Christmas is but a week away now, and as with everything 2020, it's going to be a little different. If you'd rather look ahead to the 2021 festive season, we've got just the film for you – director Gil Kenan's A Boy Called Christmas. We talked exclusively to Kenan about casting Stephen Merchant for a key role, shooting in Lapland and more – and we're excited to debut a first look at the movie above.
Adapted by Kenan and Ol Parker from Matt Haig's award-winning bestseller, A Boy Called Christmas follows an ordinary young boy called Nikolas (Henry Lawfull), who sets out on an extraordinary adventure into the snowy north in search of his father who is on a quest to discover the fabled village of the elves, Elfhelm. Taking with him a headstrong reindeer called Blitzen and a loyal pet mouse, Nikolas soon meets his destiny in this magical, comic and endearing story that proves nothing is impossible...
For Kenan, crafting a Christmas movie ranks as a big challenge. Is he feeling the pressure? "The short answer is, yes!" Kenan tells Empire. "Wading into very dense waters. But also a genre that has created some bona fide film classics and ones that people actually have very strong attachments to, relationships that are perennial and you come back to year after year, that creates a really high standard that we have to hold ourselves to. But also it creates an amazing opportunity to point at a type of film and say, ‘I think there is a story to tell here that new and original, there’s a way to take something that a lot of us take for granted, like the mythology of the holiday and make something that hopefully defies the genre and can live beyond it as an adventure film that is enjoyed during Christmas, but maybe isn’t just defined by it."
The cast is stacked with talent, including Jim Broadbent, Maggie Smith, Michiel Huisman, Sally Hawkins and Kristen Wiig, so we had to ask if Kenan felt intimidated by the ensemble. "I would say that it is intimidating in every way to direct every great actor, it’s the most intimidating thing in the world, because when you step into the ring with actors who have actual pedigree and really know their stuff, it means that you have to give direction that is up to a standard that is unreachable. But there is a weird magical confidence that knowing a story inside and out gives a director when you step up to the greatest actors that the country has ever produced."
Stephen Merchant's name hasn't appeared on the main list just yet, but that's because we're breaking the news that he's voicing Miika the mouse, Nikolas' witty rodent companion. "I had a full-size mouse outfit made for Stephen and for a few weeks I had him crawling around my house just to get into character!" Kenan jokes, before adding, "There was only one actor I could imagine for the way that I was writing the character of Miika, there was a tone and attitude to this character that really wouldn’t have worked with anybody else and I was extremely laser focused on Stephen. First of all, there’s nothing better than the world’s tallest man playing the absolute smallest character I’ve ever put on screen. But also with Stephen there is a razor-sharp wit and intelligence and confidence that the first time you hear it coming out of Miika’s little mouth cements him as an unforgettable character."
But while he was able to spend time in a recording booth directing Merchant, other parts of the film required a trip to Lapland, which Kenan pushed to the front of the schedule. "It was total magic," Kenan says. "It set right away the benchmark for what the world would have to be, the authenticity of the journey and the adventure at the centre of it." He does admit that he was not ready for the chill... "When I got out of the plane, it was minus 40 degrees and immediately my lungs hurt with the first breath that I took. It was the coldest and I was not prepared. I had to get gear that I didn’t know existed, like Bluetooth socks that could allow me to survive the extreme temperature that I was encountering!"
He's hopeful that the movie will bring a little joy next year when it's released in cinemas. "I think we knew we were making something that if we did our job well, could make people feel better or hopeful, and we had no idea how much use that concept could be when we set out to make this is 2018 when everything was simple and life was so easy!"
A Boy Called Christmas will be in UK cinemas, fittingly, nearer Christmas 2021 via Studiocanal. The teaser trailer will be in our virtual stockings next week.