FamilyLife Today® Podcast

The Making of the Movie

with Mike Rich | November 29, 2006
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Today on the broadcast, Mike Rich, screenwriter for the movie The Nativity Story, which opens in theatres nationwide on December 1, talks with Dennis Rainey about making a movie based on the biblical account of Christ's birth in the Gospel of Luke.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Today on the broadcast, Mike Rich, screenwriter for the movie The Nativity Story, which opens in theatres nationwide on December 1, talks with Dennis Rainey about making a movie based on the biblical account of Christ's birth in the Gospel of Luke.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Mike Rich talks about making a movie based on the biblical account of Christ’s birth in the Gospel of Luke.

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The Making of the Movie

With Mike Rich
November 29, 2006
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Bob: Imagine yourself for a moment as a teenage girl, a young girl who wants nothing more in her life than to please God, a teenage girl who is visited by an angel.

Angel: Do not be afraid, Mary.  You have found favor with God.  You will give birth to a son.

Mary: You believe me?

Elizabeth: Yes.

Joseph: The angel came to me in my dreaming.

Soldier: In the name of King Herod and the almighty Caesar, each man will return to the land of his ancestors.

Man: They must travel to Bethlehem.

Mary: I am going with my husband.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, November 29th.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  Today we'll hear from the man who wrote the screenplay for a movie that helps us imagine what it must have been like.  Stay with us.

 And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us on the Wednesday edition.  You know, I talk about movies a lot because I like going to the movies, and I'm kind of a movie fan and a movie buff, but, sadly, there are a lot of movies that we either wait until they come out on video so that we can fast-forward through some parts or mute some parts or do those kinds of things.

Dennis: Right, right.

Bob: It's always nice when you find a movie that everybody is going to enjoy, and we're really excited about what's coming out this Friday night – the movie, "The Nativity Story."

Dennis: That's right, it's going to be released on Friday, and we have a guest here on FamilyLife Today, Mike Rich, who is the screenwriter of this release.  Mike, welcome to our broadcast.

Mike: It's great to be with you both.

Dennis: Mike lives in Portland, Oregon, along with his wife, Grace, and their three children and, yes, he is a screenwriter who is making an impact in Hollywood.  He has also contributed as a screenwriter to "Finding Forester," a movie called "The Rookie," and – I loved that movie, by the way, Mike, great job on that.

Mike: Oh, I appreciate that, thank you.

Dennis: And then another one called "Radio."

Bob: I cried at "Radio."

Dennis: I did, too.  Tell me this, are we going to cry during "The Nativity Story?"  I mean, all these – I'm looking at each of these great stories that you've …

Bob: Tearjerkers he's written?

Dennis: Yeah.  What about it, Mike?

Mike: I'm going to challenge you right now to try not to cry at this one, because – and it's a different kind of cry, if you will, because in "The Rookie" and moments like that, there's kind of this melancholy and just a surge in your heart, but this one is more of an overwhelming moment, you know, when we see this journey reach this miraculous end, which actually serves as just a stepping stone to the real journey.  It's overwhelming.  It's overpowering in that particular moment when Christ is born, and it's beautiful onscreen, and, as a writer, anytime you see a cut of a film, you just really want to make sure that the words that you put down on paper are elevated visually, and, boy, it sure happened this time around.

Dennis: Tell me – and I know this is not fair – but what is your favorite little slice of the story?  Is there a moment when you go, "Man, we got it."

Mike: Yeah, there's – and this may come as a bit of a surprise, because the easy answer to that is each of the sequences with Joseph and Mary, and because they're all so special.  But I have to say one of the great surprises in the film was the three Wise Men and the Magi, and what I did was I took one of those characters and basically almost – he's almost a cynic.  He can't believe they're going on this journey.  He thinks it's a waste of time.  He doesn't understand the faith and the determination, which is being exhibited by the two others.

 And, in a sense, he's kind of grumbling the entire way.  And at that moment when the star is shining down upon Joseph, Mary, and the Child, and you see this look in his face where it is utter transformation, and you see in an instant, and it's a tribute to the tremendous actor that we hired for this particular role, and when he drops to his knees, you see a new man.  And, for me, that was such a special unexpected treat.

Bob: Mike, I'm not familiar with how this works.  Does a screenwriter turn in the script and then start working on his next project, or were you in Italy while this was being filmed?

Mike: Well, this one was a little different, because I finished the script and typically it plays out exactly as you referenced, which is you handed off, and once they start filming, you may pay a short visit to the set but, by and large, you move on to your next project.

 As you might expect, with this one I felt so strongly about the subject matter that we get it right that I'm actually an executive producer on the project as well.  And so …

Dennis: How difficult is that?  Now, come on, be truthful.  You know, here you've written this thing, then people start saying the words – you have to be tempted to edit along the way a little bit, right?

Mike: Well, sometimes you do, but there were sequences, you know, that were completely hands off.  When you're talking about the Annunciation and the exchange between Gabriel and Mary, you know, those are not lines that you edit. 

Dennis: Well said.

Mike: Those are – and, in fact, everything – we touched on this a little earlier, that there's relatively short source material, so we were completely faithful.  When it was coming out of the Bible, that's what you see onscreen.  But, for the most part, with this particular project, I think there's great credit to the actors who had such a respect and such a reverence for this material that there was very little dickering with the words on the page.

Bob: I don't want to be a spoiler here, and – of course, this is one of those movies when you don't need to guess, really, how it ends.  I guess the question I have here is where do you end or do you foreshadow the cross in this movie?

Mike: Yeah, and I'm not going to give you a specific answer to that because then the studio would …

Bob: … aw, come on …

Mike: … would say I haven't done my job, but …

Dennis: Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike, there's just a few hundred thousands folks listening in.

Bob: No one will ever know.

Mike: Yeah, just between us, huh?

Dennis: Come on, give us some inside tips here.

Mike: Let me tell you, the story goes a touch farther than I think you might expect.

Dennis: So what part of Revelation does it go to?


Mike: That's right, we always …

Dennis: Just give us the chapter.

Mike: We only take it into Corinthians, you know?


Dennis: Yeah, right.

Mike: But I will say that, you know, it does go a little bit farther than you might expect.  There is some foreshadowing, because we felt that was very important.  And I get the question a lot – do I expect this film to be evangelical?  And, you know, the way I feel about it is I'm a man of faith, I'm not a pastor, but let me tell you something – if seeing this movie gets someone to go back and read the first few chapters of Matthew and read the first few chapters of Luke and maybe spill over to chapter 6 and chapter 7 and then get to the Gospel of John, I'm not going to argue with them.

Dennis: Yeah, that's right.  Tell us about the actors and actresses that you chose to work in this movie.  I mean, I can't imagine, you know, how do you go about selecting a Mary?

Mike: Yeah.  Typically, when a studio is releasing a film, they'll hire one casting agent.  Well, we hired five.  We hired one in Los Angeles, one in New York, one in Jerusalem, one in London, and one in Rome, and these auditions – every day I would get up, and I'd look on my computer online, and there would be new auditions that we would all take a look at, because we were scattered all over the place.

 We were terrifically blessed with a tremendous performance by Keisha Castle-Hughes, who some may remember as the talented young actress from "The Whale Rider" who received an Oscar nomination for her performance.

 And then, you know, we went, and we wanted to find actors that really hadn't been in a lot of films, because we didn't want anything taking away from the story.  We wanted to make sure that when it comes to who is the star of this story – the star is the story.

Bob: Right.

Mike: And so you will see very, very few American actors.  We have a woman who plays Mary's mother, Hiam Abbass, so it's a tremendous, tremendous cast – very, very talented.

Bob: And do we expect the language to be in kind of Elizabethan – you know, everybody always spoke with kind of high British accents in these old Hollywood films.  How does this work for you?

Mike: It actually has almost a touch of an Italian, and it really comes across great, and it's very, very consistent.  There are some areas in the film that are in Aramaic.  There are some areas that are in Hebrew, but 95 percent of the film is in English.

Dennis: I wanted to ask you about the controversy of Mel Gibson's, "The Passion of Christ," and I have to say I was totally caught off guard at the controversy that that movie stirred up.

 Now, if you were – and I'm not talking about wagering here, but just from the point of just thinking toward the future – if you were a betting man, do you think this movie is going to become controversial, or do you think this is going to slip onto the scene and be accepted as more mainstream movie?

Mike: I think it will be accepted more as a mainstream movie.  We have already shown the film to a wide array of individuals of faith – Jewish, Catholic, Protestant – and, you know, I think anytime that you entertain this type of subject matter, there will be those who will find controversy, but I think it will pale in comparison to what "The Passion" stirred up. 

 You know, I have to say one of the great compliments we got was after showing it to a number of Jewish theologians who said, "We respect the fact that you respected our faith, and you respected our traditions, and that you were accurate with those."  And so that's gratifying when you hear that.

Dennis: If there is going to be a controversy, do you have any idea where it would come?  I mean, I'm thinking about, you know, again, Christ's death.  In some ways you can kind of stretch it and understand, yeah, it was those who put Christ to death, humanly speaking, but in this story …

Bob: It would be hard to spot it, other than …

Mike: It would be really hard to spot it.  I think there will be some individuals who will be surprised when they see that we have as young an actress as we have playing Mary but, as you both know, I mean, historically and biblically, the approach that we've taken, portraying her as a young girl in her middle teens is more accurate than a lot of others stories have been portrayed.

Bob: And you've mentioned that the Magi appear at the manger, which that may stir up controversy for some.  Talk a little bit more about why you made that artistic choice as opposed to having them show up a year later in Nazareth, perhaps?

Mike: Well, sometimes it's a challenge when you are writing a script in that you do not want to overstay your welcome at the end of a movie, and by that I mean every movie has a climax, every movie has that moment where the audience is satisfied, whether it be – in "Miracle," the winning of the game against the Soviets.  You know exactly what I'm talking about when it comes to a crowning …

Bob: You're saying you didn't want to do seven endings like "Lord of the Rings" did on their last movie, right?

Mike: That's exactly right, and because of the fact – and I'll tell you what – we have this natural crescendo, and it's such an elegant, overpowering crescendo toward the birth of Christ, you know, for every moment that we spend onscreen after that, we're stealing from the impact of that particular moment, and that would have been a disservice to the overall story.

Dennis: Mike, you and your wife, Grace, have three children – Jessica, Caitlin, and Michael.  I want to ask you to fast forward a bit to maybe Christmas Eve, your family all gathering together.  How is this Christmas Eve going to be different at the Rich household because of your work on this movie?

Mike: Let me tell you something, Christmas in our household is not just a holiday, but a special month.  And shortly after I started doing the research on this particular script, my father passed away, and it had a profound impact on me, and it was one of those where it was after his death where I really felt the conviction in my heart that I needed to write this story.

 So last Christmas while I was writing it, it was an amazingly bittersweet holiday, because it was the first time that my father wasn't there, and this year, to see this story having come full circle, you know, to see it actually reach the screen and not just come out just here in the United States but to be on screens all around the world – I can't begin to put it into words what that's going to feel like.  It will undoubtedly be the most unique, special Christmas that I think we've ever had.

Bob: And I think your meditation on the story itself – you've been meditating on this now for a year.

Mike: Yeah, I have.  I write on a laptop computer, and I usually like to surround the laptop with things that remind me of whatever story I'm writing.  So you might imagine that the Nativity set was around the Apple laptop the last year.

 But, you know, the thing – whenever I looked at those figures around the laptop, I was always struck by the fact that, you know, for many of us, those individuals have just become iconic images, and we don't really think about them as real individuals, and when we put that up on the fireplace mantel, if you're looking at it as a chapter in the Bible, well, that represents the end of the road, and we don't spend enough time thinking about what the road was to get to that point, and that's what's really interesting and fascinating for me.

Bob: I have to tell you, I'm excited to see it, in part, because over the last year I've been teaching an adult Sunday school class, and we've been going through Luke, so I spent a long time in Luke 1 and 2 going through the story and was struck again by just what you said – the iconic nature of these characters and how we lose sight of their humanity and get a mythical picture in our heads.

 I'm looking forward to seeing the movie to see the humanity come through and be reminded again this is real life that happened to real people and some extraordinary stuff that happened and kind of put myself in their place.

Mike: Well, and it's not just Mary and Joseph.  I think sometimes we narrow it down, but we want to assure everyone that we spend a lot of time with Elizabeth, we spend a lot of time with Zechariah, who are key, key characters in this particular story.  So you're going to see a lot of folks that you've read about and maybe haven't though about for quite some time, and they have major roles on the screen.

Bob: But not a lot of dialog for Zechariah, right?

Mike: Yeah, not a lot of dialog.  Zechariah goes through about a 20-minute period on screen freeze.

Dennis: Some of our listeners are not going to get that.

Bob: Well, they just need to go to Luke, chapter 1, and they'll have the whole thing figured out.

Dennis: They'll get Bob's joke a little later.  All kidding aside, Mike, I first of all want to thank you because – and I don't know if you considered the decision to help as a screenwriter on this as being risky from a career path, but because of Hollywood, you never know which way it's going to turn. I can't imagine that this didn't have a huge implication upon you and your wife, Grace, and taking a step of faith in terms of expressing your own faith and using your talent in this way.

 So I just want to applaud you for that.  I want to thank you for your courage for that, and then what I want to do is I want you to turn to our audience and speak to the boys and girls – because we have a number of young men and women, some single college students and single professionals who have talents in your area, and you know they aspire to use their talents as you have in this movie for the glory of God to tell the greatest story that's ever been told.  What would you say to those young men and women as well as their parents as they look to the future?

Mike: Well, I would put it in – it may sound like simple advice, but it's not, and it's difficult to do, but you really, truly do have to follow your heart, and one of the best pieces of advice that I got when I was just starting out in this industry, is Hollywood has a well-justified reputation.  You know, a lot of people are very cynical when it comes to Hollywood and what Hollywood's intentions are, and, for me, to put out stories like "The Rookie" and "Radio" – it wasn't just gratifying to see those stories be turned into films but to see them turned into successful films.  Because that proves to Hollywood that there is an audience out there who wish to see this type of film.

 Marty Bowen who, at one time, represented me and is actually a producer on "The Nativity Story" gave me the best advice I ever had when I was just starting out.  He said, "Do you want to know what you should do?"  He said, "Make films you'll be proud to show your grandchildren."  And I have to say that this particular story, "The Nativity Story," I just felt a strong, strong calling, a strong desire, to write it, and I can only hope – and I'm already starting to see it, and you guys should know this and be encouraged by it, where I've gotten phone calls from Hollywood saying, "What other stories are in the Bible that might be –" you know?

Dennis: Oh, really?

Mike: And so I sit here, and I can say, "Well, you know, there was this gentleman named Paul that's a pretty interesting character."  And so it's so exciting to see kind of a sea change in the industry and hopefully we'll be able to see it.  I just don't want it to be a short-term thing, I hope it lasts for quite some time.

Bob: Are you at work right now on something new?

Mike: I've got a couple of things in the works right now that – terrific [inaudible].

Dennis: Bob has something for you.

Bob: I've got a pitch I'd like to make here.


Mike: Yeah, it continues to be a busy time but, as I always say, it's a good busy.

Bob: Well, I'll tell you, it is good to have guys like you staying busy turning out the kinds of things that it's easy to take a family to go see.  So thanks for your work, and I hope you have a merry Christmas.  Thanks for making our Christmas a little merrier with the gift of this movie.

Mike: Merry Christmas to both of you.

Dennis: Merry Christmas to you, too.

Bob: Well, again, we've been talking to Mike Rich, who is the screenwriter for the movie, "The Nativity," which opens this Friday night in theaters all across the country, and you know what would be cool for families, especially families that have younger children, although I think this would work for families with kids of all ages – after you've been to see the movie, come home and get out the "What God Wants for Christmas" interactive Nativity scene, or the new storybook for children that has the singalong soundtrack in the back of it and retell the story.

 This is one of those stories that can be told again and again and especially in the hearts and minds of children.  They need to have the account of the birth of Jesus stamped on their heart.  That's what our team has tried to do with the interactive Nativity scene that we've created called "What God Wants for Christmas."  There's a picture of this on our website at  If you go to the home page and click the red button that says "Go" down in the middle of the screen, that will take you right to a place on the site where you can see what this Nativity scene looks like and get a better idea of how you can use it with your children.

 The cool thing about this Nativity scene is not just that you can tell the Christmas story, but there's a surprise for the children.  Each of the Nativity characters is in a separate little gift box, and box number 7 has a special surprise for them that talks about what God wants for Christmas and, again, there's more information about it on our website at  The storybook that includes the music CD is also available on our website at

 Again, the red button in the middle of the screen that says "Go" is the link that will take you right to finding more information about these resources.  You can order them online, if you'd like, or you can call us at 1-800-FLTODAY and someone on our team can let you know how you can get these resources sent to you.

 Let me say a special thank you today, if I can, to those folks who not only listen to our program, Dennis, but there's a handful of folks in each community who also help support this ministry prayerfully and with their financial support and, really, we could not be here doing what we're doing if it weren't for your financial support of this ministry.

 This month we have been making available to listeners a thank you gift to any of those who are able to help with a donation of any amount to the ministry of FamilyLife Today.  This is a prayer guide for parents.  A book called "While They Were Sleeping" designed to guide you as you pray for specific character qualities to be cultivated in your child's life and in his heart.

 We've had a number of listeners who have called to support the ministry of FamilyLife Today and have requested a copy of this book as a thank you, and we're happy to send it out to you.  You just need to contact us either online at or by calling 1-800-FLTODAY.  If you're online, and you're making a donation of any amount, when you get to the keycode box type in the word "pray," p-r-a-y, and that will let us know that you'd like a copy of this book sent to you.

 Or call 1-800-FLTODAY to make a donation.  Mention that you heard us talking about the prayer guide on the radio and, again, we'll be happy to send it out to you – our way of saying thank you for your partnership with us.  We appreciate your financial support, and we appreciate you standing alongside of us.

 Well, tomorrow we're going to be back to hear about a trip that Dennis Rainey and his wife, Barbara, took recently.  In fact, Barbara is going to join us tomorrow as we talk about your trip to South Africa and hear a little bit about what God is doing in that country.

 I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

 FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.


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