Giles Alderson & Dom Lenoir chat with their friend, host of the podcast and director, Phil Hawkins about his first studio movie, Prancer: A Christmas Tale.
Making a Christmas Film
Phil didn’t want to make a ‘superficial’ Christmas film. ‘There’s a real responsibility in making a Christmas movie. I wanted to make something that would last a bit longer – hopefully, something that you would go back to year after year because that’s the power of a Christmas film.
I’ve got my Halloween movie, and now I’ve got my Christmas movie. I need my summer movie. When I first read the script, my whole pitch was to develop the film in that lofty aspiration of something that lasts, because we all want to make a movie that lasts.’
Pitching for the Job
‘I decided to hit the reset button in my career because I wanted to make a studio film. That’s always been my goal. I’d read the script and there were a few directors pitching for the gig. And my whole pitch was I love the grandfather/ granddaughter relationship and the optimism of a Christmas movie.’
The original draft was a children’s film, but Phil wanted to make it into a family film. ‘And you could say, what is the difference? There is both a world of difference and a very thin difference. A family movie needs to speak to everyone. It needs to go deep and tackle something whilst not forgetting the joy and the fun of a child watching. And that’s a very difficult balance to have. The script that I originally read was more of a kids’ movie, but there wasn’t enough reindeer to sustain it for me.
So my first studio movie pitch, as a director was: I don’t want to mess this up, but I also don’t want to make a film (and live with a film for a couple of years) that I don’t care about. We all know the pain and heartache of making movies, so you’ve got to love it.’
How He Got Involved
Phil’s good friend, Stefano, ‘an Italian line producer who knew the De Laurentiis’ introduced them. ‘Sadly, Raffaella’s mother-in-law, Martha, passed away just as we were filming. I’d met her because she’d seen Origins and wanted to meet this crazy filmmaker. And then in conversations, between Raffaella and Martha, they had a chat about me.
I met Raffaella, read the script, and I pitched to her, through email, first. This is what I love. And it was a big, long stream of consciousness that was edited down for the studio.’
After ‘one pitch meeting, I got the job. I was in Belarus, shooting a commercial when I had my call. Raffaella called me on Christmas Eve and said, hey kid, you got the job.’
Working with Animals
The reindeer, Ellen, was absolutely petrified of the drones and of people. ‘So a lot of her training was getting her used to people because she wasn’t a TV/ film animal. She came out of a paddock (and she was beautiful) and she came up to me and fed out my hand and was trying to impress the director.’
They had an animal handler who worked with her for months. ‘Getting used to people because at the end of the film she’s with crowds of people.
And to add to her character and sound, we hired a legend called Frank Welker who was the original Transformers, original Scooby-Doo. He’s the voice of Sven in Frozen.’
Working with James Cromwell
‘We had a chat about tone, character, about Betty and working with animals.’
James was nominated for best supporting actor at the 1996 Academy Awards for his role in Babe. ‘He’s worked with animals way more than I have and he totally understood the patience and laser-sharp focus of waiting for the animal. You’re trying to get that moment where the animal reacts and then the scene can continue.
And there’s the pressure that the actor won’t fluff their lines around the reindeer because you might not get another shot. So he was very prepared and was well up for the challenge.
And as an activist of animal rights, he obviously had a focus on how the animal was being treated. I love all animals, but especially on set, I’m going to look after them.’
His Last Words of Advice
‘You can do what you want. It’s almost about sticking to your guns and going with a plan and a feeling – not in an arrogant way, but with self-confidence because I’d not made a feature film in a while and this was a lot to bite off. Especially my first studio movie.’
Phil put a lot of pressure on himself. And had mentioned it on a previous podcast episode – ‘that little voice that thinks you’re not good enough and you’re an imposter and you shouldn’t be there. And then you come up with crazy ideas and have amazing actors and technicians and you have a lovely reaction from a film just by sticking to your guns. That’s very rewarding as a creative person.’
For more from Phil Hawkins and about Prancer: A Christmas Tale, listen here.