How do you make a movie about the birth of Jesus that connects with today's audiences?
How do you make Mary and Joseph more than saintly icons?
That was the challenge that the creators of "The Nativity Story" took on in telling this best-known holiday season story.
Mike Rich, a veteran Hollywood screenwriter for movies such as "Finding Forrester," "Radio" and "The Rookie," is also a man of faith who felt that what had been missing from this story was a sense of who these people were.
"It's always been told almost from a purely chronologically standpoint -- that certain events happened," he said. "And we don't look at the individuals. We don't put a human face on these people."
Catherine Hardwicke, director of "Thirteen" and "Lords of Dogtown," brought her vision to directing the film.
"It's more personal. I think it's more human," she said. "The humanity beneath the halos is what we were going for. Epic intimacy."
The Most Famous Teenager in History
Hardwicke's previous movies portrayed a frank and sometimes disturbing picture of American teenagers, and the struggles and challenges unique to their age.
At first glance, this background may not have made her the obvious choice to direct "The Nativity Story," but Hardwicke is quick to point out that the film is about the most famous teenager in history.
"Mary, according to most scholars, was 13 or 14 years old at the time," she said. "I thought what if the girls I know, kids I know today, would experience something this powerful and daunting and amazing and challenging? How would they deal with it?"
How indeed. For Oscar Isaac, a Hollywood newcomer from The Juilliard School, who plays Joseph in "The Nativity Story," the only word to describe his character in the Bible is "righteous."
"How do you play righteous?" Isaac said. "What I held on to was he is a man who is utterly and completely in love with this woman when he looks at her. You could say that's a godly love. It's a humble love. But it's love."
Mary is played by Keisha Castle-Hughes, the 16-year-old New Zealand actress who was nominated in 2004 for her first role in "Whale Rider."
"It's a story of a young girl in a difficult situation and how she responds to that," Rich said. "How she has to go through this aspect of this emotion of fear to awe to willingness to acceptance. It was a great range of emotions."
Not Without Controversy
"The Nativity Story" has not escaped controversy, however.
Castle-Hughes is now pregnant, preparing to become a teenage mother just as Mary was. The father is her 19-year-old boyfriend of three years.
"She made a brave choice," Hardwicke said. "And she knew that the world would be talking about her or wondering about her. She made a brave choice. That this was the right thing to do, to bring this child into the world and I think that is to be respected and loved."
The goodwill of the Christian audience is critical to the success of this movie because that audience has been shown to be potentially enormous and therefore profitable.
Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," despite the allegations of anti-Semitism that surrounded it, grossed $600 million worldwide.
According to screenwriter Rich, while "The Passion of the Christ" may have opened some doors to producing films with religious themes, that's not all that is needed to draw people to the theater.
"I don't think they are going to be led to a film such as ours simply because it has a spiritual message," he said. "The responsibility, I think, as filmmakers we have is you have to make a good film and if you don't make a good film, it's not going to happen."
Biblical Movies Reflect Their Time
Hollywood tapping the Bible for inspiration is not new. But each generation gets the Bible movies that reflect its time.
In the 1950s, the Bible-based movies were epic in scope and reverential in nature. Then came the 1970s, with its counterculture emphasis in films such as "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar."
In "The Nativity Story," it is the relationships, the intimacy, and inner revelations that speak to today's audience.
"I think it's a reminder in a world that can be so polarized when it comes to religious ideas and ideology that humility is what opens people's hearts," Isaac said. "These were real people with real problems, yet they were still able to overcome those things because they were humble."
"The Nativity Story" will be the first movie to have its world premiere at the Vatican on Nov. 26, and opens nationwide in the United States on Dec. 1.
For Hardwicke, in addition to box-office success, there is a simpler goal as well.
"I hope they feel the love that we felt as we made it and the spirit of the very beginnings, of the first Christmas," she said. "I hope they feel it like we felt it."