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Interview: Susan Coyne on The Man Who Invented Christmas

The great Canadian screenwriter discusses her latest project.

Between 2003-2006 Susan Coyne served as a creator, writer, and actor on one of the greatest achievements in Canadian television, Slings and Arrows. Since then, Coyne has written for series Mozart in the Jungle, as well as Don McKellar’s masterful Sensitive Skin. Coyne’s latest role comes as the screenwriter for The Man Who Invented Christmas. The film stars Dan Stevens (Downtown Abbey) as Charles Dickens, as he struggles to write his classic novel A Christmas Carol. Starring opposite Stevens are Christopher Plummer as his imagined Ebenezer Scrooge and Jonathan Pryce as his father, John Dickens. We sat down with Coyne to discuss the film and the possible return of Slings and Arrows.

 

Have you ever discussed a fourth season of Slings and Arrows?

The funny thing is we are actually talking about doing a prequel. We’ve written three episodes and we’re out to a director or so. We’re hoping that maybe in the new year we can get going on it.

Would you use any of the same actors?

I think we’d try to hire some of the actors in different roles. They were such an amazing cast, I’d love to be able to use them and just have them pop up and do parts.

How did this book fall into your hands?

The producer Robert Michaelson brought me the book. His wife is also a producer and is in the book business. So they found this book and brought it to me and wondered if I was interested in adapting it. When I read it I thought that there was something so fun, contemporary, and surprising about the story that I really wanted to do it.

 Your writing is always rather witty. Was there wit in the book or was that your personal touch?

Thank you for that. I would say that I was inspired by Dickens, by going back and reading A Christmas Carol. When you go back and read it you find out that it’s actually very funny. It has a very dry sense of humour. I guess I was trying to capture that quality, because even though it goes to some dark places, it still has this sort of buoyancy and tongue in cheek quality and I guess I was really trying to imitate that.

How do you feel like A Christmas Carol fits into the legacy of the holiday?

Well, of course, he didn’t actually invent Christmas, but he invented our modern idea of Christmas in a lot of ways. He kind of invented it partly out of his own personal experience. What’s so interesting is that he was at this time in his life where he was suddenly thrown on his own past. He was going through a crisis and was trying to figure out how he got there. He was remembering back to when he was a kid and he used to have these beautiful Christmas celebrations because his father used to do this. It was a family thing. They were living in the country and they had these old fashion, almost pagan traditions in the country. So what he did was put that together, those sort of happy family memories with something that was really bothering him at the time which was the state of the world and the fact that there were so many poor and homeless people. He kind of made this new idea of Christmas as a time for family, but also a time to remember the poor. That’s really his contribution, so when we talk about the ‘true meaning of Christmas’, we would not have talked about it like that before Dickens. It was sort of a minor holiday. After Dickens, we started to feel like there was some sort of spiritual idea that we should be remembering on Christmas time.

How did you keep a balance between a classic biopic and a story that was about the writing of this novel?

He did have a very interesting life, and it would be an interesting story to tell. His father was a wonderful, charming person who came from a pretty good middle-class background, but he couldn’t keep money in his pocket to save his life. He was a spendthrift and ended up bankrupt and then in prison. This was a trauma that Dickens experienced as a small boy. I wanted to tell that part of the story because it feeds into A Christmas Carol. So trying to find the balance between the real facts of his life and trying to get at his emotional interior life, which is the place which you kind of have to invent.

You mentioned that you revisited A Christmas Carol. What other kinds of research did you do?

I have several shelves now in my office full of research books. I love research, so I read a lot of biographies. I’m always looking for that little detail that would make you think, “Oh, no one’s ever seen that side of him before.” I love the story of him going to America and being this rock star basically. I also read a lot on Victorian London. I like to immerse myself in a world as much as possible.

What was the most surprising thing that you learned about Dickens through this journey?

One of the things that was surprising was his relationship with his father, which was very complicated, to say the least. He loved his father but his father was impossible. Because he was always out of money, his father used to actually sell, what we would call selling his signature on eBay. He put notices in the paper that you could buy an autographed letter from Charles Dickens. He did this secretly, of course. It was so incredibly modern and so frustrating for him. At the same time, his father was a great role model because he was very kind. He was just sort of hopeless at the same time.

I find it interesting the way you describe Dickens as a rock star. It really was an interesting time for authors in that sense.

They were celebrities in a whole new way. He was really the first. People wanted to know everything about him. They wanted to know what he ate, what he wore. There’s a story of him being in a railway carriage and he gets up in the morning to shave and he opens the blinds and there’s a whole crowd of people pressed to the window to watch him shave. Nobody had ever experienced this kind of personal celebrity before. It was attractive but also concerning for him, because he felt that he was starting to lose his touch.

 

The Man Who Invented Christmas is now playing. 

Matt Hoffman

Matthew Hoffman is a Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films and actresses over the age of 50; including but not limited to: Isabelle Huppert, Meryl Streep, and Jacki Weaver.