Retelling a Familiar Story
About the Guest
On today's broadcast, Dennis Rainey talks with screen writer Mike Rich about the making of the soon-to-be-released film, The Nativity Story, a familiar tale of two common people, Mary and Joseph, a miraculous pregnancy, an arduous journey, and the history-defining birth of Jesus.
Mike Rich about the making of the film, The Nativity Story.
Retelling a Familiar Story
Bob: We've heard the Christmas story countless times, but have you ever stopped to try to imagine what it must have really been like to try to feel the story?
Angel: Do not be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. You will give birth to a son.
Mary: Elizabeth, why is it me God has asked? I am nothing.
Elizabeth: Oh, Child.
Mary: A husband has been chosen for me. I was here to believe this.
Elizabeth: Do you know how much disgrace you have brought upon yourself and poor Joseph? Mary …
Mary: I have broken no vow.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, November 28th. Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. Today we'll talk to someone who had to imagine what it must have really been like that first Christmas. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us on the Tuesday edition, and that kind of gets you all excited, thinking about the movie that's going to be opening on Friday night. It's the movie called "The Nativity Story," that is coming out in theaters. And it's been interesting, Dennis, you know, you look back over the last couple of years, and there have been a number of films, some of them based on stories out of the Bible, but some of them just faith-based movies that are starting to show up at the local Cineplex, whether it's the low-budget movies like the "Facing the Giants" that came out earlier this year all the way back to Mel Gibson's movie on "The Passion of the Christ" a number of years ago. It seems like the movie industry has been made aware that people are interested in exploring and considering these themes as they go out and go to the movies.
Dennis: Well, a number of our listeners, Bob, have probably wished in their hearts, you know, would be that someone who is a man or a woman of faith would be raised up to be able to write scripts that point people to the reality of God and of Christ and, of course, you've mentioned the Nativity story that is coming out, I guess, Friday.
And we have one such gentleman on the phone – Mike Rich. Mike joins us from Portland, Oregon. Mike, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Mike: Well, thank you, Dennis and Bob. It's a pleasure to be with you.
Dennis: Mike has a career in radio. He is a screenwriter. A number of you listeners perhaps have been to movies that he's been a writer for – "Finding Forester," "The Rookie," and "Radio." And, you know, Mike, those movies all have powerful emotional content to them. Your heart is being expressed through these movies in a profound way.
Mike: Well, you know, I'll tell you what, when you look at all of those films, I think the common theme that they have certainly, you know, I think the easy way to describe them are sports movies, because the baseball in "The Rookie," "Miracle" had hockey. But really what they were, they were profiles of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. "The Rookie," for example, was much more a story about fathers and sons, so as a screenwriter, I'm always much more attracted to and interested in the characters over the story, and I think if there's a common thread amongst all those films, that's probably it.
Bob: Well, and if you consider the movie that starts this Friday, "The Nativity Story," the theme is there, isn't it – common people doing extraordinary things?
Mike: Yeah, it kind of takes it to a different level, do you think?
Dennis: What an uncommon character of a person to star in that movie, huh?
Mike: Yeah, and I have to tell you, it's so exciting to be just right on the doorstep of the release of this film now, because it has just been such an energized spiritual year for not just me in the writing of this script, but for the director, Catherine Hardwicke, and the producers, Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen, all of whom are individuals of faith.
You know, you were talking about it just a couple of minutes ago. I think this really is an exciting time in Hollywood, because there really is an opportunity here, and we've seen that door opened up just a bit, and I think we're going to see, over the next few years, a lot of biblically based stories, and so, for me, as a person of faith, not just as a screenwriter, that's terrifically exciting.
Bob: Mike, did this movie get green-lighted because of the box office for Mel Gibson?
Mike: I think it has. I think we'd be foolish to say that that did not have an impact, and I am grateful to Mel Gibson's film not only for the personal impact that it had on me, but because it, quite frankly, if I would have come to Hollywood two or three years ago with this concept of writing a story on the Nativity, I just – I'm sure it would not have received the same welcome that it did following the success of "Passion of the Christ."
Certainly, our film is, you know, is much smaller in nature. I think we have no expectations of matching the phenomenal success of that film, but I do think that that film made it possible for us to tell this story.
Dennis: You're about to launch this film, but you have your own journey. Can you give us just a thumbnail sketch of your own journey of faith and how in the world you ended up in Hollywood to begin to express it?
Mike: Well, it's a unique path, as it were, to get into this particular industry. You know, I was born in Los Angeles, but my family moved out of Los Angeles when I was just only a few years old because my mother and father didn't basically want to raise their family in LA, and so we moved to a very small town in Northeastern Oregon, a town called Enterprise, which was population 2,000 then, population 2,000 now, and I grew up in the Baptist church in enterprise, stayed with that through college.
And college, for me, was a time of real spiritual awakening, and it just took – my faith went to a different level while I was in college. I got married shortly out of college, and I think there was always that desire, even after I started writing stories like "Finding Forester," and "The Rookie," to find something that would serve as a spiritual outlet from a storytelling standpoint and, boy, did this particular story fit the bill.
Bob: I know you're familiar with the last verses in Revelation about adding to or taking away from the Scriptures. When you sit down to tackle a story like "The Nativity," and you think, "Boy, I only have a few chapters in Matthew and a few chapters of Luke of historical documentation to go with," did you go into this with a little fear and trepidation about how much freedom you should have in telling this story?
Mike: Absolutely, without question, and I think if any writer goes in without that reservation and that hesitation, then they're the wrong writer for the project. This is a story that is of monumental importance. It is held with such an amazing level of reverence by so many individuals, but you hit it on the head. I mean, you have a very short account in Matthew, you have a very short account in Luke, and, quite frankly, you know, it's oftentimes those two accounts are not consistent with each other.
So it does make it tricky from a storytelling standpoint, but if I could – I mean, I'll use "The Passion of the Christ" as an example, because there was – one of the scenes that really resonated for me when I watched that film was the scene in which Mary is watching Jesus carrying His cross, and He stumbles, and she has this flashback of seeing, you know, the young child tripping when He was younger. The maternal instinct kicked in.
Well, that's a speculative scene, but it's completely faithful to the tenor and the tone of the Gospel, and so that was reassuring for me to realize that as long as I kept the magnitude and importance of the message front and center that we'd be okay if we were faithful to the spirit of the story.
Dennis: Mike, I've got my Bible open to Matthew here, and I'm looking over the chapters you're referring to, and I'm just thinking of Hollywood and how they do things, and I'm wondering how in the world do you start and where do you begin when you think about creating a film like this of the Nativity Story? What kind of research do you do, obviously, to add the color and the drama and the emotion? Can you take us into a little of that?
Mike: Yeah, and I have to say that I did more research for this particular film, which probably shouldn't come as a surprise, than I did for any of the other projects that I put down on paper.
I did an extensive amount of research and really touched base with – I didn't isolate on one faith. I talked to Protestant theologians, Protestant scholars, Catholic scholars, Jewish scholars – we wanted to make sure that everything we had in this script, whether it be the showing of a tradition. When Zechariah goes into the temple and is reciting his particular blessing that it's probably consistent with what was said at the time.
We also didn't want to visually over-romanticize the story. We wanted to show Nazareth for what it was, which was a tough little poverty-stricken town, and we also wanted to show Mary for what she was, which was not a woman in her late 20s but probably a teenager and could be as young as 15 or 16 years old. So research was the most valuable thing for this particular project, and I think what it's done is it's given this film a look of authenticity and a real feel that brings these characters really to life.
Bob: There was an era in Hollywood back in the '50s and the '60s when the biblical epic was one of the staples of the studios and, frankly, I've been back and seen some of those movies and been embarrassed by the biblical inaccuracy of those films. I'm sure there are a lot of our listeners who are thinking, "Is it safe to go to this movie on Friday night? Are we going to walk away feeling like the story has been told accurately according to the Scriptures?"
Mike: I really have no hesitation in that regard. We've had the good fortune of showing advance screenings to a number of individuals, and it has really passed the test. The one thing that purists will notice, I'll be very honest with you about it, is we did have to – and I had to make a decision very early on – as to whether I wanted to strictly go with one Gospel, Matthew, or strictly go with another Gospel of Luke.
We decided, in the end, because of the fact that this story is called "The Nativity Story," and millions and millions and millions of individuals put that Nativity set up on their fireplace mantel every year, and the Magi are in Matthew, and the shepherds are in Luke, and they don't interchange, but we wanted to make sure that we had both of them. So purists are going to notice that we do have the Magi at the manger, and that's probably earlier than they were there, but that's one area where we took a little bit of liberty, and I think it serves the story extraordinarily well, because if we had just gone with shepherds, people would have been in the theaters going, "Where are the Magi?" and vice-versa, so we don't have any reservations about making that move.
Dennis: Mike, any Bible student knows, who has done any kind of thorough research on a passage of Scripture and really begins to analyze the Bible, that when you get involved, there are moments that are kind of "Wow, I didn't know that," or that dimension adds an enormous amount of context to the story that just makes it come alive in fresh, real ways. Was there a "Wow" in terms of the research that you did on the passages, and how did it impact you in terms of writing this story?
Mike: Well, there absolutely was, and the one for me, which a lot of times and specifically with Matthew, because Matthew, in contrast to Luke, often can write in a very literal fashion. And when he pointed out that, in his description of Joseph, he used one of his favorite words in describing Joseph, he described him as a "righteous" man. And there was this amazing dilemma when Mary returned from three months visiting Elizabeth after the Annunciation, and she is pregnant, and she is coming back to a man that Jewish tradition said that she was to remain pure for an entire year before she entered her house.
Well, that is, for me, the amazing faith that Mary had to exhibit when she was – received the visitation, the conflict and the courage that Joseph must have felt at that particular moment, because he has to go out and face the town that he's lived in and the town that he works in, and for him to take that stand and not publicly accuse her and to basically, you know, take her as his wife showed such amazing courage, and I think it's one of those aspects of the story that I don't want to say we've lost sight of but perhaps we've just never really given a lot of thought to is what these individuals must have been thinking when all of this came down.
Dennis: We think of the faith of Mary; we don't tend to think of the faith of Joseph, but he had to be a man of great faith to trust her enough to say, "Yeah, I believe God could have done that."
Bob: Well, he did have an angel show up to help him out with that, didn't he?
Dennis: He did, he did.
Mike: But you know what's interesting about that is, in contrast to the Annunciation, with Mary, you know, she saw that angel. Joseph's visitation happened in a dream, and, you know, one thing is a lot of humans, I think, our natural presumption might be when we wake up from that dream – "Well, that was just a dream."
Bob: Yeah, that's a good point, that's an excellent point.
Dennis: One question about your research, because I have to believe because of the amount of research you did, that you've got to know a little bit more about astronomy and stars than maybe – well, 99.9 percent of the laymen in churches in the world. What did you learn about the star of Bethlehem?
Mike: Well, let me tell you, it was one of the more fascinating aspects of research because, as both of you know, if you talk to six different people about the star of Bethlehem, you might get six different stories – whether it's a comet, whether it's a flare, whether it's a super nova, but the one that we incorporated into this film and more theologians and historians appear to be fascinated by this one, and it seems to be the most compelling story is that, for the only time in 3,000 years, because we can now look back on this with computer models, the position of the stars – that the only time in 3,000 years on that particular year, approximately 4 B.C., there was a convergence of Jupiter, Venus, and a star that the Babylonians refer to as "Sharu." And when those three stars – and, as you know, I mean, Jupiter is known as the father planet, Venus is the mother, and Sharu was known as "the king star" – fascinating to me.
And so it's a really wonderful visual effect in the film where – and you'll just catch it when you're looking up at the night sky during all of these journeys, and you'll see these three stars just drawing slowly closer and closer to each other.
Bob: Does the movie open with the angelic visitation to Zechariah in the temple?
Mike: It does not, and I'll tell you, we wanted to make sure that we didn't tell the story in a strictly linear fashion because we wanted folks to know that this, while it's incredibly faithful to the biblical text, we wanted them to know that this was going to be a different look visually than perhaps they had seen before.
Ironically enough, it opens with the Massacre of the Innocents, and we see that event take place for a few moments, and then we actually go back. We go back in time, and we let the events play out, and we get back to that moment. And having said that, I do want to assure families and parents that this obviously is a critically important aspect of this story, but we do not sensationalize it, we treat it with the ultimate level of respect. The film has received a PG rating, and if we had taken it too far, it would have received a PG-13.
Bob: And thinking back again to when "The Passion of the Christ" came out, there were a lot of parents who were asking the question "Should I take my 12-year-old to see this?" or my 8-year-old or my 15-year-old, for that matter. As a parent yourself, is there an age cutoff point at which you think either kids are going to be restless and not going to be able to follow or it's going to be too intense for them to go to this film?
Mike: You know, I think it may be a touch intense for that sequence, and parents are obviously the best judge of this, but for very young children. But it's very rapid, we don't linger on it at all and, frankly, you know, one of the reasons I wrote this script is we did want it to become a family experience. I think too often in recent years Christmas has been relegated to this four-week period of deadlines and a hectic schedule, and we don't have that little oasis of time where we can really, as a family, sit down and focus on what's important, and if this movie can serve as that little oasis and ideally get families to talking, then we'll have succeeded in that respect.
Dennis: Mike, the thing I'm excited about is that very thing you just mentioned – getting families talking about the greatest story ever told, and whether it's a movie like "The Nativity Story" or a resource like we've created here at FamilyLife called "What God Wants for Christmas," the importance is for the story to be told in a family setting so that it can be discussed and matters of faith can be built at home.
And I'm excited that you've provided this movie for families so that they can go as a family, experience it together as a family – then go home or maybe go out and get a cup of hot chocolate or a sandwich afterwards and then talk about it and talk about what must it have been like to have been Mary or Joseph or have been one of those who followed the star and what about faith and how does that relate to your life and what about the person that this movie is all about – Jesus Christ? Because He didn't just come to be born in a manger, He came to be King and Lord of our lives and that really is our ultimate desire here with encouraging people to go see "The Nativity Story" and also to get involved in family devotionals, family experience, around Christmastime.
Bob: I think many of our listeners are aware of the resource that our team has put together called "What God Wants for Christmas" that is an interactive Nativity scene designed with children in mind. We have put the different pieces of the Nativity scene in brightly colored boxes that children open one at a time and along the way there's a poem that you read that tells the story of the birth of Jesus, and the kids get to place the character on the Nativity scene.
But we keep pointing them to box number 7, where there is a surprise, and in box number 7 is what God wants for Christmas. Many of our listeners, again, are aware of this resource and some have started using it as an outreach, Dennis. They are going next door and giving one of these as a gift, or they're inviting the neighborhood children to come to their house, and they're having a Christmas party where they go through each of the boxes in "What God Wants for Christmas" and introduce neighbor children to the Christmas story.
It's interesting to think that there are children in your neighborhood who have likely never heard the story of the first Christmas. They know about Christmas and Santa Claus and all of that, but they have no idea that it has anything to do with Jesus. It's hard to imagine for a lot of our listeners, but it's true for a lot of the children in your neighborhood. And with the "What God Wants for Christmas" resource, there is a new book that we put together that's a picture book to be read to younger children. It includes a CD so that kids can read along and sing along and learn this story, and then for those families that want to have a Christmas party, we put together everything you need for that party and put it all in a cookie tin so that you can invite the neighbor children over.
All of these resources are on our website at FamilyLife.com. If you go there and click the red button that says "Go," that will take you right to a page where there is more information about all of the resources that are available so that you can help your children understand the Christmas story better this year.
Again, our website is FamilyLife.com, click the red button that says "Go" in the middle of the screen, and you'll find the information you're looking for. Or call us at 1-800-FLTODAY, that's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY, and someone on our team will get you the information you need so you can get any of these resources sent out to you.
You know, what we've been talking about today really is wrapped up in this idea that, as moms and dads, we need to be making the spiritual handoff to our children. We need to be passing on a legacy of spiritual vitality to the next generation. We came across a book a number of years ago that is a very helpful guide for parents. It's a hardback book called "While They Were Sleeping." It will help you pray for specific character qualities in your children's lives – things like servanthood and courage, contentment, endurance, discernment, kindness, humility. Each week there is a different character quality that you can pray for. There are suggested prayers in this book.
If you can help with a donation of any amount this month, we want you to feel free to ask for a copy of this prayer guide. We're listener-supported, and your financial support is crucial for the ongoing work of this ministry. You can call 1-800-FLTODAY to make a donation, if you'd like, or you can go online at FamilyLife.com, and as you fill out the donation form online, you'll come to a keycode box. Type the word "pray" in that keycode box, "p-r-a-y," and we'll know to send you a copy of this prayer guide. We want to say thanks in advance for your partnership with us. We appreciate you joining with us, and we appreciate your financial support as well.
Tomorrow Mike Rich is going to be back with us. We're going to hear more about the filming of the movie, "The Nativity." I hope you can be with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We'll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.
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