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Hero image for Christmas

Christmas

Film (Full Length, Trailer, and Extras) – 2004

R16
Restricted

The making of Christmas

In 2001 Producer Leanne Saunders approached me about applying to Creative New Zealand to make a digital feature film. The deadline was only weeks away and I madly went for it and created a script loosely drawing on, and imagining off, my own experience. We submitted, and to our joy we were awarded the grand sum of 25 thousand dollars to make a feature film.

I had designed the script with the low budget in mind: containing all the action in one location, a house. I had also approached my Mum and Dad who live in Whangarei, about using their house for the shoot. They agreed, amazingly generous as always, and we paid them a minimal sum towards a short holiday in the Coromandel while we shot for three weeks. This was such a generous gift: the film could not have happened if we had not been able to get our location for next to nothing.

We cast pretty extensively for the main roles. I was looking for people that had something unique - a special openness about them - and whom I felt would allow me to lead them to naturalistic performances.

We found that the combination of the relatively radical script and the fact that there was hardly any money weeded out the boring and the meek! In the end the cast was composed of people with a mix of experience.

Take David Hornblow who plays prodigal son Keri. David has a natural intelligence and rich life story. Because he was so trusting and open to direction, and because we had the time, we where able to create an amazing performance. It stands out in the NZ Cinema canon and David should have had more attention and credit for his achievement.

Then there was Darien Tackle who played Loma, the Mother and Wife. Darien had experience in theatrical and musical performance, which are quite exaggerated forms, but she also has a great desire to go deep. She gave a brave, brilliant cinematic performance and was duly awarded at the NZ Film Awards.

Actually I am very proud of all the actors work in Christmas. We also had an open, talented Director of Photography in Ginny Loane. Ginny came on board agreeing to work for next to nothing, bringing with her much needed equipment and providing invaluable experience to the production.

The shoot was an amazing experience, which will remain one of those unique special times in a life's memory.

We all stayed together at the Alpha Motor Camp, a quick walk away from the location. It was exciting - like going away on a creative camp for adults. I remember on the first night we were all partying in one of the rooms when the owner appeared armed with a baseball bat. Apparently a serial stalker/rapist was on the loose in the camp. As suddenly as he appeared, the owner left again without question.

We had also cast actors and crew locally, from Whangarei. Our make up/hair person, Henry de Silva, was a Colombian who had ended up running a salon in Whangarei. I think at one time he had cut hair in Hollywood. He was a diminutive, dapper little man with a sneaky moustache and buffed hair - very enthusiastic. He would park his large mobile unit at the bottom of the driveway; across its sides was the title: 'Henry Da Silva, Hairdresser to the Stars.'

Again I am so proud of the actors. We were ambitious in our shooting technique: lots of long takes where the actors had to hit their point in the choreography of a scene or else the whole thing wouldn't work. To ask non-actors or actors with little experience to do this was demanding, and for them being able to pull it off was something close to a miracle. It was a wonderful, eclectic little ensemble.

We had one horror moment halfway through the shoot when we discovered the sound was being recorded at the wrong speed. We corrected and moved on but this ended up being trouble later and we had to do some remedial work to get it all lined up. Our saviour in post was Sound Designer Rachel Shearer who did a great job with the material she had.

We were all pretty shattered and exhausted at the end of the shoot - I remember David ended up in hospital on a vitamin drip, and I broke out in large boil like hives from head to toe.

I edited the film together with Wellington filmmaker Campbell Walker, who had, with his colleagues Colin Hodson and Diane McAllen, made the digital feature I Cant Stop This Uncontrollable Dancing [flag-bearer of the so-called Aro Valley film movement]. We cut in our prospective bedrooms in Auckland and Wellington over a few months on Premier One. It was a challenging time, but eventually after several test screenings and cuts we locked the film off.

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The life of a film

We began sending our little film off to the major festivals and it joined the flood of films these festivals receive. To our surprise we found out in a short space of time that we had been selected for Toronto, Edinburgh, Locarno and Melbourne, which was amazing considering how the film had come into being.

On the back of this international recognition we applied to the New Zealand Film Commission to get a blow up to 35mm film from digital video. However we where rejected after putting a strong case forward, which was heartbreaking (something that would happen again with my next feature A Song of Good).

This meant our master and exhibition copies where on digital video and it meant our exhibition possibilities, and the quality of the screenings to potential investors and audiences was drastically reduced. In the end the film failed to secure a cinema release in NZ, which was tragic. Ditto: A Song of Good.

Christmas went on to have its international premiere in Melbourne after screening at The NZ International Film Festival, then onto Locarno, Edinburgh and Toronto and beyond.

We amazingly got a review in US industry mainstay Variety: "this is a most impressive feature debut from Kiwi helmer Gregory King. Nearly all the players are non-professionals, which makes the fantastic naturalistic performances all the more impressive."  

NZ film critic Chris Knox, reviewing the film in The Listener put it equal with much lauded NZ drama In My Fathers Den when he said "Den's Brad McGann comes up with one of the best movies ever out of this country, with a decent budget [...]. For Christmas, Gregory King does comparably wondrous things with the mere whiff of an oily rag ...".

In the Edinburgh International Film Festival programme it was lauded: "out of bleak material, King has crafted a blackly comic, weirdly-touching comedy drama, at times wildly funny, at others anguished and intimate [...]. As a piece of filmmaking, this is exciting - unlike anything else in New Zealand cinema past or present."

New Zealand International Film Festival chief Bill Gosden wrote that: "This singular, bleakly funny, R-rated vision of Kiwi life clinches King's position as the most distinctive new voice in NZ film, as insistent and inescapable as The Warehouse jingle."

At the 2003 NZ Film and Television Awards a new category had been created to recognise digital filmmaking. Christmas was up against Florian Habicht's Woodenhead among others. Christmas ended up taking out all four digital categories: Best Film (Leanne Saunders and Gregory King), Best Script (Gregory King), Best Performance (Darien Tackle) and Best Technical Contribution (Art Director Caroline Faigan).

Today Christmas has become a cult New Zealand film and features regularly on top ten NZ film lists. However it failed to make the cut in Hamish McDouall's recent book 100 Essential NZ Films - this is perhaps revealing of the fact that Christmas is a film that has polarised audiences.

But I think that anyone with a depth of intelligence and passion for cinema can look past the rough edges of Christmas's low-fi aesthetic, and experience the film's entertaining power, unique vision, social comment and artistry.

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