St. Augustine Catholic
The Nativity Story
Covered in Prayer
All May be One

in this issue... 
editor's notes
saint of the month
bishop's message
from the archives
in the know with Fr. Joe
theology 101
your marriage matters
parenting journey
spiritual fitness
parish profile
around the diocese
calendar of events

The Nativity Story
a new take on the original Christmas tale

THE ST. AUGUSTINE CATHOLIC Magazine talked to Mike Rich, screenwriter for The Nativity Story, which will be in theaters Dec. 1. Mike has had a string of great movies, including Finding Forrester, The Rookie and Miracle.

We talked to Mike from one of the movie’s locations in Morocco.

What prompted you to do a movie about the nativity?

I think the seed was planted in December 2004. Newsweek and Time came out with stories the same week on the nativity. As a storyteller and screenwriter, I’ve always been attracted to those stories that really delve into character. When I was reading these pieces, it struck me that that approach had rarely been taken when it came to this particular story. There’s very little source material on it. It’s only been in two of the Gospels, and it’s a short narration at best.

I began nosing around doing research and found myself fascinated at the dynamics of what Joseph and Mary must have been dealing with.

How much of it draws on the Scriptural accounts and how much is fictionalized?

We used everything we could from Scripture. One of the choices I had to make very early on was whether I was going to blend the two Gospels, or stick with either Matthew or Luke exclusively. If I were to just go with Matthew and the Magi, we’d have audiences asking, “Where are the shepherds.” And if I were to go with Luke and the shepherds, they’d say the opposite.

I’m just like millions of other individuals - the day after Thanksgiving, I get out the nativity set and put it on the coffee table - and we’ve got all of those characters. So we used all of the Gospel accounts.

However, for example, in Luke it says, “Joseph took Mary and they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem.” That’s one sentence that encompasses 100 miles. So that needed to be expanded. It was difficult and challenging to write those speculative scenes, but my intent was to be as faithful and show as much devotion to the tone of those two Gospels as possible - and I’m really pleased to say that we’ve done that.

Why was the filming done in Italy? Is it a place where time stood still?

Yes. It allowed us the opportunity to set up a number of sets that had that feel already without having to do a lot of work. The production team did an incredible job basically constructing the town of Nazareth in about three weeks’ time. And then, while we were filming, they constructed the town of Bethlehem.

It was so inspiring. The woman who plays Mary’s mother, Hiam Abbass, was born in Nazareth. She told me that Matera felt more like Nazareth than Nazareth.

Did I read that part of what prompted this was the death of your father?

Yes. Early in 2005, my dad passed away and certainly it was an emotional time for me. I’m immensely proud of the films that I’ve made, but the one common theme they’ve had was a sports backdrop. I had been looking for an opportunity to find a different genre to write a character-driven piece. I got some advice when I started writing screenplays - “Write films you’ll be proud to show your grandchildren.” After my dad passed away, it was a time of soul-searching about what I wanted to do about this next project. I wanted it to be something that was close to my heart and also about that theme I’ve pursued before - ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Who were your expert consultants on the film?

Well, I had a few contacts beforehand, but I’d done a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to textbooks. One of the main ones was what I consider a seminal text on the story, Dr. Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah.

Every road leads to Ray Brown! And we had Jewish, Catholic and Protestant scholars. It was incredibly gratifying to see them affirm that the script was passing muster.

Did writing this movie impact your personal faith life?

Sure; how could it not? When I sit down to write a script - and they are hard to write - it takes me about four months to write a first draft. I have to say that this was such a pleasure to write. I finished it in about five weeks, which was very quick for me. And I felt an innate sense of peace while I was writing it; that came from my own faith. For me, it was an incredibly spiritual experience.

Your own story is interesting - what did you do before writing Finding Forrester, the screenplay that started your career?

I lived in Portland, Oregon and was a morning news anchor at an FM radio station. I had long had an interest in creative writing, but it was more like a hobby. I mostly wrote short stories, and then started dabbling in screenplays. Like a lot of folks, I really love movies.

I wrote a couple of scripts, and I submitted Finding Forrester to the Nicholl Fellowship competition. I’ll always be grateful because that competition allowed my work to be read by people who could do something with it. So, a radio career turned into a screenwriting career in my late 30s, and I don’t know many folks who have done that. It’s been a real blessing for our entire family. My wife, Grace, and I have three kids - Jessica is 22, Caitlin is 19 and our son Michael is 16.

Any special plans for Christmas?

Christmas is something that’s always been special in our household and this one we’re looking forward to for a very different reason. I think it’s going to be a really special season for us as a family.