Vancouver producer Robert Mickelson knew there was a demand for holiday films, and when his wife showed him Les Standiford's historical book about how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol, he was pretty sure he had a winner.
"Christmas movies are not something I normally work in, so getting into Charles Dickens's life to tell a really interesting story let me bend the Christmas genre a bit," Mickelson, who's worked on everything from Traveller to Prayer of the Roller Boys, tells the Straight from New York City, where he and the cast for The Man Who Invented Christmas have just attended an opening celebration party at holiday-bedecked Rockefeller Center.
Having found the source material, Mickelson brought on Canadian writer Susan Coyne, from the critically acclaimed Movie Central series Slings and Arrows, someone he felt would somehow be able to work the famous supernatural touches from Dickens's novella into the historical account of its writing. "She has a charming magical realism to her writing, and that was a perfect combination," Mickelson says. "So it started with a nonfiction basis on his background and then she brings this magical realism quality to it."
The film centres on Dickens at a precarious time: he has found fame with Oliver Twist, but he's now coming off a series of flops. He has to pen a hit to support his family and pay off his rising debts, but only has six weeks to pump it out. Adding to the stress, his spendthrift father (Jonathan Pryce) shows up on his doorstep. The pressure sends him into a frenzy, to the point where his characters, including Christopher Plummer as an especially bitter Scrooge, start to visit him in his study.
"The film has a lightness and comic side but also gets into the darkness. Even his books have a lot of humour as well as darkness," Mickelson says, adding that director Bharat Nalluri (who wrote and helmed Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) also knew how to balance those contrasting tones.
Together he and Coyne travelled to London to delve into research and to talk to Dickens experts. "During Dickens's lifetime, no one knew that he had worked at a blacking factory or that his father had been in debtors' jail," Mickelson says, referring to the traumas that haunt he writer throughout the film. "Only after he died his manager wrote a biography where he wrote about his past. But it was really only his wife otherwise who knew this while he was alive."
The creative team also sought to present a Dickens markedly different from usual renditions. "You have this vision of Charles Dickens as an older man with a scruffy beard, leaned over his desk, not this young, vital rockstar," says Mickelson, pointing to early scenes in the movie where Dickens is greeted with groupie-like fanfare on a tour of America.
Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens turned out to be the perfect mix of young, energized writer and tormented artist. "He has that genius energy and he's always walking around," says Mickelson, who discovered via research that Dickens would often hoof it 12 or 15 miles per day through London streets looking for inspiration and characters.
For the creative team, it was also important that the film manage to fully evoke 19th-century England streets, markets, and lamplit homes. "We had to figure out smart ways to get a good-looking film, and we ended up shooting it in Dublin where there was a lot of Georgian architecture built during the 1840s that was still standing because it wasn't bombed during the war," Mickelson explains.
But more than anything, Mickelson wanted to avoid making a stuffy, dusty portrait of Charles Dickens, a man who rekindled Christmas spirit at a time when Victorian Londoners looked down on the holiday. And after almost a decade, with several other producers stepping on board for the Canadian-Irish production that has evolved considerably over the years, he feels like he's achieved his dream.
"In making a period piece, we wanted it to feel very contemporary, where everything is not staid and slow, like Masterpiece Theatre," he says. And, after all, the story of rich and greedy industrialists exploiting the poor is arguably as timely to the Trump era as anything in Dickens's time.