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A Boy Called Christmas Director on Making the Family Adventure & Sequels

With A Boy Called Christmas now streaming on Netflix, I recently spoke to director Gil Kenan about making this Christmas fantasy film. The film is about a young boy named Nikolas (Henry Lawfull), his pet mouse, and a headstrong reindeer, who set out on an extraordinary adventure to find Nikolas’ father (Michiel Huisman) who is on a quest to discover the fabled village of the elves, Elfhelm. Adapted from the bestselling book by Matt Haig, A Boy Called Christmas also stars Toby Jones, Sally Hawkins, Jim Broadbent, Zoe Colletti, Stephen Merchant, Joel Fry, Rune Temte, and Kristen Wiig.

During the interview, Gil Kenan talks about why he always treats kids like adults, keeping down the costs while keeping up the production value of the vfx, working with a talented cast, and what’s in store for the future, and more. In addition, I jokingly ask if it’s possible that the movie is really about the last moments of Nikolas’s life, as he is freezing outside his house and the movie is his dream before dying.


COLLIDER VIDEO OF THE DAY

Finally, while we have all seen our share of poorly made family films, A Boy Called Christmas is a fantastic film that can also be watched with the entire family. Check out what Kenan had to say below.

COLLIDER: So I’m going to start with a jokey question, but let’s see where it goes. As I was watching the film, which I want to commend you on, you did such a great job with this.

GIL KENAN: Thanks.

But as I was watching it, I was wondering…The beginning of the film, the dad goes to try to find something magical for the king. And you know, Nikolas is then put outside by his aunt, and he mentions how cold it is. So I’m wondering is this entire movie sort of Nicholas imagining an adventure while he’s freezing to death outside in the forest, and we are watching his final moments?


KENAN: So I call this the Little Match Girl hypothesis, and I’ve only heard it once before. And that was when I joked about it at some point toward the end of the shoot, when it occurred to me that there is a different read on this film.

Congratulations. You’re the first person since this movie’s troubled director to come up with the Little Match Girl hypothesis. That was always one of my favorite stories growing up. When I read that as a kid, I read it in a storybook with really upsetting illustrations. I think it was just supposed to be sympathetic illustrations, but the little girl was so sweet. And she was just holding onto this tiny little nub of a match as it went out. I remember the painting. Do you know this story?


A Boy Called Christmas
Image via Netflix

I think I do, but I’m not 100%.

KENAN: It’s basically a story of a child living on the streets of St. Petersburg on the coldest night of winter, trying to sell matches to passersby. They’re all just walking past her, and she’s only got a few matches to spare. She knows she needs to sell them, but she’s just feeling so cold. So she lights one. And she sees something warm and cozy, and then the match goes out. She’s only got one left. She tries to sell it, and no one buys it. So she lights the last one. And there’s just in this incredible feast.

She sort of moves in through the warmth, into this room where she’s given all the things that she’s missing in life, all the food and comfort and warmth. Then the story … It’s a very classic, Russian fable. It sort of ends with this frozen body on the sidewalk. And it’s discovered the next morning by passersby. I think it was a story that was meant to engender empathy for those who have less in the coldest months of the year. That’s certainly not the intention of this story, but it is certainly an interpretation. You are now the second person I’ve ever met, counting myself, who has come up with it.


I can’t believe no one else said that. But yeah. I was watching the movie, and I was like-

KENAN: I think we should be ashamed of ourselves.

We clearly, both have issues. I’ll just say it like that. If I’m not mistaken, you filmed this back in 2019.

KENAN: Yes. Actually, finished filming, because we had to stop for the reset to London. We actually waited several months for winter in London, to shoot the opening and closing scenes, because I had to have all the leaves off the trees. So we waited about four or five months after wrapping the film, or maybe longer. I can’t remember, but we waited quite a while before coming back to film the last bit. So we actually finished right before the pandemic in 2020.


A Boy Called Christmas MAGGIE SMITH
Image via Netflix

RELATED: ‘A Boy Called Christmas’: New Trailer Features Everything You’d Expect, Talking Mouse Included


What’s it been like for you waiting for the film to come out? Because this is a really good movie. It’s not like you’re sitting on trash.

KENAN: Thanks. Well, I had my hands full. I mean, we had so much work to do with the animation and used that time pretty well. Then there were about … I guess we finished a while back last year. It’s hard to answer because the world has changed. I kind of felt excited for it to come out, but I also felt like, what was the rush at this point? It took a while to make, and I was just ready for it to be seen, but in the right way. I don’t think I felt anxious about it, coming out. I was just eager for it to do so.

One of the things that I really like is the way that you…and you do this in all your projects. You’re not talking down to the children, you’re treating them like adults. Can you sort of talk about that aspect of the script? The story deals with death, it deals with grief. And you’re treating the kids with a lot of respect.


KENAN: Thank you. I just so vividly remember the feeling as a young moviegoer, watching a film that felt like it wasn’t disrespecting me by pandering. There’s a bunch of movies I could name, where that happened.

I think one of the pivotal experiences I had as a young moviegoer was watching Time Bandits, and just feeling like the movie was saying, sort of, “Keep up,” instead of, “We’re going to stop it and explain everything to you.” And it felt thrilling to not feel like I was being spoonfed story. I think I just have that always in the back of my head as an instinct in storytelling, that if I’m making something for a wide audience, I’m not going to slow things down for kids. Because kids are incredibly intelligent, both in story and in emotions.

It’s one of the first things we learn is to interpret emotions and even complex emotions. I think that in reading Matt Haig’s novel, I immediately sparked to the idea that he had the same mission. He was telling this story to his kids, and he had enough respect for them to give them the full weight of the human experience in the story he told them. So, I had to sort of honor that in adapting.

There are some adult jokes when all the townsfolk are in front of the king and asking for things. Was that stuff in the book, or that’s just stuff you put in the movie?

KENAN: No, it wasn’t. I sort of riffed on that stuff. Actually, there’s a few scenes that sort of really changed in the film adaptation from the book. If I recall correctly, you don’t actually go to see the king at the beginning of the book. I think it’s sort of spoken about, but not seen.

First of all, Jim Broadbent just is such a complete character. He’s a real MVP because he underplays tone so beautifully, but is always comically charged. The reason that those moments work is just because of his reactions. But it felt like an opportunity to slightly open things up in a Monty Python direction because you can’t have a crowd of period rabble and not allow them to sort of puncture the ridiculousness of the moment. So, even while that scene is rooted in its place and its story, it was a very ripe opportunity to let them lighten the mood a little.


A Boy Called Christmas HENRY LAWFULL
Image via Netflix

Another thing about the film is that it does not slow down. It is a very fast-moving film. Is that similar to the book?

KENAN: Yeah. The book has really ferocious storytelling, which is great. I think that keeps you on the edge of the page as you follow Nicholas on his adventure.

I mean, I think first of all, an adventure film sort of has that direction. It’s like a pointed spear by design. You sort of want to feel like you have the inciting incident that send you off on your way. And then once you do it, there’s a real trajectory, so even if something …

It’s actually the longest film I’ve made or directed, but it moves very quickly because there’s a sort of cascading story. Because of that, I think it just has that sense that there’s always something around every turn.

The thing about this is you have a number of animated characters and VFX. So, talk a little bit about the challenge of pulling all of that off with whatever budget you were given.

KENAN: Well, I was lucky to have Framestore as a partner from pre-production actually on this film. So I met with them and had a sense from the very first conversations, that for them, this was going to be a labor of love. Obviously, we had to pay them too, but the artists who came onto the project from Framestore were passionate about helping me tell this story. Each of them really committed. I mean, they were with me on the very first explorations to Finland that happened early in pre-production, well before we started filming anything.

I had been very specific and careful with the design of the characters so that there wasn’t much left to chance beyond the performance, which obviously is critical, the brilliant animation work. But there was a very precise level of detail and design. One of the ways that we were able to make the most of the budget was by not iterating the thing to death, was by having an idea, working towards it and executing it. I think a lot of times where this process can become unwieldy or below the budget is when you’re rethinking characters or concepts or methodologies halfway or three quarters of the way through making a thing.

So you’re saying that prior planning can save you a lot of money?

KENAN: I’m learning as I go. But yes, that is the lesson here.

What’s also interesting about the film is you are essentially telling an alt origin story of Christmas, or whatever the wording is. Which is an interesting thing, because it’s not what typically is done. Can you sort of talk about that?

KENAN: Yeah. So I hinted to this point a little bit earlier, that Matt Haig who wrote the novel, did it basically to answer a bedtime question that his son Lucas had. His son sort of casually around Christmastime said, “What was Santa Claus like as a kid?” It was a very specific question and it led Matt down this path that became a bedtime story for his kids that then he ended up committing to book form.

But what for me it sparked is the idea that even though Santa Claus is a near universal character and his iconography, his aesthetics, all of it is almost virtually known around this world, there actually is a very personal relationship that everyone has with this character.


That personal relationship is an open door to interpretation. In some ways it’s a character that’s ideally suited for an original take because we sort of know where the character ends up and what role he serves in our lives. But beyond that, there’s a lot of empty page to scribble in.


A Boy Called Christmas Jim Broadbent as Father Vodol
Image via Netflix

Did you have a much longer version, or was it always pretty much what I saw?

KENAN: It was always pretty much that film. Because again, going back to the animation side of it, once he gets Mika on board as a companion, it’s a sort of straight shot till the final beats of the film.

There were a couple of longer passages in the moments from when he left home until when Mika spoke. That could have been a couple of minutes longer, more stuff that I filmed in Finland and Slovakia, including a shot that I really liked when we filmed it, but just never ended up working in the tone of the moment, where Nikolas and Mika stop to pee in the snow on the way to meeting Blitzen.


But ultimately, in terms of narrative, in terms of scene to scene, the film was very tightly plotted. I did something that I’ve done a couple times before, but to a sort of more complete degree on this film, which is that there was a pretty intense level of storyboarding that I did in pre-production. Yeah, and some of the sequences were boarded like a feature animated film, like really beautiful, totally accomplished, beat by beat drawings.

I think that’s probably what you have to do when you want to get the most for your money.

KENAN: I think so. And it’s an indispensable tool for getting a complex crew made up of people from a bunch of different countries, highly skilled, but coming at this with different traditions of filmmaking, to all be making the very same scene.

Kristen Wiig, who I’m obviously a big fan of, plays a small role, but important role in the film. How did you get her in the movie?

KENAN: I asked really nicely. I was really lucky because … So, she’s the first and only actress I approached for Aunt Carlotta. It just so happened that she has always held this secret fantasy of appearing in a quirky English character role. That’s just something she’s wanted to do.

I went after her because like yourself, I imagine, I’m a huge SNL fan and was always in awe of her ability to fully conjure characters that felt seamless and that felt like they had lives that extended in every direction before and after a sketch. But it was just my luck, that actually she harbored a secret fantasy to appear in something weird and English. And this one fit the bill.


A Boy Called Christmas Kristen Wiig as Aunt Carlotta and Henry Lawfull as Nikolas
Image via Netflix

RELATED: ‘A Boy Called Christmas’ Trailer Reimagines the Story of Santa Claus in New Netflix Movie

Obviously, Stephen Merchant is always great in everything. I’m a big fan of his as well. Can you sort of talk about working with someone like that who is so creative on his own and also just such a great writer on his own in terms of creating the character and maybe what he brought to the character that wasn’t on the page?

KENAN: Oh, yeah. I will take full credit for hiring the greatest comic thinker this country has to offer as a voice actor because that meant that every session of recording ended up being a session where we would be writing in real time.

There’s not one scene with Mika where we didn’t elevate by lines that he would write, lines that I would suggest, that then he would improve on. And it always ended up with a version of the character that was coming more and more to life with every session. I can’t believe anybody would do it any other way. Of course, you should be working with performers who are also brilliant writers because they’ll make sure whenever they open their mouth, they say the very best version of a line.

This is if I’m not a mistaken, the first book in a series of five books.

KENAN: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

I know the movie has been on Netflix now for a little bit. And it played in theaters in other countries. Is there any talk of trying to do another adaptation of one of the other books?

KENAN: We’re definitely starting to talk about developing the next story in the cycle. Matt Haig had an ingenious idea, which is that each of the books takes a snapshot at the life of Santa Claus or Father Christmas at different stages in his evolution. So the first book, he’s 12. By the last sort of few pages of the first book, he’s about 20, or something, or 25, but most of the second book takes place at that age. So there’s a really nice evolution in the stories, where you can almost Crown-like, watch a character evolve before your eyes. So yes, we’re starting to figure that out. If we can get a great screenplay, then hopefully we’ll continue to tell these stories.


That’s what I was curious about, because obviously I don’t know the metrics yet via Netflix. I just don’t know what their number is for success. So that’s why I was sort of curious if they’ve said to you, “Hey, you craft a good script.”?

KENAN: Look, I’m really far away in England right now. So I don’t even get to see these charts on the screen, but people send me little snapshots from their screens, from around the world. It seems like the movie is being seen a lot. I’m hearing, in a way that I haven’t on other things I’ve done, a lot of real sort of enthusiasm from folks who are seeing it on a sort of daily, hourly basis since the film came out.

It’s such a nice feeling, especially at this time of year, especially on this year, to feel like there’s something positive that people are connecting with. So my best answer for it is the most honest one, which is that like anything else we do in this business, we’ll work on the story. If the story gets there, I think that we now have at least the beginnings of a fan base for this world of Christmas storytelling.



A Boy Called Christmas Henry Lawfull and Zoe Margaret Colletti
Image via Netflix

What scene or sequence ended up being the thing that was just really hard to get right?

KENAN: Well, interestingly, it was one of the first things that we filmed. I also think it’s one of my favorite moments in the film, but it was probably because it was so difficult to shoot. Through a weird twist of scheduling, I think because of actor availabilities that was going to be happening just after it, we ended up having to shoot a very complex scene of dialogue on a frozen lake, on a mountain in Slovakia as the first proper bit of dialogue acting in the film. It was an eight-and-a-half-page scene, maybe longer. Maybe it was a 10-page scene, when Nikolas almost freezes to death and is revived by Uncle Topo and Little Noosh. And it’s a scene that involved a lot of difficulty.

We had to take snowmobiles just to get to the location. The entire crew was camped out in this tiny kind of off season ski hotel from the ’70s. Just to be able to film it, we had to test the thickness of the frozen lake every half hour or so, to make sure that it could sustain us and the cameras. Because it was so delicate, we couldn’t use any proper equipment like dollies or cranes. We had to devise a bit of equipment that could allow free movement of the camera, but still have the lightness of foot to be able to move around.

Then if that wasn’t all, then right as we were about to start filming the take, there was a true blizzard that began to blow through the place. So, a lot of that scene, if you look closely, there’s howling wind and smoke and snow blowing across the frame. In about three-quarters of the shots, it’s all authentic. It’s exactly what was happening in front of the lens in that moment. I remember feeling like, if we can survive this scene, we could survive the whole movie. So, it was really hard, but also important to the soul of the thing.

It’s also free VFX.

KENAN: Exactly.

I think when I watched, I probably thought it was just VFX. When I look at it again, I love a different opinion.

KENAN: I hope so.

I’m sure you’re developing other things, working on other scripts. What can you tease people?

KENAN: Jason Reitman and I, who wrote Ghostbusters: Afterlife together, have just started a company at Sony. So we are continuing to write together. I was just out in LA last week. That is something I’m very passionately excited about. We’ve got lots of stories to tell. I think that’s the main thing I can tease.

The other thing is, I’m starting to talk to the producers who I made A Boy Called Christmas with about another story. I don’t quite want to reveal it yet, but it’s a big adventure that takes place in a very different environment from A Boy Called Christmas. But I’m really excited about it.


A Boy Called Christmas Miika the Mouse
Image via Netflix

RELATED: ‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’: Gil Kenan on Writing the Script With Jason Reitman and Making a Film For Both Fans and Non-Fans

Do you see yourself next year, filming something?

KENAN: Yeah, I think I might be filming something in the second half of 2022. Yeah, I’m just starting to plot that.

That’s what you’re fully working on right now. And hopefully, it will come together.

KENAN: That’s exactly right. It’s one of the reasons I’m still out here in the UK and really… Also, it turns out that I work … I feel like the creativity is flowing for me out here. Also, in my writing relationship with Jason, the time difference has ended up being really helpful. We get a lot more done every day by extending the day to about 36 hours. So yeah, it’s an interesting time. I’m having fun.

A lot of filmmakers I know, talk about that because of the explosion of content with streamers and with movies and television, that a real issue is getting sound stages and crews. Have you already started thinking about that in terms of, “Where can I actually film something?”?

KENAN: Yes.

… apparently that’s a real challenge.

KENAN: So basically, Netflix and Disney own most of the stages in the UK now. There’s been a shopping spree over the last few years. It just so happens that they also produce most of the films in the world. So I think that’s a proportional relationship. But yes, even back when we started to plot A Boy Called Christmas, before we started filming. So when we were in pre-production in 2018, it was already a mad scramble to find stages, that this is not a new issue. It’s been happening well pre-pandemic.

There is a scramble to build new stages. I think this is only going to exacerbate. I mean, at the end of the day, even though it’s a problem that has to be dealt with, it’s a really good thing for the state of professional storytelling as an enterprise. It means that it’s a bustling industry. People have a clamoring for story more than they ever did. And so, for the folks who tell stories for a living, it’s a good problem to have ultimately.


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