Set Visit: Christmess

June 22, 2022
It was joy, not a mess, when we visited the set of the latest film by Heath Davis (Book Week, Broke).

Around 40 minutes outside Sydney’s CBD, in the sprawling outer Western suburbs, we arrive at a strip mall whose main attraction is Funland, a children’s play centre, today’s location for the shoot on Aussie indie, Christmess.

We quietly walk in at 10.30am and the shoot is underway; in fact, they have been here well before sunrise. The scene sees the jaded protagonist (Steve Le Marquand) working as a shopping mall Santa. His young female elf assistant is by his side on the yuletide façade, and a photographer dressed as Santa’s little helper (played by Cindy Pritchard, also one of the film’s producers) are all at the far end of the room, whilst a dozen or so extras are sitting at tables closer to the play centre entrance. As soon as we enter, a crew member approaches us and asks if we can be extras. ‘Just walk back and forth across the room and look like you’re busy’.

We scope out the rest of the room and can see cinematographer Chris Bland, virtually camouflaged amongst all of the extras, and now understand why we were asked to be extras, rather than just standing around and observing the main cast in action. Looking further, outside the filming zone, we discover writer/director Heath Davis, seated in a mini video village right next to Funland’s main attraction, an intricate jungle gym that is closed today due to the film shoot.

Christmess is a real Christmas movie,” Davis [second from left in top image] tells us after wrapping for lunch. “A story about the kind of stresses, the anxieties and all of that happens at Christmas time that we all identify with, but rarely see in movies. It’s the antithesis to every kind of sentimental movie that you see at Christmas time. We’re unsentimental. Actor Chris Flint, played by Steve Le Marquand, has come out of rehab for the umpteenth time. He’s stood up by his agent who was going take him in for Christmas week. He moves in with his sponsor, who is a guy named Nicholas, played by Darren Gilshenan. Chris and Nicholas reside in a halfway house, which is also shared by a fellow recovery musician, named Joy, played by Hannah Joy from Middle Kids.

“These three misfits, broken souls unite over Christmas week. While they’re trying to actually get through the most stressful period of their life, they’re trying to abstain from drinking. And during this time Chris takes a gig, because he hasn’t worked in a while, as the local mall Santa. And lo and behold, on his first day on the job, he encounters his daughter [Nicole Pastor] that he hasn’t seen in 20 years, because he neglected her for his career. So, his sponsor and Joy, make it their mission to basically win his daughter Noel’s forgiveness and get her to come to their halfway house for Christmas. Comedy and chaos ensue. They band together, this unlikely family. The idea of families and are we born into them, or can we make them? It’s a beautiful, funny story. Kind of tragicomic, not too gritty and depressing, it’s hopeful, but just truthful.”

Davis’s own young family are on the set, the kids giving him cuddles in between takes.

The writer/director’s previous films include similarly bittersweet dramedies Broke and Book Week, both of which he wrote, and outback thriller Locusts, which he directed. All of the films featured Le Marquand. On the day that we visit the set, it’s the veteran actor that sets the tone for the rest of the cast and the extras.

“You gotta hang your hat off to Slem,” says Davis, using Le Marquand’s nickname. “These movies require a certain kind of talent and certain kind of temperament. We’ve got a pretty good shorthand. We’ve got this gentleman’s agreement, he’s gonna be in every movie [I make]. There’s a lot of realism in this, so you need somebody who can execute that fallen character, fallen hero. In the past, we’ve had some success with that. But funnily enough, when I had this idea, Steve actually told me that his first job out of acting school was the mall Santa in Penrith Plaza. And then I had this idea, and I went, ‘oh my God’, I had the setting and then I had the character and I kind of wrote it for him. Then I went, ‘what else happened?’ I incorporated a lot of that. But really you need buy-in, you need good actors who bring emotional truth to these scenes. And you need somebody who’s willing to do it on the rough and doesn’t come with all the comfort. Someone not too precious.”

While we speak to Davis, we notice Darren Gilshenan and Hannah Joy milling around, even though they were not part of the scene that was just shot.

“There are some new people that I haven’t worked with before, which was exciting,” says Davis. “Darren came in at the 11th hour and it’s just completely the best thing that could have ever happened. In the past, I probably would’ve stressed, but I’ve realised these things are just part of the process.

“Hannah was my biggest creative risk because she’s never acted before, but I knew she could perform. She’s playing a musician and she’s writing these amazing songs. I didn’t know her, but I just had a feeling she might get it. And as soon as she read it, she got it. We’ve been working a lot for the last 18 months and I had a feeling that she would bring it and be comfortable. She’s a performer, so she could turn it on and turn it off. But I didn’t know how she would go with performing and memorising the lines and doing it under pressure when there’s cameras and lights and extras and we’re running out of time and we need her to turn it on now… And she’s just destroying. People are just gonna be blown away. That was one of the coolest things that I’ve ever done. Just trusted my instincts. And she just loves the opportunity, she’s taken it with both hands. It’s just like, wow.”

As he speaks, some of the extras have approached Hannah Joy asking for autographs.

“There’s only a handful of Aussie actors that have any celebrity that help position the movie,” says David. “At our budget level, we can’t afford them unless it’s outside the box. Middle Kids have a big following, especially internationally, they play like Jimmy Kimmel and Fallon and James Corden. I was like, ‘if she can actually bring it, then we actually have the chance for this to cross over’.”

Whether this little Aussie-Christmas-movie-that-could plays the multiplex or the arthouse, we will be there on day one, eagle-eyed as the scene where Chris Flint first spots his estranged daughter Noelle, watching to see if our performance as busy shopping centre bystander made Heath Davis’s cut.

@filmink

New Aussie film ‘Christmess’ is in production now! #filmtok #fyp #bts #behindthescenes #middlekids #christmasmovie #aussiefilm #sydney #filmindustry #filmmaking #film #hannahjoy

♬ Aussie Jingle Bells – Colin Buchanan

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