The Man Who Invented Christmas Interview: Director Bharat Nalluri
The Man Who Invented Christmas is a delightful holiday film that is a behind the scenes look at the creation of A Christmas Carol. The film stars Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens and the story revolves around Dickens struggling to come up with the ideas and characters for which is now considered one of the most beloved Christmas stories of all time. I was lucky to be get a chance to speak with director Bharat Nalluri about the film where we were able to dig a bit deeper into the project and what it was like being inside the minds of one of the world’s greatest writers.
Bharat Nalluri: Hey Scott.
Scott Menzel: Hey, good afternoon, how are you?
Bharat Nalluri: I’m very well, thank you.
Scott Menzel: First thing first, congratulations on the movie.
Bharat Nalluri: Thank you.
Scott Menzel: I enjoyed this film so much. If it wasn’t for such a crowded award season, I think this movie would probably get nominated.
Bharat Nalluri: That’s so sweet of you, Scott.
Scott Menzel: I just really loved it. I’ve been a fan of “The Christmas Carol” for a long time. I’ve watched so many different versions, like the Muppet one and all the other ones, you know, the recent Disney one, and some of the stage plays, and I think that this film is a great background insight into the mind of Charles Dickens. I really loved how Dan brought him to life. With that being said, what inspired you to take on this project, and take on Dickens as a person?
Bharat Nalluri: Yeah well, “Christmas Carol” has played a kind of important part in my life. I was brought up in a family that didn’t really celebrate Christmas at all. Part of an immigrant family from India, in the north of England, but all my friends around me from school were all having a great time at Christmas, and I couldn’t quite work out what it was all about. I read “A Christmas Carol” and it kind of clicked in my head, and then I probably read it another year later, and then you get past the surface of “Christmas Carol”. On the surface, it’s all fun and it’s a real adventurous, time-traveling story really. It’s a very popular piece of work, it’s full of humor and pathos, but when you just look under the skin it makes you think as well, about the values of being human, and what’s good and what’s bad, and what each person should strive towards without it being preachy.
It’s a really fun piece of fiction, and I think it has always stuck in my head, and in recent years, I’ve been trying to find a way to tell this story again, to tell “Christmas Carol”, and far greater minds than mine have done it brilliantly. From “The Muppet’s Christmas Carol”, to “Scrooge”, to I would even say “It’s a Wonderful Life” is basically “Christmas Carol” but it’s kind of backwards. If you look at “It’s a Wonderful Life”, it’s a good man shown how bad the world will become without his goodness, which is really the flip of Scrooge; the bad man who’s shown what the world could have become, if he was good.
So in a way … like I said, far better people than me have done far better films, than I’ve ever done, to kind of achieve that. So I was trying to find an angle into it, and then this script came via Susan Coyne, and it’s a beautiful marriage of the real life Charles Dickens and his characters, and the artistic process, and Christmas Carol, and somehow she makes it all very redemptive and there’s a very human journey, and it makes you laugh, and it makes you cry, and then it actually says the little bit of something underneath it all. So for me it was just trying to find a way into it, and it was the script really, it’s a copper bottom beautiful script, and that’s what got me onto it.
Scott Menzel: The film is gorgeous to look at, it’s perfectly shot, it’s beautifully shot. And the one thing that I will really must say about the movie is that, it’s not showy. I feel like a lot of movies nowadays, there’s too much, there’s too much visual spectacle. And this one felt very much like you were capturing the natural beauty, of the homes that they were in, the city, and it was just really well done. How many days did you shoot in each location, what are some of the locations that you shot in?
Bharat Nalluri: This is an independent filmmaking
Scott Menzel: Totally!
Bharat Nalluri: So in a way, life imitated art. We had six weeks prior to Christmas 2016, and in the same way that Dickens had six weeks to write his book in 1843 before Christmas, and we shot this in like 28 days.
Scott Menzel: Oh my gosh, incredible.
Bharat Nalluri: And I just had a really talented crew around me, who kind of completely got it, and made everyone read “Christmas Carol”. We were all “carolites” at the end of it, and we were all kind of immersed in the world. Everyone was in love with the script, and Ben Smithard, wonderful VP in the end he did an amazing job, and Leonie Prendergast who was our costume designer, and Paki Smith our production designer they were all fantastic. The trick to get a cohesive film is to make sure everyone’s on the same page, and everyone’s fighting for the same thing, and everyone gets what each scene is about in terms of emotion and what you’re trying to achieve. And they got it, honestly, and you can’t do something as cohesive as this in 28 days, unless everyone’s on the right page and singing from the same hymnbook basically.
That was one those blessings, it just kind of happened, and we were very lucky to achieve it. And then the other big decision we made early on, was that we wouldn’t go down the full blown visual effects route, and have it full of CGI. There’s a way of doing this with the ghosts and all the rest of it, which would have been big, and interesting, and exciting in a different way, and in a kind of studio way, and what I said is “We should get into the head of Charles Dickens,” and in a way, when Charles was imagining these characters for the first time, he had never seen a CGI movie in his life. I wanted to use his references, how would something appear? Would it be like in a magic lantern show that his father played for him, or how he’d seen a play in the theater. And it was joyous to go back to old filmmaking tricks, of in camera edits, and hidden cuts, and blocking, so the characters feel like they’re coming out of nowhere and all sorts. It was a real pleasure to go back to old school, and somehow I think it gives it its patina, its cohesiveness, which you’ve noticed.
Scott Menzel: Oh absolutely. .
Bharat Nalluri: And the fact that you’ve noticed it Scott, really means a lot.
Scott Menzel: No problem, I watch a lot of films so I appreciate the level of detail that went into making this film.
Bharat Nalluri: It was totally done on purpose, and it’s just lovely when someone actually looks at it and goes, “Oh yeah I get what you were doing.” Thank you.
Scott Menzel: No problem. Speaking of those scenes where Dickens is initially alone in a room, and he’s thinking and has writers block, and he’s trying to come up with where the story should go next, or how to end the book. You always think of the movie now, but end the book, where he was trying to figure out how to end the book. How did you come up with the way that you were going to do those scenes, where the characters just appear in the room, and it kind of creates this unique experience where you never think that he’s crazy or anything, it’s just showing the creativity, or an inside glimpse of his mind. How did you decide to do it that way?
Bharat Nalluri: It feels very organic now. I think we had lots of conversations, about how to land it, because it is kind of out there, and if it didn’t work … What I would call the eternal tightrope. The tightrope, you’ve got to walk it perfectly, it’s very easy to fall off it, and lose your suspension of disbelief and your audience kind of falls away. You’re incredibly reliant on your actors making it very human, so at the heart of all this madness and magical stuff that happens, and characters arriving, there is Dan Stevens playing Charles Dickens, as a human being there are consequence to all his actions. Even if these magical characters are in front of him, you feel like there’s consequence to his actions. And once you get that, you can be even madder, you can really enjoy yourself, you can go right out on the limb because the audience goes with your character. And then it was very careful, we spent a lot of time blocking and making sure that there’s a whole set of rules as to when ghosts should be there, when characters should be there.
My favorite part is and it’s a tiny little moment where the characters almost take over, because they start talking between each other. And I think they’re watching the play within the play almost, and they turn round to, I think it’s the Ghost of Christmas Past, and tell him what a brilliant performance he’s just put on, and that breaking of the fourth wall was really good fun to do.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I thought that scene was great too. I also love the fact that the movie kind of showcases all the different characters that played a role, into bringing the story to life, because again we’ve seen so many different versions, whether it’s a film, a stage play, a TV show, whatever the case may be. It was so rare, and so special to be able to connect the dots of, “Oh his friend inspired that character” or where this story even came from, which I thought the film did a great job of getting dark, but not getting too dark, with kind of telling where he came from, and what his past was like, so bravo on that.
Bharat Nalluri: Thank you,
Scott Menzel: The casting, of course, is what a lot of people are really talking about right now. Stevens is just fantastic, he’s mesmerizing, and he becomes Charles Dickens. So we can talk a little bit about him, but also Christopher Plummer, who I think is probably the best, at least in film adaptations, the best person to ever play Scrooge.
Bharat Nalluri: Well, I’m slightly biased so I would say I agree but to start with Dan, he engaged with Dickens straight away; he’s famous for his role from Downtown Abbey. Classic period piece, very successful for all the right reasons, and he was keen not to label himself in period land, he didn’t want to do that at all. But what he discovered was a completely different way of doing this character, which feels incredibly modern and fresh. It feels like a very modern character and I think that is Dan’s skill set. Every role he’s choosing at the moment is completely the opposite of the last, and completely believable.
Scott Menzel: I told him the exact same thing when we spoke.
Bharat Nalluri: Yeah he’s on an absolute roll and I love it. He’s such a brave actor, because it would have been very easy for him to have stayed in all seven seasons of Downtown Abbey, it was the worlds biggest show. He decided to cut the cord after the second season, and go and do something completely different. So he ends up doing something like “The Guest”, and then he ends up doing our show, and then he ends up doing “Legion” and “Beauty and the Beast”. You can’t pin him down, and you’ve got to give him kudos for that, because I think that’s an incredibly brave thing to do. With each one of those he’s created a very iconic character, that’s totally different than the last. He came to this set pretty fully formed, we talked about it beforehand, but he knew what he was going to do, and we were just playing catch up with him really. My secret with this is that I just cast it really well, and then gave them the words and got the hell out of the way.
And what can I say about Chris Plummer. It’s just like he was born to play this role, I just can’t believe he’s never done it before. He couldn’t believe he’d never done it before. He’s absolutely quintessential Scrooge and you know why, everyone thinks it’s because he’s curmudgeonly but the thing is Chris Plummer is a naughty little boy. He has a gleam in his eye, and he loves being on set and he captured that. I think that’s the secret of this Scrooge is that he’s having fun, you like being with him, you kind of understand him, and his redemptive journey. And then he’s terrifying when he needs to be. But he’s very human at the end of it, and you spot all of those subtleties, and that just comes with a man who’s like Scrooge. I mean he’s on a different plane to all the rest of us. You can’t even compare his career to anyone I’ve ever worked with before. It’s extraordinary.
Scott Menzel: I agree. His filmography is insane. One last question, In terms of your career so far, you’ve went back and forth between movies and television. Out of the two mediums, which one do you enjoy more.
Bharat Nalluri: Yes, it’s interesting. I started in movies, went to TV and I’m kind of heading back into movies. When I first went to TV everyone said, “Oh you shouldn’t do TV, because movie people do movies and TV people do TV.” Now I’m moving back into movies, everyone from movies is going to TV, so it’s all swings and roundabouts. In the end, I think the talent is moving so freely between the two, and we’re all driven by the script really, and the writers, and we chase the writers and the writing. TV gives you the chance to expand, and go past 90 minutes to 2 hours, and allows you to delve into things and in that way that format is wonderful because you can do a 10 hour thing and so you can really get into an in depth and different discourse of discussion.
Whereas film is fabulous because you get this beginning and middle and end, that you can do as a whole and it’s complete, and it goes out there and it’s done, and it gives you a different hit. And to be honest that’s why I flip between the two, because I like what both give me. Both give me a slightly different opportunity, and a slightly different skillset and there’s a different part of my brain that switches on and off. It’s really hard people say, “Which one, what’s the difference, which one do you prefer?” I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been allowed to step into both worlds, and follow the talent, follow the writers, and it just seems to work.
Scott Menzel: Well, thank you so very much. It was such a nice time talking with you.
Bharat Nalluri: You too. Thank you so much
The Man Who Invented Christmas opens in theaters on Wednesday, November 22, 2017. Be sure to check it out and support a great independent film that will surely lift your spirits and put you in the holiday spirit.