Mr. Beaks Talks ARTHUR CHRISTMAS, Alan Partridge And More With Screenwriter Peter Baynham!
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!
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Nov. 25, 2011, 5:26 p.m. CST
Nov. 25, 2011, 5:32 p.m. CST
... and trailers are awful IMO. "ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is a family film from the people who brought you BORAT, BRUNO, THE ARMANDO IANNUCCI SHOWS and BRASS EYE. Interested now?" Yes, but it'll take an effort to watch it thanks to the shitty design.
Nov. 25, 2011, 5:53 p.m. CST
not vintage Partridge, but still very funny
Nov. 25, 2011, 6:04 p.m. CST
is up there with the best of Partridge if you ask me. They really push the character, getting a little bit darker. I could really see the movie as a comedy drama after watching all 12 episodes. Episode 9 in particular is a classic piece of comedy writing.
Nov. 25, 2011, 6:23 p.m. CST
I often wondered if they would dare take him to the big screen ... I'm excited but nervous. Very few British comedy shows work in movie form and they ALWAYS suffer without a laughter track. Search 'alan partridge on farming' on youtube ... Morris AND Coogan working magic together.
Nov. 25, 2011, 6:36 p.m. CST
I was in stitches during the scenes with grandsanta and really enjoyed the movie as a whole which is the first time in along while for a kids film
Nov. 25, 2011, 7:36 p.m. CST
Worked with him once in the 1990's, very pleasant guy
Nov. 25, 2011, 8:11 p.m. CST
I saw it this afternoon, in a packed matinee, and it's always a good sign when a movie makes the little rugrags sit down and shut up. I mean they were that enthralled, and so was I. Arthur Christmas is a wonderful, magical, very funny and genuinely charming movie. It's packed with Aardman's sly humor but with a healthy dose of heart and real Christmas spirit. And importantly, it's nothing like Prep and Landing (which I also loved) - it's got its own world and own set of Yuletide rules, both of which are awesome. DO. NOT. MISS. ARTHUR. CHRISTMAS.
Nov. 25, 2011, 9:38 p.m. CST
by Nasty In The Pasty
Say what you will about Flushed Away, but at least it LOOKED like a typical Aardman film, with the googly-eyes and banana-mouth smiles.
Nov. 25, 2011, 10:16 p.m. CST
even goddamn Sesame Street is 20 percent CG these days. fuck all this middle-of-the-road sell out bullshit, people should be fighting all this... computers getting in the way of good old fashioned human storytelling. I AM JUST SO SICK OF THIS PLASTIC SANDBOX BULLSHIT
Nov. 25, 2011, 10:37 p.m. CST
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-15611244 The UK has an AMAZING history of wonderful animation, much of it slow and detailed and utterly charming. Much different than ours. Sadly, most of it doesn't make its way over here. Not since the classic days of Danger Mouse on Nickelodeon. Now Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel seem to be concerned with selling sexed-up lifestyle ideals to children, putting cellphones with Selena Gomez ringtones in the hands of 8 year-old girls. When I was a child those channels were rich with imagination, science, and animation & puppetry from around the world. FUCK CGI FUCK WHAT'S HAPPENING WITH KIDS ENTERTAINMENT SPEAK OUT!!!! RIGHTS FOR CARTOONS!!!
Nov. 25, 2011, 11:06 p.m. CST
by Nasty In The Pasty
They're not giving up the claymation anytime soon.
Nov. 25, 2011, 11:53 p.m. CST
I'm mad excited for it. I dig the Python-style humor
Nov. 26, 2011, midnight CST
I rewatched all the old Partridge stuff recently for the first time in years and I think it definitely holds up in comparison. It shows that the style works pretty well without a studio audience as well. Nice to see that names like Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci *finally* have a bit of cult cache in the states. It used to be an uphill struggle getting you guys to care about modern british comedy that wasn't Spaced and The Office.
Nov. 26, 2011, 3:41 a.m. CST
I agree with ginge_muppet but I'm still hopeful and looking forward to the results. LOVE Partridge. One of my all time favourite comedies; well, the two sitcom series anyway. Not so much the chat show.
Nov. 26, 2011, 5:15 a.m. CST
by Bedknobs and Boomsticks
Nov. 26, 2011, 6:14 a.m. CST
or santa , you americans seem to think british people talk like somthing out of Jane Austen novel the way british actors speak in US films is not a representation of how we talk over here. Infact i have never met anyone who speaks like that and if i did i would punch them inthe face for being a prick
Nov. 26, 2011, 7:49 a.m. CST
Nov. 26, 2011, 7:53 a.m. CST
...checkout Alan Partridge vs the Farmers on youtubeone
Nov. 26, 2011, 8:13 a.m. CST
Why is it called " Arthur Christmas" ? Seems like such a generic title
Nov. 26, 2011, 8:30 a.m. CST
Every live action show on that channel sends two messages: 1. You can't be happy with just being who you are, you must always be more and better in all things. 2. The only way to be fun and accepted by others is to put down everyone around you, including your parents. For those of you who think I'm full of shit, watch a couple of episodes of damn near anything on Disney that's live actions. Contrast this with DeGrassi High, Growing Pains, Family Ties etc, or earlier 80's stuff like Facts of life, Diff'rent strokes. Hell, even "You Can't Do that on Television" which may have painted parents as clueless many times had the a strong inclusive message for the kids. WHoever is in charge of programming for tweens over there is a gigantic dick.
Nov. 26, 2011, 9:06 a.m. CST
Nov. 26, 2011, 10:27 a.m. CST
Possibly the funniest line of all-time. Baynham is a comedy god.
Nov. 26, 2011, 10:40 a.m. CST
...imo his finest accomplishment and like a wish fulfilment; for any Partridge fan 2011 was a great year. MMM is so damn funny. A movie now seems like the logical step but I would rather have two more series of 'I'm Alan Partridge' any day. Nice interview btw. What a lovely bloke. Oi, Baynham - if you read this - tell Morris to pull his finger out and make some more Brass Eye. The UK needs a punk motherf*cker like him on TV more than ever. In fact, The Day Today could parody the right-wing media bias, and sports reporting, better than anything out there. More!
Nov. 26, 2011, 10:45 a.m. CST
Morris, Coogan, Marber, Iannucci, Baynham, Lee, Herring. Additional material by Steven Wells. They were more talented than the f'ing Pythons, and certainly funnier. The finest satire to ever come out of this country.
Nov. 26, 2011, 11:38 a.m. CST
I remember reading somwehere a possible plot was a DIE HARD Style spoof which involves Partridge getting caught up in the crossfire when terrorists storm the BBC. He is at the studios to pitch some of his woeful ideas to television executives. But the Bond films fanatic draws on his "know how" to become hero of the hour.
Nov. 26, 2011, 1:03 p.m. CST
They were talking about doing that, with Alan being taken hostage on a bus or something, but then threw it out when the July 7th 2005 attack happened in London. Maybe they'll still use that idea now it's been a few years since. If anyone can make an Alan Partridge film work its Armando Iannucci and Peter Baynham (and Steve Coogan, of course!). What I would love to see is Alan somehow getting successful again. He was only successful for a single TV series!
Nov. 26, 2011, 9:13 p.m. CST
by Bedknobs and Boomsticks
I never thought you spoke like a Regency era character, but more like the characters on Coronation Street. ;-)
Nov. 26, 2011, 10:38 p.m. CST
Nov. 27, 2011, 4:45 a.m. CST
Nov. 27, 2011, 6:03 a.m. CST
I also think the collective output of the people who worked on On The Hour and The Day Today makes up the greatest body of work in british comedy. None of them have even hit 50 yet so I hope there's a lot more good stuff to come. I'd say the only writers who've appeared since who can compare are the guys who write Peep Show (though thanks to Four Lion and The Thick Of It they're part of the club now anyway). And probably Gervais and Merchant to be fair, though this new show of theirs is spotty to say the least.
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