Exclusive Interview: Director, Paul Tanter (The Nights Before Christmas)
You and Simon Phillips crafted this story of a murderous Mr. and Mrs. Claus. Tell about that creative process.
We first created them for Once Upon a Time at Christmas a couple of years ago and it came out of our love of Christmas horror movies. We wanted to bring our own spin to this wonderful sub-genre and talked about the kinds of things we liked and wanted to see. Eventually, this pair of criminally insane psychopathic killers who are also devotedly in love were born! Now they’re back in The Nights Before Christmas, which follows on the story from Once Upon a Time at Christmas – but in a way that you don’t need to have seen the first to watch it. When it came to writing this one we plotted it all out on index cards on the wall, then split the scenes up between us to write. These get batted back and forth between us with notes, edits etc and eventually we end up with the shooting script. It’s always fun bringing the pair to life on the page and then on the screen as they are such a fun, larger than life pair of antagonists. And Simon and Sayla are such great actors, bringing so much energy to the roles.
We’ve enjoyed Christmas horror films through the years – Christmas Evil – Silent Night, Deadly Night – Black Christmas – just to name a few. What is your favorite Christmas horror film? Why?
Once Upon a Time at Christmas is a personal one for obvious reasons! But Gremlins has always been a favorite since I was a kid. If you’re talking less mainstream then there’s the Finnish film Rare Exports that I thought did a great spin on the Santa story.
What sets THE NIGHTS BEFORE CHRISTMAS apart from the rest?
It’s a merging of the horror genre with a police/FBI procedural thriller. It’s got the blood and kills of a gory slasher with the tension and mystery of Silence of The Lambs. Plus I think it’s got a great and unique set of antagonists with Santa and Mrs Claus who are a hell of a lot of fun to watch. You kind of find yourself rooting for the bad guys at times.
Why does Simon Phillips make a great Santa Claus?
Simon, for all his faults – and god knows I was hating him long before it was fashionable – is a great actor and fully commits to a role. It helps that he’s pretty much the right shape but it’s not just that. Once he puts on the Santa suit, metal teeth and contact lens and picks up the axe, he transforms into that terrifying character. It’s a fine balance to walk with a larger than life horror character and he treads it perfectly, knowing when to nod and wink to the audience and when to go totally crazy.
What was the biggest obstacle you face making this movie?
The usual things of tight schedule, tiny budget, but mainly the cold! Our first day was the ambulance convoy scene which was a logistical nightmare with six vehicles driving on snowy roads, aerial photography, several scenes with a lot of elaborate kills and Santa bring a tree down on one of the cars. We’d been praying for snow all week as it was yet to land but we were booked in to shoot in anticipation of a big flurry. Thankfully we woke to two feet of pristine snow, but driving and filming in it was challenging. Also standing in snow up to your knees tends to make your shoes and trousers very wet, so that added to the fun. But ultimately your discomfort is temporary and what you shoot is permanent so you crack on and get it. Operating a drone in sub zero temperatures is certainly challenging.
What scene do you enjoy directing the most?
I’m really proud of the convoy attack / tree felling scene as it was a lot to do in a short amount of time and looks fantastic. However the most fun was the scene where Santa uses a pair of pruning shears on a slimy lawyer in a bathroom. In the original script the Lawyer got killed in a group with some others and I wanted to single him out for his own humiliating death and suddenly envisioned exactly what it should be. I wrote it that night and added it to the next days’ schedule and it’s shot for shot exactly as I visualized it.
Let’s go back to your childhood, what was your favorite Christmas gift?
An Atari ST 520 that was a joint present to me and my brother. I got years of fun from that playing Turrican, Double Dragon, Golden Axe, Legend of Faerghail, Conflict, WWF Wrestlemania and more. I sold it a few years ago along with all the games and really wish I hadn’t!
What inspired you to become a director?
Honestly at the beginning it was a desire to have my script realised in the way I’d pictured it when writing. I started as a writer and seeing other people make choices with my story and script that I didn’t agree with made me want to have more control over the process – and that meant directing it myself. And once you’ve got that creative control you’re hooked!
What inspiring words do you have for those new directors following in your footsteps?
Collaborate with friends at the weekends making shorts or even making a feature over many weekends. Keep learning and experimenting, don’t give up. The tools to make films and the platforms to distribute them are more accessible than ever so keep at it, plough your own furrow and you’ll get there at some point.
What future projects can we look forward to seeing?
Our black-comedy crime caper Stealing Chaplin is out in UK cinemas now and out in the US next month. It’s inspired by the true story of two con men that dug up and ransomed the corpse of Charlie Chaplin. Out next year will be season 2 of Age of the Living Dead, our vampire TV series on Amazon Prime. And then there’s the possibility of another outing for Mr and Mrs Claus…