Netflix's slate of Christmas releases is filled with romantic comedies and family favorites, but one movie stands out from the rest. A Boy Called Christmas, now streaming on the platform, is a big-budget holiday fantasy romp that will surely get a lot of airplay in homes this season. Director/co-writer Gil Kenan, who helmed 2006's Monster House and co-wrote Ghostbusters: Afterlife, takes viewers into a mystical world of elves, magic and talking animals in what is clearly the 2021 holiday flick with the most care put into it out of all its peers. (It's got a star-studded cast as well, with Kristen Wiig, Sally Hawkins, Michiel Huisman, Maggie Smith, Stephen Merchant and young lead Henry Lawfull.)
Ahead of the movie's release, we talked with Kenan about the inspirations behind the movie, what it was like working with Lawful as his lead and the casting of Saturday Night Live great Wiig. He also took a second to reflect on the wild coincidence that A Boy Called Christmas and Ghostbusters: Afterlife are both releasing in such close proximity. Scroll through to read our full Q&A with Kenan. (You can also watch it in video form above.)
PC: I wanted to start with the start of the movie. There's a storytelling sequence near the start of the film, and it's all done in silhouette and shadows. What inspired you to take that approach to that scene?
GK: I was really inspired to try to figure out how to tell the story of Lumi and to have it land in Nikolas' imagination. As you know, having seen the film, Nikolas has grown up in a world without a lot of external influence. It's basically just him and his dad and some trees and maybe a creek in the woods. And so part of it was thinking about how a fantastical story would play in the imagination of a child who doesn't have a lot of external influence, and thinking about that simplest magical moment when you see a flickering shadow cast by a little light, whether it's a candle or a fire. It's a primal human instinct to imagine story and character when you see something that hints at magic like that. So this just felt like a natural opportunity to allow Nikolas to dream big and to let the audience in on that moment.
And part of the inspiration for me was, as a lover of animation and as an animator myself earlier in my life, but let's be honest, throughout my life, it's my sort of go-to storytelling medium when I make things on my own. I was really inspired by the groundbreaking silhouette animation work of Lotte Reiniger, who was a pioneer animation director who worked exclusively in paper cutout silhouette animation and told incredible, fantastical stories using that medium. So that was some of what went into that sequence.prevnext
Touching on influences, when I was watching this, I just got major 'Harry Potter' vibes. I was wondering if those movies were influential at all in your process of putting this movie together?
The Harry Potter film universe was like the gold standard of telling a fantastical story using the best actors that you can pull into a film. And so I welcome the comparison. Obviously, I think that the world of representing magic and wonder on film is bigger than just one universe of storytelling. I think that what I'm hoping to do with A Boy Called Christmas is to show an audience that we can still be telling pure fairy tales in our modern cinematic world, that there is a way to bring in all the great tools of filmmaking to tell something that is simple and beautiful and human and emotional. And it just so happens that this is a Christmas story that allows us to pull in all of those elements.prevnext
Movies like this, they can kind of hinge on a young performer and that's scary to a lot of directors to handle. What was it like working with Henry and getting to see him see this magical world through his eyes?
It's funny. I was just looking at some photos earlier today from my experience of making the film. And I found photos from the very first day that I met Henry, and I just photographed him against a blank wall. And I was struck by the moments that I captured there on film because they reminded me of the elements in Henry that got me so excited about telling the story through his eyes. There is an openness, a reality, and an ability to imagine something incredible that you can play across his face, even when you're looking at just these photos. But the thing that really makes him work is that all of that happens while keeping him a real kid. None of that ever feels like it's sort of forced or broad or artificial. The trick with Henry is that what you're getting is him. You're getting a real kid from 2021 who is able to carry you on an extraordinary adventure, but doesn't feel like any moments are forced or artificial. And I was just so excited to be able to tell a grand sweeping adventure on the shoulders of a young person who felt as grounded and relatable as Henry was.prevnext
Another casting that I really thought was super inspired in this was Kristen Wiig, playing the evil aunt. What was it like working with her? Because it is quite the performance, and I think that really stands out.
I'm a huge Kristen Wiig fan. I'm a massive SNL fan. SNL is basically how I learned comedy growing up. And I became so committed to getting Kristen to do this because I would watch her week after week on SNL conjure up complete characters without seams, characters that felt totally immersive, where they had stories that extended for miles beyond the sketch that they were in. And so when it came time to bring Aunt Carlotta to life, I reached out to Kristen, sent her this script, and I was so lucky to realize, after talking to her that she is a huge fan of storytelling and of fairytale films and actually had been really looking to play a British character in a film that could conjure up this sort of fantastical world. So it was a really good bit of timing and good luck for me, that she was open to making the leap to Aunt Carlotta, which is a character unlike anything she's ever played before.prevnext
This has just been such a big past few weeks for you. You had a big 'Monster House' anniversary, you co-wrote the new 'Ghostbusters' film and you have this movie coming out on Netflix that's going to be available to a massive amount of people right away.
I'm freaking out. I mean, honestly, this is not normal. I've been doing this now for like 15 years and I work really hard to get one film off the ground. And so to have both Ghostbusters: Afterlife and A Boy Called Christmas opening up basically within five days of each other, most of the world, is a fluke of the universe, really a fluke of the pandemic. And it is an amazing feeling because I really care about both films. I have so much love for them and I'm so proud of the stories that they tell. I cannot wait for audiences to see them. And maybe one day, they'll make a double feature. I mean, there is just a weird synchronicity to this moment, and I'm not taking it for granted. I'm very grateful.