Noted Screenwriter Susan Coyne Creates Magic in The Man Who Invented Christmas
Having two leading actors of the caliber of Christopher Plummer and Dan Stevens embrace the magic of your screenplay is quite memorable for any writer.
This is definitely the case for Susan Coyne, who wrote the screenplay for The Man Who Invented Christmas, a charming holiday movie that takes us on the magical journey that led to the creation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Based on the 2008 best-selling book by Les Standiford, the new movie from Bleeker Street, brings the imagination of one of the world’s best-loved authors to vivid reality as he creates the masterpiece that has shaped modern-day Christmas celebrations for nearly 175 years.
On the stage, Coyne has adapted plays by Chekhov and Turgenev, and has enjoyed a distinguished career as an actress, most recently appearing in The Real Joneses, at the Tarragon Theatre.
Coyne is best known as the co-creator and co-writer of the internationally acclaimed miniseries Slings and Arrows, about a modern-day Shakespeare festival. She won three Gemini Awards and three Writers Guild of Canada awards for the series. Her show also had a second run the in the U.S. on the Sundance Channel, and has been lauded for its off-beat sensibility, charm and humor.
She is working as a supervising producer on the fourth season of Amazon Studios’ Golden Globe-winning series, Mozart in the Jungle. Coyne wrote two of the three Anne of Green Gables telefilms, and three series in development in Canada, in which she will write and act as the executive producer.
The Man Who Invented Christmas, focuses on the intense six weeks during which Dickens wrote and self-published his acclaimed book, A Christmas Carol. The movie depicts Dickens as a modern man: flawed, fierce and funny all at the same time.
The leading men in the movie, and their director, Bharat Nalluri, were impressed with Coyne’s script and how many layers of meaning she infused it with. “It’s a rare treat to get a script that is so fully formed,” he said.
“It’s a fun, enjoyable piece, with great characters and a visual flare. Underneath it all, it has a little something to say about the world that we live in,” Nalluri added. “In a way, it takes after the ways of Dickens, who created these larger-than-life, often very comedic characters, and used them to tell stories that delivered a profound impact on society and were also fun to read.”
How much did you know about the book “The Man Who Invented Christmas?”
Susan Coyne: I wasn’t that familiar with the material. Obviously, I know Dickens and A Christmas Carol, pretty well, but I hadn’t done a lot of research. Not many people know about this back-story actually; it’s kind of interesting.
How do you find the magic? Is it there? Is it because of Dickens or the characters? Basically, I want to know what is your process?
SC: I guess in a lot of the work I’ve done, I’m really interested in the workings of the imagination and I mean all of our imaginations. I want to explore what it is that we do when we invest in a book, or in a character, and look at what is it that we do when we write, or act, or perform. I guess to me, there’s something magical about the imagination because it creates things that weren’t there before and can change our lives in some way, in ways that ordinary facts can’t.
Please tell me more.
SC: Creation itself is an act of magic to me. I’m interested in delving into that. What I’ve found in the past as I was researching about Dickens was that he had the kind of imagination that you read about sometimes of writers who literally see their characters in the room with them and can have a conversation with them and he also used to act out all the parts when he was — his daughter tells the story of having a sick day and lying on a couch in his office and watching him get up and go to the mirror and make funny faces and mess up his hair. He had this very vivid theatrical imagination that was kind of like a magician.
As a writer did you identify with Dickens and what he was going through?
SC: Yes. Dickens was down and out at this point. He’d had all these big successes (Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers) and then he had a few flops. The more I read about him, the more fascinating he became. He was such a mixture of ambition, humanity, pettiness, and largeness of spirit – a truly complex and remarkable person.
Were you intimately knowledgeable about Dickens’ work? Did you feel you had to go read “Oliver Twist” or “A Christmas Carol” or any of his other books?
SC: I read a whole bunch of them. I read David Copperfield again. I knew “Great Expectations,” really well and I knew Nicholas Nickleby, but I watched all the BBC adaptations which are fantastic and I really, I can’t say that I really knew the work of Dickens well. I had enjoyed and read his books and loved – because I’m also an actress, so I loved the characters, they always appeal to me. I had a lot of research, fun doing the research, going back and reading his letters as well, trying to get a sense of who he was as a person.
The movie really thrust me into that world from the second I was there.
SC: That’s wonderful.
I’ve heard from a lot of my friends who have teenagers, how much the book means to them and how much this movie is like an extra Christmas present for them.
Also, the timing is really good when you hear something like that, that it already has such an audience and such excitement, how does that make you feel?
SC: It makes me feel so very excited because I know how personally people take that book. A lot of people feel very, very strongly that it’s their very favorite book. So, that’s really exciting and also a little bit like, ‘I hope we get it right.’ I know a lot of people really – isn’t that interesting how books find their readers and their fans and people who feel like, ‘That’s my book.’ Or, ‘That’s my story.’
Did you spend time on the set of this movie?
SC: I did.
What was that like? Can you tell me that experienced?
SC: Amazing because I’ll never get over the magic of this; talking of magic. You sit at your little kitchen table writing a scene where there’s, for instance I wrote about all his desk ornaments because I really loved the detail. He had these two dueling frogs and he had all these little items on his desk that he used to touch before he started writing because he was probably OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) or something like that.
What else do you remember about your time on the set?
SC: Well, I walked onto set and there’s his study that someone has gone to extraordinary lengths to decorate with things that no one will ever see, and there on his desk are all of his favorite ornaments. It brought tears to my eyes.
SC: It’s such a wonderful thing to have something in your head, and then see it come to life that way, and see all the people speaking your words and what’s wonderful about film is there’s a whole team that comes together to create something based on these marks on a paper. It was really amazing. It was cold and rainy, and very Dickensian in Dublin, and everybody was really good sports about it.Did you spend any time on the set with the two leading men — Christopher Plummer or Dan Stevens?
SC: Yes, a little bit.
What was that like?
SC: Well, they’re both wonderful as often happens with great actors, they very down to earth, and I thought in the midst of this cold and gray day, they were serving us cappuccino. They had bought a little coffee machine and we were all enjoying the delicious coffee that they had bought for the crew. They were terrific. They were really collaborative; they had a few great ideas.
What can you tell me about the legendary Mr. Plummer?
SC: Christopher Plummer is a great Shakespearean actor, which I love, and somebody I’ve looked up to my whole life, so it was really wonderful to meet him.
How about Mr. Stevens?
SC: Dan is the reason we got the film made. He was such a great supporter of the film, it’s wonderful.
Is there a particular part of your writing of this that you just love more than any other and is that the same for the movie?
SC: I think once I got into writing for Scrooge, I could see why Dickens loved writing him too, because he’s so funny, he’s funny in the book too. He has this dry, cynical sense of humor, and I loved the idea that he would be trying to take over the story and propound a few of his own ideas about free markets, and what he thought would be entertaining for readers, I really, really enjoyed getting inside that part of the story.
Is this a modern story even though it happened in the 1800’s? Is there a takeaway, a message, something that we should take to heart, especially at Christmas time?
SC: It sure feels that way, and I think whenever you write something, even if it’s set 200 years ago, you can’t help but feel, ‘What does this have to say to today?’ In the research that I did about those times, there are a lot of similarities. There’s huge uncertainty about the future, huge dislocation, huge gaps between the rich and the poor and a terrible sense that something had gone off the rails in society, and there was this sort of mean spirited demeanor.
Please go on.
SC: So, yes it felt very resonant and what I like about what’s really important about the book in a way, is that he was the first to say, ‘Christmas is a time when we should stop all collectively and really take stock of where we’re at personally and as a society. Maybe there’s one day in the year when we can really in the midst of this incredibly busy life’ They were beginning to feel how fast life was, that we could stop and feel about whether we’re being the best people we could be. Whether there’s things we ought to be doing for other people.’ Also, I think, to celebrate and be grateful for the things that we have. I think that’s a timeless message as well.
I was surprised to hear the list of things that came later in terms of Christmas. We all think of Christmas as a big celebration with trees and gifts, but so much of it came later on. When they said in the movie, ‘Christmas isn’t a big holiday. I was like, ‘What?’
SC: I know; can you imagine?
His publishers and other naysayers say to Dickens, ‘Nobody is going to want to read a Christmas story.’
SC: It’s hilarious, isn’t it? I know it’s really interesting to go back and realize it was this folk-y thing like the quaint people in the country did, but not something that everybody – and the interesting thing, too, is it’s become this kind of ecumenical holiday too, and I think because of him it’s not particularly a Christian holiday, it’s more of a social holiday, almost like Thanksgiving here.
Yes, the celebration of everything that came before and being with family and maybe even take the leap and turning off your phone to take a breath.
SC: Also, a lot about children which is another innovation. In this book and all the other Christmas books he wrote, children were always at the center of it, and that was a new idea too; that it should be a holiday for children and really celebrating that aspect and a child’s point of view as well and the magic of how a child sees the world. All of those things are part of what he created in his books.So, what do you want children and families who will come to see this to take away? Care more about each other, care more about Christmas, or any of those?
SC: So many things. First of all this is the story of a guy who is this great moralist and this great benefactor who realized that he had some cleaning up to do in his own life. In the course of creating this magical story, it’s quite wonderful because the story has extra magic to it.
Why do you feel that way?
SC: I do because I think that Dickens was really grappling with something inside himself as well and saying, ‘This applies to me, too.’ There’s a lot of personal biographical details in the story.
SC: It was almost like he, for the first time in his life, started to deal with his own complicated back story by sending Scrooge on a visit to the past. I think it’s a story about the fact that we all have this responsibility, and also what I think I love about the book is there’s also this joy in doing better, in doing good. I think we all remember the joy that Scrooge has the moment he wakes up, “I have another chance. I can do something for the world.” I guess that’s what really moves me about the story; the sort of joy at the end of it all.
How has this changed your life, your writing, what you’re doing next?
SC: Good question. It’s been eight years since we started the project, so getting it made is amazing and magical. I guess spending time with Dickens has changed me because you kind of apprentice to a great man when you study his life. I think I really feel stronger and stronger about the idea that we all have a responsibility, in a way, to put something good in the world if we can.
This is truly a beautiful movie.
SC: Thank you. It has been a pleasure.
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