How Chris Columbus, 'Christmas Chronicles' Director Put a Fresh Spin on the Holiday Family Film
The Netflix movie's veteran producer and helmer Clay Kaytis talk about creating Kurt Russell's "tough guy," Elvis-singing Santa Claus; casting non-Hollywood kids; and those 'Gremlins' echoes.
[The following story contains mild spoilers from The Christmas Chronicles.]
With their new family holiday film for Netflix, The Christmas Chronicles, director Clay Kaytis (The Angry Birds Movie) and producer Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, Gremlins) hope to provide a fresh spin on the magic of Christmas.
The movie stars Kurt Russell as a grizzled Santa Claus on a mission to save Christmas and features a 21st century reimagining of Yuletide staples like the North Pole and Santa's sleigh.
It was the combination of classic Christmas lore and new mythology that spoke to Kaytis, an animation veteran making his live-action directorial debut.
"What really hooked me were some of the concepts in Matt [Lieberman]'s original script of how Santa delivers gifts, how he gets to the North Pole, just some really original ideas about how Christmas actually works that have never really been explained in Christmas movies," Kaytis tells The Hollywood Reporter.
With 19 years of experience working for Disney under his belt, Kaytis' first project as a director was Sony's 2016 Angry Birds Movie. After that film's release, Kaytis decided to try his hand at live-action.
"I received this script as a sample of Matt Lieberman's writing, not as a movie that was being produced," Kaytis says. "My producing partner [executive producer Monica Lago-Kaytis] read it too. I said, 'This is good, you should read this,' and she was like, 'How come no one's making this movie? This is better than most of the stuff we read!' So then we tracked it down and found that [Columbus'] 1492 [Pictures] had already purchased it."
Even though Kaytis had never directed a live-action feature before, Columbus knew he was the right person for the job. "I liked Clay's energy," he tells THR. "I knew he would be good with the actors. And patient. That was important to me, that level of patience. Particularly with children — someone who understands kids, who can work with kids."
Columbus helped Kaytis cast the roles of Kate and Teddy Pierce, two young, bickering siblings whose scheme to capture Santa on camera puts Christmas in danger. They ultimately selected Big Little Lies star Darby Camp to play Kate and The Babysitter star Judah Lewis to play Teddy.
"I've always wanted to cast kids who didn't feel like they were, for lack of a better phrase, 'Hollywood' kids," Columbus says of the casting decision. "Kids who had been on too many sets, who had done too much work and basically spoiled their own naturalistic instincts. For me, Judah and Darby… both felt like real kids."
In the movie, Kate and Teddy join Santa Claus on his yearly trek around the world after they accidentally make him crash his sleigh. But in the original draft of the script, Santa played a much smaller role than he does in the finished film.
"Santa Claus was initially only in the movie probably for about seven minutes," says Columbus. There was a description in the screenplay about Santa Claus being this 'big lumberjack of a man.' It inspired me in a way that I thought, 'Well, this could be a different version of Santa Claus.' We talked about it, and we decided to beef up the role of Santa so that he would basically be the star of the movie."
Columbus worked closely with Lieberman to redevelop the script. Through the revision process, Columbus aimed to "create a Santa Claus that audiences had never seen before, a Santa Claus that's a bit of a tough guy, a bit of a superhero" but "still charming and still obsessed with the idea of Christmas and the idea of giving."
For Kaytis and Columbus, there was only one man who could embody "superhero" Santa. "Really from the beginning we thought Kurt Russell," Kaytis says. "He was our number one choice. We wrote it with him in mind. We planned the whole movie around it. We didn't have him, but luckily he read the script and he loved it. He was so into the concept of playing Santa."
"Kurt was just so obsessed with playing this role," Columbus adds. "After we finished the movie, he said to me, 'You know, I've played three very important, iconic roles in my life: Snake Plissken, Elvis Presley and Santa Claus.'"
Russell, who made his film debut in the 1963 Presley vehicle It Happened at the World's Fair and played Presley in the 1979 made-for-TV movie Elvis, tapped into some of that Elvis Presley swagger for The Christmas Chronicles. In one of the film's standout scenes, his character covers Presley's "Santa Claus Is Back in Town" in a jail cell.
Columbus came up with the idea for the sequence after listening to The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York."
"I was like, 'Oh, God, that's [it] — a musical number in the jail cell!'" he says. "I called Kurt and I said, 'What do you think about a musical number? Listen to this song, listen to "Fairytale of New York."' He listened, called me back, and said, 'Man, that is a depressing song. What if it were a little more upbeat?' So I started going through song after song and I found this Elvis Presley song, 'Santa Claus is Back in Town,' that I always loved but has always fallen by the wayside in terms of Christmas classics. It hasn't been overplayed."
Columbus had Russell record the song with frequent collaborator Steven Van Zandt and his band, the Disciples of Soul. "Kurt laid down the track in three takes and that was it. That was completely his natural voice. [Steven] didn't even have to change anything about it," Columbus says. "It took Kurt probably 45-50 minutes to record the lead vocal."
The musical number was "the one thing I didn't plan for," Kaytis says. While he was initially worried about how the scene would work within the context of the film, he now cites it as a highlight of the film. "It was a very wild idea, but I just love it. Everyone loved it."
Following the musical number, Santa is rescued from his jail cell by a spunky group of animated elves. Kaytis describes the elves' design as a "cross between a cat and a monkey."
"I didn't want the elves to be the same thing that you've seen in a lot of Christmas movies, whether it's CG, shrunken down humanoid people or people in costumes with forced perspective," Kaytis explains. "I did want to have this concept, I think it was in the early designs: They have both aspects of naughty and nice. I think if Santa wasn't around, they might be a little more wild, but he keeps them in order."
According to Kaytis and Columbus, any resemblance The Christmas Chronicles' mischievous elves bear to the eponymous furry troublemakers of Columbus' 1984 horror comedy Gremlins is purely coincidental. Still, Kaytis admits that "knowing Chris' tastes and [the] history of the things he's made, I knew that I had leverage to portray these elves as not just these twee, happy, little, always-up characters."
And Columbus did intentionally try to make The Christmas Chronicles similar in tone to his beloved '80s film. "For me, to get a little bit of the Gremlins vibe in there was important," he explains. "I've always responded to a little anarchy in the Christmas world."
Columbus, who got his start writing movies like Gremlins and The Goonies for Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment in the 1980s, views The Christmas Chronicles as a spiritual successor to those films. "I've taken so many meetings in Hollywood where people are always saying, 'Can we get an Amblin-type film from you? Can you give us something like that?' And I was always reluctant, saying, 'No, I've got to do something different,'" he says. "Finally, I came to terms with my own past and I said, 'You know what? We need these kinds of movies.' So The Christmas Chronicles is sort of my way of saying, 'I'm gonna go back and start making the kind of movies I made 20 years ago and see if it works.'"
If it does indeed "work" — that is, if enough Netflix subscribers tune in — Columbus and Kaytis are both open to the possibility of continuing the Christmas Chronicles saga.
"Everyone's so in love with this film and into the potential of making more," Kaytis says. "Kurt's into it, so I think it's definitely a possibility. Whether it's Santa going around the world on other adventures or coming back to these kids, I'm not sure, but it's definitely open."
"It's a world that I love, so if that opportunity arose, I would definitely consider it," adds Columbus. "I'd love to work with Kurt again."