Behind the colorful lights, snowy days and decorative displays that mark that arrival of the holiday season in New York City, an unsung hero tirelessly works to bring one of the most iconic Christmas staples to residents’ homes.
The Christmas tree salesman is a yearly fixture, a temporary apparition in many neighborhoods. He or she comes and serves a noble purpose for a few weeks, and just like the trees themselves, is forgotten after the holiday for another year. Following one of these characters, Charles Poekel’s evocative film Christmas, Again is set to become a minor holiday classic.
A tender young man, appropriately named Noel (Kentucker Audley), spends his nights selling trees while battling the ever-present ghosts of loneliness and depression. When a kind act turns into a complicated romantic affair, Noel proves to be Christmas miracle for others—and just might find one of his own. Gorgeously shot on Super-16 by DP Sean Price Williams, Christmas, Again feels like a warm embrace in a cold winter night.
The film was recently nominated for the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award, for the best picture made for under $500,000. We chatted with Poekel about his own experiences selling Christmas trees in NYC, his attraction to characters that become part of the fabric of their cities, and his decision to shoot on film despite the financial gamble this presented.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I’ve heard you’ve actually worked on a Christmas tree stand. Was that what drew you to these tree salesmen?
Charles Poekel (CP): Actually, this year is my fifth year selling trees. I started three years before we started shooting. About five years ago I was trying to get a Christmas tree with my roommates around midnight and we didn’t know if the place near us would be open or not. We went down there and they were open. We asked the guy, “When do you close?” and he said, “We don’t ever close.” I was like, “What do you mean you don’t close?” He said, “We are open 24 hours; we can’t lock up the trees.”
When he said that I realized, “Wait, this is crazy.” It peaked my interest and I wanted to know as much as I could. I knew I hadn’t seen a film about that before. I think as a filmmaker you are always looking for new stories and new environments. I just thought that setting was so unique that you could put a really good character in it and have a good story.
MM: What was it about this particular character, the lonely tree salesman, that made him so appealing to you? These men become part of New York City, even if it’s only for a few days.
CP: I was interested because I had heard a lot of stories of people selling trees in New York City. I heard people in the neighborhood would bring them coffee and doughnuts – in the movie it’s pie – or they would give them a key to their apartment so they could shower. New York City has a very interesting relationship with their tree vendors. These guys disappear for 11 months and then they come back and for people in the neighborhood it’s like they never left. It’s like, “Good to see you! Welcome back!” You see them every day for 30 days and then they are gone. In real life some of these guys have been selling trees on the same corner for 10 or 15 years. They get to see kids grow up, people getting married, then have kids and get their first Christmas tree for their new family.
MM: What sort of research did you do to better understand this seasonal job? How did selling tress yourself help the film?
CP: I started interviewing other tree salesmen and I was getting a lot of information, but I felt like I was only scratching the surface. I realized, when I actually wanted to make the film, that nobody would ever let me take over their stand to film a movie. They were still trying to make money. I heard it was kind of lucrative, so I thought, “Why don’t I just open my own stand? I’ll learn enough so that I can write the script, I can sell the trees and make a little money to help fund the movie, and then when it comes to shooting I’ll have full control over the location and production design.” So that’s what I did. I did it for three years as a part-time job on the side. Then the fourth year we shot the movie.
MM: How great, or how complicated, was it to have full control of the location as a filmmaker?
CP: It’s fantastic. Our crew was only about six to eight people because we just couldn’t fit too many people there. There is not that much room between the trailer and the trees. Our AC would be in the bathroom, come out and clap, and then go back and hide in the bathroom, because it was all so tight. It forced us to work economically and to have a small crew.
MM: Was the tree stand open and selling trees as you guys were shooting?
CP: Yes! I don’t think we ever had to stop a take because of it, but pretty much everyone in our cast and crew had to sell a tree at some point.
MM: Tell me about the challenges and/or benefits of shooting on Super-16. Why did you make this decision on a microbudget film? How was working with indie-legend DP Sean Price Williams?
CP: Sean has shot a lot of things on Super-16. He is a big supporter of film, and when I told him about the movie and he decided to shoot it, he brought his 16mm camera out to do a test roll. When I compared that to the digital footage I was just blown away and I knew we had to find a way to shoot on film. Economically it’s not that much more expensive. Obviously the film and the developing cost a lot of money, but you save money in a lot of areas. We didn’t have much equipment, we didn’t need a big crew, we were able to move really quickly using a lot of available light and the light of the tree stand, so our set ups were kind of minimal. When it came to color correction we moved really quickly. I think we color-corrected it in a day. We saved a lot of money in different places and that offset the cost of the film. We did it very inexpensively. We did a Kickstarter and we had a few investors. We were able to do a lot for very little.
MM: It definitely suits the story. It gives it a particularly nostalgic feel.
CP: We didn’t shoot it on film just for the novelty. The aesthetic feel and the quality of the film felt like it matched the setting very well. It’s supposed to feel nostalgic.
MM: Christmas, Again is also a film that could have been made years ago and still be as memorable.
CP: We wanted it to feel kind of timeless, not of its time. There is a cellphone once or twice and there is an Obama reference, but besides that, it could take place in the ’70s, or 10 years from now. At least I’d like to think that.
MM: Were the Christmas lights of the tree stand the most important source of light during the production? The story came with its own light source, in a sense.
CP: In real life, a lot of these tree stands are very brightly lit because if you come to buy a tree at night you really need to be able to see it. We put really bright bulbs in our big outdoor lights in the stand and we put a ton of Christmas lights. I think on top of that we used one China ball lantern that we moved around, but that was pretty much it.
MM: Tell me about the writing process. It’s a very intimate story with, essentially, only two characters.
CP: When I first started writing the screenplay, Hannah Gross’ character Lidia, her story was almost a whole separate plot. We’d actually go to her apartment and see her interact with her boyfriend. At that point the story of Kentucker’s character, Noel, was about half of the film. As I kept going I decided to just focus on the tree stand and Kentucker’s character.
MM: When it came to working with your actors were there any specific challenges you faced?
CP: It wasn’t challenging at all. I got really lucky. Kentucker is just a fabulous actor. I’d seen him in a couple movies where he is the lead and I knew that he could carry a film. Once we had him start doing scenes with Hannah, we knew they were perfect.
MM: As a director, do you like improvisation or do you prefer to stick to the screenplay for more freedom?
CP: I love improvisation, but we didn’t do much. We followed the script almost exactly. We shot chronologically. There were times where Kentucker and I decided that a scene just didn’t work so we’d sit down and rewrite it the day before, the morning of, or sometimes even right before shooting it. If we thought, “You know what, this feels fake,” or “This feels forced,” then we’d say, “Alright, let’s take 30 minutes and rewrite this.” There were not too many improv lines, only a few. I think the guy in the Bluetooth, when he says, “I love your tortellini,” that was improv. [Laughs].
MM: Would you say there is a strong independent filmmaking community in NYC?
CP: It’s wonderful. It’s what keeps me in New York and Brooklyn because there is a very great film community there and people love to push their peers. I’m inspired by the stuff my friends are doing. We involve each other in different projects.
MM: Do you want to continue making small films and intimate films or are larger projects something that you will pursue in the future?
CP: I’d definitely love to keep making personal films. Small is a tough descriptive word, because I think you can make big movies that are small and small movies that are big. Definitely independent personal films with people like this.
MM: Is there a new project in the horizon?
CP: I’m writing a screenplay right now with my fiancée, hoping to shoot it in the fall. MM
Christmas, Again opens at the MoMA in New York, and on-demand on Fandor, December 3, 2015, and in Los Angeles on December 11.