Last year at Skepticon, I gave a talk about Christmas, and how it’s fun to lie to children. I also talked a bit about the War on Christmas and how dumb it is, and I showed this preview for a movie called Christmas with a Capital C:
I couldn’t find the movie anywhere, so I had to go by what the trailer suggested: the movie was about an evil atheist Grinch (named Mitch Bright!) who came to a small town in order to outlaw Christmas. I knew the movie was made by a Christian production company and I knew the title came from a terrible Christian song about how nobody should ever say “happy holidays” because it makes the baby Jesus cry. Therefore, I mocked the movie mercilessly.
Well, last month a few people contacted me to let me know that the movie was finally available on Netflix. I was so excited! I sat down with some wine and prepared myself for what was sure to be the worst movie ever.
I was totally wrong.
I don’t want to spoil the film for you, but let me just tell you that it was not, in fact, about an evil atheist outlawing Christmas. The Christian protagonist was not portrayed as being saintly and infallible. And most surprising of all, separation of church and state was fairly well explained and respected.
I was so surprised that I immediately set out to talk to someone involved in the making of the film. I still wasn’t completely sure that I hadn’t misinterpreted the message of the movie, so I needed some validation. I contacted the director, Helmut Schleppi, who immediately agreed to be interviewed on the record. He’s Dutch, and he identifies as a Christian but more in terms of spirituality, and not so much in terms of organized religion.
Schleppi: “We don’t have that whole issue where there’s a fight about whether you can put up a scene on city property, that’s not an issue because you can’t do that and it’s always been that way. So for me to hear about this whole thing, it was pretty new, and I was pretty surprised about it, that you could have a fight and sue each other over what you can put on city property and what you can’t.”
Me: “So you weren’t familiar with the War on Christmas before you took the film on?”
Schleppi: “No! [Laughs] No, I found it quite funny and I thought it was a parable, that it wasn’t a real situation. It sounded outrageous to me, that you could have a fit over a situation like this. But apparently it’s happening, there are places in America where this is an issue. Maybe if they watch this movie, they’ll see how to resolve this.”
I asked Helmut how he got involved, and he told me he was friends with the screenwriter. “I had the same reservations that you had,” he said. “I was afraid that it would be very black and white.”
I wondered if they had been aiming for a fundamentalist Christian audience who were concerned about the War on Christmas. “I think if those people watch it,” he said, “they will probably not be happy . . . I’m not sure those people will get what they want out of it. I think it’s a pretty subtle story. I think the marketing is aimed to Christians, that’s true, but I see the response from people who are not Christians who say that it’s a pretty good movie.”
I pressed him about the trailer’s representation of the movie. “I maybe would have edited it differently,” he said, “but I’m not the guy who has to sell it. Does the trailer represent the movie? Well, what trailer does?”
When I had more questions about the message in the movie, Helmut very kindly referred me to the screenwriter, Andrea Gyertson Nasfell. I gave her a call to get a few more answers.
I started by thanking Andrea for talking to me. “Well thank you for actually watching the whole movie,” she said. “Because one thing I have felt is that it is a very good message if you make it to the end, but it has been marketed very politically.”
Nasfell has written several screenplays for the production company, so they came to her when they wanted a new Christmas movie. I was most interested in hearing how she adapted the song Christmas with a Capital C into a movie that seemed to have the opposite message. She was very delicate:
“I listened to the song, and I was not too sure how to make that song into a movie because it was so political. I thought, ‘Well what if we took the problem that the song presents – the debate over the establishment clause – and what if we turn it on its head and focus the discussion on what Christmas is supposed to be about.'”
She said she didn’t interact with the band at all during the writing process. They were allowed to give input on the script, but for the most part her first draft made it through to the screen relatively unscathed. She did point out that Daniel Baldwin, who plays the atheist in the film, “actually pulled out some lines that he thought were too much like ‘let me twist my mustachio and laugh evilly’, which I really appreciated.” That really surprised me, because Stephen Baldwin is well-known for being a bit of a kooky fundamentalist Christian, but apparently Daniel at least was interested in making his atheist character as three-dimensional as possible.
I asked Nasfell to talk a little bit more about her development of the script: “There are Christians out there who feel defensive because they feel their freedom of speech is being encroached upon, and so they react very strongly. And there are places where what happens in the movie happens, and people get upset about that. So the first thing I did was research it: ok, what’s legal and what’s not. And I was kind of surprised at what I found, which is that there’s a very narrow sort of situation where it’s illegal to display the Nativity. So I decided to make that very narrow situation the one that was in the movie so I could clarify that.”
She explains how that particular situation gave her the opportunity to write a clearcut scene in which a judge sits down with everyone and explains their options: they can take the Nativity down, they can allow other religious displays alongside the Nativity, or they can sell the Nativity to a private citizen to display.
“I thought that was pretty impressive, and I think that a lot of people didn’t know that, the people who are angry about Christmas being taken away. I feel like they didn’t know how much opportunity there was to celebrate the holiday the way they want. I think there’s sort of less of a war on Christmas than what Christians sometimes perceive it to be.”
I was really impressed with Nasfell’s interest in learning the facts and remaining balanced. She was even open to a bit of criticism when I pointed out how some of Mitch Bright’s characteristics were stereotypically grumpy atheist. She pointed out that she wanted to make it clear in the film that Mitch wasn’t grumpy because he was an atheist, but because he had had a tough time in life, like one scene where it’s revealed that he had some “bad investments,” alluding to insider trading.
I pointed out that the insider trading thing was also problematic, because atheists are often seen as amoral or immoral by many Christians. “I wouldn’t have put that together,” Nasfell said. “He really was trying to help the town . . . and I’d be interested in getting your opinion on this but I really did try to make Dan [the Christian] someone who wasn’t always perfect, either. He didn’t always do the right thing.”
And she’s totally right. Both the characters were flawed . . . it’s just that I get worried that a majority Christian audience will see Mitch’s flaws as being typically atheist behaviors while excusing Dan’s as being minor mistakes that he corrects in the end. But when a screenwriter makes an honest effort to balance all the characters, then that’s a problem that really lies with the audience.
I really enjoyed talking to both Nasfell and Schleppi, because they’re Christians who I think are on our side, in terms of protecting freedom of/from religion and encouraging others to do so as well. Christmas with a Capital C may or may not become a part of the average atheist’s holiday viewing, but at the very least we can be happy knowing that it puts out a message that we want more Christians to get behind.