Few people knew the names of Jimmy Morris, Robert "Radio" Kennedy, or Herb Brooks before they hit the big screen in The Rookie, Radio, and Miracle, respectively. So if Mike Rich, who wrote the screenplays for those films, messed up any details of those real-life characters, few would have noticed.

But that's not the case with Jesus. Or Joseph and Mary. Mess them up, and you'll hear about it. Nobody knows that better than Rich, who decided to tackle those characters anyway for The Nativity Story, coming to theaters in December.

Rich was well aware of the gravity of the subject matter when he decided to write the script. But after reading Time and Newsweek cover stories on the Nativity in December 2004, he knew what he wanted to write next: A screenplay about Mary and Joseph, leading up to the birth of Christ, and telling the story in such a way that made the characters more human than they'd ever been portrayed before.

Mike Rich has written a number of screenplays,
but nothing like this

He spent 11 months researching the topic and about a month writing the script. New Line Cinema bought it almost immediately, Catherine Hardwicke was tapped to direct, and the film was put on the fast track. It opens on December 1, about one year to the day after Rich started writing.

We first met Rich, who is also the film's executive director, in May on the set in southern Italy, and we recently followed up with a more in-depth interview. He spoke with us from his home in Beaverton, Oregon, where he lives with wife Grace and their three children, and where he attends Southwest Bible Church—a congregation Rich says has been upholding this project in prayer all along.

I hear you've just seen a rough cut of the film. How did you like it?

Mike Rich: For a writer, that's always an anxious moment, the first time you see a cut of the film. What you want to see is the diamond that you can polish—and we saw it. The quality of the film so close to the end of production was really remarkable. I'm really grateful to Catherine for that. As a writer, you visualize what the scenes might look like. So it's tremendously exciting to see that what I saw in my mind was actually put down on film—always the equal of what I had visualized, and sometimes even exceeding it.

I understand you did almost a year of research before you started writing the script?

Rich: Yes. Usually, I'll just spend a month or two with a person—like Jimmy Morris in The Rookie or Herb Brooks in Miracle—doing research and interviews, then start sinking my teeth into the story. With this one, I did about eleven months of research. And obviously I couldn't interview the principle characters!

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What did your research look like?

Rich: Primarily it was conversations with theologians and historians, and spending a lot of time with a lot of books. One of my sources was Father Richard Rutherford here at the University of Portland, a pretty noted academic theologian. I read books by John Meier and Raymond Brown; Brown wrote basically what's viewed by many as the seminal text on the subject, The Birth of the Messiah.

Any particular "wow" moments in your research?

Rich: A couple. Number one, the economic and cultural oppression of the times. To get an in-depth look at the brutal oppression, economic conditions and tyranny they were living under was really eye opening for me.

One of the fun moments was my research on the star of Bethlehem. If you ask half a dozen experts, you'll get a half a dozen answers—ranging from a comet to a supernova to a major celestial event. But the one explanation that was so intriguing to me—and it's the one we incorporated into the film—was the alignment of this star the Babylonians called Sharu [better known today as Regulus] with Jupiter and Venus. The only time that's happened in 3000 years was in that particular time period. To me, the "wow" moment is the mythological references to all three: Sharu is the Babylonian word for king, while Venus is the mother planet and Jupiter the father planet. Father, Mother and King—that's really an intriguing combination.

Rich on the set in Italy with producer Wyck Godfrey

Rich on the set in Italy with producer Wyck Godfrey

If you had screwed up the real-life stories in Radio or The Rookie, few would notice. But this is a story you can't screw up. Tell me about the weight of responsibility you must have felt in writing this?

Rich: A lot of people have asked me, "Were you nervous?" Sure. If you're sitting down to write on this subject and you do not feel that responsibility, then you're the wrong writer for the project.

I felt it even during that long period of research. I was concerned that when I finally sat down to write the script, because of the limited source material, the majority of scenes would have to be speculative in nature. The easiest thing to do is not write the screenplay. But I guess there came a point where I felt this conviction in my heart to use that trepidation to my benefit—and just honor the spirit and tone of those two Gospels [Matthew and Luke] … and pray that the words that I put down on paper are to the glory of God.

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Let's talk about how you developed the characters of Joseph and Mary. Before you did your research, how much did you know about Joseph?

Rich: Very limited. About all I knew of Joseph was the word that Matthew used to describe him: Righteous. And again, if you talk to a dozen theologians about Joseph, you get a dozen different stories—whether he's 30 years old, whether he's 90 years old, whether he was a widower. The bottom line is it's all speculative, because there is just no historical reference for Joseph.

To me, the key moment for Joseph is when Mary returns from Elizabeth's and she is pregnant—and he realizes that he is not the father. The conflict he must have felt at that particular moment, that was the fascinating backbone of his character, as to the faith he had to exhibit and the choices he had to make. Scripture says he considered divorcing her quietly, but he didn't do that. He chose to stay with her. To me, that suggests a man of honor. So many individuals would have protected their own reputation, but Joseph didn't do that. That's why I think Joseph is one of the true unsung heroes.

He could have had her stoned, right?

Rich: Yes. That absolutely would have been within his rights because they were betrothed to be married, and that was viewed with the same sanctity as marriage. So the conflict for him was very clear. If he accuses her of this, he risks putting her to death. If he doesn't accuse her, then he's basically lying. And for a righteous man such as Joseph, it was a dilemma like none other he'd faced.

Oscar Isaac as Joseph, a 'righteous' man

Oscar Isaac as Joseph, a 'righteous' man

Other movies have portrayed Joseph as a bit character in the background. But in this movie, he's essentially the co-lead. Was that a decision you made from the start?

Rich: His character evolved. Whereas I had a really firm handle on how to pursue Mary's character, Joseph's character just came to life as the script was being written. I didn't want it to be a love story, per se. I wanted it to be about two individuals who place their hope in God and exhibit remarkable, heroic faith. It's one of the reasons I went out of my way not to really have them touch each other; that doesn't happen in the movie until quite late. We didn't want a stereotypical telling of the story. We wanted to make sure that we portrayed, not just Joseph but the shepherds, the wise men, all of these individuals, we wanted to show that there were no bit parts, that this was all part of the grand design.

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What are your observations of how Mary has been portrayed in other films, and how did that affect your own portrayal?

Rich: Very early on, I decided I didn't want to see this character introduced as an adult, which is what she typically is in movies. But most theologians concur that Mary was 14, 15, maybe 16 when this happened.

The way Mary is portrayed in culture today, she's this iconic image. But before she was this iconic image, she was a woman, and before that she was a young woman, and before that she was a girl. So to explore this character, who is this majestic figure now, as a very human young woman was so compelling and so intriguing—to see her actually playing and interacting with her friends.

And then she receives this visitation [from Gabriel], and she has that most remarkable response. I talk about the backbone of Joseph's character at a particular moment. The backbone in Mary's character is in that one sentence: "Let it be done to me according to Thy will." The faith exhibited in that particular moment is not only the backbone of her character, but it's the very heart and soul of this entire story.

How have you tried to make Mary more human without losing reverence for Mary the icon? Was that a balancing act for you?

Rich: It was a balancing act, but there's a key moment when she's visiting Elizabeth. It's a speculative moment, but I think it's very consistent with the Gospels. She asks Elizabeth, "Why has He chosen me?" To me, the choice of Mary to bear the Son of God isn't because she is someone remarkably special, it's because she was representative of every man. She was every person. The mother of this child isn't because she is of overt riches or royal blood, it's because she is mankind. To me, that made it very easy to portray her as a very, very human individual.

Do you have any concerns about how Catholics might react to the portrayal? I assume you've consulted with Catholics along the way.?

Rich: We have maintained close contact with several individuals within the Catholic church. We're not trying to alienate those within the Catholic faith. But we understand that anytime you tackle subject matter such as this that you're creating a canvas for discussion, if you will.

If the story and the interpretation that we put on screen can result in a dialogue between faiths, between those within their own faiths, that's never a bad thing. Then the mission to put this story on screen will be well served.

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Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary

Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary

Your original script did not include The Magnificat, but now you've changed your mind?

Rich: Yes, we have inserted a portion of it. The Magnificat is a big chunk of real estate when it comes to dialogue, and frankly, to have Mary's character give that long speech would have been inconsistent with the approach we were taking—with sparse dialogue. But we've inserted the first two or three lines of The Magnificat as a voiceover.

Did you insert that because you felt it was right, or because someone else told you to?

Rich: No, we talked about it. The studio and filmmakers talked about that from the very start, because of the fact that The Magnificat is almost as long as everything else combined in the Gospel accounts of this story. So, for us to completely turn our back on that was ignoring a key portion of Scripture. We had been so consistent in including almost every element of the Gospels as it pertains to this story, we felt it would be inconsistent if we ignored that in its entirety.

This film may not have the flash points of The Passion of The Christ, but whenever there's a new movie with Christian themes, there's often controversy. What are your concerns?

Rich: I think there may be some who take exception with a very human telling of the story. And anytime you're dealing with this particular subject matter, there is a responsibility to get the cultures and traditions spot on. We've done our best to do that, and I think the film is going to stand up in that regard.

I think some purists will perhaps raise an eyebrow at the fact that we blended the two Gospel narratives, with the shepherds [from Luke] and the Magi [from Matthew]. Yes, we do show that quintessential Nativity scene at the end, with the shepherds and the Magi there together; purists are likely going to take exception with that. But if we had made a film that would have been strictly respectful to Matthew, people would wonder where the shepherds were. If we made a film that was strictly respectful of Luke, people would wonder where the Magi were. So, the film is called The Nativity Story, and that's what we're focusing in on—that quintessential moment that millions of individuals still put out on their fireplace mantels in December.

Do you see this movie attracting an audience beyond Christians?

Rich: I do. Even for non-believers, this is a compelling story. We have sent the script out to those way outside of Christian evangelicals. We've shown it to Jewish scholars, who are appreciative of the fact that we were respectful of their traditions and culture.

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I'm often asked what I hope to get out of this, what we're hoping to accomplish. We live in a time where the month of December goes by in a heartbeat because of the hectic nature of the season. There's very little time for families to talk about this story. If this movie can serve as a two-hour window in that season to get families talking about this remarkable, amazing story of faith, then that will be a great thing.

Do you see the movie as "evangelistic"?

Rich: Not particularly. It could plant a seed in that direction. We see Jesus for all of five minutes onscreen—and he's not exactly delivering the Sermon on the Mount. But if after seeing this movie someone opens up the Gospel of Luke, then you never know.

Stay tuned to Christianity Today Movies for more coverage of The Nativity Story in the months ahead.