Interview: Catholic Filmmaker Timothy Reckart, Director of ‘The Star’
The director of a new animated film about the birth of Jesus talks about the challenges of bringing the first act of the Gospel story to the screen.
Timothy Reckart is the talented creator of one of the most original and memorable animated shorts in recent years, the 2012 Oscar-nominated stop-motion gem Head Over Heels. He is also a devout Catholic working in Hollywood. His most recent project is The Star, from Affirm Films — a computer-animated talking-animal movie about the Nativity of Jesus, told from the animals’ point of view.
Reckart recently spoke by phone with Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus about the challenges of retelling the story of the birth of Jesus and what he brought as a Catholic to the portrayal of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and their response to God’s call and plan.
The Star will open Nov. 17.
Hollywood has made a lot of Bible movies in its history, including a lot of Jesus movies. Some of these have touched on the birth of Jesus — and there have been a lot of Christmas movies — but until The Nativity Story in 2006 there were no notable Christmas feature films devoted to the real meaning of Christmas. Do you have any thoughts on why that would be the case?
The Bible isn’t constructed to necessarily present three-act structures — and in particular the story of the Nativity is Act One in the overall story of the life of Jesus. The payoff is that a baby is born, and if that payoff is very glorious and big, then in some way you are betraying the whole point of what the Nativity is about, which is that it was not big and glorious. It was very humble and beautiful and intimate.
When you working with that material, you have to make the end of the film feel like a payoff. I think we found a way to do it here by telling the story of the animals, which meant that we could construct this story so that the birth of this baby is meaningful to Bo the donkey in a way that maybe wouldn’t have been as clear if we had just stuck with the human point of view.
Have you seen The Nativity Story? Do you have any thoughts about it?
I saw it in the theater when it came out. It’s largely faithful to the Bible. It made an effort to make this all feel sort of like a recognizable human reality.
I think the thing that we were trying to do differently is to have fun. That movie had a rather serious tone — I have a hard time imagining kids saying, “Let’s pull that movie off the shelf” every Christmas. So we’re hoping to make a movie that’s fun, that families will actually want to come back and enjoy for the comedy and the adventure.
In some Catholic circles, The Nativity Story met with resistance from some who felt like it was an overly Protestant take, particularly with respect to the Virgin Mary. I’m interested in your approach specifically as a Catholic to this story and this project, which I believe was an ecumenical effort…
Our main writer is Jewish, I think. We had a number of Jewish executives; we had a Buddhist sound-design professional. I guess questions of faith were really left to myself and [executive producer] Devon Franklin. Devon is in the Protestant world. Affirm Films is Sony’s shingle for faith-based movies, and they also come from an Evangelical, mainline Protestant point of view.
The thing you bring up about The Nativity Story resonates with me — I felt the same way. So being the Catholic on the team, I wanted to make sure that at least we presented Our Lady in a way that was compatible with the Catholic point of view, even if we didn’t necessarily push the idea of Mary as the Immaculate Conception and all the other dogma that we believe about her.
The thing that I was trying to do was present Mary in a human way, that didn’t have to necessarily show her as flawed. I think that you can be human and very specific and individual, not because of your vices, but because of your particular virtues. So that’s the approach that I tried to take in designing a human character for Mary — because while we have indications from the Bible of how her personality may have been, it’s not like there is a paragraph of character description.
I wanted to present Mary as someone who is open to God’s plan, who is looking forward to it and is optimistic — a woman who would say “Yes” to an angel when an angel says “Hey, do you want to be the mother of the Son of God?”
Mary shows in that moment that she was someone who was willing to accept the unknown with faith and hope. So I tried to build a character for Mary that was kind of relaxed and trusting and like, “Everything’s going to be fine; don’t worry about it, Joseph.”
And then I thought it would be fun if Joseph is the guy who is always about planning and thinking ahead. After all, he’s the carpenter; in this day and age I think he would have been a mechanical engineer or something. So I think it makes sense for him to be the guy who is like, “Okay, we are going to pack all these things, here’s our itinerary, we are going to stop at this hotel and get a room.” And then when everything falls apart, Joseph’s arc is that he has to learn to let go.
With Joseph, on the other hand, while we’re supposed to like and admire him, we do see some more foibles with him, in regard to his antagonistic relationship with Bo the donkey.
And, again, I don’t think its necessarily showing a vice of Joseph’s to show that he is frustrated with a frustrating donkey. I think there is an opportunity in telling the story to have two characters, both of whom are connected to Mary learn from each other, to work together. Of course, you have to start somewhere different than you finish off, and if we wanted to finish with Bo and Joseph together, then we had to start with them at odds with each other so that you can see that friendship grow.
Is there a scene, a moment, and aspect of the film that you are particularly proud of?
Yeah, we just touched on it. I am proud of the way that we managed to present Mary and Joseph in a human way, but in a way that emphasizes the human dimension of being a saint, the human dimension of sanctity. That Mary is a person with a sense of humor, she has a relationship with Joseph that isn’t just gentle and kind — they tease each other, she makes jokes, and they support each other, because they don’t know what the future is going to hold.
At some point, when they are in the middle of nowhere, she gets an intuition that this may not be easy, this road that she’s accepted from God. This is all a way of baking in a scene that comes later in the Bible: the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, when Simeon and Anna come over and tell Mary that your son is going to be a sign of contradiction, all that stuff.
It didn’t fit into the timeline of our story, but I think it’s an important aspect of Mary’s character that it was a process for her to realize that this wasn’t all going to be fun — it wasn’t all going to be good news. I think that we’ve presented that this shows the difficulty of the vocation that God gave to Mary and Joseph, but also shows them working through difficulty with faith and with love for each other.
I’m curious if you learned anything about the birth of Jesus or the times that he lived in while you were making this movie?
We definitely did a lot of historical research, and it’s fascinating to become more aware. You have the colonial power of the Romans, and then the local governor, King Herod, who is plucked from the locals, but in some ways is just a client of the colonial power. All that stuff is kind of interesting to get down into and imagine on a human level.
Spiritually, we were working on this around the time that Pope Francis published Laudato Si, and I read that at the same time that we were developing the story. It’s interesting to think that God — the creator of human beings, yes, but also the creator of cows and horses and chickens — came to Earth, not as a cow, horse, chicken, frog, or any of the other creatures that he could have come to Earth as, but as a human being. So the creator of all of nature chose to touch nature with human hands.
To me, that seemed like the next level. The birth of Christ and the Nativity really represents an upgrade in the stewardship that humans are given in Genesis. That was kind of new to me. It was interesting to be working on this movie about animals and their relationship with Jesus Christ at the same time that Pope Francis was basically writing on a similar subject.