Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
The holiday spirit once again soars thanks in part to screenwriter Matt Lieberman (SCOOB!, FREE GUY) and another chapter in THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES. He returns to the fantastical world of Santa Claus in the wildly popular Netflix franchise he created, shepherded by producer/ co-writer/ director Chris Columbus (HOME ALONE, GREMLINS). THE CHRISMAS CHRONICLES 2 finds Kate Pierce (Darby Camp) rebelling against a newly forming family dynamic at the same time a disgruntled former elf (played by Julian Dennison) is exacting his revenge on the North Pole and threatening to obliterate Christmas permanently. Not only does it build upon the series’ resonant familial drama, it proficiently tugs on the heartstrings while delivering a healthy dose of the Christmas spirit.
The original is sprinkled with homages to other Chris Columbus films. Was that a way to get his attention?
The first one was a spec script – a found footage movie about two kids who try to bust Santa Claus with their video camera. It was almost solely found footage and I definitely had HOME ALONE and GOONIES in my head while writing it. When my agents went to sell it, I got the call the next day saying, “Chris Columbus loves your script,” and I almost fell out of my chair. He bought it with his own company and it sat in development for 5 or 6 years until Netflix came. Nothing Machiavellian – just like minds.
I love that in both of these films, Santa’s portrayed as an action hero. Was that motivated by Kurt Russell’s casting?
In the original script, Santa was barely in the movie. But when Netflix got involved, they were like, “We’d love for someone to play this.” So we drilled down on what are Santa’s powers and how we could dig deeper thinking about how he goes about delivering presents on Christmas. Obviously, once Kurt Russell got involved, we notched it up a couple of gears. He’s embraced the character in ways I never thought imaginable. He’s become Santa Claus in some ways.
Had you had any inkling at that time Netflix would want a sequel? When did talk of that happen and were you beside yourself that you created an original franchise?
Yeah. I am totally beside myself that our little scripts have become this big franchise. We started thinking of a second one, I think on the set of the first one. We got a sense that this was something kind of special and bigger than we thought it was. Kurt and Chris’ enthusiasm for it helped amp it up. We had early conversations about what the sequel could be. Whereas the first one was close to my ideas for the script, the second one there was Kurt’s ideas. He did a 20-30 page deep dive into Santa and has very specific ideas about what Santa can and can not do and say. And Chris had his own thoughts and ideas. So we built it out from there.
As you mentioned, this goes a little more into Santa’s origins. Had you, or Kurt, already done historical research before – or maybe not since this is a fantasy and you could do whatever you wanted?
Both, I would say. Kurt did some historical research and used his own imagination for who this guy was. We kind of all did. We dug deeper into the history of St. Nicholas at Christmas, and Yule as the winter tradition. That’s taken from folklore. Earlier on, we had big set pieces set in Europe, [but those] we pulled back on for budget and time reasons.
Goldie Hawn’s cameo appearance in the first film was major. Was it a no-brainer that she’d take more of a lead role in this sequel? Did she have notes on how she envisioned Mrs. Claus?
Yes and yes. It wasn’t planned for the first one. It was something that organically happened. It wasn’t in the script, but it made total sense and it was awesome. Mrs. Claus is a huge part of it and if we’re gonna get Goldie to do it, it better count. I think she felt the same way. She had great ideas and Kurt had great ideas. Obviously this is their first movie since doing OVERBOARD. They wanted to have that fun banter back and forth and make those moments pop.
Did you ever feel the pressure of that on-screen reunion, or is just normal pressure?
Yeah, I mean maybe [laughs] I was not thinking deeply into these things. I got to spend a couple weeks with Kurt and her at their place going over it. And it all felt natural. I didn’t overthink it.
Obviously, you’re a professional and you’re not nerding out…
Oh, I was nerding out. Really, I’d come home and tell my wife, “It’s almost like I’m writing Santa’s autobiography with them.” Kurt had already started growing out his beard and hair to get ready. It was three months before the shoot. He’s really dialed in on Santa Claus.
Where did the germ of the sequel’s emotional through-line start: was it with making this focus on Kate’s struggles with her family, or with the parallel story with Santa and Belsnickel?
I always feel like the best sequels dig deeper into the thematics of the original. This one is about believing in yourself and family and it’s also Kate moving past the grieving process of her dad’s death. When I build out a story, I always build out from the characters. When you’re dealing with such a magical place like the North Pole and Santa Claus, you have to have relatable protagonists. Even though it’s Santa’s movie, Kate is definitely our way into the world and it seemed natural to continue her story.
The elves speak in a native Elvish tongue. Did you work with a linguist?
When we wrote it in the script, we wrote, “they talk in Elvish.” Chris and his team hired a guy, who makes up the languages for lots of movies. He invented this elf language for them.
Like the first film, there’s another great rock’n’roll icon who cameos in a musical sequence. What did that look like in your script? Was it “insert music legend here”?
The first one was a late idea. It wasn’t in the script until everyone got to Toronto and we’re talking through the scenes where it occurred to Chris and Kurt that it seemed right that there should be a musical number there. And since the first one was so successful, we didn’t want to do another one just to do it. I definitely know that Darlene Love’s song was one of the first we tossed out there and it was great they were able to get her. It’s a great story within that scene to justify it.
That sequence resonates on another level since there’s such a dearth of spirit right now. But there’s no way you could’ve anticipated that.
Originally that scene had taken place in a department store and it never quite worked because there wasn’t a story to it. There was no “point a” to “point b” to move it. The characters were just doing something within the store. Then we came up with the idea of an airport. Nobody likes being in an airport on Christmas. It’s such a miserable experience. That’s as deep as we thought about it at the time. But, yeah, looking at it last week, it’s crazy how these things get in the ether.
I feel like there’s been an evolution of the stereotypical “bratty kid” in movies since the days of Kevin McAllister. I’m curious if modulating the Pierce’s and Belsnickel’s naughty behavior was ever a discussion you had with Chris when writing?
Well, we never had any deep discussion about it. I think both of our things – definitely Chris’- are to push it to the edgiest place. You can always walk it back. I think if you know where a character is coming from emotionally, as an audience, it doesn’t seem arch. So you can forgive some of the brattiness.
What was the most challenging sequence to write on this one?
The North Pole was one of the best parts to write. You want to get to the action of the story, but you also want to see it and explore it as much as possible. They made this gigantic set. I think Chris said it was bigger than any of the HARRY POTTER sets. He flew me out early when there was still plywood just to get a sense of the scope so we could use it to its fullest potential. That was exciting and daunting. It’s just wild to walk through your story.
I would assume so. It’s your creation come to life.
Yeah. It’s nuts to be like, “I guess there’s elf cannons.” And suddenly somebody creates elf cannons. It was this little thought that becomes part of the story.
Has Netflix pre-ordered a third film? I know you’re busy, so really, the question becomes, Is there time for you for a third?
[laughs] I would always make time for this. Early talks but nothing official.
THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES 2 begins streaming on November 25 on Netflix.