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"Nativity Story"
Jaimie Trueblood  /  AP
Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary, left, appears in a scene from "The Nativity Story."
updated 11/30/2006 9:58:24 PM ET 2006-12-01T02:58:24

Mel Gibson showed the world the mercilessly bloody end of Jesus Christ’s mortal life in “The Passion of the Christ.” Now the makers of “The Nativity Story” offer Christ’s sweet, humble beginnings in a stable — which, remarkably, Hollywood has not focused on before.

“It surprised all of us that someone hadn’t beaten us to the punch,” said Marty Bowen, who quit his job as a talent agent to produce the movie with longtime friend Wyck Godfrey.

“I think a lot of times in Hollywood, the right idea comes along at the right time, and it becomes in retrospect, ‘Wow, why didn’t I think of that?”’ Godfrey said.

The story of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem has been depicted many times in film and television, but generally as only the beginning of the saga such as in the miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth,” or as a backdrop for another tale such as the animated Christmas special “The Little Drummer Boy.”

“The Nativity Story,” opening Friday, takes the scant accounts of Christ’s birth in the New Testament and fleshes the story out to a simple but evocative drama.

Screenwriter Mike Rich hit on the idea in December two years ago, when both Time and Newsweek arrived in the mail bearing cover stories on the Nativity.

“It wasn’t like I saw those covers and went, ‘Aha! This is what I need to write,”’ Rich said. “I read both of the articles, and I was kind of struck by the fact that we rarely look at that story from a character standpoint. When we put out our little Nativity sets, they’re kind of inanimate objects.”

Strange bedfellows
An unlikely cast of actors and filmmakers bring “The Nativity Story” to the screen.

Rich’s screenplay credits are highlighted by the sports flicks “The Rookie” and “Radio.”

Australian actress Keisha Castle-Hughes, an Academy Award nominee for “Whale Rider,” had to overcome her thick Kiwi accent to play the Virgin Mary. Guatamalan-American actor Oscar Isaac plays Jesus’ stepdad Joseph, while Iranian-born Shohreh Aghdashloo co-stars as Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist.

Director Catherine Hardwicke previously made “Lords of Dogtown,” about the youths who pioneered extreme skateboarding styles, and the acclaimed independent hit “thirteen,” the story of a teenage girl caught up in a pal’s life of drugs and petty crime.

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To Hardwicke, the idea of directing “The Nativity Story” did not seem the right fit — until she read the script and thought about the possibilities of chronicling the world’s most notable birth on a very personal level.

“It is a movie about probably the most famous teenager ever, who’s got her issues and obstacles, too,” Hardwicke said.

“The film is about this young woman’s spiritual journey,” Aghdashloo said. “It’s about Joseph’s pure love for this woman. It’s not an easy thing for a man to share his wife with God.”

“The Nativity Story” has it all: Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, King Herod’s order to slay the first-born over his paranoia about prophecies of a new king, the angel Gabriel’s appearance to shepherds in the field, the trek of the Three Magi from the East.

Capturing ‘The Passion’s’ audience
Though not dreamed up as a bookend to Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” the filmmakers and distributor New Line Cinema hope they can capture a solid chunk of the audience that made that film such an unlikely blockbuster.

With classy production values and straightforward drama, “The Nativity Story” stands apart from a holiday-movie season crowded with lighter Christmas offerings such as the comedies “Deck the Halls” and “The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.”

The tale of the first Christmas has a ready-made audience, producer Bowen said.

“There are faith-based movies being made, but usually for micro-budgets, and usually designed to reach a very specific niche market,” Bowen said. “Our argument to New Line was: Well, if 200 million Americans who consider themselves Christians are a niche, then that’s a niche that maybe you should consider working with.”

“The Nativity Story” lacks Gibson’s star power or the religious firestorm that preceded the movie over Jewish leaders’ fears that it could stoke anti-Semitism. But unlike Gibson’s film, whose savage scourging and crucifixion scenes brought a restrictive R rating, the PG-rated “Nativity Story” can play to all audiences, including family crowds.

Director Hardwicke, who started as a production designer, said Gibson set a standard for authenticity and historical detail that she tried to match. Though far softer than the horrors depicted in “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Nativity Story” does carry a tactile sense of the struggles Mary and Joseph underwent on their journey.

“By the end, it does mean something. It’s not just little action figures you put together in your manger scene on nice comfortable hay. It’s real animal crap in there and real sores on their hands and feet that are bleeding,” Isaac said. “It cost them something to travel to Bethlehem.”

The film’s depiction of Christ’s birth in a lowly stable is gentle, inspiring and beatific — just the thing to remind audiences preparing for the Christmas frenzy about where the holiday came from.

“There’s a line in the script, ‘the greatest of kings born in the most humble of places,”’ Hardwicke said. “That’s revolutionary. It’s saying the power is not a physical power. It’s not riches, it’s not money, it’s not control of governments and nations. It’s a deeper power, spirituality. ...

“It’s revolutionary even now. We can’t even grasp that now. We think we need all the trappings and physical things to be happy, but that’s not necessarily the case.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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