Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Interview with Catherine Hardwicke, director of "The Nativity Story"

Today I interviewed Catherine Hardwicke, director of Thirteenand Lords of Dogtown. Her latest film is The Nativity Story.

You have an unusual background for a director, with your training and previous experience in design. How does that affect the way you approach a movie project?

Yes, I was an architect, a great way to learn problem solving, structural visualization, and imagining what something will look like. I can look at a bare space and say, "I want to build Nazareth here, let’s butild a wall here, let’s build Mary's house here." We built not just Nazareth but Bethlehem. You stand in places that don’t look anything like what you want to film and you will it to life. I would do sketches and then Stefano (Maria Ortolani, the production designer) would do a sketch, and we would work together. Even if you’re not building complete cities, as a director you always need to know "how does this work?"

Because of your experience as a production designer, you got to work with a number of different directors. Did you learn a lot from watching them?

I would totally try to watch and see how the director would work with actors. How do you create that space that lets the actor make that moment seem real and have that moment for the first time, that energy and that life force? I did not just watch but asked a lot of questions of the directors, asked for a lot of advice. I liked watching the different approaches. For example, Cameron Crowe uses music to create the atmosphere and let the actors know what he wants from a scene.

I'm going to ask you the same question I asked Oscar Isaac. Your Mary and Joseph actors came from two different environments -- one from New Zealand, a teenager, natural but untrained, the other from the US and classically trained, still young but out of college. How did you work with them?

Oscar and Keisha and I did try in the place I rented to have a lot of personal rehearsals before we got to the set, a lot of improvising, a lot of "how would you feel?" We would act it out, feel our way through it. She would talk to me about things in her personal life or a friend’s mother, and then on the set, I would just talk to her to bring her right back to that moment. I would tell her to imagine the smell of the food cooking at the background, look at Oscar's calloused hands and say "I’m going to be married to a carpenter -- that’s not what I dreamed for myself." How does that feel?

This makes your third film in a row that focuses on the lives of teenagers. How did you develop your special feeling for that time of life?

That movie Thirteencame out of my own relationship with (co-author and lead) Nikki (Reed) and her mother, trying to be helpful with the stress they were going through as their relationships deteriorated. I wanted to be a positive influence, to be a relief valve for her mother, so I let her friends hang out, we'd go to museums, learn how to draw. I was trying to get them inspired to be creative instead of destructive. Teenagers today have so many influences, they say 3000 advertising images hit you every single day telling you: "Be sexy, be skinny, you’ll be famous, you’ll be rich." Then there's just one little voice from mom saying, "It’s okay honey."

Mary and Joseph faced a different world 2000 years ago, but had some of the same issues -- Mary feeling she was not fitting in, not being the norm, being scorned, having to stand up for what she believed was right.

How do you take a story everyone knows and make it real for both believers and those who are more interested in the story or the history than religious observance?

I thought Mike Rich (the screenwriter) did a great job. He would take the gospels' sentences and verses that were beautiful but very minimal, take one sentence about Joseph being righteous and considering divorcing mary and then research the economic and political life of Nazareth at that time. There is so much behind it. Mary's pregnancy was bringing shame to her family and village, and that is part of the story. You can be completely literal but breathe life into it and dramatize it. How does it feel? What goes on in your heart and mind? It is easy to be literal and true and faithful and still enrich it with historical accuracy and make it personal.

This was a very international cast and crew. I don't think there were two from the same background. What was that like?

That was what was so fascinating! I thought I would cast everyone from the Middle East, but we ended up going everywhere to find people who could be from the Middle East in Biblical times and ended up with cast and crew members from 23 different countries, and then of course even filming a Christian story in a Muslim country. That was so amazing for me, from a little town in south Texas and then California, working with all these people from all these places with such a rich mixture of religions. Everyone connected to the story in their own way. We really saw the similarities in the religions and reactions.

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