Interview The Man Who Invented Christmas

The Woman Behind 'The Man Who Invented Christmas': An Interview with Screenwriter Susan Coyne

November 29, 2017Siobhán Finn

Throughout the month of December, holiday-themed programming is impossible to escape. Stories geared toward reminding the public that the holidays are a time of good spirits, family and generosity are seemingly omnipresent. With new stories entering the zeitgeist every year, the one tale that has proven its staying power is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol — the story of the miser who discovered the generosity of Christmas thanks to good spirits and family.

Director Bharat Nalluri's new film, The Man Who Invented Christmas, explores the history of this iconic novella and its author. Surrounded by books on the fifth floor of the Toronto Reference Library, screenwriter Susan Coyne sat down with The Reel Roundup to discuss Dickensian London, the stillness of Christmas, and how her acting background informs her writing process.

How did you come to adapt the book?

Coyne: It was brought to me by the producer, Robert Mickelson, who had this notion that it might make a film. We didn't know what kind of film it would make. It's a sort of academic book about the actual facts of how he wrote it in six weeks and the impact of it. But looking at it, it felt very modern. It felt like the story of Dickens himself and the crisis he was going through — how he kind of reinvented himself and then, in the process, invented this holiday. It seemed like a version I'd never seen before and a new way of telling A Christmas Carol story.

Many authors say the characters write the books — that they sit in the room and talk to them. And that was my favorite part of this movie. How does that work for you? Do the characters talk to you?

Coyne: I can't say that I have that experience but then I'm an actor. What it seemed like to me was it's very similar to what happens in rehearsal. Basically, people get up and they start inhabiting the character and talking that way and walking differently. Then they stop and they sit down and they become themselves again. So, I had this idea that basically that it's almost like a rehearsal room and people are trying out things and then saying, "Oh excuse me, my character wouldn't say that." And they were like, "Oh, he would say that because I'm telling you to say it." It’s just not what he would do.

So, you're in charge?

Coyne: Exactly. Yeah, exactly.

How much research into Dickensian London did you do to write the screenplay? Did you learn anything new?

Coyne: I researched endlessly. Partly because it's good for procrastination and partly because I really enjoy it. I like that time travel element. I like to immerse myself in that world. One of the things I discovered [is] that I was always looking for things that made it feel very modern. One of the things I found that was really interesting [was that] it was very noisy in London at that time because of the wheels — almost like cars. It might have been even noisier because of the wheels of the carts and the horses and the people calling out all the time. It wouldn't have been restful at all. So, it felt very modern. Also, there were a lot of tourists in the city so you would be constantly running into Germans holding a map up and saying, "Can you show me where Saint Paul's is?"

You've written a lot of original screenplays and adapted some of Canada's most famous books with Anne of Green Gables, of course. How does your writing process differ between adaptations and original scripts?

Coyne: Well, I'm not sure. In the case of adaptations, it's a little tricky because you’re trying to be true to the spirit of something. And that matters. So being true to the spirit of the story — the real story — even when you're inventing things. It's this little interior question you're asking yourself — "Am I still reflecting what I understand to be the real story and the real man?" — while at the same time taking license that you need to tell an entertaining story. It's a strange balancing act. As an actor, I'm used to that because I trained as an actor and as an actor you're always interpreting a work. So, you're always trying to get to the essence of what something's about.

Which brings me to my next question. Aside from your work as a writer, you've performed at Stratford and probably my favorite theater company in the city, Soulpepper. You're a Gemini Award winning actress. How does it work for you? How does it differ being in front of the camera or being behind it creating these characters and putting words into their mouths? Which do you prefer?

Coyne: I like them both. I love being an actor and not having any responsibility for the script. It's a holiday for me when I go and do some acting. And I love that people come and bring you a coffee when you're an actor. If you're the writer no one brings you a coffee. You're not as special. [laughs] But at the same time you get to create the whole world and give people lines to say and so on. So, I really love both of them.

Of course, on Slings and Arrows you did both.

Coyne: Yes. I did, I did. And I can tell you in the morning I would be this precious little child that everyone would be, "Is everything okay?" And in the afternoon, it would be, "Get over here and rewrite this!" [laughs]

There is no shortage of different versions of A Christmas Carol, from radio and stage plays, to movies. What is your personal favorite version of A Christmas Carol?

Coyne: Oh, it would be hard to say. I want to kind of give a shout out to the one that's on at Soulpepper that stars Joe Ziegler as Scrooge. I think it's pretty great and he's been doing it for many years now. It's a well, well-honed performance actually.

Do you think his Scrooge measures up to...

Coyne: Different! Christopher Plummer, Joe Ziegler — different versions. Equally valid.

Do you have a favorite Dickens novel?

Coyne: I think it's probably David Copperfield. It's his most autobiographical and it's just got everything in it. I think that might be my favorite.

Is there anyone you would like to send Marley and his trio of specters to visit?

Coyne: Let's just say everyone in government. Let's paint a broad stroke that Marley has something to say to everybody.

The movie talks a lot about how we treat Christmas. Prior to A Christmas Carol, there was a lot of bah-humbugging and after it was written people starting embracing what we now call "the spirit of Christmas." Where do you fall on that scale?

Coyne: Both. I'm kind of a bah humbug when it comes to a lot of the excesses of Christmas. Now is it October that we start to see the and hear the music? It's so wearying and it takes a lot of the magic out of it. And on the endless consumerism of it — I find it [wearying]. Everybody does, don’t they? We all find it wearying in that sense, and the pressure and the stress and it has to be perfect. Also, the part that makes people who are single feel really lonely. You know, that part I don't like. But I do love the sort of Dickensian part, which is about celebration.

It's about sharing your wealth and sharing your bounty with people who are less fortunate. It’s about family and children. It's also about kind of a stillness in the middle of it where everybody stops. For me, as a kid I used to always love looking out on Christmas day and seeing the streets were empty. Just that. Just one day out of the year when everything stops and people are at home. It seemed really magic[al], even then. Those kinds of things I find really wonderful about Christmas.

Given the current political dramas and everything political/non-political do you think we need another Charles Dickens? Do we need another author — another something to remind us what it means to be human and what it means to celebrate the holidays?

Coyne: It's very interesting, as I was thinking about Dickens and why he was immensely popular and successful in his time. His books were so popular probably half the reading public had read his books. Imagine that. I think it's maybe [a] JK Rowling level of success. And even people who couldn't read would have the books read to them. They had reading clubs where people who could read would read to those who couldn't.

The thing that is so wonderful is that he was a popular moralist. He was extremely entertaining, extremely popular, his characters were amazing and indelible and very real. And yet he always had a kind of call to arms — something that we should be thinking about.

Whether it was working children or whether it was the law, the injustices of the law, or the way that society was set up, or greed, or the way that children were treated. He always had something that he wanted people to feel and also to do something about. So, I do think we don't have exactly that kind of figure. I mean we have people who do versions of that. But someone who is as central as that — I think we really could use a character like that.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is now in theaters.

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