The bestselling writer in Victorian London sets out to revive his flagging career and reimagines Yuletide celebrations in THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS, an entertaining and enchanting glimpse into the life and mind of master storyteller Charles Dickens as he creates the quintessential holiday tale, A CHRISTMAS CAROL.
With the needs of his burgeoning family and his own extravagance rapidly emptying his pockets, Dickens [Dan Stevens] grows desperate for another bestseller. Tormented by writer’s block, he grasps at an idea for a surefire hit, a Christmas story he hopes will capture the imagination of his fans and solve his financial problems. But with only six weeks to write and publish the book before the holiday, and without the support of his publishers – who question why anyone would ever read a book about Christmas – he will have to work feverishly to meet his deadline. Dickens locks himself away to write, but his chaotic household, which now includes his profligate father [Jonathan Pryce], is a constant distraction. Working late into the night, the writer channels his own memories to conjure up the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, and place them on a collision course with the misanthropic miser Ebenezer Scrooge [Christopher Plummer]. --Bleecker Steet
The movie brings the imagination of one of the world’s best-loved authors to vivid reality as he creates the masterpiece that has shaped modern-day Christmas celebrations for more than 150 years.
Director Bharat Nalluri talks with SET DECOR about bringing that vivid reality to the screen, which in so doing, he has created a new Christmas classic...
SET DECOR: The film makes such an indelible impression. Some scenes are set in a very edited and a very quiet way, for a Victorian set, and then the others are so lushly filled, it’s a wonderful dichotomy there.
Director Bharat Nalluri: Yes! I was blessed with a very strong art department. The way I tend to work is, you surround yourself with brilliant people, and then you’re doing yourself a disservice unless you let them fly. So give them my impressions, my thoughts, what I want to create, and then let them loose...and then we all get together and huddle around and try to create a whole.
For me it’s always like trying to capture lightening in a bottle, because so many people are involved in making a movie, from the initial spark of writing it, to the people trying to sell it with the poster design, and every bit of it has to work to make it work out there. And the core group, the initial group, the art department is an absolute key. It’s the key that unlocks the rest of it all. Often, they’re the very first people you’re talking to.
Everyone always asked me, when talking about the film early on, “What’s it going look like? What’s it going feel like?” And, really, I always leave it very open until the art department and I sit down and look at our limitations and our expectations, and how we can achieve a whole—and this was a brilliant art department film. I’m pleased you feel it has a very contained and specific look. It was beautifully thought out by the art department.
SET DECOR: Just from the practical filmmaking point of view, the idea of putting the Dickens house in the midst of a redecoration was very wise. That allowed the budget to go to his study, to go to some of the other scenes. Clever and beautiful. And then, to offset the building in chaos, that incredible Italian chandelier...
Nalluri: We’re all in love with that chandelier! We all think it would look rather ridiculous in our own house, but I think we all wanted to take it away with us at the end of filming. Paki and Neill and Julie did an amazing job. [Editor’s note: Production Designer Paki Smith, Art Director Neill Treacy, Set Decorator Julie Ochipinti] What we extrapolated from the script, is that it’s a contained film, a film set in six weeks, which I love. There’s something about a beginning, middle and an end, when you can contain the time frame...I love those films, they just kind of feel like old-fashioned movies. And the one thing that was in the script was that the chandelier was being put in as part of the new decor. Taking it from there, you know this was a film about a writer, an author in process, constructing his novel. So from that, the house became under construction, the road come under construction, buildings are under construction, the statue is under construction. What I was saying is that we want to witness the process. I said to them, “By the time we get to the end of the movie, we want to feel complete.”
And from that, the art department went off and flew.
SET DECOR: They certainly did. The chaos of the re-decoration leads into the chaos of his creativity. And then the little sparks, the sparks of beauty, like the chandelier, were his characters coming through.
Nalluri: And his search for perfection. That’s part of it, too. He wants the perfect chandelier. He’s going to put his family on the street, but he’s got to have that chandelier. And it’s that chase for perfection that the art department reflected on.
SET DECOR: Part of that trait was from his father, most evidenced through the little marionette stage at the very end, the wee Christmas stage. It came all the way fully to that essence of perfection.
Nalluri: Absolutely. And it does come from his father. [His father, whom the child adored, was thrown into debtor’s prison, which forced the young boy into the workhouse] It’s interesting, he’s caught between—he loves his father, but all of his psychology, all his darkest recesses are probably set off by how his father behaved. His father wasn’t a spendthrift, but he kind of lived his day for the moment, and seized his opportunities, and I think in a way, Dickens wants to do that, but he also knows the consequences of that.
Funnily enough, you mention that final stage show, the little puppet theater where Jonathan Pryce is. Handmade by Paki, I believe. I think the art department sat there and put it all together over the weekend. They loved that little theater. And it was originally supposed to be earlier in the movie...we shifted some of the scenes, so it wasn’t in any more. I was reminded of the puppet show in FANNY & ALEXANDER, and I loved that kind of children around a puppet show, and then Paki turned up with this beautiful theater, and I said “That’s just got to end up on camera somewhere!” So, I gave it its own scene and put it in at the end, and it kind of completed it all again. When you follow the theme through, it works kind of really well. It was one of the sets where everyone was on the same page. It was lovely and a really nice, good experience, a very creative experience all around.
SET DECOR: We love the collaborative spirit.
Nalluri: Oh, they’re an amazing team. And there's another person I have to throw in, because when you’re making these small independent films, you’re so dependent on the location manager. That’s the start of it. I’d turn up on location and say, “Okay, show me anything. Show me the wondrous things.” We shot in Dublin, so, “Show me what Dublin has to offer. Forget the script, and let’s see how we can use it.” Colm, our location manager, was fantastic, and we saw these wonderful locations and interiors which influenced other stuff...we rewrote the script to fit some of those things, and that was the start of the process.
SET DECOR: Obviously the house was at least partially a location. We would assume that his study/library was on stage?
Nalluri: Yes, his study was a build, but the rest of the house was on location.
SET DECOR: The study had a magic about it, a writer’s dream...we could happily live there.
Nalluri: I know, I know. We all loved it. It was Chris Plummer’s favorite place. I’d often turn up on set in the morning, and he’d already be sitting in Dickens’s chair. One time I said, “What are you doing here, Chris, you’re not even on for another 3 hours?” And he replied, “Oh, I just like this place.” Everyone wanted to box it up and take it home...it was so beautiful. And it’s complex because about half of the movie is set in there and there’s a lot of stuff in there. We had to make sure there was a way we could keep that alive, and make sure we could tell the story without always just shot, reverse, shot. There’s a lot of thought gone into how we did it. What looks like technically a writer’s study can’t be some palatial thing at the top of the house. So how do we achieve something that you could keep returning to and never get bored of really?
SET DECOR: That’s exactly what happened. There were so many fascinating corners and nooks and bits...
Nalluri: Yeah, that’s Julie, the set dec. I mean, the layering she gave me. Honestly, I’d think, “Oh, okay, I can do this whole scene around that mirror there. You’ve got a whole bit of blocking here where I can play off the mirror and it will look beautiful.” And that’s it. You just get so spoiled when there’s stuff like that around, especially when you’re not expecting it. It was a gift.
SET DECOR: And we love those details, the comfortable furnishings around the fire, the rooms within a room designated by furnishings...the seating area, the writing area, the books and objects, the two tall windows with window seats, and standing between them a little secretary with twisted spindles, which speak to OLIVER TWIST, papers overflowing the box a reminder of PICKWICK PAPERS...these little nods that were so delicious.
Yes. One of the great advantages of this is that you have so much reference, because you’ve got the whole of Dickens’s world. And when you read a Dickens book, you’re in the room when Dickens describes a room. He’s a master at putting you in the space. And the amazing thing about A CHRISTMAS CAROL is that it’s only 75-odd pages, it’s not very long, but yet, you feel the complete atmosphere of it. You are in that world. You are totally immersed. From the moment it starts, you understand and you can visualize that world.
That’s why one thing I required was that everyone had to read A CHRISTMAS CAROL three times over and kind of bury it in his or her head. I also said, “Everything Dickens sees around him, we should reference somehow or other, somewhere. The audience, whether consciously or sub-consciously, should know that it’s something he’s seen, and that’s why it’s in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. You know, whether it’s the tiles on the fireplace, which have a very specific part in the book, and they designed those tiles and had them made. Or whether it’s the cherry-red apple that he talks about in the marketplace, in the book. It was all down to the minutiae of the book. But I think that’s another reason why it feels quite whole. People know that book better than they think, even, because I think it’s been part of our culture for so long that it’s just embedded in people’s subconscious. And we were very keen to make sure we didn’t let people down.
At the same time, it’s not a re-telling of CHRISTMAS CAROL, it’s about the creation of it. That’s our great advantage. Basically, it’s CHRISTMAS CAROL shortened down to its bare essences. And that gave an advantage. We visit moments, using the bits of CHRISTMAS CAROL that probably are the most remembered, the ghosts and Scrooge, the travelling through time, the elements that people remember...and also, thematically what it’s about. It was lovely to be able to do that.
SET DECOR: And as more of the characters from the book appear, as they fill his study and it becomes more and more filled, it somehow doesn’t feel crowded...although there might be moments when he would feel that way...it still feels comfortable.
Nalluri: Well that again was the art department knowing and making magic of it. We tracked how many characters were going to be in there, what they should be doing, how we could keep them alive, how we could give them their own little world in the corner, and then it was working out how to achieve those spaces within a space in order to give all of these characters their own world, and yet have Dickens be right in the middle of it, being interrupted and kind of harangued by them all. So, for example, the windows seats were specifically done like that so you could have a little world in there...
SET DECOR: Right...and the library staircase, the curved, twisted...
Nalluri: I had imagined a ladder that slid across the wall. I had an idea that he would jump on the ladder and fly across. But Paki said, “No, you need a stage entrance, up and down for everyone. You need a balcony, is what you need.” And that’s what he gave us. And Julie gave us everything to surround it. And, of course, they were absolutely right.
SET DECOR: Yes, behind it are campaign chests that create another defined space in the background, giving the wall a varying landscape, a mixture of little pieces and more solid elements and yet fitting in with it seamlessly, it’s so beautifully done.
Nalluri: Absolutely. And that reflects the fact that he’s just come back from America, that he’s a traveler, a wanderer. If we had a close-up, you’d see luggage tags on some of those. We took all the steamship logos for the ships he came back on, and, you know, it’s ALL there. It’s all feels whole. I just wish I could have put in even more close-ups. I did put in as much as I possibly could, because I was so in love with it all, but I couldn’t put it all into the end movie. But it kind of reflects itself. You feel the whole...that’s what I think.
SET DECOR: And it has a deliciousness. You want to visit it again and again. This is the kind of film that will be a classic—we will visit it again and again, and it will be great to discover.
And then there are things that stand out from the beginning, like the frogs on his desk...
Nalluri: Aren’t they gorgeous? That’s a bit of reference to his actual desk. If you look at any picture of him, any portrait of him, in the front of his desk, you can always see the frogs there. They’re sword-fighting frogs, they’re actually having a sword fight! We used them even in the beginning of the movie...he travelled with them. So you’re in New York, in the theater, and the frogs are there on the stage with him.
SET DECOR: The New York setting was unexpected!
Nalluri: It’s exactly what happened. We described it as 'Bob Dylan coming to England in the '60s', where he literally couldn’t go anywhere, there were crowds chasing him everywhere he went. He was a real rock star. That’s what we wanted to have happen, that Dickens was a rock star.
SET DECOR: That did come across...
Nalluri: But, let’s face it, he got to the really difficult third album. [Laughter] He had to fall back and spend all his personal money. He didn’t know what to do, his finances are falling apart, he had to bring it all together. So that was the idea behind the New York tour.
SET DECOR: So, the ones who did have the money, the publishers, Chapman and Hall...and their book-lined office. The height of that office! And everything being played off of that: the standing sculptures, not busts, the high lamps and that incredible fireplace.
Nalluri: Yes! Again, that was a location, but you know, the magic of art departments. They realized that the fireplace was the key, and all the placement was worked from there. We talked a lot about where Chapman & Hall’s desk would be and how you get the most out of the room. How you would see the height, how you would see floor-to-ceiling books and there he is in front of them. It’s like it all of sudden steps up, the stress that he has at that moment. It was Chapman & Hall who made the money out of Dickens, and he always had an issue with his publishers because he felt he never made the money he should have been paid. So we gave them one of plushest sets, one of the ones where we wanted to show the money.
SET DECOR: Yes, the collectibles look to be of the best. The Meissen plates, the French clock, the sculptures...and the tea table itself, the beautiful tea service.
And speaking of “moneyed’ and tea, we also have the gentlemen’s club...
Nalluri: The gentlemen’s club was another location, which wasn’t a gentleman’s club, obviously. It was the front dining room for some well-to-do Irish family. Our team did a beautiful job creating that “club” world, and it changes several times. We visit it...we go back to it three times I believe, and it had to have a different feel to it each time. It’s kind of loosely based on the Garrick Club in London, which is where Dickens and Thackery and the likes used to hang out, it was their gentlemen’s club. So we wanted to give it that vibe, and again, a lot of research and a lot of thought went into it all. We had three quite big scenes there, and it, too, had pockets and areas that you could keep it feeling alive. Again, they did a fabulous job with it.
And the last scene there, with the men gambling in the background, I thought was appropriate since his last scene in the book is about the gamble of having written the book or not.
SET DECOR: From famous men to a famous man, the illustrator John Leech’s studio, with it’s dramatic draping...
Nalluri: That’s the set decorator. Her drapes and cloth work was extraordinary. She had such an eye for it. And it was all tied in with the camera and story, and the character, it wasn’t just done for done sake. Leech is an artist, and in those days, the artist was bigger than the author. You went to the artist first and then you got some down-at-the-heel author to write the story, because Leech would do the prints, and the picture was the thing. This is the first time it started flipping, when the author became the more important part of the equation. But at this stage, Dickens had tried to get Leech to do his stuff for him before and hadn’t managed, and he feels it’s essential to get Leech on his side. He’s the proven artist, he’s the one that’s had success with books and prints. So we wanted him to be in that world, to give him a very confident, artistic kind of hue. If you look at it, it’s a very simple thing that they’ve done, but it’s the use of drapes alone that has created a beautiful effect.
SET DECOR: Well, opposite of that, the boot blacking factory...
Nalluri: Oh yes. That is a really good example of a location leading design, leading story, leading everything. That was another location that Colm showed me and he said, “I have no idea how you’re going to use this, but it’s such a wonderful location.” And Paki and I looked at each other and went, “Blacking factory.” The scale is huge. Realistically that wouldn’t have been the scale of the blacking factory that Dickens was in, but psychologically I felt it was the right scale. I wanted a little boy in a huge world. You know, in your memories as a child, everything was bigger. We kind of extrapolated from that and decided “Let’s make it big...and feel the impact of that memory on him.”
SET DECOR: And that’s part of the bigness. It’s such a huge moment in a child’s life, which has held few moments, so it makes it even huger.
Nalluri: Yes. Definitely. And also I wanted to give it the iron columns, the bars that go across the top, I felt like I was inside a whale. I felt like something had died and we were in the rib cage. And it just felt completely right for what we were trying to achieve there, especially with the denouement, the end, that was a very dark night of the soul kind of place. Paki saw that instantly. And Julie’s set dec on that was amazing. The part where we find Scrooge in the grave wasn’t in the script. We just felt we could really up the ante and kind of put the audience in there with him...
And, again, we had no money to put it together. But the art director very quickly designed this grave that could close, and it was extraordinary. They had it knocked up together and the set dressed and we did it. That’s when I just love it. I love it when the art department is actually more enthusiastic than you are about it. “Yes, we can do it, we can do!” That’s when they’re dragging you along...
SET DECOR: And it was so incredibly done. That dark realism and just even the angles...everything about it...
Nalluri: Yes, everything and everyone lent themselves. We should mention Ben Smithard the DOP as well, who was part of that whole. He was in very early with us. It was a good meeting of ways. We were all on the same page.One of my cues was, “When Dickens envisages his world, when he sees his world, it’s a Victorian lantern show.” That’s why there’s so little CGI in the film, there’s not much in visual effects. It’s how he would have seen the stage show, and how the ghost appears. I wanted it to be very inside of Dickens’s head. That’s how he would have seen it, or how he would have imagined it. And that all refers back to his father and his father putting on those magic lantern shows... And so that was all of the linking for that and became part of the design theory.
SET DECOR: And part of that design tie-in, there are so many lovely ribbons that come in for us, like the light coming in filtered through those lovely sheers that are flanked with drapery legs of a vibrant floral pattern, so rich in his study. And you think, “Oh, of course,in the story, it’s just been re-done, so it’s a newer fabric, height of fashion for the day.”
And that’s such a fresh way of seeing Dickens for us. The whole film has a wonderful freshness to it, yet we feel like we’re in the period.
Nalluri: As you know, you’re moving on the films at 150 miles an hour. There’s no stopping, and all you’re hoping is that everyone is doing their job. And. I look at stuff like that and go, “Ah, yeah, that’s so clever what Julie’s done with the drapes.” I never sat there to say that’s how they should be to juxtapose this, this and this. Everyone is moving so fast, you don’t have the time for that. And, like you, I watch the film now, and every time I look at it...and I have say I’ve probably seen it a hundred times now, in the process of making it...I still keep spotting stuff, and it’s like the more I can let go of the process I’ve just gone through...I can see every cut and the sound design and the music...but as I get further and further away from having made it, I see more and more of the art department. I just see the texture and what they’ve layered into it. And I always find it kind of breathtaking when that happens.
I love the fact that you can come back to it and discover something else. But what I love the most is that it’s always about the story first. It’s not set dec for set dec, it’s about the story. That’s what we all do. We’re all making the story. And that...I love it. You get that wholeness.
That’s why I think people feel that so many bows come together in this film in a really nice way, so in the end it feels complete. All of that, whether it’s conscious or sub-conscious, it’s all those things that are working towards the whole. And this is a film about completing something...finishing that book...and be reflected by it.
SET DECOR: Well, this film has many gifts to give. It’s not limited to one, but it all comes through, letting us know more about his background and why and how he did it. It’s just a magical place to go.
Nalluri: He’s a terribly complex and interesting character.
I always say, “Was he a good guy?” I’m not sure.
“Did he try to be a good guy?” Yes. I think he lived that dichotomy.
He was a champagne socialist. He was making money, he was living in the best of times, the worst of times, but he saw the other side and he wanted to put something back in.
And his books changed the course of political and social nature, first in the UK and then across the world. A lot of the stuff we have now in terms of the labor law, the protection, the child labor laws...all of that comes from the fact that he made people take notice through fiction. He put people in that world.
And if some of that comes through, it’s fabulous.
But in the end this is a really fun, entertaining piece that basically at the end, reminds you to be nice to the person next to you.