Interview: Gil Kenan and Henry Lawfull of “A Boy Called Christmas”

Posted on November 28, 2021 at 11:32 am

Copyright 2021 Netflix
“Was Santa ever a little boy?” This question from his young son inspired author Matt Haig to create an origin story for Santa Claus with A Boy Called Christmas, now an enchanting, star-filled movie on Netflix. In an interview, director Gil Kenan and young actor Henry Lawfull, who plays the title character, talked about creating the world of the story and what gives them hope.

Gil, there’s such a lushness to the soundtrack by Dario Marinelli. How did you talk to him about creating the score?

Gil Kenan: I’ve been a fan of Dario’s music for as long as I’ve been seeing his name associated with films. From “Atonement” to his work with Laika and “Kubo and the Two Strings.” And his work scoring the “Bumblebee” film, the Transformers film. He always brings such beautiful emotion, and musicality to his work.

It was a very natural process, actually. I reached out to him as a fan and I said I would love to have a conversation about a score. And he didn’t know much at the beginning of our conversations. But he read the script. And he came up to meet me in Prague, where we were based for pre-production. And we just had a wonderful conversation about the approach to making a classic film score that would allow us to let the character, the theme, and the adventure come together in a way that would lift all three up.

I loved our collaboration. He was so cool and inventive in the way that he approached the scoring. He brought in some classic Finnish instrumentation to the film that was such a joy for me to experience as a music lover. Some of the fiddle playing in the Resistance party in the film — the cues for the music played there is based on very old folk music from Scandinavia. The phrasing, the instrumentation, he just approaches it with so much passion and joy.

So for me, it was an absolute wonder seeing the music come together. And you get this wonderful experience when you’re in the scoring stage hearing the music start to play and come to life. All of a sudden the entire work of telling the story starts to lift up on its tiptoes. And you really feel that sense of life rushing through the story. I’m so glad you’re bringing it up. He deserves so much love and affection for the one that he’s done.

I also want to ask about the production design, which has such a rich sense of detail, just at the intersection of reality and fairy tale.

GK: The journey with Gary Williamson has been one of the great collaborations in my career. I’ve just so loved bringing the design of this world to life. Gary and I actually were the very beginning of this process. I came on to adapt, and then develop this, and Gary was my first hire. And he and I sat at a big table covered in white paper and drew out the entire film as a map. But it was more than a map, it was sort of a living illustration. And we kept growing it and elaborating, and when we came away from it, it looked like a future concept of what the film was going to be. And so it was an absolute joy. He pushed at every turn to build, and make things as real, and tangible as possible. And Henry will speak a little bit I’m sure to the performers side of that. But I will say as a storyteller, as a filmmaker to allow the camera to properly step into Elfhelm, to see the streets and all the buildings fully realized is an experience that you can’t replicate using digital tools. Even though they’re incredibly useful, and I love using them to show things that aren’t possible, there is a grounded quality to being able to have big real sets. That is something I’ll always push for. And Gary is a hero in my book.

Henry, let’s talk a little bit about the stuff that was real, and the stuff that was not real. How did you feel the first time that you walked into Elfhelm?

Henry Lawfull: It was incredible. I remember I first visited the set when it was in construction, and just saw basically the wooden framework of this crazy village as it was in construction, which is really cool. And then I remember going back maybe a month later and seeing it all painted. And like this magical incredible village. It was beautiful. And then obviously to work there, and to act with it just made you feel as if you were in that situation. And for me, it brought a lot to help me with my performance just to be surrounded by that real world and to feel the characters emotions seeing this crazy place. It was amazing for me, just to see what these people can do, to build some massive village out of wood just for a film.

So, what did you do to interact with the parts of the film that were not real, like the digital creatures?

HL: There were a lot of different methods we used for bringing the characters to life, especially Miika and Blitzen . And then obviously, the troll. It was all a great part of the experience. For example, the troll scene. I remember I spent a lot of time dangling from wires and doing stunt stuff as if I was being eaten by a troll, which was this massive, giant puppet that they’d built. So that was a lot of fun to do. And then the mouse for me was Gil. He did the voice of the mouse while we were filming. I never actually heard him as Stephen Merchant until we did the audio stuff in post-production, and it was so funny hearing his voice. Obviously, it’s a challenge just working with a puppet or a little wire with some green tape or a tennis ball or something rather than a real-life mouse. But they made everything around me, and this amazing cast, the costumes, the village made it all feel real. So although I might be speaking to a tennis ball at that certain point, everything else around me felt magical. And hopefully, you can see that.

GK: That’s good to hear. If I can just add to that having worked with performers of every age now in my career, I’ve learned that there’s never such a thing as giving too much input in the shooting of the film to help to fill in the empty spaces that will one day in the future become filled in. And so bringing in real puppeteers as part of our main unit of crew was indispensable in this process. They were so incredible at bringing to life the moments between the moments. And when Henry was in the snowy birch forest meeting Blitzen for the first time, we used three different techniques to bring Blitzen into life on the screen. But the one that for me brings the most emotion to the surface was a puppeteer shot where there was just unbelievable nuance in the movement of the two puppeteers working in tandem. And hopefully one day some of that behind the scenes gets released because you do see so much magic on the screen even with just these gray puppets interacting with Henry.

Copyright 2021 Netflix

You weren’t afraid to include some melancholy to keep the story from being too sugary. That was such a smart, brave choice.

GK: It was something that took me by surprise in Matt Higgs’ book the first time I read it. It made me realize that there was fantastic current in this story that could elevate the brighter moments, the joyous moments, the moments of hope. Because the truth is that those concepts, joy, whatever it is we think of as joy, whatever it is we think of as hope, all of those moments are only as bright as the darker moments that are around them. And so the truth is that for all of us, Christmas is a holiday that we come to with great expectation and nostalgia or emotional currents that remind us of moments from our childhood or families. But there is also weight to this time of year. And part of that is just calendar-based. The days are short, the nights are long, it’s cold out but also that in the great tradition of classic fairy tale storytelling there is an opportunity in a young person’s adventure to not hold back from the full scope of human emotion, and experience.

I remember as a young audience member watching films growing up, and the ones that felt like they actually connected with me were the ones that didn’t pander, that didn’t hold back from the full weight of human experience. And I remember thinking that as a very young kid in a darkened movie theater, thinking that the movies that showed me that life wasn’t all sugar, plum, and cakes were the ones that I respected because they respected me back as an audience. I believe as a storyteller that it’s my responsibility to try to respect the emotional intelligence of my audience no matter what their age is. So that was my approach.

The movie asks the question about what gives us hope. What gives you hope, both of you?

GK: Stories give me hope every time. Story and storytelling is where I find my inspiration. It’s where I refill and recharge. It’s a very difficult time for everyone right now. And what I find gives me purpose, and when I wake up in the morning helps me to focus on which direction I want to be pointed at, is thinking about what stories I’m going to be busying myself with. And it’s such an honor to be able to tell one that I hope will connect with audiences here.

HL: I think for me, seeing loved ones, friends, and family around me happy, and doing well, and succeeding is a massive inspiration. It makes me happy to see friends and family and loved ones happy. So I guess it could go both ways where I try and stay hopeful and optimistic and happy. And that gets me through some of the worst times, seeing loved ones happy. It goes both ways.

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The Filmmakers on “The Mitchells vs. The Machines”

Posted on April 27, 2021 at 11:17 am

I was lucky enough to attend a press event featuring the producers Chris Miller and Phil Lord (the “LEGO Movie”) and producer Kurt Albrecht, along with co-writer and co-director, Michael Rianda. The moderator was my good friend and fellow Washington DC film critic Kevin McCarthy. Some highlights:

“Despite not having gone through a robot apocalypse, it’s a very personal story for me,” said Rianda, who also provides some of the voices in the film. “The dad is based on why day who would always say, ‘Put down your Gameboy! There’s a sparrow!’ My dad loved nature to a degree that is haunting.” He said everyone on the team brought their own family histories and experiences to the film, and that is why it was important to him to have not just the names but the photos of the filmmakers and the families in the closing credits. Miller said his dad was also a nature nut who loved to stop in the middle of family car trips to have a snowball fight or enjoy the outdoors.

Copyright Netflix 2021

The main character in the film is Katie, voiced by Abbi Jacobson, an aspiring filmmaker. In her room she has a Mount Rushmore of filmmakers. So McCarthy asked the panel who they would pick for their own Mount Rushmore. All of them agreed on Hal Ashby (“Shampoo,” “Harold and Maude,” “Being There”), which is probably how he ended up on Katie’s wall. Rianda also picked Studio Ghibli animation giants Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata along with Martin Scorsese. Lord said that at Katie’s age he would have added Tim Burton, Spike Lee, Chuck Jones (bold and inventive) and Mel Brooks. Miller picked the Coen brothers, Billy Wilder, and Akira Kurosawa. Albrecht would select Steven Spielberg and Pixar’s Brad Bird.

A theme in the film is social media and the feelings of inadequacy and competitiveness it can entail. “Everyone thinks their family is nuts,” Rianda said. And when you finally admit it, the response is always, “Mine, too!” He said they wanted the Mitchells to be dysfunctional but loving. Casting real-life husband and wife and social media stars Chrissy Teigen and John Legend as the impossibly aspirational Instagramers the Mitchells envy turned out even better than he expected because they were so warm and accessible and eager to improvise. “Even though they seem perfect, they are very relatable.”

Another theme audiences will recognize is the Mitchells’ tendency to be on their phones instead of looking at what is in front of them. Rianda said that in his own life he has experimented with putting his and his wife’s phone in a safe at night and “in eight minutes you’re having the deepest conversation you’ve had in years. ‘What was your childhood like?’ You have to fill the silence somehow!” Miller’s family has a no-screens-at-the-table rule.

Lord talked about technological innovation in the film, and the fun of “taking it for a spin to see what it could do.” He wanted a “handmade, hand-painted, textured” look to the film, a “watercolor, ramshackle vibe.” The 1:85 ratio of the image also made it feel more intimate, as though you were in the Mitchells’ home.

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Malcom Lee on Updating The Best Man

Posted on April 11, 2021 at 1:58 pm

Copyright Universal 1999

I was lucky enough to join a small group of journalists for an interview with Lee about the original film and the updates. He told us that it was the sixth script he wrote while he was still living in his parents’ basement, and the thought that if this one did not sell, he might give up.

He said that Jeff Friday and Nicole Friday of the American Black Film Festival, the founders wanted to honor him and the cast for the 20th anniversary of its release, but because of the pandemic it was postponed and they got IMDb to televise it. “I asked the cast if they wanted to do it and they kind of all jumped at the chance to do so because the film was wildly respected, loved and beloved. We got together. It was a really good fun time. Lot of laughs. A lot of stories exchanged. Things I didn’t know. Things that they didn’t know. There’s a lot of great energy when we get together. I think it’s a testament to how the actors feel about the movie and about each other.” And we can look forward to another update on Peacock: “The Best Man: Final Chapters

Lee said he never planned that it would become a franchise.

My inspiration and impetus for writing “The Best Man” was the fact that I wasn’t seeing myself represented on screen. The people that I knew, Black American educated middle class aspirational people in movies and television to that point were very unrecognizable to me. Super stiff, clipped English, and devoid of cultural specificity. I said, “I love reunion movies. I love college movies.” College movies rather. I remember seeing “Waiting to Exhale,” which is four very distinct black women and they were all these unremarkable archetypal black men portrayed and I was like, “I want four Black men.” This is fully different and it will all be college friends and have different philosophies and what not and that was the kind of the impetus behind it. The fact that people really took to the movie is great and there was talk of a sequel back then but I didn’t want to be a one trick pony. I didn’t want to just tell one kind of story. I said, “If I’m going to revisit these characters,” which I was interested in doing but I want to do it like maybe 10 years later when the characters have a chance to live some life, and I had a chance to live some life and so that we could tell a fuller story. Not just be like, “What different story are we going to tell now that we just told a year ago.” A lot of time when they make sequels it’s a money grab. It’s like, “Oh. How do I what I did? How do I capture that magic again?”

One core element of the original film was a character’s writing a novel that exposed some of his friend’s secrets, so it was inevitable to ask Lee whether he based the characters on people he knew and how they responded.

It is funny too because the friends that thought they were those characters. I was like, “Well you were not exactly the person I was thinking of.” What’s great about it is that I took pieces from a lot of different people. I knew what I wanted for each of these characters and who I wanted them to be but nobody was a specific individual. They were just pieces of people.

We asked him about casting.

I think when we go to the movies there’s an aspirational aspect, a heightened reality, a little bit of an escapism as well, but also a place where we can say, “Oh like that I can relate.” People love seeing people get married. People love seeing beautiful people get married. And we had such a tremendous response in the acting community to the script. A lot of black actors weren’t getting that opportunity to play full people. Here was an opportunity for eight of them to play these roles. Not just to be the sidekick or the best friend or the one that’s packing the funny jokes or the sassy one or whatever. It was an opportunity for them to play real people and so the response was tremendous.
They were all very excited to take this on.

There was a real joy and opportunity for them to showcase themselves. They trusted the script. They trusted me. I wasn’t just like, “All right. Let’s read the lines.” We worked rehearsal for two weeks. Really let them dive into character and backstory and subtext. I think that was what they were all really excited about and all wanted it to be great. It was even more so for “Best Man Holiday” because the energy in Hollywood was in a weird place at that time where they weren’t really putting much stock into African American-cast movies.

We had to ask about “Space Jam: A New Legacy.”

I think it’s probably the coolest movie that I have ever done. I really like the movie. I like and care about the characters. I think it’s fun. I think it’s funny. There’s a lot to like about it.

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Interview: Glen Keane of “Over the Moon”

Posted on October 23, 2020 at 11:54 am

I’ve been a huge fan of Glen Keane for as long as I can remember.  As a Disney animator, he worked on classics like “The Rescuers,” “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Tangled,” and “Pocahontas.” And now, for the first time, he has directed an animated film, the gorgeously designed and heart-warming “Over the Moon.”

You have probably seen Keane as a child. His father, the legendary cartoonist Bil Keane, created the Family Circus comic panel, based on the Keane’s own family and with the distinctive round shape. The comic is still run by Keane’s siblings.

Copyright 2020 Bill and Jeff Keane

Keane gave a virtual interview to Critics Choice members this week. He told us about having his father work from home, drawing Family Circus, and how much it inspired him. When he was very young, his father told him, “I am a cartoonist, but you are an artist,” which made him feel, he said, as though he had just been knighted with a sword. His father gave him a book to get him started, called Dynamic Anatomy, which got him started on understanding how to draw the human figure. One day, when he was about 8, some kids on the school bus made fun of him for drawing nude figures, the classical images of the discus thrower and The Thinker. He said at first he was uncomfortable being laughed at, but then he thought about how much he liked drawing and he said, “I’m different! I like it!”

“Over the Moon,” inspired by a Chinese legend, is the story about a young girl who builds a rocket ship to the moon so she can meet the moon goddess. Keane said that the stories he most loves to tell are about “characters who believe the impossible is possible.” “Over the Moon’s” Fei Fei was “the ultimate.” She has the science and math skills to think through the engineering challenges and the faith that the moon goddess is really there.

Copyright Netflix 2020

I asked about the most important element of character design. He said, “They exist before you design them. It’s a weird thing, but that has been my experience. Like the Beast. I had hundreds and hundreds of drawings of him, but I would look at them and think, ‘I don’t recognize him.’ I like the buffalo head shape, the lion’s mane, the boar tusks, the cow ears to make him friendlier, and then suddenly — that’s him. I felt like he was looking at me. It’s a revealing of the character. For Fei Fei, I wanted to see that intelligence, that spark, thinking her way through things, but also that faith.” He said he focuses on the hair — making a joke about compensating for his own lack of hair. But it is always a symbol of the struggle of the character. “For Rapunzel, her hair was irrepressible, uncontainable. For Pocahontas, it showed the spirit moving in her. For Ariel, the hair always looked like it was floating in the water. Tarzan was like a wild animal with the dreadlocks. And for Fei Fei, her chopped off hair is a constant reminder of that chaos in her life. That design choice dictated so much, too. hHer eyebrows had to be really bold and strong. And if you’re going to make a mistake in design, don’t let it be in the eyes. They are the windows of the soul.”

Copyright Netflix 2020

Keane told us about his first assignment at Disney, one brief scene in “The Rescuers” of a character named Bernard sweeping the floor. But he couldn’t get it right. “I thought I was single-handedly going to destroy Disney’s reputation. Pencil points were breaking off.”

Keane asked Eric Larson, one of the “Nine Old Men,” the legendary Disney animators of films like “Pinocchio” and “Cinderella,” for advice. “I thought Eric was going to give me some kind of a formula.” Instead of guidance on the movement, Larson asked, “What kind of a guy is Bernard? Does he care about his job? Of course he does! He wants to sweep up every speck off that floor.” “Within seconds he was the character,” Keane told us. “I realized that sincerity was make-believe. That’s been the thread for me in everything I’ve done, to live in the character, to believe in it, the passion of becoming something you can see and feel in your heart.”

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Interview: Aaron Sorkin on “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Posted on October 14, 2020 at 8:00 am

Copyright Netflix 2020

Aaron Sorkin answered questions from a small group of critics about “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” premiering this Friday, October 16, on Netflix. The all-star cast play the eight men accused of conspiracy and incitement to riot at demonstrations during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. The highly unpopular Vietnam war and the frustration with candidates who seemed old and out of touch, the fury at the loss of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy earlier that year, led several groups to send protesters to the convention. Mayor Richard J, Daley called in the National Guard and gave the local police orders to “shoot to kill.” The battle between the police and the demonstrators became very violent and many were arrested and injured.

In the film, Nixon’s new Attorney General, John Mitchell (later sent to prison himself for crimes associated with Nixon’s re-election and the Watergate scandal) orders the District Attorney to bring charges. Among the eight defendants (later reduced to seven when one’s case was separated), the two characters that are the focus of the film are the flamboyant, outspoken Abbie Hoffman (Sasha Baron Cohen) and the quieter, more traditional Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne).

Sorkin told us that he first met with Steven Spielberg in 2006 to talk about the film. Spielberg asked Sorkin if he would be interested in writing a film about the Chicago 7. Sorkin said “It sounds like a great idea; I’d love to do it,” then “as soon as I left his house I called my father to ask who the Chicago 7 were.”

The trial, which was filled with colorful characters and memorable confrontations, exemplified and embodied many of the conflicts of the era, between old and young (this was the era when the term “generation gap” was popular), between tradition and upheaval in resolving issues of civil rights and social justice.

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It was front page news around the world in 1969 but not generally remembered today. “I had to go to school on this,” Sorkin told us. That included the many books on the trial and the 21,000-page trial transcript. But most valuable to him was the time he spent talking with the late Tom Hayden, one of the leaders of the group. “In my head, the film organized itself into three stories that would be told at once: the courtroom drama, the evolution of what was supposed to be a peaceful protest into a riot, a violent clash with the police and the National Guard, and the third story, one that wasn’t in any of the books or the trial transcript, and that I would only be able to get from Tom, was the relationship between Tom and Abbie , two guys on the same side who can’t stand each other, who each think the other is doing harm to the movement, but in the end they come to respect each other. I turned in the first draft and the next day the Writer’s Guild went on strike.”

So, everything was on hold and the film kept getting “kicked down the road for a while, until two things happened at once. One was that Donald Trump got elected. And he was holding big rallies where he would say of a protester, ‘In the old days they would have carried that guy out of here on a stretcher; I’d like to punch him in the face and beat the crap out of him,’ being nostalgic for 1968, and by that time I had directed my first film, ‘Molly’s Game,’ so Steven said, ‘The time is now and you should direct it.'”

“We thought the film was pretty relevant when we were making it last winter. We didn’t need it to get more relevant, but obviously, it did.” He spoke about seeing tear gas and nightsticks used at the Black Lives Matter protests “with Donald Trump in the role of Mayor Daley. We couldn’t believe our eyes; it was chilling, it was shocking.” He said he had been asked whether he made changes in the script to reflect the current conflicts, to make the parallels more explicit. “The answer is, not a word, not a frame. Events in the world changed to mirror the script…Ultimately, I feel like the film has been on a 14-year crash course with history.”

The only part of the story that could not be found in a book or the trial transcript was the relationship between Hayden and Hoffman, so that became the heart of the story. There was another key point he learned from Hayden that becomes significant in the film, which I won’t spoil here. “It’s a personal story. Most of the conflict in the story is about ideas, but it gets more personal than that. I was coming at these people and at this event with next to no knowledge at all…Coming at this with no preconceived notions turned out to be a blessing. I had a hard time getting fully on board with Abbie Hoffman…I found his antics counterproductive, the way Hayden does. I wanted to have my cake and eat it, too. But I wanted him to be a hero. Tom and Abbie kind of balance each other out. It’s a reflection of the Democratic party today, the intramural friction between the left and the further left, between people who want incremental change and want to work within the system and people who are tired of incremental change and want revolution. I have respect for both of those points of view and I have respect for both men as well as the others, and I thought that was an argument that belonged in this film and that the tension throughout between the two of them that was leading to an explosion in the third act was helpful for the film.”

Sorkin talked to “smart people” of the era, not necessarily involved but with strong, principled views about the issues and who was right and who was wrong, “to see how much of other people’s intelligence I could borrow and inject into the film.”

He talked about the challenges of shooting riot scenes on a budget, with help from the real-life locations, like Chicago’s Grant Park, which allowed them to blend new footage with archival images. “I don’t want to be glib, but the tear gas was helpful, too, having all that smoke, we could camouflage certain things, make it look like more people there than there really were.”


Sorkin talked about what it is appropriate to change in a story based on real life. “There’s a difference between what you are doing and journalism, just like there’s a difference between a painting and a photograph.” He gave an example from “The Social Network,” where in real life Zuckerberg drank beer, but Sorkin thought a screwdriver was “more cinematic.” Director David Fincher disagreed, and in the movie it is beer. Here, one departure from the real story was the look of the courtroom itself. The real-life courtroom was an unprepossessing mid-century design that “looked like a middle school multi-purpose room.” The grander one in the film better suggests the power dynamic in the force of the US government being brought to bear on the protesters. “Real courtroom scenes aren’t as entertaining and snappy and dramatic.” And the real trial went on for almost six months. “Your inner compass has to decide what’s an important truth and what’s an unimportant truth — and if yours is broken, the studio legal department will be glad to help you out.”

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