of “The Nativity Story,” offers answers to those questions. “There’s a line towards the end of the movie. ‘The greatest of Kings born in the most humble of places.’ And it actually goes a step further than that, ‘born to the most humble of people.’ That’s Mary.

“God put such a premium, and Jesus Christ does too in the New Testament, on humility, on being a humble servant.

“It’s like what we see when we see Nazareth, but not visually romanticized as we usually do. We see an individual in Mary who is completely reflective of a population seeking a Messiah,” says Rich.

But now there’s a big budget, major studio movie that tells her story. And tells it well.

Rich, who grew up in Enterprise, graduated from Oregon State University, and has lived in Beaverton since 1984, first got the idea of writing a screenplay based on the birth of Christ about two years ago when he noticed that both Time and Newsweek were running Nativity cover stories. By this time a year ago he had knocked out the first draft of that screenplay. And as I interviewed him he was packing his bags to take his entire family to Rome for a screening of “The Nativity Story” at the Vatican.

Now this is a guy who’s had a brilliant career so far, with a debut screenplay directed by Gus Van Sant (“Finding Forrester”), a follow-up hit that screened for President George Bush at the White House (“The Rookie”), a well-received heartwarming story starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ed Harris (“Radio”), and a couple of crowd-pleasing sports movies for which he should have gotten screenwriting credit but didn’t (“Miracle” and “Invincible”). But a premiere screening for 7,000 invited guests at the Vatican, where there’s never been a premiere screening? We’re talking a whole new level.

“The Pope may come. He leaves for Turkey two days after the screening. But he may be there,” Rich says. “Every step of the way, promoting this movie has been so unique. My mom just shakes her head at the thought that a kid who grew up learning to write in Enterprise, Ore., is going to show his movie in the Vatican.”

He knew from the beginning that for this movie to work he would have to humanize Mary.

“We’re pretty familiar with the iconic Mary, but what’s interesting to me is that before there’s the icon we had a woman, a young woman, a girl. That’s what I thought would be interesting to explore. But there’s not much source material. In Matthew and Luke in the New Testament there are just two chapters on the nativity. There’s just so little information. A little bit on Mary and almost nothing on Joseph. They were both pretty much blank slates.”

And there’s even less source material about Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim. I’ve got to admit that her father’s name slipped my mind somewhere along the line.

“With characters like Joachim and Mary’s mother Anne it was all historical research. Those two, and other characters in the movie, are much more reflective of the times in dealing with the tax burden and dealing with the reign of Herod. In fact, a lot of the characters are based on the dynamic of the time.”

And the “dynamic of the time” was very much about dealing with Roman soliders, enforcers of the tyranny. Rich created one scene based not on Scripture but on the work of Raymond Brown in “The Birth of the Messiah.” Roman soliders collecting taxes take Joachim’s mule because he has no more money to pay them. As he walks away, the soldier in charge says, “You can kill the mule; we have enough.”

“They were that brutal. And callous. And ruthless. They had no patience for anything,” says Rich.

Rich admits that the first draft of the screenplay for “The Nativity Story” featured a “pretty pious Mary.” Then the movie’s director, Catherine Hardwicke, interceded. The woman whose first feature film, “Thirteen,” dealt with a young girl discovering and dealing with sex and drugs, had a suggestion for Rich.

“Catherine encouraged me by saying, ‘Since for the majority of the movie we’re going to see a young woman with the weight of the world on her shoulders, let’s just take a moment to see her as a kid.’”

Which he did. “The Nativity Story” opens with a Mary more playful than prayerful. The young actress from New Zealand, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar-nominated for her role in THE WHALE RIDER, turns in a wonderful performance as the girl who becomes the young woman still in her teens who will bear the son of God.

Rich knows enough about movie audiences to realize that there had to be some break from the — creating a word here — the “Biblicalness” of it all. Take the three wise men, for example.

“These guys are completely a blank canvas. We have them in folklore but not in the Bible. And with so many heavy scenes we felt it was necessary to give the audience a chance to breathe. It isn’t slapstick, it’s just light enough to let the audience relax.”

But the three wise men also serve another, more important purpose. “They aren’t just comic relief. One is a seeker. One is a scientist. And one is a cynic. A modern audience will have a chance to align themselves with one of these individuals. And because the centerpiece of the story really is the transformation of man, and Jesus is on screen for two minutes and doesn’t have a lot of dialog, we wanted to make sure we had one individual who kind of represented visually the impact of his ministry. And that was Gaspar.”

Speaking of Jesus, I asked Rich who plays the baby Jesus.

“There were four of them. We went to local hospitals and got four eight-day-old babies. But, as you can imagine, with a manger scene there were a ton of people standing by to make sure nothing happened to those babies, if one of those animals hopped to its feet and lost its temper. And their parents were there just out of camera range. So no babies were harmed in the making of this movie.”

It’s too soon to tell how well “The Nativity Story” will do at the box office. Rich says he’s done more to promote this movie than he did for all his other movies combined. He’s met with religious leaders and pastors from San Diego to Chicago to Nashville to Virginia Beach (Pat Robertson’s home base). It even got a screening at the recent meeting of the National Association of Catholic Bishops. “They loved it,” he says.

He’s done the Christian media circuit as well, at one point appearing on the Christian Broadcasting Network on Matthew Crouch’s show. He was waiting to go on in the “green room” when who should walk in but Mr. T. Rich just laughed, “It’s been that kind of a publicity tour.”

Once concerned about being pigeon-holed as a writer of sports movies, is he now concerned about being regarded narrowly as a writer of religious movies?

“Any time you shift genres, they try to put you into that new genre. But with this genre, I’m going to be extremely selective. The expectations and responsibilities that come with writing religious movies are incredible. It’s one thing if you make an error in a sports movie. They’ll cut you a little slack. But if you make an error with the Virgin Mary, look out.”

BrainstormNW - December 2006

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