A challenge of biblical proportions

Adolescent angst has served Catherine Hardwicke well. Her rousing directorial debut, “Thirteen,” examined the lives of post-pubescent girls indulging their precocious appetites for sex, drugs and alcohol; her critically lauded follow-up, “Lords of Dogtown,” recounted the misadventures of rebellious Los Angeles skateboarders who pioneered their sport and became underground legends. Where to go next?

Why, the birth of Christ, of course.

“I’ve always loved Christmas and the beauty and mystery of the Virgin Mary’s story, but I never imagined I’d make a movie about them,” says Hardwicke, whose latest film, “The Nativity Story,” depicts the saga of the Immaculate Conception according to the book of Matthew. “It’s not a stretch for me — it’s about the most famous teenager in history.It was intense, and a real learning experience, but the challenge was not entirely unfamiliar. With ‘Dogtown,’ I wanted to put you right there in the thick of the action, to put you onto that skateboard.

“With this movie, it was the same process, only I wanted to take you back 2,000 years, to a time when every day was a fight for survival. It was daunting, telling such a well-known story, but most people don’t know the full story. They know the cute little icons, and they know about the nativity scene and the three wise men, but very few people stop to consider the harsh realities that Mary and Joseph faced.”

More daunting still was her deadline. Given a 10-month timeframe in which to complete her “Nativity Story” — no mean feat, considering the epic scope of the Biblical narrative — Hardwicke scrambled through a whirlwind shoot that took her from Matera, Italy, where Mel Gibson filmed portions of “The Passion of the Christ,” to Ourzazate, Morocco.

“It was nearly impossible,” she says. “From the time New Line put me in charge, I had about nine months and 10 days to make the movie, so we had to work according to a strict schedule. Editing had to be done on this day, sound mixing had to be done on that day. If it was going to work, we couldn’t wait around, and within two or three days of landing the project, I was on a plane to Israel. There was no room for error.”

And not just for Hardwicke. Shohreh Aghdashloo, the Oscar-nominated star of “House of Sand and Fog” who plays Mary’s cousin Elizabeth in “The Nativity Story,” was one of several cast members who signed on to the project only to be subjected to the rigors of Nazareth Boot Camp.

“That was the hardest part of the shoot, but it was a great method, at least for me,” Aghdashloo says with a laugh. “Working with a dialect coach, learning how to make a carpet, learning how to milk a goat — my personal favorite — all those things helped give me a firsthand knowledge of what it was like to be part of that community. I guess I was a good student, because they released me after eight days. I got an early parole.”

While Hardwicke acknowledges that the surprise success of “Passion of the Christ” may have contributed to the revival of the religious epic, and the sense of urgency driving her own production, she insists that the story of the nativity stands on its own, with its wealth of compelling drama and characters. Aghdashloo, for one, believes the treasury of such stories is far from exhausted.

“The Bible is a great source of Western literature,” she says. “It has inspired all the masters, from Shakespeare to John Huston. This movie tells a powerful story, and there are many stories like it that have yet to be told.”

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