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Interview with “Christmas Again” director, Charles Poekel

Tell me a bit about how you prepared for and wrote Christmas, Again?

I actually opened up my own Christmas tree stand. It provided a location to shoot at. Some of the money we earned at the stand helped fund the film. Knowing I wanted to do a narrative, I came up with the idea of setting it at a Christmas tree stand in New York City. I started interviewing people, but I wanted to understand the nitty gritty of it. Nobody would just let me use one of their’s, so I started my own. It seemed like a crazy idea that made a lot of sense. The first year was kind of absurd. I learned a lot. Second year, I got it under control, and all the while I was working full time at this documentary company, 4th Row Films. After the third year at the stand, I had a good grasp of it, and the fourth year we shot the film.

 

What were some of the challenges you faced making this film on a budget?

There was a very limited time frame. We shot over the course of 15 days. There was limited crew, but that was OK because where we were shooting inside and outside, there wasn’t much room anyway. Our crew was six or seven total. It allowed us to move quickly and not be crowded. As a result, all those things helped keep the cost down. We used a lot of natural lighting, and not a lot of equipment. Shooting on 16mm in some ways brought the cost up, but in other ways saved us a lot of money. It’s constricting to not have a large budget, but it gives you a lot of freedom at the same time.

 

What was your exposure to film at SLU?

I knew I wanted to work in film before I got there. I think one of the things that made me go there was a catalogue of their courses, where I found one [film course] that was just about Hitchcock. Ironically enough, they stopped teaching it when I got there, but I was in a Cold War Film FYP. I didn’t want to go to a film school because I wanted a liberal arts education. Having a wide subject-knowledge and material to talk about is just as important as pressing record. When else do I get a chance to study this kind of stuff, you know? I was a film minor, and I took a bunch of classes with Peter Bailey, Steve Papson, Sid Sondergard and Richard Jenseth. I discovered the multi-field major, which nobody had done for 6 or 7 years, but I put together a proposal, and ended up calling it “Film and English Narrative”; it was a sort of blanket-term for studying story construction. I don’t know what I would’ve majored in otherwise. I did an independent study with Sid where I wrote and shot a 30-minute screenplay in black and white. I loved film there because I enjoyed being a bigger fish in a small pond. It’s one of the reasons I’ll never go to LA. New York City isn’t defined by film, and people do their own thing. I thought the teachers were fantastic. There was nothing in production, literally no equipment, but I think there are production classes now. The professors that were teaching film were teaching it because they really loved it, and I responded very well to that.

 

In your interview with IndieWire, you list “Harlan County, USA” as an influence of yours, you also mentioned your work for documentary production company, 4th Row Films. The cinematography in “Christmas, Again” often resembles a character study, and resembles a lot of the techniques used in cinema verite’, and the work of the Maysles brother. How much did your experience with documentary filmmaking influence this film?

When I was working in documentaries, I found myself falling in love with them. There is so much they capture that is impossible to replicate. I worked on a couple films with 4th Row Films that used cinema verite’. Sean Williams, Christmas, Again‘s cinematographer, comes from a documentary background. He used to work with Al Maysles. He worked on Al’s last movie, Iris. I kind of always knew that documentary filmmaking brought a level of authenticity that couldn’t be replicated. Sometimes we just plucked people off the street to appear in the film. Sean is brilliant when it comes to handheld. A lot of it came down to having Sean go handheld. It made us work faster, and just made sense for some of these more physical scenes.

 

I’m sure you don’t want the film to be tied down by labels and categorization, but is this film at all a love story?

I’ve always thought of it as a love story. At least, I wanted it to be a restrained love story, less grandiose, more real life. In real life, you could just lock eyes with a girl you have a crush on, and that moment is so important to you, but not so cinematic, you know? You don’t really even notice it [the love story] in the film until the last 20 minutes. I think it really sneaks up on people.

 

In Christmas, Again, Kentucker Audley plays Noel, a quiet, man with a pill-addiction. Was his story influenced more by the people you encountered selling trees? Or was it more based on your own experiences?

I guess a bit of both. The experience with the customers was based on my real life experiences, at least as amalgams. As unique as everyone is, you get a lot of “types” of people in New York City, like the guy on the Bluetooth. As far as Noel though, none of it was pulled from real life. We just knew we wanted him from upstate. A lot of them come from Canada, Vermont Upstate etc. I figured I’d do upstate since I know it well as a SLU alum.

 

Character studies often show more than they explain, but I’m curious, how important is his addiction to pills?

I think it’s not as important as I thought it was. It’s difficult to show an addiction, and I didn’t want that toilet scene, but then again, how do you show someone ridding him or herself of an addiction? In real life, when someone decides, “I’m not taking pills anymore” they usually just stop. But simply never showing him take pills again doesn’t work as a conclusion to that story. I had to show him make some sort of physical decision. Selling that giant tree to that customer, that’s what led him to take a second pill, which led to the fire starting. But in the end, nobody writes a synopsis for this and writes “pill-addicted tree salesman”.

 

Would you ever host a screening at SLU?

Definitely. I tried to get a film I shot screened up at SLU, but the school never answered my e-mails. I would love to though.

 

Any words on the soundtrack’s eerie take on Christmas music?

Early on in the script I was introduced to the music of Clara Rockmore. I saw videos of her performing and thought it was so melancholic, but also beautiful, which was perfect for the film. I even wrote it into the script, which is a big no-no usually. It worked though. We started putting her stuff in during editing and it worked so well. We reached out to her label and publisher and got it licensed. They were excited, because she isn’t very well known.

 

What is next for you?

Right now I just finished a screenplay with my wife that we are trying to shoot in the fall. So I’m going to festivals for Christmas, Again, and then hoping to shoot this in September and October.

 

Any advice for post-grad that students won’t get from career counselors?

Don’t think you have to go to film school. You’ll learn more and your experience will be faster and cheaper by not going to film school. I think it sets you up for unfair expectations of what the film industry is like. Just go out and make a movie

 

Where did you hang out when you lived on campus?

Freshman year I was in Whitman before joining circle K and living in the Circle K house (currently BSU). I also pledged PSK (currently Commons College), but they kicked us off after my Sophomore year. I remember getting a text saying “sorry about your house” from a friend and then receiving an e-mail from the school letting us know that we were losing our house. They’d already done rooming so they didn’t know where to put us. Some of the seniors were put in Rebert, and I was put back in Whitman. Senior year I lived off-campus at 30 Main.

 

If I were to say “6 hour energy”, you would say?

I would think of the friend who did our graphic labels. He tweaked little parts of the label. It’s a parody label. His version says “no crash, ever”.

 

About the author

Caroline Seelen