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The holidays aren’t always filled with joy, cheer and goodwill towards others, sometimes they’re just kind of sad. Such is the case with Charles Poekel’s finely tuned “Christmas, Again,” a new kind of holiday movie that neatly straddles the line between heartbreaking and heartwarming, often in the same scene.
Starring indie standby Kentucker Audley, “Christmas, Again” follows his appropriately named Noel, a sidewalk Christmas tree salesman who is tasked with selling off holiday greenery to Brooklyn residents while also nursing a broken heart. Noel’s tiny world is intruded on by various customers (most of them asking questions that are both wholly ludicrous and entirely believable), his fellow salespeople (incidentally, a young couple who are in love, a grim reminder of the gal who left Noel behind) and the confused (but well-meaning) Lydia (Hannah Gross). As the days tick by, Noel has to make the choice as to what kind of holiday he’s going to celebrate, and what the New Year might bring.
“Christmas, Again” had a healthy festival run, including showings at Sundance, Locarno and New Directors/New Films. Earlier this week, Poekel was nominated for the Film Independent Spirit Awards’ prestigious John Cassavetes Award (given to the writer, director and producers of a feature made for under $500,000), a nice capper on a great year.
Indiewire spoke with Poekel hours after he found out about his Spirit Awards nomination, a fitting start to his winter, which will also see the theatrical release of “Christmas, Again,” opening at New York City’s MoMA on December 3 (the film will also be available on VOD and Fandor). Read more from Poekel below.
[On his Spirit Awards nomination] I guess shock is the only word. We had officially submitted, but I knew it was kind of a long shot. I thought Kentucker maybe, or Sean [Price Williams] for cinematography, was like a long shot. I always like the Cassavetes Award because that’s, to me, one of the most interesting ones, because it’s sub-$500,000, so that was like the first one I looked at, and then I saw the image, and I kind of just freaked out. After I saw the [nominations], I stared at my phone and I think I said, “Get the fuck out of here,” like 10 times in a row, just out loud. I couldn’t think of any words but “get the fuck out of here.” It’s pretty surreal.
It’s tough because so many great films are made, and a lot of these things are very arbitrary. Some of the best films I’ve seen in the last couple of years haven’t played some of these festivals or haven’t done “X.” It’s [awards and festivals] wonderful and amazing and it’s kind of propelled our film to exceed all my expectations, but there’s just a lot of great movies out there and we’re all trying to be seen.
I first had the idea because I just thought that a Christmas tree stand would be an interesting place to set a film at. I was trying to get a tree with my roommates at like midnight like five or six years ago, and they were like, “I don’t know, you think the guys are open?” And I asked the guy when they close, and he’s like, “Oh, we don’t close, we’re open 24 hours until Christmas.” And that’s when I kind of first realized, wait, what’s going on here? This is really crazy. You’re living in a camper, you’re open 24 hours a day, where did you come from? I just got more and more curious.
I think, as a storyteller, you’re always looking for interesting characters and locations and ideas that haven’t been explored before. At the time, I had never seen a movie that took place at a Christmas tree stand. It originally started actually as a noir, like a Christmas noir, and then I realized pretty quickly that the heart of the story was more about this relationship between the tree vendors of New York City and their community.
I was thinking a lot about the idea that these tree vendors, it’s hard for them to have Christmases of their own. In many cases, they’re kind of giving up their own holiday to benefit others. And I thought, how can I turn that up a notch further? Originally, I thought, maybe like a death or something like that, but I didn’t feel like I could tackle that. What kind of heartbreak am I most familiar with? And it was actual heartbreak from relationships.
I kind of thought of it like a triumph of the will type thing. To see if he could make it to Christmas without cracking.
[Kentucker] wasn’t really on my radar. And then I was working with Eleonore Hendricks, who cast the film, and she acted with Kentucker a couple times, and we had being doing some readings with some leading men, and they were going well and I think we just wanted to explore more options. And she said, “What about Kentucker?” I knew Kentucker kind of briefly, but I didn’t know him as well as I do now. Not having made a feature before, I was like, “Kentucker? Do you think he’d read it?” He read it and he liked it and he called me right afterwards with tons of really good ideas.
His first question was, “How open are you to feedback?” And I said, “Oh, man, I’m open!” Film is just a really collaborative process and sometimes the people around you are the ones who come up with best ideas.
We did a couple of auditions where we brought in aspiring actors to read for these [supporting] parts, and they just weren’t right. We really started focusing on non-professionals, actual customers, there’s even a few customers in the film, but a few professional actors, but more that had this gritty feel and less of a theatrical side.
Our original script had over 50 characters. So many customers come in and out and just say a line or two. We got it down slightly.
We filmed it two Christmases ago. Fifteen shooting days, three five-day weeks. Obviously it was in December while the tree stand was open, which was fun, because we didn’t have much flexibility with the schedule, because once Christmas ended, we had to pack up the tree stand. We filmed in order because the trees were kind of disappearing from the stand, as customers were buying them, so we didn’t want to be moving tons of trees around to just make a shot.
As a first-time director, I knew that I didn’t feel comfortable handling a movie that was really shot out of order. It’s extremely difficult. I think we were all kind of happy doing it in order, and I think the movie kind of shows that, honestly, it kind of warms up. I think you can see our rustiness in the first 10 minutes or so.
I think I was surprised by how organic it became. The first two days were really rough because I had done shorts in college and stuff, but I hadn’t ever directed a feature, and I hadn’t even directed a short since college. I definitely didn’t really know what I was doing, and I was nervous and it was a small crew and everyone was watching you and all that stuff. But once we got about three or four days in, it just really felt natural, and I think everyone was in a really good rhythm. You hear this all the time, but by the time we finished, we kind of didn’t want it to finish.