Director Sarah Smith discusses Arthur Christmas

Director Sarah Smith discusses Arthur Christmas, getting most of the voice actors together for key scenes, possible sequel ideas, and more

This time of year, there is always an obligatory Christmas movie or two, and most years, I'm disappointed in them. That is not the case this year with Arthur Christmas, which brings Christmas and the North Pole into the 21st Century in some very fun ways.

Sarah Smith, who got her start writing and producing for British TV shows such as The League of Gentlemen and The Armando Iannucci Shows, makes her feature directorial debut with Arthur Christmas, which centers on Santa's black sheep son Arthur (James McAvoy) and his mission to deliver the last Christmas toy after one child is missed.

I recently had the chance to speak with Sarah Smith over the phone about Arthur Christmas, which debuts in theaters November 23. Here's what she had to say below.

I really enjoyed the movie. It was quite a different and original Christmas movie, for a change.

Sarah Smith: (Laughs) Great. Thank you.

I read that the whole thing started with a phone call from (co-writer) Peter (Baynham), talking about the greatest idea he ever had. Did the script deviate much from that original idea, or can you talk about how the story evolved once you and Peter started writing it?

Sarah Smith: Sure. In fact, I was going to call Peter, because I had just joined Aardman and I was looking to put together a slate of new movies. Pete was one of my first calls, and he said, 'Well, it just so happens I might have had one of my finest ideas, but I think it's live-action.' He really just had the beginnings of the idea, the idea that there was this huge, military-style operation, delivering 2 billion presents in one night, and how it could really be done, in the modern world. He then had the second idea that, in the middle of this amazing operation, what if Santa had a son who was kind of incompetent and all over the place, who had to make something right. It was literally as simple as that. It was a five minute pitch, and those two ideas were just completely gripping to me. So, Pete and I started developing it together. From that point, we quickly arrived at the overall structure, where we would show this amazing operation, and then the idea that something had gone wrong, and then the rookie mission in the middle, with Grand-Santa and Arthur in the old sleigh, and then the end of the movie. Those things never changed, really, from very early on in the process. What changed a lot was what you do along the way in the middle, during the mission. This sleigh can travel 45,000 miles per hour, and you can go anywhere in the world. The difficulty is where don't you go.

It seems there was a lot of research that went into the logistics of this, whether this was actually possible, and the drop times and that kind of stuff. Was that hard to wrap your head around, to create a process like this that actually does make sense?

Sarah Smith: Well, we're both particularly obsessive, and I like logic. I also think that children are very smart, and if you're going to show some version of the world and make them believe that it's true, it really has to stand up. For me to work on the story at all, I had to be convinced that there was a way for it to be done (Laughs). Fortunately, there are a few people that have forged a path ahead of us. There are a few entertaining books about the physics and science of Santa. There's one called, Can Reindeer Fly?, so there was a place to go for the research. People were worried about the problem, but I don't think anybody has quite come up with the solution before (Laughs). We literally worked out how long it would take, the number of elves that there are, and how long they have per household, the 18.14 seconds. I did all that math (Laughs). I think it gives a feeling of verite though. I think kids sort of know whether that work is being done or not. It feels like, yeah, that could be possible.

I loved how you played into all these Christmas myths, like the machine that bites the cookie. I loved those little touches.

Sarah Smith: Yeah. I liked the fact that it goes along with all the high-tech gadgetry and the amazing spaceship. The practicality of having to take a bite out of all the food left out, that's what gives it the fun, I think.

You do see the parents are there, and things like that. Did you ever consider exploring that, with these actual presents being delivered by Santa, with the parents still there.

Sarah Smith: You mean the parents' involvement in the whole thing? Yeah, we have talked about every single possible version of this that you can imagine. I think that's kind of confusing, and we also felt it was important not to step on what children believe, and what parents have told children about Christmas. The version we show should be compatible, and the idea that it's an operation completely separate, it seems important to preserve that.

Can you talk a bit about going out to find the right voices? I loved all the voices here, especially Bill (Nighy) and James (McAvoy). I also talked with Hugh (Laurie) earlier, and if you're a House fan, you wouldn't know it was Hugh, because it's his natural voice. James takes on a rather unique voice too. Can you talk about crafting the vocal qualities of those characters?

Sarah Smith: In a way, they're all taking on unique voices. I think James is quite close to James, but I think he inhabits the character so much, that you forget it's his voice. I have to literally sit and think about it. I have to remember James in front of me, doing his performance. I just think it's Arthur's voice now, really. We didn't really build the characters around the actors. We built the characters in detail first. It challenged the actors to come to the characters we've created, and find a way into them, and that helps them, rather than build a character around a famous voice. Bill, for example, worked really hard to find something in the voice that he never heard before, and never done before, something original. Hugh, he's a very versatile actor. We've probably seen many more version of Hugh Laurie in the U.K. than in the States.

I assume you had everyone individually, for their recording sessions...

Sarah Smith: Actually, I did manage to get them together, at the beginning, in the early stages. I really pursued that very fanatically. I actually started my career in radio comedy. This is one of the few bits of making a movie that was familiar to me, but I could not understand how you could get performances out of people by sitting them alone in a booth. I chased down dates at the beginning, and I was able to get most of the family together, sadly not Hugh, but the rest of them, I had them all together to do the dinner scene. I had Mr. and Mrs Santa together for their bedroom scenes, and I had James and Bill together to do a number of the key sleigh scenes. That meant, from there on in, we had a whole lot of sessions that were individual, but at least we had a grounding at the beginning of the process, where they had each other to play off of, for the relationships.

Oh, that's great. I'm always kind of flabbergasted by that as well. I suppose there's always a way to make it work, but then you see something like Rango, where they actually have all the actors in this big room together, and they were recording everything.

Sarah Smith: Actually, if I were ever to do this again, I would be very tempted to go the way that Wes Anderson went in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and do it on location as well. You're really asking a lot of an actor to go, 'You're in a sleigh, it's really windy, and you're struggling with the reins.' If you even just take them outside in a windy place, they immediately adapt and start acting in that world. I would love to do that.

I loved this as a one-off, but I could also see this as a franchise as well. Is there a possibility for a sequel? Do you have other ideas, if this does well, and if Sony and Aardman want to do a follow-up?

Sarah Smith: Well, Pete and I see the story as a one-off as well. We have, of course, talked about it. I think our feeling is sort of like the Toy Story effect, don't do it unless you have another story that works for you. Of the ideas we like the most, we quite like the idea of a prequel, the Grand-Santa story in the old sleigh, maybe during wartime. That would be fun. We've also talked about ideas such as a naughty child, finding their way to the North Pole and getting their way in (Laughs). The other one was an idea about Arthur and a team of elves, and they get cut off. They're out in this field, and it's kind of like a war mission. It would be like District 9 or Battle: Los Angeles (Laughs).

Wow. All of those sound pretty good, actually. I loved the opening scene, the little girl's letter, and it really brings you in to the mind of the modern kid. It doesn't seem too far-fetched that a kid would find his way to the North Pole.

Sarah Smith: Yeah, it's quite possible. They could find their way there on Google (Laughs).

Is there anything else you're developing right now?

Sarah Smith: I've spent five years making this, and I just finished it about a month ago, so I'm basically just crawling over the finish line (Laughs). The thought of doing it all again seems completely impossible at the moment. It also seems impossible that I won't do it all again, but right now, I'm just looking forward to Christmas. Actual Christmas, instead of Arthur Christmas.

I'm not always a fan of traditional Christmas movies, because we've seen them all so many times before. Are you hoping that Arthur Christmas will be one of those ones you watch alongside the other classics, just because it's so different?

Sarah Smith: I think what would make people watch it alongside others is if it actually leaves you feeling in the right mood. More than the new take, it's the emotional heart of it that makes you feel happy. I think, to me, that would be one of the great joys and rewards of the movie, if it were able to join those films that people like to watch again and again at Christmas.

I know this is probably a ways off, but are you going through things for a Blu-ray or DVD release, as far as bonus features? Is there a wealth of material you already have that you can throw on a home video release?

Sarah Smith: Yeah, there will be a DVD release next Christmas, and we do have a lot of material for it. People ask about outtakes and deleted scenes, but you don't actually waste anything at all in animation. The things we cut out along the way are storyboard sequences, which there are a number of that we tried. The scene where they hit the gold deer, there were many versions of that scene, so there are things like that which we'll put on the DVD.

Finally, what would you like to say to anyone who's curious about Arthur Christmas, about why they should check it out in theaters on Wednesday?

Sarah Smith: What I hope people will get out of it, particularly kids, they will be gripped with fun and excitement about all the answers to the questions that are troubling them, in regards to Christmas. It will stop parents from having to answer all those awkward questions, and hopefully give children a new kind of excitement about Christmas. They'll be walking away with a nice, warm feeling, I hope.

Excellent. That's about all I have. Thank you so much. It was a pleasure talking to you.

Sarah Smith: OK, thank you very much.

You can watch Sarah Smith's Arthur Christmas in theaters nationwide November 23.