The director talks about making the film, shooting in Morocco, and why this movie is for everyone

After stunning viewers with her portrayals of youth culture in such films as Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, former production designer turned director Catherine Hardwicke has moved her sights to a different tale of youth. In The Nativity Story, Hardwicke focuses her lens on the tale of Mary and Joseph, culminating in their departure from Nazareth and their 100-mile journey to Bethlehem to birth Jesus.

Could you draw a line from Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown, to Bethlehem?

Catherine Hardwicke: It's the third in my teenage trilogy and we've got troubled teens once again. A young woman whose got these crazy, difficult obstacles that she's got to deal with. In this case she finds faith to carry her through.

Why did you want to tell this story?

Catherine Hardwicke: I grew up going to a Presbyterian Church every Sunday. I tried to sing in the choir but they realized I had no voice. I loved Christmas, Nativity scenes, my Dad always had Christmas carols and I thought it was really a magical time of the year. I never really went deeper to, "What is the real meaning of this story?" I just thought it was a beautiful time.

What intrigued you about the script?

Catherine Hardwicke: I loved the idea that Mary was what most scholars believe, 13 or 14 years old, at the time. And, that nobody really believed her. Why would she be chosen? She's a peasant girl, very poor, no one realized that there was enough specialness about her and so they didn't believe her. She was facing consequences that she should be stoned, according to Jewish Law at the time. It takes you beyond the little Nativity figures.

This film also shows us Joseph in-depth for the first time.

Catherine Hardwicke: Exactly, I thought that was interesting. You really don't think about it when you're watching the Christmas Pageant, what would you do if you're a guy, and your fiancé came back and she's pregnant? And you know you're not the Dad? And she says it's the son of God. Do you believe that? That's a tough one.

How do you deal with the religious themes that are inherent in a film like this?

Catherine Hardwicke: We never wanted to make a story that pushes religion. The idea was to be inside these characters and feel what they felt when they went through this. Really take you back in time and help you be there in this moments. When I went in to try and get the job, I had to take the "I want to be there with Mary. I want to be there with Joseph. I want to be under their skin and feel their heart beating in those tough moments." I think people liked that idea, nobody fought it.

Is this film just for people who believe in Christianity?

Catherine Hardwicke: I think you can look at it from a secular point of view; magic realism. We love those beautiful, Latin American stories where there is an element that's more mysterious and wonderful. I think as a child a lot of us love the idea of the star and more of the supernatural elements. You could look at it that way too or as just an important, historical event that kind of changed time. Or, changed our way of marking time, maybe?

What did you use as an inspiration for his movie? The Passion of the Christ, perhaps?

Catherine Hardwicke: Well, the story of The Passion of the Christ is a super dramatic moment. He did it with a lot of authenticity, a lot of reality. He didn't have super famous stars popping out so I think those were good things to look at, for us, too. That was inspiring. When I got the job it was actually the middle of January. I was on a plane and within almost two days beginning to research... so really, the only movies I looked at were what I could play on my laptop, while being plugged into the jeep, while bouncing over deserts in Morocco.

Did you work with religious educators on this film?

Catherine Hardwicke: Mike Rich, when he did his research during the year before I got involved, I know that he had an open script policy. He had his minister and other people reading the script, and my cousin's a minister, I had him read it, too. One of our consultants, Reverend Bill Fulco, is a leading Aramaic advisor... so we did have input, you know?

What did you learn about yourself making this film?

Catherine Hardwicke: I found I could survive 135 degree heat. Rainstorms, windstorms, sandstorms. It was very difficult making this movie in the short time we had on the two continents. Also, every day as a director, you have to help an actor get inside of what this character is going through and really experience these moments. I'd never thought of experiencing a spiritual moment like this. You had to try to understand, how would that feel if this happened to you?

In fact, only the Second Unit Crew would go out to the desert... the one in the Sahara. The First Unit people didn't want to go, the producer didn't even go with me! There was a moment where the donkey didn't want to walk. There was a moment where everyone said we're not going to get these shots, because the donkey is not going to walk on this sand. I said, "I don't care, we've got thirty minutes before the sun goes down, roll the camera and we are going to will that donkey to walk!" I told the whole crew, "I want you to concentrate." And I said, "Action... and the donkey walked." That was our one miracle, I think, on the movie.

So are you looking forward to working on a stage for your next movie?

Catherine Hardwicke: None of my movies... we don't do things on stage. To make it feel real you've got to kind of do it for real. The Nativity Scene? We built it outside, on a hillside, we built the Grotto. We had real animals and I can tell you, by the smell, they were real!

Your film seems to have gone out of it's way to have the actors and the people playing all the roles, look like they could be from that time.

Catherine Hardwicke: That was our goal. To try and make you feel like you went back in a time machine... you see dirt under Mary's fingernails. We had our Nazareth bootcamp where we learned how to milk the goats, and the make the cheese, bake the bread, grind the grain. Joseph learned how to build his house. We made him build his house so it was kind of fun.

Do you think this could be seen as a political film? For believers and nonbelievers?

Catherine Hardwicke: Well we didn't have that many meetings on this movie because, from the day I was hired, middle of January, I did a backwards schedule. I had to be on a plane two days later, I told New Line that and I was on a plane two days later to Jerusalem. My whole idea was try and be there in the moment and try and make the best movie that I could. I hope that other people can appreciate it.

How did you come up with Keisha Castle-Hughes for the role of Mary?

Catherine Hardwicke: When you're looking for The Virgin Mary, somebody who would have that beautiful, olive complexion, and really feel like they are from the Middle East, and looks like they're 13 or 14 years old, Keisha is really who came to mind. I thought she had a great spirituality in Whale Rider, and just a beautiful, soulfulness that you don't find in a young actress.

What's next for you?

Catherine Hardwicke: Well, we're going to the Vatican. We're showing the movie for 7,000 people in the Vatican. It's a benefit, they're going to help raise money for a school in Israel that has many people of all the three Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths. It's exciting.

The Nativity Story opens nationwide December 1 from New Line Cinema.