To help Meridian keep on publishing every day for you, please CLICK HERE (we need your support).
Christmas Eve opens nationwide on Dec. 4 in select theaters.
Christmas Eve is the story of what happens when a power outage in New York City on Christmas Eve leaves 20 people stuck in 6 elevators with resulting romance, irritation and humor.
In this feel-good Mitch Davis comedy, produced by Larry King, everybody is stuck when they are on their way to someplace they’d rather be, and as the saying goes, “You never know who you might get stuck with.”
The six elevators include: a patient who doesn’t know she is dying along with her atheist doctor and medical staff; a boss and the man he has just fired; a group of musicians whose harmony is strained during the night; a shy girl and the photographer who wants to know her; a hardened tycoon who doesn’t know he’s lost everything that matters; and a bunch of lovable oddballs who get a lesson on abstract art.
This is a group of flawed and funny people on a night that will change their lives—all somehow overseen by a higher providence.
Mitch Davis received this script from Tyler McKellar five years ago, and was so taken by it, he worked it over in several rewrites and decided to create this film which entertains and celebrates with an innate wisdom.
Latter-day Saints will recognize Jenny Oaks Baker as one of the musicians in the elevator who plays a remarkable rendition of Silent Night at a climactic point. They will also know Jon Heder (aka Napolean Dynamite) who plays a young man with the misfortune of getting fired on Christmas Eve.
The most well-known star is Patrick Stewart, who signed on three weeks into the shooting of the film to play the jaded magnate who is stuck alone in an elevator that dangles from a skyscraper he is building.
Meridian asked Mitch, who also created The Other Side of Heaven, about the background of Christmas Eve and about the future of LDS filmmaking.
What is Christmas Eve about and why did you want to make this film?
It has a two-edged message. It’s a great movie and it’s entertaining and it’s not like an assignment or chore to go see it. It features major movie stars and a good message that makes you laugh and cry and think. You don’t get a PG rated family-friendly Christmas themed movie like this every day. It is a kind of rarity.
Movies ought to be entertaining in their own right and by all accounts I’m hearing from people that this one is.
The movie works on a few different levels. On the surface it’s just a feel good Christmas comedy that makes you laugh. Beneath that surface there’s a lot of thoughtful spirituality and philosophy going on. That’s a tribute to Tyler McKellar. I’m the second writer on the script and I’ve done a number of rewrites. The genius and original thoughtful nature of the script came just from him. It made me laugh, sigh, and cry, and it made me think.
How have people responded to the movie?
It has been a movie that people have revved up to. I think that there are two kinds of literature. I was an English major at BYU. There I learned to recognize a couple of code words.
When the teacher was introducing a book, if the teacher would say that the author was an able chronicler of the human condition, I knew it was going to be depressing. If the teacher said, this writer celebrates the human spirit, I knew that the work was going to have some energy and hope and faith.
What Christmas Eve does is puts everybody in the human condition, stuck in the elevator on Christmas Eve. We all feel stuck. It allows those same people to overcome their difficult circumstance and pull together. We’re all in this together. We can all lift each other up and help each other through our common humanity.
We can celebrate. We can commiserate, bear one another’s burdens that they may be light and we can bear them with kindness, with humor, with romance, but above all bear them.
Another message is that we are all part of one big family, and it’s not that big a family after all. The world can be as small a place as an 8 x 8 elevator in the end.
There is also the sense in the movie that a Divine Providence is involved.
The final image of the movie is an angel atop a Christmas tree looking down on humanity. There are a lot of things that may seem accidental in our lives that are not that accidental after all. Good or bad we are being watched over. God is a witness and angels are witnesses to our travails and our triumphs and both of those things are providential. Both can build us and make us better.
I don’t want the movie to feel like a sermon, because we have a lot of fun too. Perhaps my favorite line, in one of the more spiritual scenes were Shawn King’s character is defending her faith to the doctor. She says, “I don’t know everything but that doesn’t mean I don’t know anything.”
I like the candor and fortitude with which Shawn delivered that line. She said, “This role was perfectly cast with me in mind because these are the conversations that Larry and I have all the time. He is an atheistic, agnostic Jew and I’m a faithful Mormon. Ask Larry what is going to happen when he dies and he says, ‘I know I’m not going anywhere. I know that.’
I take some pleasure in seeing Shawn stand up, stick her chin up and proclaim what she believes without apology.
The characters in the elevators seem very flawed and human.
I think that nobody cares how superhuman you are until they know how human you are. I think that’s maybe a lesson for Latter-day Saints in a big way. When we made The Other Side of Heaven 15 years ago, we began by showing the character’s flaws—so we could laugh with and understand them.
When I screened that movie for non-LDS audiences, as soon as they could see it took place on the campus at BYU I could see the temperature go down 10 degrees in excitement. When I started to poke fun at us, then I could see the audience begin to relax and say, “You don’t take yourselves too seriously. This is going to be fun.”
Every single character in this movie has some baggage of one sort or another. For any of us to pretend we don’t have issues or problems is dishonest. It doesn’t take audience long to sniff that out. It is so important to me for a character to be relevant. He or she has to be relatable, and for a character to be relatable, he or she has to be human, and for a character to be human, he or she has to be flawed. Any effort to the contrary is futile and self-defeating.
How did you get Larry King interested in this movie?
Larry was a huge fan of The Other Side of Heaven. That movie came out when Shawn’s oldest son left on his mission. Larry was living through the experience of sending out a stepson on a mission. He saw how frightened and tender Shawn was about it, so when he saw this movie about Elder Groberg going to Tonga, he was blown away by it.
I took the Christmas Eve script to them and they jumped on it. Larry is really proud of the movie and excited about it and it’s a great blessing for me.
Will the film be widely distributed?
The movie is opening the US and Canada in theaters in select cities with other website delivery systems. We’re really excited to get this big of release for this movie. We are working with Amplify Releasing, a well respected distributor of independent films. They are a classy company that has fallen in love with the movie, thank goodness.
People can check the website http://www.thechristmasevemovie.com/#tickets for theatrical showings near them and website delivery.
I understand you shot this film in Bulgaria? Why did you make this choice?
Most of the movie takes place inside six elevators, so we realized that we should shoot most of the movie on a sound stage somewhere and discovered that Bulgaria is the least expensive place we could do this. We discovered a great facility that was very inexpensive and 2/3 of the actors in our film are from the UK. For them it was more convenient to fly to Bulgaria than to fly to U.S.
Almost all of our crew was Bulgarian. Sylvester Stallone just shot his movie The Expendables there before we did and I am going to tease him when he comes to our movie premiere, that the crew were all exhausted. Our movie was like going on vacation compared to his, because we weren’t blowing things up.
How did you get Patrick Stewart to play the role?
Because our movie is segmented by elevator, we were able to schedule Patrick’s scenes for the very end of the movie. We were determined to cast a well known actor with gravitas in that role. Starting the movie before he was cast was a very frightening thing to do. We were in the cafeteria eating a nutella crepe, and I had chocolate all over my hand and mouth when my cell phone rang and I saw it was Patrick Stewart who called to say yes.
Why did he say yes?
He loved the script and we had already cast John Heder of Napoleon Dynamite. Stewart is married to a much younger woman who knew Jon Heder’s work and encouraged him to take this role, “Because Jon Heder plays your son and he is a comic genius.”
I’ve been so lucky my last three movies I’ve had two Academy Award winning actors and then Patrick Stewart. Two things make it possible to cast people like that. They have to love the script and the character. You have to have a budget to pay these stars somewhat close to their rate. So many good movies get made without a cast that compels an audience. I was lucky to get a cast that mattered.
What do you think about the movies that are being made today?
Movies are both are reflection of and a precursor to popular culture. Movies reflect who we are and they also project who will we become as a people. It is easy to blame movies for everything that’s wrong in society and to an extent that is correct. But film makers say if I can make money making movie about Bible stories they will do this and to a degree that are now.
An unfortunate thing has happened in the last decade or so for movies. Because so many walls have come down around the world, movies are no longer made just for a U.S. audience. They are made on a spectacular level for a worldwide audience. You make a movie and have to think how will this play in China? What will they think of it in Russia?
Consequently there are more and more big-budget movies and fewer mid-level budget movies. The content of the movie has to be translatable across cultures.
Two things are understood across the world that don’t require sub-titles –sex and violence. When someone gets blown to smithereens or has a motorcycle crash, there is no need for sub-titles. Movies that appeal to the lowest common denominator are made these days because of their popularity with a worldwide audience.
When I was working at Disney, the studio was making 25 to 30 movies a year. Many were low to mid-range budget that sought to address the needs of smaller audiences. They’d say, “The kids will love this one or the Christians will love this one. “
That’s no longer the case. Disney is making 3 to 5 movies a year now with all of the Marvel movies releasing and a few others. They are all movies they have required hundreds of millions of dollars to produce and distribute. It’s harder to make movies that don’t appeal to the lowest common denominator—that uplift, that edify that encourage.
Lately, the Christian market has emerged and demonstrated itself to be formidable. The sad fact is that Mormon filmmakers get left out of that. Mormon filmmakers are not welcomed in the secular halls of Hollywood and they are not welcome in the Christian halls either. Mormons have to make movies for Mormons on a limited budget or they have to transcend Mormon themes to appeal to a larger market.
For those of us who have read President Kimball’s “Gospel Vision of the Arts” about making movies that speak to all the earth, we know that hasn’t happened yet. This is something I am very passionate about.
The barrier to entry for artists have cinema is primarily a financial barrier. If I want to write a poem, if I want to paint a world-class painting, if I want to write a world- class symphony or pop tune, it doesn’t cost me much of anything. All I have to be is talented.
If I want to make a world-class movie, I have to be talented and I have to have tens of millions of dollars. It is easy to step back and say there aren’t any good LDS film makers. We don’t know. There might be a Stanley Kubrick or Sidney Pollack or Stephen Spielberg. We’ll never know because they won’t be given the financial tools to make a movie like the filmmakers I just mentioned.
They only way to get really good at something is to do it over and over. To be given the opportunity to make a feature film once in your life is remarkable, but to do it several times enough to become excellent?
Mormons who want to make movies that matter have to find somebody who believes in you and believes in what you’re going to do enough to risk millions of dollars. It’s a very high risk.
I’m not suggesting that anybody has an obligation to write a check so that some Mormon might become a good film maker. The reality is that filmmaking requires practice. In the world the way you get that is by making lots of movies.
How many silly, vapid movies did Stephen Spielberg make before he made Schindler’s List. He said he made a lot of movies he didn’t care about to get that chance to make Schindler’s List.
The problem for an LDS film maker who has the kind of spiritual integrity to make a movie that matters probably has five kids, three home teaching families and two or three church assignments and doesn’t want to make a movie with certain lowest common denominators in it.
If a Mormon filmmaker is willing to make those compromises to make movies without integrity, then they’ve sold their soul and they won’t be able to make those movies anymore.
How have the Jews been so effective in telling their story?
Two stories are applicable here. When Leon Uris wrote Exodus, he wasn’t sitting around thinking I want to make the quintessential, epic novel about the Jewish people. Some wealthy, successful people said, “This needs to be done.” They commissioned it. They realized that they had an image problem and decided to create a book that sympathetically told their story.
Several years ago, the fabulous Jewish writer Chaim Potok was at BYU and did a forum. I am told a student raised her hand and asked him if he thought Mormons would ever have their equivalent of Chaim Potok and would ever create great literature or art.
Apparently he said, “I don’t think you will. I don’t you are honest enough or passionate enough. You’re just too nice.
When I heard that story, I thought, them’s fighting words. But, he has a point. When I read My Name is Asher Lev, I thought uou could change 10% of the words in that book, and it could be the son of a General Authority living in Salt Lake City.
The LDS Church has exceptional examples of success in just about every arena imaginable. Professional athletes, politicians, business entrepreneurs. What about in film?The frustrating thing is that in my opinion the most important battlefield is the battlefield of popular culture. If we are not in the movie business, then we are just bystanders to popular culture. All we can do is whine about it, but we cannot form it, create it. We ought to be in the business of doing it in a big way. I would just love it if someday some asked, “Who are the great Mormon film makers and there were 10 or 15 or 20. Popular culture is where it’s at.
I don’t think it is a question of talent of commitment. We have popular rock bands. The barrier to entry is just so much lower. It is really a financial conundrum more than anything else.
What is your next project?
My next movie is going to be about the assassination of Joseph Smith based on Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill’s book The Carthage Conspiracy. (see carthageconspiracy.com)
I started it three years ago, but put it temporally on the shelf to make this Christmas movie. But that’s a movie I want to do that will open the doors for others to follow.
As long as we are making movies about ourselves, for ourselves, showing them to ourselves and then congratulating ourselves, we are falling far short of our foreordained mission of the prophesied accomplishments stated by President Kimball.
We have to able to transcend the Mormon niche market and create a movie that would be worthy of worldwide distribution with attendant values and movie stars. That’s where we have to go if we want to do what the Jews have done.
See the trailer for Christmas Eve.