Arthur Christmas Exclusive: Director Sarah Smith on her Christmas Classic

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Sarah Smith should have a massive hit on her hands, and not simply this calendar year. The director of Arthur Christmas has crafted the type of film that will be on permanent replay this time of year for decades to come. Smith sat down with Movie Fanatic for an exclusive chat to take us inside the Arthur Christmas magic -- from dishing the story’s humble beginnings to how the first-time animation director found her bearings and delivered a modern Christmas classic and even tells us her own favorite holiday flicks.

James McAvoy is Arthur Christmas

Movie Fanatic: Where did the genesis for this story come from, as you’re not only the director, you’re one of the writers on this unique take on a Christmas story?

Sarah Smith: The original idea came from Pete (Baynham), my writing partner. I was working at Aardman and he said to me that he thought he’d had one of his five best ever ideas, although at the time he was thinking maybe it could be live action. He’d really just been thinking about what it would take for Santa to get round the whole world in one night, deliver two billion presents, thinking about the absolute real logistics of the modern world and the size of the cities and air traffic control. He came up with the idea of this giant military-style operation. And then the second part of his idea was, well what if something went wrong? And Santa had a bit of an idiot son who was a bit like him basically [laughs] and it was down to him to put it right. Because Pete’s the most impractical person in the whole world [laughs]. And that was the beginning of it. When I heard those two ideas, from there I just got really excited by it. You feel that there’s a whole world in there. Then he and I spent about a year fleshing it out.

Movie Fanatic: Animation takes so many years to get to the big screen. Did the power of the story help keep you going?

Sarah Smith: Yeah, it was about five years from beginning to end. The story has a lot of variety in it. There are a number of key characters, all who have emotional character arcs, etc. Just the world itself also has so many different ideas, details, fun and jokes. I suppose it’s all that as well as the unique idea to be rich in order to keep delighting you for all of that period of time. And you need to be a sort of detail person who loves all the little crazy stuff that goes into it -- that sort of keeps you amused.

Movie Fanatic: For you personally, what would you say was the biggest challenge in bringing Arthur Christmas to the big screen?

Sarah Smith: There were so many different challenges. I had to learn so much, never having done an animated movie before. It is this marathon that you run at this pace, at a sprint, and I think holding onto the joy of it all is the other hard thing, and keeping a team behind you over such a long period of time -- all of those things. The other thing that I think was the hardest challenge is that many of us had to move around the world several times in order to make the movie. Some people moved from different parts of the world to Bristol for a year and a half and then to California and then back to London to finish it out. It’s an enormous investment from a huge number of people to get one of these things done.

Movie Fanatic: What are your emotions as the movie finally comes out?

Sarah Smith: It’s already out in the UK, which is nice, and that’s sort of like a comfortable home place. It’s had a really lovely reaction in the UK so that makes us feel nice and like we’re coming from a warm beginning. It’s a very strange feeling. It is a bit like having a child and it does feel like sending your child off into the world. It’s very difficult because there’s so many things beyond your control, in terms of the marketplace, and other people deciding to release a movie at the same time [laughs], and all these things that really have nothing to do with anything that one can do anything about. For me, I’m trying to look to the long-term because I think my hopes for this movie really are not so much what it does this week or what the box office is immediately or what awards it wins, or any of those things that people ask you about, but I would love to have made a movie that becomes beloved for Christmases to come. That would make all of that work worthwhile if it’s something that lasted beyond its opening weekend and became a movie that people enjoyed at future Christmases.

Movie Fanatic: As the filmmaker behind Arthur Christmas, as your amazing cast came together, was it a pinch-yourself moment?

Sarah Smith: Yes, it was fantastic that all of them said yes. I think I’m very lucky to be able to be making this movie under the Aardman banner because particularly in the UK there’s huge affection for Aardman. It’s like the royal family. When I got the call from Aardman I was very excited. I think for actors as well Aardman is something that makes them immediately interested. I think it was a combination of that and the idea of potentially a Christmas movie that might be seen for years to come was what appealed to them. So it’s a fantastic calling card to be able to go after all the actors you’ve always wanted to work with [laughs]. You might be much more inaccessible on other projects. It was just brilliant because I wanted the Santas to be like the royal family and we’ve got the royalty of British acting in there which was fantastic. Particularly Bill, he just loved the project and he’s been so dedicated to it all the way through which was fantastic -- but all of them. James McAvoy is one of my total hero actors. I think he’s brilliant. And this is very different, I think, than anything he’s ever done before so that was a huge pleasure.

Movie Fanatic: How was the learning curve in doing an animated film and now that you’ve completed it, is it water that you would wade in again?

Sarah Smith: It’s an exponential learning curve. You don’t even know what you don’t know. It’s so different as a process. What Aardman traditionally do in stop-frame is much more like live-action in many ways. You’re talking about physical sets which people come to, stand around at the moment of shooting a shot, the art directors, the cinematographers and so on are all together on a set when you’re shooting. So that’s much more like the rhythm of live-action. CG is completely different, and the process, and the timeline. The way that different people touch the movie to input their particular part of the process is completely different. You’re almost protected by not knowing what you don’t know because if you realize how hard it was, I’d probably never have been foolish enough to start [laughs]. But I had a very generous team who said to me, “Look, you don’t need to know this. We know how to do this, this and this. We can tell you what you need to know and help you. But what we need is the story and the visuals.” And that kind of makes it worthwhile, something that makes it all add up and gives a reason to make any of the choices that get made along the way.

Movie Fanatic: What do you think it is about the creative juices at Aardman that makes it so special?

Sarah Smith: I think it’s really that people are following their passion and their hearts. I say this with love and respect but it’s a glorious uncommercial company. To some extent, it’s basically the Arthur Christmas of the movie world. Arthur is the guy in the corner who just completely loves Christmas. And the people at Aardman just completely love movies and animation and what they do for their own sake. They’re not chasing Oscars, or commercial success. They’re not chasing the theory of what will make it a hit in America. They’re just making things they love and believe in. When you do that, if you’re lucky, the thing you put up is authentic and original in itself and it’s full of that joy. Ironically, that’s what attracts the world. They’re coming at it from that place, I think. One of the reasons I wanted to join Aardman was because, to me, I always believe in that as a way of operating. But Aardman is one of the places where they’ve made that a huge success story.

Movie Fanatic: Besides Arthur Christmas, of course, what are some of your other favorite Christmas movies?

Sarah Smith: I love Elf and I love Planes, Trains and Automobiles, a kind of road movie between two mismatched characters. And there’s Elf, the innocent with the spirit of Christmas. Also there’s a beautiful animated movie called The Snowman that came out in 2D in the UK when I was a kid, which is about a kid flying over a silent, snowy Christmas night with a snowman. That was a very magical memorable thing for me as a kid. And all of those movies I wanted to capture a little of in this one.

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