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THE CHRISTMAS CANDLE

Production Story
The idea for THE CHRISTMAS CANDLE was born several years ago when best-selling American author and preacher Max Lucado approached producer Tom Newman about an idea he was mulling over. "I had made a few children's films with Max Lucado when he told me his idea for the story of The Christmas Candle," explains producer Tom Newman. "I fell in love with the story and thought it was a wonderful concept. I said if you write it, I'll make it into a movie!"

Soon after this exchange, Lucado began work on the novel. Lucado's riveting narratives and popular writing style have made him an international best-seller, whose books have been translated into 41 languages and sold over 80 million copies. As such, he knew exactly how to turn this idea into a timeless and inspirational story that would engage readers throughout the world.

Set in 1890, THE CHRISTMAS CANDLE turns on David Richmond (Hans Matheson), a young preacher who has lost his faith. Charismatic and very good at his job but crushed by his loss of belief, Richmond is persuaded by Lady Camdon (Barbara Flynn) to take up the position of parish vicar to the village of Gladbury, deep in the English countryside. To his surprise he discovers the villagers set store in an old myth which influences everything that happens in the village: every 25 years a candle is blessed and a miracle occurs. Dismissing the myth as supersticious mumbo jumbo, Richmond tries to show that practical help is really at the root of all miracles. In turn, the villagers are also being lead astray by their own selfish desires..)But events conspire to challenge his ideas and reawaken his faith.

"I read the novel years ago and thought it was such a charming premise," says producer and co-writer Candace Lee. "I remember thinking I would love to work on a story like that one day. I was so taken with these villagers who come together at Christmas expecting a miracle and when their tradition is turned on its head, they end up getting what they hope for, but in ways they never expected."

She continues: "I liked the fact that the Reverend, David Richmond is a skeptic, despite being a reverend, as that's not something you see very often. He's become a bit jaded due to life events, but he still believes people can help each other."

The filmmakers approached British director John Stephenson to direct the film. Co- producer Hannah Leader had worked with Stephenson on FIVE CHILDREN AND IT and introduced him to Tom Newman. "John is an amazing find," says Newman. "He was so enthusiastic about the project and had such a level of excitement we knew he was the right person to direct it as soon as we met him. He's very sensitive and the cast love him. Making the film was a real delight."

For his part, Stephenson was drawn in to the story's compelling drama, engaging cast of characters and uplifting sensibility. "I read the script in one hit and really enjoyed it and thought it was a very good story," he says. "The subject matter is quite Christian in places, but primarily it's just a really good story."

"John had a really fun and imaginative approach to the story," adds Lee. "The first time we met John he said he loved the script, he loved the story and he just wanted to tell it. That's exactly where we were, so we were sold. He's great with the cast and has a very collaborative spirit. We feel we've been really blessed with John."

The central story arc of lead character, David Richmond, and his loss of faith also appealed to Stephenson. "He's in a bad place, goes to an even lower ebb and then rediscovers hope and along the way he resolves the stories of others he meets. But he doesn't have to be a vicar, it's something that happens to all of us. He goes on an emotional journey."

Hans Matheson was cast in the central role. "I loved that the story challenges the notion of how we live our lives," says the actor, "In the end these charitable ideas don't lead anywhere and life is not limited to that way of seeing the world. It concludes that in the end you have to open up to something much bigger and that life comes at you to break you open and teaches you something and you are humbled by that."

"David is a man with very mistaken ideas, about life, people and the universe," says Matheson. "There's a hidden anger in him as he has lost his family and he thinks that through his charitable works God will answer why He couldn't help his family. He doesn't believe in the miraculous so he attacks the candlemaker and his wife and their beliefs. But life has a way of teaching you and opening you to other ideas and in the end there is an awakening in him and a redemption. What really drew me to the script was the idea of a man who believes he knows how everyone else should live their lives and gets a bit of a lesson and an understanding about life and the bigger picture and becomes a bigger person. To me that's a lovely story."

When it came to the shoot, Matheson was inspired by Stephenson's flexibility as a director. "John is really open," says the actor, "he doesn't have fixed ideas about how he wants everything to be. It's so nice as an actor as he is open to suggestions, I've really enjoyed working with him."

Impressed by Matheson's commitment to the role and the film, Stephenson repays the compliment: "Hans was a brilliant choice, he's a thoughtful actor and he gave so much to the role. His contribution was enormous."

Alongside Matheson, the cast includes a host of experienced, award-winning actors including Lesley Manville, John Hannah, Sylvester McCoy, James Cosmo and Barbara Flynn.

Lesley Manville and Sylvester McCoy take on the roles of Bea and Edward Haddington who own the village chandlery. "They run the equivalent of the greengrocers in the village," says Manville. "They've always lived there and are at the heart of the community. Bea thinks she's more important than she really is but they are a charming and sweet couple. They are the keepers of the Christmas Candle. The film appealed as there's a wholesome innocence about it, and there are a lot of warm funny scenes. I've done a lot of dark and depressing things in my career and it seemed like a nice idea to do something unashamedly optimistic, hopeful and positive, a family Christmas film. It's also an interesting character and very different to the characters I often play so that was a draw too."

Manville was particularly impressed with her co-star, Hans Matheson. "I didn't know Hans, and I have to take my hat off to him, he's an incredibly hard working actor. He really put in the time, he was really committed. It's a tricky role as it could get a big sugary, but he's got an easy charm. Barbara Flynn and I did BBC TV series Cranford together and so I was very pleased to be working together again. I'd never met Sylvester McCoy but I certainly won't forget him now! That man is a force of nature but doing scenes with him is easy."

Manville also enjoyed working with her director John Stephenson. "He gave very succinct notes, and he was always dead right. He was very economical as time was limited, but he was always very encouraging."

For Sylvester McCoy, it was the story's classic style and themes that appealed: "I like the slight Dickensian feel about it," he says. "It's very sweet film, and it's got that charm and gentleness of films made in the 40s and 50s. It's a Christmas that no longer exists, it's gone which is sad and so it's nice to visit it even as a part of a fantasy. For me the sprit of individualism has gone a bit far and it's very important that we care for each other collectively so perhaps that's something people can learn from the film - if we don't pull together in these darkened times then we're lost."

The chance to collaborate with such a cast also drew McCoy to the project. "Lesley is great fun, sharp as a button and very experienced, and together we make a nice team. Hans has a huge role and he carries it off with aplomb. He's very relaxed which is great because it permeates through the whole thing."

Alongside these familiar faces, the filmmakers brought in two newcomers - and one, at least, is a bold and brave choice! Scottish singer Susan Boyle, who has become an international superstar since her appearance on the UK talent show Britain's Got Talent in 2009, makes her feature film debut, playing Eleanor Hopewell, the wife of the church warden played by James Cosmo.

The writers had Boyle in mind at script stage, explains Lee: "We wrote the role for Susan and prayed more than a few prayers when we sent it to her manager. It was a very exciting moment when she came on board. As a writer and filmmaker when you see a dream come true it's incredible! She's such a sweet, gentle lady and she surpassed our expectations."

Newman explains how the idea of Boyle being in the film came to him. "My mother-in- law is a huge Susan Boyle fan and when she stays with us, we play her records. The script was being written at the same time, and I woke one morning and said we have to have Susan Boyle in this film! Her agent was really open to it and she read the script, loved it and said she'd do it. It was a dream that it came to pass."

"Susan Boyle really wanted to do it and she committed herself totally," adds Stephenson. "She's very sensitive and introverted so we fine-tuned the role around who she actually is, and she gives a lovely performance. There is something remarkable about her; she certainly has the X factor! She didn't know anything about filmmaking and so I worked a lot with her before shooting and James Cosmo, who plays her husband in the film, was very supportive with her and Hans helped her a lot too. People will love her in the film."

For her part, Susan Boyle was enchanted by the spirit and emotional resonance of the story: "I really loved the story because it was so simple and heartfelt and it appealed to me because it captures the essence of Christmas so beautifully. It's all about the magic of Christmas and the Christmas message. The story is inspiring as it tells us never to give up on our dreams and to always believe in miracles - look what happened to me! I hadn't planned to take up acting, but when this came my way it was something that I wanted to take part in because...well, my life for the past four years has been about trying new things and this was a great first acting experience. I was honoured to have been asked."

"I really enjoyed being on set and working with the amazing actors," continues Boyle. "It was fascinating and inspiring to see what they do up-close and what happens behind the scenes on films and the incredible team-work. They all offered me so much support and were so kind. Working with James Cosmo as my on-screen husband was fantastic. I admire him as an actor and he's a fellow Scot! It really was fantastic."

James Cosmo, who describes church warden Herbert Hopewell as "a salt of the earth, warm hearted and decent man" and who was eager to be involved in such a heart- warming project, was just as charmed by Boyle. "It was great fun," he says. "She's an absolute sweetheart! I obviously knew who Subo, as I call her, was so I was looking forward to meeting her. We come from the same sort of background and area so we got on really well. She's used to big challenges and she's taken another big leap. It's very brave what she's done and she's done a great job."

The filmmakers added a scene, which would showcase Boyle's incredible singing voice which has charmed audiences around the world. The song she sings is "Miracle Hymn".

"Susan does sing in the film," explains Stephenson, "but it's subtle, it's not a big performance, it's gentle. It wouldn't have fit in the narrative to just have her standing up and singing so we worked out a way we could include it without it being jarring."

The film's co-writer, Candace Lee, also wrote the lyrics for the song, which features both in the final scene and at different moments throughout the film as well as in a pivotal scene when Boyle sings it alone in the church.

Says Lee: "We went out to a lot of great songwriters, but had not found the right song for Susan. There was quite a lot of pressure to come up with a song that would be worthy of Susan Boyle's voice, but would also capture the sprit of Christmas and the era of the story. I'm not a songwriter, but the lyrics came to me after our first location scout. Luke Atencio, a young musician in Colorado, did a lovely arrangement, and the Miracle Hymn ended up being the song the team selected. It was a mini-miracle! When all the villagers sing the hymn together at the end of the film, it's so joyful and moving. It definitely feels like a Christmas morning moment."

It certainly chimed with the singer. "The song that I sing in the film is very moving and beautiful," says Boyle. "It encapsulates the beauty of the film and the story perfectly."

The story called for Matheson to sing with Boyle in one scene, an experience the actor says he was unprepared for but thrilled by. "I was excited when Susan Boyle was cast because I thought it was such an interesting choice. And then I had to sing with her! It makes me laugh to think of the situations you find yourself in as an actor - singing in a church with Susan Boyle is not a situation I ever imagined I would find myself in! But I'm an amateur musician and it was fun to sing and act at the same time."

The other fresh face, in her first role since her acclaimed performance in Les Miserables, is rising star Samantha Barks. She takes on the role of Emily Barstow, an "English rose--thorns and all" who refuses - initially at least - to be charmed by the new vicar.

Barks explains what attracted her to the part. "Emily Barstow is a fantastic character to play," says Barks. "She's prickly to begin with, but she gradually warms up to the new minister David as she finds common ground with him as neither feels they belong in Gladbury."

The Christmas theme also appealed to Barks. "It's a beautifully written story set at Christmas, and I'm a big fan of anything to do with anything festive. The film really captures that wonderful British village feeling and although I was freezing during filming I felt warm everyday as the story is heart-warming! The story has an amazing way of showing the spirit of Christmas, which was probably more apparent in those days, but this film has a wonderful way of bringing that spirit back today. It encapsulates the Christmas spirit."

Surprisingly, perhaps, Barks doesn't sing in the film. "Samantha wanted to be cast as an actress first and foremost and get away from the singing," says Stephenson. "Obviously she's got an amazing voice, but I think she wanted to branch out from that and she pulled it off. She's very convincing in the role and brought a lot of emotion to it. It was very refreshing to work with her, she's bright and she has star quality. Hans was a wonderful mentor for her as he's a method actor, a real thinker."

Barks relished working with other members of the cast. "The cast was incredible," she says. "Hans was so patient and lovely and I couldn't have been luckier. It's hard not to fall in love with David when Hans is playing him. John Hannah plays my father and he was very naughty and made me laugh a lot which is great as we have some quite emotional scenes together so it was good to be able to laugh between takes. It's also exciting to be involved with Susan Boyle's film debut. She's a very sweet woman with a very gentle spirit and it's incredible that she can get on stage and belt out a big number. It was so lovely to watch her singing in this."

"The cast is remarkable," says Stephenson. "The whole cast was captivated by the script, they all said they found it a surprising read and really enjoyed it, so from the start we were all united in that. Lesley Manville is probably the best actress I've ever worked with and paired with Sylvester McCoy they made an extraordinary couple. John Hannah is very skillful actor and very patient too. He was keen to delve deep into the character and he was a true professional".

"Taking a screenplay to reality comes down to the cast," says Tom Newman. "John and Ros Hubbard are legendary casting directors and they have the ability to assemble casts that work seamlessly together. We were lucky that our first choices also loved the script!"

"It was a joy to see these amazing British actors bring characters that were created on a page in Oklahoma to life," enthuses Lee. "I can't imagine anyone but Hans as David Richmond. He brought so much to the role. Barbara Flynn embodies Lady Camdon and brings a strong, dignified presence to the film. She and Hans have a great dynamic - they really nailed the relationship between the two characters in the script! We knew that the candle-makers had to be very special, loveable people with a lot of magic and mischief about them. Lesley Manville and Sylvester McCoy are perfect, they are absolutely the Haddingtons."

Stephenson echoes the sentiments of all the team when he says, "The more experienced actors acted as an anchor for the less experienced, so pairing James and Susan and Hans and Samantha and throwing in Lesley and Sylvester as a double-act - it all created a bit of magic. If I could do another film with exactly the same cast, I would - they were all perfect!"

The fictional village of Gladbury was created by the writers Candace Lee and Eric Newman.

"Max Lucado wrote the novel when he was staying in the Costwolds," explains Newman, "so we really had to shoot here. It was literally like going back in time. On our first location scout we went to four or five locations and each time I said this is perfect. It was like walking on to a movie set right from the start."

"Gladbury is any village in the British Isles," says director John Stephenson. "We filmed in the Cotswolds and Wiltshire but you could find this group of characters anywhere. It's a very British setting. The writers are American and observed what they consider to be the fundamentals of British village life and that's why it's so straightforward, which is part of its charm. It's a romantic version of a British village, like the village in Babe, which presented a similar idea of an English village."

Filming took place over five weeks in two key locations with interiors filmed on sets in the studios on the Isle of Man. The village of Gladbury was an amalgam of two villages in southern England. The scenes in and around the church were filmed in Stanway in Gloucestershire, in the heart of the Cotswolds. Stanway House is a historic Jacobean manor house built in the classic Cotswold yellow stone and the village church has its origins in the 12th and 13th Centuries.

"Stanway House is stunningly beautiful," says Stephenson who looked at over 20 churches and villages in the area before opting for Stanway. "JM Barrie wrote Peter Pan there, inspired, so the legend goes, by the stained glass window."

Matheson found inspiration in the location. "It's an idyllic village and the moment I arrived on set on the first day it helped so much to be filming in the real thing, breathing the air, the birds were singing and we were in a real church," he says. "It makes such a difference for us as actors."

The village of Biddescombe in Wiltshire also stood in for the main scenes set in Gladbury.

"Biddestone had a duck pond which fitted the story perfectly. The village looked almost completely right and we didn't have to do much work to use it, just the usual covering of yellow lines and set dressing. We then covered it all in snow to add that particular Christmas look," says Stephenson.

Says Lee: "Stanway and Biddestone combine to form the picturesque village of Gladbury. We wrote in the script that there was a massive estate overlooking the churchyard and we thought, well, that's a long shot they'll never find that, but lo and behold, we found a 400 year-old set! People will love the look of Gladbury".

The film is set in the late 1800s on the cusp of the modern world when huge changes were taking place. "We wanted to update the novel slightly," explains Lee, "to bring it closer to the industrial revolution so that there would be a tension between the traditional life of the village and the new ideas that were arriving like electricity, steam cars and typewriters. David Richmond feels that the church should be lighting the way, and thinks he is going to open the eyes of the villagers to the modern world. He tries to introduce electricity to the church which has been traditionally candle-lit, and you see the tension between progress and holding onto traditions."

"The film is set in the industrial revolution when the old ways are giving way to the new, old myths and legends are being superseded by the new technology and that provides an important back-drop for the whole story," adds Stephenson. "The generation gap is enormous. Samantha's character doesn't believe in the mumbo jumbo that the other villagers believe, the Haddingtons' son Thomas has no interest in any of it either and has left. There is a youth drain off to the city. The only reason Samantha's character is there is because her father is ill."

The historical setting makes the film uniquely relevant to the modern age where, once again, modern technology is changing the way we live our lives, say the filmmakers. "Behind every fourth door in America someone lives alone," says Newman. "We may have more social networks now, but we are more isolated than ever. The people of Gladbury are a tight-knit community and although there is a competition to get the candle, there is a sharing of needs and David Richmond sees an opportunity for them to help each other."

"We are experiencing a tough economic climate and people are looking for something more than themselves," says Tom Newman. "I think THE CHRISTMAS CANDLE suggests that we help other people, but we also want the message to be that we are not alone and that we can believe miracles can happen."

Samantha Barks feels the film has an inspiring message for all of us. "In the film you see these good deeds taking place, and you see the effect that that has on the community and people's sprits being lifted and there's a beautiful scene where everyone reveals what the good deeds have done for their lives and that's a really great message for everybody."

Candace Lee believes the film continues the tradition of Christmas films that will not only bring people together but also inspire them for the future. "We took the traditional themes of Advent - hope, love, joy, peace and Christ - and we wove them into a story any family can enjoy. At Christmas, we hope to share these ideals with the people around us," she says. "All the classic Christmas stories from A Christmas Carol to Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life are about inspiring people to believe more and giving hope to the world, especially at Christmas."

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