Charles Poekel is an American screenwriter, producer and film director. His first feature film Christmas, Again premiered at Sundance, Locarno, IndieLisboa, Cleveland, Maryland, and Lincoln Center's New Directors/New Films, was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and is a NYT Critics' Pick.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Charles Poekel discusses the origins of naturalism in material and execution, shooting 16mm, the guarded kindness of New Yorkers and his next project.
FILMATIQUE: Christmas, Again is a portrait of a young man overcoming loss while selling Christmas trees on the streets of New York, a kaleidoscope of a city that is always changing, moving forward, subject to fleeting encounters that perhaps mean more to some people than others. What do you find particularly unique about New York and the small communities or relationships that are forged despite, or by virtue of, these circumstances?
CHARLES POEKEL: The thing about New York, and most major cities, is that you're surrounded by people but often lonely as hell. Especially in a city like New York that wears such a thick skin. But what I love about New York is that the skin really isn't that thick, and beneath it are kind, humorous people. You notice this from time to time, like when you're on a subway and someone's acting weird. Everyone is watching but pretending not to watch. And after the weird person leaves, everyone kind of looks around and smiles, like we've all just gone through this thing together and we're that much closer now.
FLMTQ: One of the film's strongest aspects is its naturalism, the truth of certain moments. How did you strive to capture the verisimilitude of this story onscreen?
CP: The naturalism comes in two ways— the material and the execution. Regarding the material, it was important to me that the people I was depicting— NYC tree sellers— didn't watch the film and say, "That's not how it works. What does this guy know about selling trees?" In this case naturalism simply involves remaining truthful to the subject matter. I knew this at page one. I needed to know, like really really know, what it was like selling trees in New York.
I also knew that when it came to making the film, it would be hard to get the access and control I needed to make a film at someone else's tree stand. So I opened my own Christmas tree stand and sold trees and worked on and off on the script for 3 years. I also naively thought I could fund the film with the profits.
Regarding execution, that goes to my casting director, Eléonore Hendricks. Most of the people in the film, of whom there are many, are either non-actors or non-professional actors— there's even a few actual customers. I felt like I owed it to New York to let it play itself— why create "a New Yorker" when I have 8 million around me?
FLMTQ: While most filmmakers agree that shooting on film yields a much more textured visual result, few actually do it. For this film in particular, celluloid seems an apt choice given the wintry, melancholy atmosphere. Can you discuss your decision to shoot Christmas, Again on 16mm and what it was like to work with DP Sean Price Williams?
CP: Sean and I had been working together in documentaries, and when I first told him about the idea of opening a tree stand and making a film there, he loved it. He suggested 16mm right from the beginning— he often does. And even though the romantic in me loved the idea, I think I was afraid. Both from a budget standpoint and also a footage standpoint. Not having made a feature before, the freedom of rolling as much footage as you'd like, as is the case with digital, felt safe to me. The ability to experiment freely and all that. But then of course I found the opposite to be true, that shooting on film forced me to be more focused, to know exactly what I wanted and to make sure it worked before we started rolling.
So during my very first season selling trees, Sean came by with a few different cameras— 16mm, DSLR, miniDV— and shot footage at the tree stand. The 16mm stuff just blew the others out of the water and I knew at that point we had to do it.
FLMTQ: Like most first features, Christmas, Again was made on a shoe-string, subject to financial and time constraints. What obstacles did you encounter during the making of this film, and how did you overcome them?
CP: I'd say the biggest obstacle I faced was timing. A Hollywood film could just build all the sets from scratch, toss some fake snow around, and shoot any time of the year. But our film had to be shot during December while my tree stand was up and running. That's pretty much a 4-week window; we needed 3 weeks. So after the first season selling trees, I told myself, "Okay, now you have 11 months to finish the script and get the film off the ground." And of course I wasn't ready in time— I was also working a full-time job. The trouble is once you admit defeat, you relax and think, "Now I have all the time in the world again." And the cycle repeats itself.
The weather was also a big challenge. Our only location was a 1976 camper with an electric heater. We used a hell of a lot of hand-warmers.
FLMTQ: What responsibility do you believe artists, and filmmakers in particular, have to tell particular types of stories given the uncertain age in which we live?
CP: We see everything through media. So much of what I was raised knowing was from what I saw on television and in the movies. And the more truthful and honest that media is, the better.
That being said, I don't think artists should have any responsibility to tell particular stories. They should tell the stories they are moved to tell. The responsibility comes in the curation, from the industry side, to make sure certain stories are being supported, and are being given fair exposure and opportunity.