Sony Pictures’ The Star, an animated Christmas story told from the perspective of the animals, opens in theaters across the country this weekend. It is the first animated biblical story produced by a major Hollywood studio since The Prince of Egypt in 1998. It features a donkey named Bo (Steven Yeun, The Walking Dead), who escapes from his life of boredom at the village mill and meets newlyweds Joseph (Zachary Levi, Chuck) and Mary (Gina Rodriguez, Jane the Virgin). He teams up with Ruth (Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant), a sheep who has lost her flock, and Dave (Keegan-Michael Key of Key & Peele), a dove. They meet a variety of other animals along the way to Bethlehem, including three wise-cracking camels (Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, and Tracy Morgan), who become unlikely heroes in the Greatest Story Ever Told. Other notable cast members include the Kristin Chenowith, Patricia Heaton, Kelly Clarkson, Mariah Carey, and Christopher Plummer as King Herod.
The director of the film is Timothy Reckart, 30, a Catholic directing his first feature film. He is best known for directing the animated short film Head Over Heels, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2013. Reckart is a graduate of Harvard University and has a master’s degree in directing animation from the UK’s National Film and Television School. He recently spoke with CWR about The Star.
CWR: The Star is your first feature film. How did you get your start in animation and how did you come to direct this project?
Timothy Reckart: I got my big break after I made the short film Head Over Heels, which kicked me into this world of Hollywood. I moved to Los Angeles, and had a lot of meetings with various players in this industry. Sony had this project, knew I was passionate about animation, presented the concept to me, and offered me the job. It’s been a great opportunity, and very exciting.
When I was growing up, I remember pulling Christmas movies off the shelf—It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Charlie Brown Christmas—and none of them were actually about the birth of Jesus. With The Star, we’ve made a movie that is about the birth of Jesus, and will appeal to the whole family. It is my dearest hope that it will become a classic.
CWR: What made you want to direct The Star?
Reckart: I was attracted to the project because it is a family film in the animated medium. It has a religious message, but it isn’t a preachy Bible movie. It uses creative license to tell the Christmas story from the point of view of the animals, giving us a new look at an old story. That combination of things made me want to be a part of it.
CWR: What challenges are there in creating a movie based on Scripture?
Reckart: The biggest is to have a script faithful to the source material while using your creative talents to make it as entertaining as possible. We have various aspects of the story you’d find in the Bible—the Annunciation, a reference to the Visitation, Mary telling Joseph that she is with child and the confusion that must have resulted from that, the Wise Men, King Herod, and more—but there are plenty of gaps between the lines that we can use creative license to fill. In The Star, we can make believe what the donkey or camels are thinking, or play with how they might have interacted with one another. I think in that way we can make it creative and entertaining for all kinds of viewers, while being faithful to the story.
CWR: Are you hoping to attract a broader audience than just Christians?
Reckart: We certainly want more than just Christian people coming, but I want to stress that we’re starting by trying to give our target audience, Christians, an entertaining film they deserve. A faith-based movie that uses faith as a crutch is not a good movie. A Christian audience deserves better.
CWR: You’ve spoken about filmmakers’ opportunities to change the culture through film. What do you mean?
Reckart: A film presents a story, or moments in a story, but not an argument, as most films are fictionalized. So, we can’t treat film as a persuasive medium, but rather one that gives audiences a gut-level experience that demonstrates, say, the transforming power of love, friendship, or redemptive suffering. We can hit at the heart, rather than the head. By giving audiences these experiences, which I call moments, we can change the culture for the better through film.
CWR: This is your first experience directing a feature film. What challenges did you have, and what did you learn?
Reckart: Since I had only had experience producing shorts, my challenge was to tell a story that maintained its momentum longer than an hour. But I learned that working in a studio environment you have a ton of help and support from people with many years of experience in the business.
CWR: You were able to hire a cast with some prominent names.
Reckart: Yes. When we were first planning for the film, we thought that in casting actors, we would shoot for the moon, asking for all the people we wanted, regardless of how prominent they were. The worst they could do is turn us down. To our surprise, no one turned us down. We pretty much got everyone we wanted. That includes Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, who play two of our camels. Gina Rodriguez had great admiration for the Virgin Mary, and was honored to play the role.
CWR: As you’ve indicated, what makes this film unique is that the Christmas story is told through the perspective of the animals. You called it “the greatest story never told.”
Reckart: Those of us who are cradle-Christians have heard the “greatest story ever told,” how God became man, our entire lives. It’s gotten so familiar that we wanted to tell the story again in a way that would make it fresh and new, so that it would be “the greatest story never told.” That’s what the animals’ point of view does for us; it makes the story feel like something you’re seeing for the first time.
CWR: Tell me about your Catholic upbringing.
Reckart: I was the second of six kids. We were brought up with an emphasis on lay sanctity, the universal call to holiness. Holiness is not just for monks and nuns, but for all of us, whatever job we may do. That means the janitor, the teacher, and the filmmaker. We’re all called to be saints, not just in the monastery, but wherever God has placed you. What that meant growing up was that my parents wanted me to be involved in the world, following my passion of animation.
CWR: You made your own films as a boy?
Reckart: Yes. My mother had a camera for making home videos, so it wasn’t long before me and my five siblings started making our own movies. Having five siblings was cool, as I had five actors at home who could star in my movies.
Today, two of my siblings are involved in the entertainment industry. My older sister is involved in production; my younger brother is a writer.
CWR: They must be excited to see you have your first Hollywood film come out.
Reckart: Yes, it’s hard to believe, but they’ll see my name appear in the credits. I also think it’s going to be a movie they’ll enjoy and share with others.
CWR: You screened the film at the Sheen Center in New York and Cardinal Timothy Dolan was a special guest. How did this event go?
Reckart: It went very well. The Sheen Center looks for that intersection between the Catholic faith and the culture, so The Star was a good fit for them. We had a lot of parochial school leaders there; we wanted to get them fired up about the film and get a lot of Catholic school children going. It’s the perfect thing for them at that age. The cardinal was most gracious, and expressed his appreciation for how we were bringing the Christmas story to the culture.
CWR: Several major figures in the entertainment industry have been in the news recently regarding bad behavior in their personal lives. As a Catholic, do you feel like a fish out of water in Hollywood?
Reckart: No. One thing I’ve learned in working in Hollywood is that it is a big place. The bad stuff you read about in the paper is all there, but there is a lot more there. You have the people who work on sets or other aspects of production who are ordinary working people living lives of virtue.
Parents shouldn’t discourage their kids from coming, telling them it is a moral swamp. We need more good people coming out to Hollywood making a difference. It’s one way we can improve the situation and change the culture for the better.