Timothy Reckart is a 30-year-old animated film writer/producer/director and the first Hollywood filmmaker I’ve ever heard use the word catechesis correctly in a sentence—or use it at all, for that matter.
That word, as well as a lot of others, came into play during a phone interview I had with him this past July, when we not only discussed his upcoming Christmas movie, The Star (scheduled for nationwide release November 17), but also how his personal and spiritual beliefs have informed his career.
Reckart’s interest in movie-making had its roots in his childhood in Tucson, Arizona, when he “hired” his siblings as the production crew for his homemade movies while he took on the combined role of cameraman and director. His parents, Jane and Tim Sr., served as the audience for the homemade films and encouraged him to continue, even willing to tolerate the ketchup-based fake blood concoction he kept in the refrigerator for the more violent scenes.
From Homemade Movies to the Oscars
But it was Head over Heels, the stop-action film he made before graduating from the National Film and Television School in England, that launched Reckart’s professional career—quite auspiciously, as it turned out. Head over Heels is about an aging married couple with communication issues—“a story about love, but not love as feelings, but love as an act,” Reckart explains.
“In the film, the protagonists know and feel that their marriage is not working and take action to restore the unity of their commitment to one another,” he says.
“Love and relationships are a deep source for stories. And rather than showing marriage, for example, as a simple ‘school of love,’ I’d rather show how much continual effort it requires to make it work.”
The film was subsequently nominated for an Academy Award in 2013 in the Best Animated Short Film category.
A Career with Faith at the Core
Following that, Reckart took on the role as lead animator for Charlie Kaufman’s 2015 Oscar-nominated animated feature, Anomalisa. The comedy-drama is about a successful motivational speaker who wrote a book about customer service, yet finds himself in the throes of an existential crisis, further complicated by an extramarital affair.
It was during Reckart’s work on this fi lm that his personal and professional values collided with the requirements of his job—specifically when he was asked to animate an explicit sex sequence. Aware that he could be fi red for opting out of part of a production based on his personal objections to the material, he nonetheless stood firm, recognizing that animating the scene would be in stark opposition to who he was and who he wanted to be as a filmmaker.
“I decided that, even if they did fire me, I would be OK with it,” Reckart says, “because I did it for the right reasons.” As it turned out, standing up for his values didn’t cost him his job, with the producer noting, “You’re the third animator who had asked not to animate those scenes.”
“Our parents knew that teaching us the faith was their job and that they couldn’t hand catechesis off to someone else.”
I asked Reckart where he found the confidence to hold fast to his beliefs, and he credited it to the ethics and religious values instilled in him by his parents. The second eldest of six children, he was raised in the Catholic faith, although his first eight years of schooling took place in an Episcopal school, followed by four years at a public high school—choices made by his parents because they felt both schools to be the best in the area.
“This was a good thing,” explains Reckart. “Our parents knew that teaching us the faith was their job and that they couldn’t hand catechesis off to someone else.”
He remained active in the Catholic faith, and in 2014 he and filmmaker Hana Kitasei were married at St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church in Ossining, New York. His faith and directing career meshed with his latest project, The Star, by Sony Studios under its faith-based wing, Affirm Films.
A Different Kind of Nativity Story
In The Star, the Nativity story is told through the eyes of Bo the Donkey (voiced by Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead and Okja).
The story begins with Bo dreaming of a life beyond working the village mill and the daily grind of life, imagining joining the parade of horses in a royal caravan. Envisioning the possibility for greatness, the donkey breaks free, but is disappointed when, rather than being part of a royal caravan, he ends up serving as transport for a lowly carpenter and his very pregnant wife: Joseph and Mary on their way to Bethlehem. Ultimately, he realizes that Mary is carrying the Son of God, who will be born in a barn in humble surroundings, just as Bo was.
During the journey, Bo teams up with other animals, offering audiences an up-close-and-personal view of their experiences, and the story ends in a way Bo never imagined for himself or for the world. “He realizes that great things can have humble appearances,” says Reckart, “and decides to stay with his new friends out of love, even though it is a sacrifice for him.”
In addition to the voices of a host of well-known stars, The Star features a new title song by Mariah Carey. DeVon Franklin, who produced the modest hit Miracles from Heaven in 2016, also produces here.
Other characters in The Star are voiced by Gina Rodriguez (Mary), Christopher Plummer (King Herod), Zachary Levi (Joseph), Kris Kristofferson (Old Donkey), Patricia Heaton (Edith the Cow), Delilah Rene (Elizabeth), Kristin Chenoweth (Abby the Mouse), Keegan-Michael Key (Dave the Dove), Anthony Anderson (Zach the Goat), Gabriel Iglesias (Rufus the Dog), and Kelly Clarkson (Leah the Horse). Tracy Morgan, Tyler Perry, and Oprah Winfrey provide comic relief as the voices of the three camels: Felix, Cyrus, and Deborah, respectively.
Directing an animated Christmas feature attracted Reckart because it brought back memories of watching Christmas movies as a child—a tradition in his family.
“Growing up Catholic, we celebrated the holiday by watching Christmas movies and listening to Christmas music. We’d pull out the box of videotapes and CDs from storage every year. There were Santa Claus movies, of course, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and others about Christmas, but no high-quality, studio-produced movie about the Nativity,” he says. “What appealed to me about directing The Star is that it would be an opportunity to watch an entertaining animated movie about the birth of Jesus every year. This is what attracted me to the project; I couldn’t believe it had not been done before.”
For Reckart, telling the Christmas story in a less literal way by using talking animals in key narrative roles feels more like a bedtime story. “Using talking animals is not just for children or adults, but occupies a space in between so families can connect with the heart of the story, which is love.”
Art as a Vocation
It is this interest in telling deeply human stories, including those that deal with the value of sacrifice and even suffering, that motivates Reckart in his choice of artistic projects to pursue. “Somewhere along the way, we have swallowed a misconception of how humanity really works. For example, we have a fear of suffering, but anyone who has ever won a game in sports knows how much suffering and sacrifice is involved in training for it.”
As for how his faith has influenced his art, he recalls something he read once “that everything that is true and beautiful is Catholic. Some stories may not be explicitly religious, but you just have to baptize them with what is true and beautiful.” He views creating art as his vocation, explaining: “There is an emphasis on the sanctity of the laity. We are all called to be saints, whether you are a janitor, lawyer, priest, or nun. The call to sanctity must play out in the world by each of us.
“This is why I want to make films, because it requires a deep engagement with the world through my vocation as a lay Catholic. This is where I want to be in that struggle to be in the world but not of the world, to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. I am so passionate about making cinematic art; it’s the playing field for my vocation. It’s where God wants me to be.”