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
family, benevolence, goodwill and festivity. In fact, it set a new standard for
inspiring the spirit of the traditional Victorian Christmas and beginning a host
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
nonfiction writer in his own right, learned A Christmas Carol was almost never
had no idea that he had to pay for the publication himself," he says. "Even
publisher was interested in it, the book was responsible for changing the
Dickens' career. I set about to find a book that explained it all, but to my
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
Robert Mickelson and executive producers Paula Mazur and Mitchell Kaplan. All
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
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
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
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
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
illustrated volume turned out to be more than just an instant moneymaker. It
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
Christmas Carol. The filmmakers envisioned a screenplay that presented Dickens
modern man: flawed, fierce and funny all at the same time. Writer Susan Coyne,
of "Slings and Arrows," a Canadian TV series about a modern-day Shakespeare
festival, had made an impression on Mickelson with the offbeat sensibility she
the show. "Her writing has a charm and character to it, as well as a great deal
says Mickelson. "I am a big fan."
Coyne delivered a playful narrative in which Dickens interacts with his
characters as he gives birth to the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge. In Coyne's
has long conversations with his creations as their stories unfold in front of
characters become real to him," she says. "We know that Dickens did carry on
with his characters, so that is based on the true story and we've invented his
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
gun. "Dickens was down and out at this point," she says. "He'd had all these big
like The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist. And then he had a
The more I read about him, the more fascinating he became. He was such a mixture
ambition, humanity, pettiness and largeness of spirit - a complex and remarkable
Struck with writer's block, Dickens develops an adversarial relationship with
characters, especially Scrooge. "Scrooge becomes his nemesis," says Mickelson
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.
Who Invented Christmas has an element of modernity about it. Even though we're
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
Lives for a Day, was selected to helm the film. "Bharat has a lightness of
Mickelson. "He gets great performances from his casts. We thought he would bring
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,
these larger-than-life, often very comedic characters and used them to tell
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
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
and the story. Bharat was able to wrap his head around all of that and track it
pretty complicated, fast shooting schedule. He also worked extremely well with
Standiford, who spent time on the film's Dublin set, was thrilled to see the
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
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
others - it's a beautiful message. And it really did change the way everybody
Creating Unforgettable Characters
Some of the U.K.'s most distinguished actors agreed to take on large and small
in The Man Who Invented Christmas. Casting, says Mickelson, always starts with
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
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
known to millions of "Downton Abbey" fans as the ill-fated heir Matthew Crawley.
of the gravitas associated with the older Dickens, Stevens invests the role with
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
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
Carol really permeates the culture in a way that no other Christmas story does -
perhaps the Nativity itself."
Nalluri describes Stevens' performance as "jubilant, exciting and dynamic -
Dickens was. He was a man always on the move. Dan tapped into that and delivered
wonderful, very modern take that really drives the whole movie. I think he was
born for this
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
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
the period just before our film. It's less the venerable Dickens we all know and
more a witty, ambitious, up-and-coming writer. I also read Michael Patrick
annotated edition of A Christmas Carol. Some of the details that made their way
film, like the way he stood in front of a mirror making faces and doing odd
from letters written by his friends and family."
Playing opposite Stevens as his creation and seeming nemesis, Ebenezer Scrooge,
Academy Award winner Christopher Plummer. A character whose name has become
synonymous with bitterness and greed, Scrooge has rarely been played with so
"I can't imagine anyone better for the part," says Coyne. "Christopher captures
menace of Scrooge and a tremendous warmth and dry humor that humanizes the
Plummer's approach to the role is unique, says Mazur. "It's a quiet and tense
with very funny moments. Chris found a way to make him Dickens' alter ego, the
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
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
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
surprised. He's a very funny guy with a lovely twinkle and he's obviously very
The legendary actor's presence on set created excitement for even the most
filmmakers. Nalluri says he has been waiting to work with Plummer since he was
old and saw The Man Who Would Be King. "It was very special," he says of
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
underpins the entire narrative. Believed to be the inspiration for David
spendthrift Mr. Micawber, John Dickens was a flamboyant character who survived
wits - and was a great disappointment to his son. He ended up living on Dickens'
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
polish factory. Dickens was Oliver Twist. So we created a triangle between
father and Scrooge, in which Scrooge forces Dickens to come to terms with his
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
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
character has to stand up in his own right and not rely on the fact that people
about the background. If the screenplay is good, then the writer has done all
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,
illustrator who created unforgettable evocations of Scrooge and the ghosts that
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
remembers. "My admirable grandmother put a copy of The Pickwick Papers in my
distract me. I was utterly entranced. I steadily read through all the books.
was in creating characters that made an immediate impression and became instant
Callow was impressed by the way the script uses the creation of A Christmas
to illuminate Dickens, both as a writer and as a man. "It is cinematically and
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
brilliantly funny and fantastically good company. This will introduce a whole
people to the real Dickens."
Miriam Margolyes, who plays the Dickens family retainer, Mrs. Fiske, has a
enthusiasm for the screenplay. "I was intoxicated when I read it," she says.
presents to us that world of the 19th century, which seems such a long time ago,
holds within it the seeds of our own world."
Margolyes also discovered Dickens as a youngster, starting at 11 with Oliver
She has read all of his novels, essays and even his letters - all 14,000 of them
extant. "It's a personal passion," she confesses. "He was the greatest writer of
ever had. He created more characters - over 2,000 - than anyone else in history.
an unabashed social climber; not always moral, but always deeply interested in
the journey of
Stevens, she says, is the perfect actor to play Charles Dickens. "First of all,
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
could also conjure from within him that terrifying dark side that was very much
a part of
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
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
friend. Foster is desperately trying to help him get the money he needs and to
when he starts going to pieces over the book."
Beyond the film's historical aspects, Edwards found the script a page-turner.
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
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.
everyone has a different perspective on it."
In fact, Nalluri says, it is the most complicated project he has ever
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
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
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
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
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
that would be hard to achieve on an independent film budget.
Perhaps the most challenging task the designer faced was creating Dickens'
where a significant amount of the story unfolds. A shambling refuge in which the
himself away to write, the room inspired a design that draws on references Smith
from an old newspaper column called "The Writers Room," which included
the workspaces of well-known writers. "I avoided working on the study like a
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
cinematographer, whose previous credits include Belle and My Week with Marilyn.
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
cutaway and frock coats for men."
Putting a personal stamp on the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to
was a rare treat for the designer, who was able to indulge in a bit of fanciful
the three specters. Working with Smith, she created an elongated silhouette with
Greek twist especially for them. "Christmas Present hints at Dionysus, while
is more ethereal," she says.
For Stevens' Dickens, Prendergast took heed of a line the author delivers early
film: "If there is one thing I have learned from my father, it is that people
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
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
Christopher emailed me and asked if I would I send my drawings and ideas to him.
thrilled when he saw that we agreed on how Scrooge would be dressed to make him
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
which is a wee bit eerie!"
As with wardrobe, Plummer was very specific about how he wanted his hair to
according to Glynn. "We sent him some images before he arrived in Dublin," she
"There were top hats, caps, scrawny hair. We received a wig from London and
made me cut the top off the wig with a razor when he sat in the chair. I would
that type of work on a wig block, so doing it on his head was a little nerve
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
for prep. That made for an extremely exciting collaborative week with hair,
costume and art
Like Prendergast, she found designing for the ghosts most interesting. "We used
much stronger, more theatrical makeup look for them. We found inspiration in the
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
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
in life than our own selfish interests."
A lifetime of studying the author has convinced Margolyes that his enduring
lies in an ability to represent human strengths and frailties that continue to
two centuries later. "Dickens was profoundly human, with all the faults and all
that go with that," she says. "He was filled with a sense that life is a journey
that he had to make the world a better place. I think that's why we still read
His influence is still felt in annual Yuletide celebrations, as families gather,
exchanged, generosity is extended and feasts are served up all over the world.
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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