A New Holiday Classic: A Chat with The Man Who Invented Christmas Writer, Susan Coyne

by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)

Every year a few new Christmas movies are thrust upon theater audiences, and they are usually forgotten well before December 25. But once in a while, a movie strikes a chord and gives us something new to look forward to each holiday season.

Any list of modern-day Christmas classics must include Love Actually, Elf, and The Grinch, and I firmly believe that the latest addition to the list will be The Man Who Invented Christmas.

Directed by Bharat Nalluri (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) and written by Susan Coyne (Slings and Arrows) based on Les Standiford’s book, The Man Who Invented Christmas delights and surprises. If you grew up loving any iteration of A Christmas Carol (my personal favorite was the Muppet version), then you will love learning how these classic characters came to be, and you’ll love getting to know Dickens himself, as portrayed by Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey).

Coyne’s script is tight, whimsical, and full of life. After a few minutes of letting yourself become immersed in Mr. Dicken’s world, you’ll be amazed by just how effectively the story pulls you in with humor, heartbreak, and honesty.

I recently had the chance to speak with screenwriter Susan Coyne about how she tackled the story behind the story as well as what makes Christmas movies both so beloved and so difficult to write.

Angela Bourassa: How did this project come to be?

Susan Coyne: Our producer, Robert Mickelson, came to me with Les Standiford’s nonfiction book about nine years ago and asked me to adapt it as a television movie for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. When that deal eventually fell through, we decided to develop the project as a feature film instead.

Angela Bourassa: How did you approach researching this story? How did you balance the actual history with your own imagination?

Susan Coyne: Because I am also an actor, I enjoy immersing myself in the world of the characters in order to really see it through their eyes. In my research, I read five or six biographies of Dickens and a collection of his speeches and letters, as well as books on Victorian London, Victorian slang, workhouses, Irish myths, Christmas traditions, and more. I also reread David Copperfield, which is his most autobiographical novel.

I felt strongly that we needed to ground our imaginary story as much as possible in the real events and real people in Dickens’s life.  But while everything you see is completely true to the period, I was also interested in highlighting the ways in which Dickens and his times feel very modern and relevant to our own era.

Angela Bourassa: Finding a new approach to A Christmas Carol must have been an overwhelming challenge. How many drafts would you say you went through on this script? Did it come together easily, or was it a real slog?

Susan Coyne: It is hard to count, because some were partial and some more complete, but probably it is in the range of eighteen or nineteen drafts. Though the essence of the story remained the same.  It never felt like a slog, because it was so much fun to keep going back to that world, but there were certainly times when I wasn’t sure I would ever figure out how to tell the story.

Angela Bourassa: Tell me about the device of Dickens conversing with his own characters. How did you land on that structure for this story?

Susan Coyne: In my research, I discovered that Dickens would actually kind of conjure up his characters as he was writing about them and converse with them as if they were real people.

Many writers have experience with a character taking on a life of his own and refusing to do what the writer wants him to, much like actors in rehearsal who rebel against their directors. It amused me to think of what Scrooge would do with the story if he had a chance to tell it from his point of view, without him ever having to repent and reform.

Angela Bourassa: Christmas movies, in an odd way, are a lot like horror movies — you know the audience is coming in with very clear expectations, and you have to both meet those expectations and find ways to surprise them at the same time.

Susan Coyne: So true! And in our film there are even more expectations, because we are consciously mirroring A Christmas Carol, with its potent mix of humor, outrage, sentiment, and horror.

I also think that a Christmas movie should be one that the whole family can enjoy, in the same way that reading or seeing A Christmas Carol has become an essential part of many families’ holiday traditions.  Seeing a movie at Christmas time that manages to affirm our hope in humanity seems to be something we need in this world, just as Dickens understood.

The Man Who Invented Christmas will be in theaters tomorrow (11/22).

~

Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.

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