How to Make a Christmas Musical with Sean Anders

Hosts Giles Alderson and Dom Lenoir chat with writer/director Sean Anders this week.

Where It All Started

Sean grew up loving films. His mum worked between two malls with cinemas. So during the summer, he would walk to one in the morning and then to the other in the afternoon.

‘I loved going to see movies by myself. And so that’s where it started for me. It’s not like I was 12 years old going I want to be a director. It wasn’t until much later that it started to become an obsession.’

He recalls being a DVD ‘commentary track junkie. Listening to filmmakers talk about their movies. That’s what really got me going – wanting to do it. But even then I didn’t think I’ll be a director someday, I thought I want to get a video camera and try this sometime.’

Getting His First Filming Job

When Sean eventually got his first camera, he was doing some design work for a banquet.

‘The person who was putting it on knew that I was dabbling in video and said do you want to make a video presentation for it? I had to interview high school football players.

I talked them into letting me use those players to shoot comedy skits. I had so much fun. I was completely obsessed and that’s when I knew I wanted to do this every day.’

The Start of His Filmmaking Career

With his writing and producing partner, John Morris, he made a feature-length documentary – which was ‘the best education. We rented out a theatre to show the movie to all the people that were involved. But I owe my career to the kids working at the popcorn counter that night because afterwards some of them came up to me and said that was hilarious.’ One of them had gone in to watch it and had been convinced that it would be awful but after telling his friends that it was good, they started doing shifts to watch it. 

‘But they didn’t get to see the whole movie, so I burned them a DVD and they showed it to one of their bosses. He got us into some film festival and asked if he could put the movie up in this college theatre in Phoenix. This little theatre normally does really bad numbers all summer because there are no students in town. It literally played for four months.

I always trace it back to those people working at the popcorn counter.’

Getting Signed

‘We got our screen time. It was a very small festival. We tried to call agencies and get some people to come out. One agent and one agent’s assistant came. The screening was really good – pretty well attended, and it played really well.’

The agent’s assistant liked the film a lot and said that they’d mention it to their boss – who rejected it. The agent said he was too old to understand it, but asked if he could get a copy of the film to show ‘younger people at the agency.

Later, he called and said, I don’t really get this movie, but all the young people in the agency love it. Do you want to come in for a meeting? And we ended up signing at that smaller boutique agency but they ended up getting swallowed up by a bigger agency. So we got into a bigger agency, by default.’

Developing Their Craft

After their first film, Sean says that they didn’t really know what they were doing – they didn’t know how to write a script; so they started dissecting scripts and tried to figure out how they worked structurally.

Their scripts were funny but the studios weren’t interested in making them. But because they had potential, studios invited them to write takes – re-working scripts that they liked the premise of but didn’t like the script. They pitched a different version of Sex Drive, which was the first film that Summit Pictures acquired.

‘The reason we’ve been successful is that we’ve got a really good writing dynamic. We argue, but not a lot, because our rule of thumb is if one of us hates something, we keep looking until we find something that we both like.

Their process is ‘the most boring, uninteresting process you can imagine. Just two guys talking about whatever’s going on in the news or politics, or talking about our families.’ And then one of them will witness an interaction in real life and it’ll spark something.

‘We’re big on outlining and index cards. Usually, we start with a hodgepodge of random ideas. We know the story that we want to tell but we have all these ideas and then we try to put them in some kind of an order and keep crunching our way through them until it starts to take a shape. And then once it does take shape, I go off and start writing the pages. I do the actual typing, and then John reads the pages’ and cuts down the scripts.

Developing Spirited

During one of their writing sessions, they were chatting about story and character and they started talking about A Christmas Carol. ‘The ghosts of A Christmas Carol are arguably the protagonists because they’re the ones trying to do something and Scrooge is being dragged around. And then he’s the character who changes.

That led to a conversation about if anybody’s ever done A Christmas Carol from the other side. And then we started talking about the work that must go into creating this.’ And the conversations kept developing the idea.

‘I had mentioned the idea to my manager, who works with Will Ferrell’s manager, and Will’s manager mentioned it to him. We set up a call and I pitched it to him. And he really liked it.’ But Will wasn’t sure about playing Scrooge. Sean then mentioned that he’d envisioned Will as the Ghost of Christmas Present.

‘I told him we haven’t written a script, but we see this as a musical. And one of the many things that’s great about Will Ferrell is that he just loves to try different things.

We started working on it more and started digging into the Clint character. We wanted him to be slick, confident and cool. So we thought of Ryan Reynolds. But can he sing? And then we found that he had done The Masked Singer in South Korea to promote Deadpool. So we pitched to his producing partner, George. He told us when we were leaving, Ryan left to go make this movie with three instructions:

  1. Find me a Will Ferrell movie
  2. Find me a musical
  3. Find me a Christmas movie

So we had Will Ferrell interested in doing it if the script was good. And Ryan Reynolds attached before we had a script. We went around and pitched it everywhere. We had a fully fleshed-out pitch and everybody wanted it. 

The streamers have bigger budgets to offer. So when Apple came along, we thought that was great. I also really liked the idea of Apple because it was relatively new in the game and we knew that we would be more important to them because they needed to distinguish themselves. We knew we’d get the support from them, and we did.’

His Last Words of Advice

‘Don’t wait around for somebody to give you a budget. Make your movie. You live in a time when you’ve got cameras on your phone.

If you’re making your short film, don’t short-change the sound. The sound is, just as important, if not more important than the picture. People don’t expect it to look like Jurassic Park, but if it sounds bad it will make them not like the movie.

Be a student of movies and not just the ones that you’re supposed to be a student of. Don’t just watch the movies that all the filmmakers talk about.’

This is just a short snippet of our episode. For more from Sean Anders, listen here.

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