ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is a family film from the people who brought you BORAT, BRUNO, THE ARMANDO IANNUCCI SHOWS and BRASS EYE. Interested now? Good. Though most kid-skewing films centered on the Santa Claus myth fall far short of tolerable, this Aardman-produced romp offers a clever reinvention of the character as a title passed down from generation to generation. Santa Claus's present-distribution operation up at the North Pole is a family business that has changed with the times, keeping ahead of the technological curve with a militaristic fervor. Gone is the sleigh! Retired are the reindeer! In their place, a massive flying fortress called the S1 that zips around the globe with light-speed efficiency!
It's all terribly dazzling, and, we soon learn, a bit impersonal. Being Santa is now akin to being the CEO of a multinational corporation; it's about the well-oiled precision of the enterprise, and less about, you know, making kids happy. And with the stern, barrel-chested Steve (voice of Hugh Laurie) about to take over for his father (Jim Broadbent), it appears as though the Christmas spirit might vanish altogether from the North Pole. But when a little girl's present gets misplaced and undelivered on Christmas Eve - and the bottom-line-minded Steve decides it's an acceptable loss - it's up to the innocent, big-hearted Arthur (James McAvoy) to make things right. So he sets out on a clandestine mission with the out-to-pasture/lunch Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) to save one child's Christmas.
This may sound like kids' stuff, but writers Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith (who also directed) have imbued the film with an irreverent, gently satiric sensibility. It's a particular shock to see Baynham's name on the film. For the better part of two decades, Baynham's been collaborating with Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci and Steve Coogan - i.e. some of the darkest and most savage comedic minds in the U.K. (and if you're not familiar with their work, head to YouTube and get familiar). He was also nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar as part of the BORAT writing team. And while his incisive wit hasn't been completely dulled for ARTHUR CHRISTMAS, he's certainly a long way from the infamous "Paedoggedon!" episode of BRASS EYE.
A few weeks ago, I chatted with the talented Mr. Baynham about writing for kids, tinkering with the Santa myth, and smuggling in a little satire for the parents. We also briefly discussed the forthcoming Alan Partridge film, which he is currently writing with Coogan and Iannucci.
Mr. Beaks: So is it a bit liberating writing a film about Santa Claus? Most of the previous attempts to bring the myth to the big screen have been somewhat... less than classic. Although I do have a soft spot for SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS.
Peter Baynham: (Laughs) You know, I think I saw a clip of that a while ago, and I was kind of stunned by it. I was like, "What the hell is that?" It's amazing. I want to make that movie now. Have you seen the whole thing?
Beaks: I have! I've seen the full version and the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 take on it.
Baynham: I'll have to take a look at it.
Beaks: Highly recommended. That and the Mexican SANTA CLAUS, where Santa fights the devil.
Baynham: He fights the devil? Perfect. That's what you want to see, isn't it? If we ever do a sequel, that's it: Santa fights the devil for sure!
Beaks: But knowing that Santa has not been particularly well-served throughout cinema history, did you feel like the character was wide open for interpretation?
Baynham: When... the idea came, it was purely what I wanted to see. When you apply that pedantry, which is a feature of my personality, how is [Santa's Christmas operation] really done? It seems like the most impossible thing ever, for one bearded overweight man to deliver two billion presents. So, okay, given that it's true, how is it done? That was a really fun, exciting thing. Early on I thought of INDEPENDENCE DAY - but instead of being a big spaceship full of aliens bent on our destruction, what if it was filled with elves? That sort of made me laugh. And then to go, "What is the Claus family really like?" We started working on it, then we both got excited about it, then Aardman wanted to do it, and then Sony got really excited about it.
But relatively early on, we sat down and watched a couple of Christmas movies and were pretty horrified. As you say, a lot of them are less than classic. It was troubling. We thought, "Oh, no. We're writing a Christmas film!" And we were so far down the line that we had to do it. But as people have said a couple of times about the Christmas genre or the Christmas film, apart from the fact that they're set at Christmas, there doesn't seem to be any uniting things. We found that a lot of them would either be super cheesy or they'd try to be super cynical - and in the last scene the characters all change, and it's like, "That's the meaning of Christmas!" That felt like a cheat. I'm a big Christmas nerd deep down, and I think Sarah is as well. I get all excited when Christmas comes around. So we didn't want something that was negative, but we still wanted it to have a bit of edge. So we have a character like Grandsanta (voice of Bill Nighy) in this, who says all the worst things. I always thought you could have both at the same time: you can have heart, and you can have people saying terrible things. (Laughs) Maybe I tend to be that kind of person. I have a big heart, but then I think bad things in my head.
Beaks: I love the whole practicality of the undertaking. In a way, you might be extending the life of Santa Claus for kids. When they stop believing, it's usually because they know it's just not logistically or scientifically possible. But with what you've done here, they might say, "Okay, I'll buy that."
Baynham: (Laughs) Yeah! That would be lovely if we've rescued a couple of kids who are getting to ten or eleven and getting a bit cynical, and they're about to go some other way, and then they go, "A-ha! That's how you do it!"
I was in London last week for the premiere, and the day afterwards my wife and daughter went to a department store. We went and saw Father Christmas, as he's known in Britain, and it was surreal. He saw that my daughter was wearing an ARTHUR CHRISTMAS badge, and he said, "What's that?" She said, "Arthur Christmas." And he sort of grumbled, "Oh. The competition." Then he got kind of annoyed! He said, "I'm the real Santa!" That made me laugh because it's part of what our characters do in the movie. They're all going, "I'm Santa! I'm Santa..." and it's all part of that ego thing. But then he gave my three-year-old daughter a lecture. "Of course, Santa is an American invention. It's from 1921. Father Christmas is the original character." And I was like, "Back off, mate! You're crushing my daughter's dreams here!"
Iit's a gamble, I think, to take on this character. We don't ever make any claims about what kids are told, we're just trying to show you behind the curtain how it's done, how everything you've been told is true. And that fed all of the technology. "It's true, therefore how is it done? How do the elves get the toys in your stocking?" We've got a million elves, they're broken into teams of three, and they've got 18.14 seconds per household. We did a lot of math just to prove it. (Laughs)
Beaks: You've also smuggled in a satirical element here, with the militaristic trappings of this operation and the "Mission Accomplished" banner. How much of this was intended to be satirical?
Baynham: There was a little bit of intention. None of it's ever designed; it's there if you want it. I don't like when movies stick in jokes for the dads: you want the whole movie to be get-able; you want it to be enjoyed by everyone. That's what I think Pixar are genius at; they're fantastic at doing a movie that I can watch with my three year old. [TOY STORY] is the moving story of Buzz discovering he's a toy, but as an adult you're maybe getting a sophistication that the kid doesn't need.
So we wanted to tell a fun story, but the satire for us was... that this is like a family business that's kind of lost its soul a bit. It's become corporate. Steve is supposed to be a send-up of that corporate [type]. We did research into all of that, and how those people talk. In the end, you can only get a little bit into the movie, but I've got banks of all that rubbish, like, "Low-hanging fruit," and "How can we can move forward on this?" We figured Steve would like nothing more than to have a breakfast meeting with Bill Gates. The tragedy of Steve is that he's this incredibly capable and corporate guy who has to stay secret; he can't go off the North Pole and have a working breakfast where everyone sits around the boardroom table with croissants and coffee in the middle, and everyone talks about sales figures. He's a man who doesn't belong at the North Pole, really. So there is this satire, but we hope we did it with affection for the characters. Steve is our nearest thing to a baddie. He's not really bad; he's sort of the antagonist. But he's not someone who's going to be unceremoniously booted out of the North Pole at the end of the movie; he's a part of the family. So one of the challenges in this was, "How can we make him become good?"
Beaks: It feels like a genuine change. The family isn't fractured, but they all have trouble understanding one another.
Baynham: They're all a bit obsessed with being Santa. Grandsanta's desperate to prove himself, Santa's gotten a bit comfortable in the job, and Steve is... like Prince Charles waiting for the Queen to do the right thing. (Laughs) They all slightly parallel the British royal family. We thought about that a lot. Again, I don't think a kid is going to make that comparison, but in our heads that was a nice parallel, a royal lineage in the modern world.
Beaks: You have vast experience in writing comedy that is a tad more adult than this. (Laughs) Obviously, you've got those profane instincts. When you're writing a family film, how do you reconcile these two modes?
Baynham: In the end, you know you're writing a family film. You're not going to have Borat-type comedy in it. But you push it a little bit. Grandsanta was always the outlet for that; he used to say much worse things than what made it into the movie. Myself and Sarah Smith both had grandparents who used to say the most unbelievably un-PC things. And there was something about those people that, as a kid, even though they said terrible things, as a kid you sort of delighted in them. So we thought kids would respond to that, and go, "Oh, that's like my naughty granddad who says awful things, and my parents have to get him out of the room." I think it's about control in the end. I have a daughter, and she's three years old. I try to make her laugh, so I have to find things beyond the profane to [amuse] her with. It's a good discipline, actually. If you can't reach for rude things and rude words, you have to invent another way. It's not a compromise, but it's tougher in a way.
Beaks: I like that there's real danger in the film, too. Family films often play it pretty safe nowadays, but, for instance, there's that scene of the reindeer being pursued by the lions in Africa, and I heard a child behind me gasp. For a moment there, I wasn't sure if they were going to make it myself. I think just acknowledging danger, even in a small way, makes a difference.
Baynham: It's interesting. Family films have changed a little bit. I don't think I'd ever want to go all out and say, "Let's frighten kids." But you're going to care more about the characters if you're worried about what's going to happen to them. It's interesting to watch something like THE JUNGLE BOOK, which my daughter absolutely loves, but Shere Khan is scary. And things like PINOCCHIO and BAMBI are really hardcore. You probably know this, but Walt Disney himself wanted the whole mother scene in BAMBI, and the people beneath him - the animators and executives - were like, "Are you crazy? His mother dies?" And Walt Disney, who people might identify with a particular affection or schmaltziness, he was the guy who often said, "No, I want this to matter to kids." I don't think there's anything quite like that in ours, but... (Laughs)
Beaks: We're almost out of time, but I wanted to ask what's up with the Alan Partridge movie.
Baynham: That's happening next year, fingers crossed. We've been developing it for quite a long time. We've got an idea that we're very excited about - which I'm not at liberty to tell you about unfortunately. We're really into it. It feels like the timing is right. You approach these things with caution when you have a character who's been around as long as Alan has. Have you seen "Mid-Morning Matters"?
Beaks: I haven't yet.
Baynham: Oh, I recommend those. I wasn't involved in them, so I can absolutely go on about them without seeming arrogant. They're absolutely brilliant. They're these ten- to fifteen-minute webisodes, and I think you can get them now on YouTube here. It's just Coogan playing Alan in a radio studio, just broadcasting a mid-morning show called "Mid-Morning Matters". And it's that Partridge defensiveness straightaway. (Laughs) He's just on peak form, so to be thinking about doing a movie with him is very exciting.
Beaks: How does working with Coogan differ from working with Chris Morris?
Baynham: They're both brilliant. It's hard because Chris is like an overseer-author of everything he does. It's great when you're in a room with Chris and he's got an overarching idea for something like BRASS EYE. He's like a kind of black hole into which you're relentlessly pitching this stuff, and he screws up his face in this particular way that's like, "Does he like it? Does he hate it? What's going on!?!?" But he's really, really nice. He'll probably be furious with me saying this, but he's an incredibly warm guy who does all that edgy [material]. It's funny when people think of edginess and warmth as being separate things, and he has both in him.
And then Steve has an absolute brilliant instinct for the characters he's developing with you. With Partridge, he's the protector of it. Sometimes I'd be pitching Partridge with him and Armando [Iannucci]... I'd be pitching stuff that would go to far, and he'd be like, "No!" People identify Alan as like, "Oh, god, that terrible man!" But Steve always protects the likability of Alan - or at least the empathy of him. When people think, "I can't watch him," they're actually feeling for him. So Steve's always saying, "Alan wouldn't do that." He's really, really good at that. He's got a great combination of actor and writer in him.
ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is in theaters now. It's one of the best family films of the year. Check it out!