Oscar nominee Timothy Reckart’s first feature film is a sweet, funny, and touching animated story of the Nativity as seen by a little donkey. We talked about his multi-cultural cast
You have an exceptionally diverse cast. Was that important to you?
Yes it was. If there's any type of movie that should be color blind it's an animated movie, where you just hear the actors’ voices. What race is a camel, what race is a donkey? There isn't one. I'm excited about that aspect and it also relates to the whole function of the movie because this is a movie about the story of the first Christmas and that story is important to people of faith of all races. Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, and Tracy Morgan play the camels of the Three Kings. I’m really thrilled that our lead, Bo the donkey, is played by a Korean-American Steven Yeun. Mary is played by Gina Rodriguez, who is an American from Puerto Rico. It's really exciting to be able to present a movie that really had that whole spectrum of so many different ethnicities.
The film has a very skillful mix of humor, heart and action.
That was the challenge. We talked about it as a comedy-adventure-suspense story, and finding a way to marry all of those aspects in a movie that was also faithful to the Bible story because we didn't want to tamper with that. So the way we were able to do that is by shifting the perspective to the animals so we can have all that action adventure comedy stuff but we don't have to turn Mary and Joseph into action heroes.
My favorite character is Dave, the bird played by Keegan-Michael Key. He brings so much life to this story. Did he improvise some of his performance?
The biggest chunk of improvisation is the singing stuff when Dave is trying to create a distraction. He gave us two and a half minutes straight of the most excellent scat singing.
You come from a background of stop motion animation, How did that help you as you approached this film?
Stop motion is more like live action because you use real lights, you use real materials and the space is three dimensional. In that sense I think I come at animation with maybe a little bit more of a live action sensibility, so I was pushing for realistic use of light and shadow. I love how texturally rich stop motion movies are and so that was something I pushed for as well to really feel the different qualities of fur and feathers on all these animals and get a sense of the dust and the wood and the cloth of 2000 years ago. I wanted a really rich tactile world that you could sink into.
Was the world you created based on research or imagination?
t's a combination of both. We did do a lot of research and we also used a lot of creative license. The research was really a guide for colors and architectural styles. Our big insight was that it looks kind of broken down and dusty now but 2,000 years ago these buildings weren't in ruins; they all had a fresh coat of paint. So the idea of making them look lived in now instead of like they should have looked 2000 years ago. So we thought this was a good opportunity to make the Holy Land look a little bit fresher than we're used to seeing it; more colorful, more lively. But then as far as topography, for instance we built Bethlehem on the side of a hill which was not based on research. It was based more on the need of the story because we wanted that to be the site of this really heightened act three climax and having those layers of elevation really helped the story.
Your main character, Bo, dreams of doing something important. What does he learn over the course of the film?
I think the story about importance and greatness is really at the heart of Christmas story, which is about God doing this really great thing coming to Earth as the savior but under a very, very humble ordinary appearance of a baby born to two peasants in a barn, not even in a house. So I hope that also parallels the story that Bo has. He wants to do something great and important but in the end he realizes that the thing that's truly great is this thing that does not look glamorous. I hope the message to take home about that is that a kid doing third grade homework is doing the great thing that God wants him to do. It may not look so glamorous, you're not going to get famous doing third grade homework, but if you do it with all of your dedication then that really is the great thing that you're meant to be doing right now. That’s what you're being called to do just like Bo was called to help Mary and Joseph get to Bethlehem.
What do you want to do next?
I hope I can stay in the family space because all the movies that I love are movies like ET and Jurassic Park, Jumanji, movies that as the second of six kids I watched well into my teenage years because those were the movies that everyone in the family could watch. I don't remember going to the theater that often as a kid but we had a closet full of VHS tapes and a lot of them we just wore down because we would rewatch them so many times. The truth is I think I've come to appreciate ET more as an adult than as a kid. The best family films are movies that are accessible to everyone of all ages no matter what and that's a cool thing.