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THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS

About The Production
Charles Dickens' slender volume, A Christmas Carol, has fascinated and delighted readers, artists, playwrights and filmmakers for almost two centuries with its themes of family, benevolence, goodwill and festivity. In fact, it set a new standard for the holiday, inspiring the spirit of the traditional Victorian Christmas and beginning a host of customs that are still popular today. But while most readers are familiar with the beloved tale, few know the story behind it.

Les Standiford, author of the book that inspired the film and a prolific fiction and nonfiction writer in his own right, learned A Christmas Carol was almost never published. "I had no idea that he had to pay for the publication himself," he says. "Even though no publisher was interested in it, the book was responsible for changing the trajectory of Dickens' career. I set about to find a book that explained it all, but to my great surprise, there was no such book."

So Standiford decided to write one himself. A fascinating peek into the creative process of one of the world's greatest storytellers, it was quickly optioned by producer Robert Mickelson and executive producers Paula Mazur and Mitchell Kaplan. All Dickens buffs, like many involved in the making of The Man Who Invented Christmas, they discovered Standiford's meticulously researched account of this period in the author's life about eight years ago. "Paula and Mitch gave me the book," recalls Mickelson. "It was a story we weren't aware of at the time and exploring Dickens' creative process as well as his life fascinated me."

Kaplan says, "as a bookseller for 35 years and a good friend of Les', I knew that his delightful retelling of how Dickens brought his classic to print resonated deeply with readers, and if we put the right pieces together we would create something very special for moviegoers, as well."

For Mazur, the book offered a new perspective on A Christmas Carol. "In 1843, at age 31, Dickens was a literary rock star, which makes the story feel very contemporary," she says. "He was wildly successful and was plagued by all the issues that are attendant to that."

Published in 1843, A Christmas Carol was a last-ditch effort by Dickens to raise money to support the affluent lifestyle he and his family had grown used to. But the lavishly illustrated volume turned out to be more than just an instant moneymaker. It also renewed interest in, and enthusiasm for, a holiday that had fallen into disfavor.

There have been other Dickens biopics over the years, but The Man Who Invented Christmas focuses on the intense six weeks during which he wrote and self-published A Christmas Carol. The filmmakers envisioned a screenplay that presented Dickens as a modern man: flawed, fierce and funny all at the same time. Writer Susan Coyne, co-creator of "Slings and Arrows," a Canadian TV series about a modern-day Shakespeare theater festival, had made an impression on Mickelson with the offbeat sensibility she infused into the show. "Her writing has a charm and character to it, as well as a great deal of humor," says Mickelson. "I am a big fan."

Coyne delivered a playful narrative in which Dickens interacts with his fictional characters as he gives birth to the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge. In Coyne's screenplay, Dickens has long conversations with his creations as their stories unfold in front of him. "The characters become real to him," she says. "We know that Dickens did carry on conversations with his characters, so that is based on the true story and we've invented his interior thoughts. He often talked about the characters in his plays and books being more real to him in some ways than the people in his own life."

Coyne identified with the anxiety creative people often feel when they are under the gun. "Dickens was down and out at this point," she says. "He'd had all these big successes like The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist. And then he had a few flops. The more I read about him, the more fascinating he became. He was such a mixture of ambition, humanity, pettiness and largeness of spirit - a complex and remarkable person."

Struck with writer's block, Dickens develops an adversarial relationship with his characters, especially Scrooge. "Scrooge becomes his nemesis," says Mickelson "And Dickens becomes a character in the story that he's trying to write. It's like he's entered his own Dickensian novel. There are many layers woven into this tale."

The script instantly attracted the attention of producer Ian Sharples of The Mob Film Company. "It's always about a gut reaction to material for me," he says. "The Man Who Invented Christmas has an element of modernity about it. Even though we're dealing with a real person from more than a century ago, Dickens seems familiar, and for me as a filmmaker, his journey is very familiar. The struggle of getting a piece of literature into the book shops in his day was just as hard as getting a feature film made today."

Director Bharat Nalluri, best known for the charming period comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, was selected to helm the film. "Bharat has a lightness of touch," says Mickelson. "He gets great performances from his casts. We thought he would bring a perfect balance and capture both the humor and the energy of Dickens."

Nalluri was impressed with the many layers of meaning with which Coyne infused the screenplay. "It's a rare treat to get a script that's so fully formed," he says. "It's a fun, enjoyable piece with great characters and visual flare. Underneath it all, it has a little something to say about the world we live in. In a way, it takes after Dickens, who created these larger-than-life, often very comedic characters and used them to tell stories that delivered a profound impact on society and were fun to read."

With only a short time to shoot and a complex story to tell, Nalluri proved an able leader. "He is just fantastic," says Mazur. "We had a lot of visual strands that had to be pulled together. He is one of those rare directors who is equally in command of the visuals and the story. Bharat was able to wrap his head around all of that and track it through a pretty complicated, fast shooting schedule. He also worked extremely well with the actors."

Standiford, who spent time on the film's Dublin set, was thrilled to see the story come to life on screen. "These filmmakers have brought the essence of the book out in the film and that's particularly gratifying," he says. "I think people who see this production are going to be entranced by it."

They will also be entertained and amused, says Susan Mullen, the film's Irish producing partner. "It's funny, it's heartfelt. I think what Dickens wanted was for us take it upon ourselves to be more generous. That we should lend a hand, that we must care for others - it's a beautiful message. And it really did change the way everybody viewed Christmas."

Creating Unforgettable Characters

Some of the U.K.'s most distinguished actors agreed to take on large and small roles in The Man Who Invented Christmas. Casting, says Mickelson, always starts with the script, and when a good one comes along, people line up to participate. "To our delight, a lot of great actors out of London had read it and were eager to come even for a day. It was quite remarkable. And when each one arrived, they brought something new and wonderful to the table."

Just 31 years old when he wrote A Christmas Carol, Dickens was still a dashing young man about town. With that in mind, the filmmakers offered the role to Dan Stevens, known to millions of "Downton Abbey" fans as the ill-fated heir Matthew Crawley. Instead of the gravitas associated with the older Dickens, Stevens invests the role with youthful energy, charisma and curiosity.

"It is such a charming script," the actor says. "This isn't a reverential biopic. It's the story of a gifted artist's creative drive and the pressure he puts on himself to produce. At the time, Dickens had four kids and one on the way. I also had one on the way when I was reading this, so that resonated with me. And it explores the complicated relationship with his father and the story of how one of the greatest books of all time was written. A Christmas Carol really permeates the culture in a way that no other Christmas story does - except perhaps the Nativity itself."

Nalluri describes Stevens' performance as "jubilant, exciting and dynamic - which Dickens was. He was a man always on the move. Dan tapped into that and delivered a wonderful, very modern take that really drives the whole movie. I think he was born for this role."

For anyone who only knows him from "Downton Abbey," says Sharples, Stevens' performance will be a revelation. "He is in pretty much every scene. That is a lot to rest on one person's shoulders, but he is incredible. He always brought full-on energy and enthusiasm to the set."

To prepare for the role, Stevens turned to several well-respected studies of the author, including Becoming Dickens, written by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. "It is really about the period just before our film. It's less the venerable Dickens we all know and revere, and more a witty, ambitious, up-and-coming writer. I also read Michael Patrick Hearn's annotated edition of A Christmas Carol. Some of the details that made their way into the film, like the way he stood in front of a mirror making faces and doing odd voices, come from letters written by his friends and family."

Playing opposite Stevens as his creation and seeming nemesis, Ebenezer Scrooge, is Academy Award winner Christopher Plummer. A character whose name has become synonymous with bitterness and greed, Scrooge has rarely been played with so much charm.

"I can't imagine anyone better for the part," says Coyne. "Christopher captures both the menace of Scrooge and a tremendous warmth and dry humor that humanizes the character." Plummer's approach to the role is unique, says Mazur. "It's a quiet and tense Scrooge with very funny moments. Chris found a way to make him Dickens' alter ego, the part of Dickens that he disliked about himself."

Stevens agrees, adding, "Christopher discovered something really different and interesting about the character. He's kind of sweet and mischievous."

Plummer has been involved with the project since almost the beginning. "Susan Coyne created an extraordinary and magical story for a film," he says. "When I was asked if I would be in it, I said damn right I will. I've been a lucky guy. I've played so many of the great parts, but never Scrooge. It seems like an obvious follow up to King Lear."

An avid "Downton Abbey" fan, Plummer has nothing but praise for Stevens. "He was charming in that and very good in a very complex role," the actor says. "He's perfect for Dickens - both in his look and the way he attacked the role. Charles Dickens was not always a very nice man and Dan found all the colors."

Plummer has equal regard for Nalluri, who he says deftly handled the movie's humor. "Directors don't always have a theatrical sense of humor. I was very pleasantly surprised. He's a very funny guy with a lovely twinkle and he's obviously very talented."

The legendary actor's presence on set created excitement for even the most seasoned filmmakers. Nalluri says he has been waiting to work with Plummer since he was 12 years old and saw The Man Who Would Be King. "It was very special," he says of directing his longtime idol. "I didn't really have to do much. We all sat in awe as he delivered his lines and then walked off set. He pretty much nailed it every time."

According to producer Mullen, Dickens' relationship with his father, John Dickens, underpins the entire narrative. Believed to be the inspiration for David Copperfield's spendthrift Mr. Micawber, John Dickens was a flamboyant character who survived by his wits - and was a great disappointment to his son. He ended up living on Dickens' name, selling off scraps of writing from the trash.

"Although Dickens adored his father, he often felt betrayed by him," Mazur says. "When his father ran out of money, he forced young Dickens to work in a horrid shoe polish factory. Dickens was Oliver Twist. So we created a triangle between Dickens, his father and Scrooge, in which Scrooge forces Dickens to come to terms with his father in order to finish A Christmas Carol."

As John Dickens, Jonathan Pryce exudes breezy confidence and bonhomie, making it difficult to dislike the man or to judge his actions. "Jonathan walks this fabulous, razorthin line of, 'Is he doing the right thing or not?'" says Mickelson.

Pryce did some preliminary research into the life of the elder Dickens, but his experience playing real-life characters has taught him always to rely on the script as his primary source. "What you always want to do is fulfill the screenplay," he explains. "The character has to stand up in his own right and not rely on the fact that people will know about the background. If the screenplay is good, then the writer has done all the research that is necessary."

The filmmakers initially met with Simon Callow, an acknowledged Dickens expert, while they were researching the script. They later asked him to play John Leech, the brilliant illustrator who created unforgettable evocations of Scrooge and the ghosts that haunt him. Callow was introduced to Dickens when he was 13 and in bed with chickenpox.

"Chickenpox is a vile affliction that makes you want to scratch yourself all day long," he remembers. "My admirable grandmother put a copy of The Pickwick Papers in my hands to distract me. I was utterly entranced. I steadily read through all the books. Dickens' genius was in creating characters that made an immediate impression and became instant archetypes."

Callow was impressed by the way the script uses the creation of A Christmas Carol to illuminate Dickens, both as a writer and as a man. "It is cinematically and narratively inventive in the same way that A Christmas Carol is narratively inventive. It weaves in and out of realism and fantasy."

He hopes seeing Dickens as a young man will transform his reputation as a somewhat stuffy Victorian writer. "We all have this image of Dickens with his beard and his visionary eyes," says Callow. "But he was once a terribly handsome and dashing young man, brilliantly funny and fantastically good company. This will introduce a whole generation of people to the real Dickens."

Miriam Margolyes, who plays the Dickens family retainer, Mrs. Fiske, has a similar enthusiasm for the screenplay. "I was intoxicated when I read it," she says. "The writer presents to us that world of the 19th century, which seems such a long time ago, and yet holds within it the seeds of our own world."

Margolyes also discovered Dickens as a youngster, starting at 11 with Oliver Twist. She has read all of his novels, essays and even his letters - all 14,000 of them that are extant. "It's a personal passion," she confesses. "He was the greatest writer of prose we've ever had. He created more characters - over 2,000 - than anyone else in history. He was an unabashed social climber; not always moral, but always deeply interested in the journey of life."

Stevens, she says, is the perfect actor to play Charles Dickens. "First of all, he is enormously like him physically. As a young man, Dickens was a slender, ethereal figure, as is Dan. Within him there is sweetness, like Dickens, but because he's a wonderful actor, he could also conjure from within him that terrifying dark side that was very much a part of Dickens."

Dickens' celebrity meant he was often surrounded by dubious hangers-on, but one of the associates he trusted was his friend John Foster, played here by Justin Edwards. The actor describes his character as Dickens' unofficial literary agent. "He is a sort of a sidekick in the movie, as well a great supporter of Dickens," says Edwards. "But he was quite a writer and a man of letters himself. He eventually published a well-respected biography of his friend. Foster is desperately trying to help him get the money he needs and to support him when he starts going to pieces over the book."

Beyond the film's historical aspects, Edwards found the script a page-turner. "The plot moves along at a terrific pace as they try to get the book published in time for the holiday," he says. "Even though we know how it will turn out, getting there is fascinating. It's alarming how last-minute it really was."

An Ambitious View of Dickens' London

The Man Who Invented Christmas captures the luxury of moneyed Victorians' lives as well as the hardship of life in 19th-century London. "It's a story within a story, within a story, within someone's head," says Nalluri. "Characters appear and disappear. And everyone has a different perspective on it."

In fact, Nalluri says, it is the most complicated project he has ever undertaken. Using an authentically detailed Dublin soundstage, he has replicated the stark contrast between rich and poor in a lush period drama with elements of fantasy and gritty street scenes, while using very few computer-generated effects.

Shooting the film almost entirely "in camera" made many things more challenging, he says, but it's also part of what made this film so special for him. "It's very easy to throw up a green screen and there's the Ghost of Christmas Past," Nalluri explains. "How do you do it without effects and still make it real and believable for a modern-day audience? There's a lot of simple, old-school stuff. The whole film is told through Dickens' imagination - and he's never seen a special effects movie!"

The director gives enormous credit to his production design team, including production designer Paki Smith, for the film's striking visuals. "When I talked to the department heads, I said two words: 'Be brave,'" Nalluri recalls. "We're not making the same old period movie. Just go out on a limb and we'll live or die by how brave we are."

Smith says he has always wanted to do a Christmas film, admitting that they are something of a guilty pleasure for him. "I absolutely love this script," the designer says. "I laughed out loud from beginning to end. It was quite an ambitious film with a relatively small budget, but it is one of those rare films where I felt that there was nobody who wasn't in love with what they were doing."

The production got a lucky break when Smith learned that the immense set of Victorian London created for the television series "Penny Dreadful" was available. A faithful recreation of the city's streets, homes and businesses, the set gives the film an authenticity that would be hard to achieve on an independent film budget.

Perhaps the most challenging task the designer faced was creating Dickens' study, where a significant amount of the story unfolds. A shambling refuge in which the writer shut himself away to write, the room inspired a design that draws on references Smith pulled from an old newspaper column called "The Writers Room," which included photographs of the workspaces of well-known writers. "I avoided working on the study like a child avoids homework," he admits. "I sketched all the other sets well in advance, but I couldn't quite get it on paper. Eventually it became a cross between an office, a painter's studio and an attic. I really like where we went with it."

Once the sets came together, Smith worked with director of photography Ben Smithard to devise a unique lighting scheme for the film. "The theatricality of it allowed me to be more flamboyant with my lighting and with the way the camera moves," says the cinematographer, whose previous credits include Belle and My Week with Marilyn. "Dickens was a bit flamboyant in life, so there's quite a bit of color in this film. Paki Smith and his team did stunning work and I felt duty-bound to show it off."

Costume designer Leonie Prendergast researched the era's fashions exhaustively before creating the film's wardrobe. "I have done a lot of Victorian work, but not 1843," she says. "It's a very beautiful period with full skirts and dropped sleeves for women, and cutaway and frock coats for men."

Putting a personal stamp on the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come was a rare treat for the designer, who was able to indulge in a bit of fanciful costuming for the three specters. Working with Smith, she created an elongated silhouette with a classic Greek twist especially for them. "Christmas Present hints at Dionysus, while Christmas Past is more ethereal," she says.

For Stevens' Dickens, Prendergast took heed of a line the author delivers early in the film: "If there is one thing I have learned from my father, it is that people will believe anything if you are well dressed."

"Dan wears clothes so well," the designer says. "Everything looks good on him, whether it is today's fashion or the look of 1843. All of his clothing was made for him by an amazing tailor, Sean Jackson. We went with a palette that suits his fabulous blue eyes."

As Scrooge, Plummer is decked out almost entirely in black, but Prendergast combined variations in texture and hue to add depth to his outfit. "All the blacks are slightly different," she says. "For example, his waistcoat is charcoal with a paisley soft print. Christopher emailed me and asked if I would I send my drawings and ideas to him. He was thrilled when he saw that we agreed on how Scrooge would be dressed to make him look cadaverous and sinister."

Hair designer Lorraine Glynn had her hands full managing wigs, which are worn by almost all of the actors. "We pulled a lot of reference pictures from that period and tried various looks on them," she says. "For example, there are a few portraits of Dickens as a young man. He was quite slender and had a nice head of hair. Dan does not look unlike him, which is a wee bit eerie!"

As with wardrobe, Plummer was very specific about how he wanted his hair to look, according to Glynn. "We sent him some images before he arrived in Dublin," she says. "There were top hats, caps, scrawny hair. We received a wig from London and Christopher made me cut the top off the wig with a razor when he sat in the chair. I would normally do that type of work on a wig block, so doing it on his head was a little nerve racking."

For Sonia Dolan, head of the makeup team, the job was a dream. "A period piece with a fantasy element and a Christmas theme!" she exclaims. "But we had only one week for prep. That made for an extremely exciting collaborative week with hair, costume and art departments."

Like Prendergast, she found designing for the ghosts most interesting. "We used a much stronger, more theatrical makeup look for them. We found inspiration in the original illustrations of A Christmas Carol as well as in previous adaptations."

The names Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit and, of course, Tiny Tim are still instantly recognizable to most people. Coyne believes they have endured because of the humanity they were imbued with by their creator. Born 205 years ago, Charles Dickens managed to create characters that remain believable, relatable and indelible to this day. "They are so real on the page," she says. "Dickens makes us remember that there are bigger things in life than our own selfish interests."

A lifetime of studying the author has convinced Margolyes that his enduring appeal lies in an ability to represent human strengths and frailties that continue to resonate almost two centuries later. "Dickens was profoundly human, with all the faults and all the delights that go with that," she says. "He was filled with a sense that life is a journey upwards and that he had to make the world a better place. I think that's why we still read him today."

His influence is still felt in annual Yuletide celebrations, as families gather, gifts are exchanged, generosity is extended and feasts are served up all over the world. "Dickens is supremely relevant because he gives us hope," says Nalluri. "He allows us to laugh, he makes us cry and he makes us think about the world around us."

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