For his debut feature film “Christmas Again” writer and director Charles Poekel proved his commitment to authenticity. His subtle holiday film focuses on the intimate encounters of melancholy tree salesman Noel, played with captivating simplicity by Kentucker Audley. In preparation for the film, Poekel ran a Brooklyn tree stand for three years, noting his firsthand experience as he penned the screenplay. We chatted with Charles about his realist approach to filmmaking, the challenges of an ultra-low budget project and the surrealism of his first Sundance experience.
How did the idea for the story first come about?
I had the setting first. Originally it was a neo-noir plot and then, as I was selling trees, I quickly realized that part of that job is the relationship you have with your community around you. So, I wanted to focus on that – and that’s when it became more of a drama.
How did you end up selling trees?
Once I thought of setting the film at a tree stand, I interviewed some tree sellers but I didn’t feel like I was really learning the nitty-gritty of what the job entails. So, I opened my own tree stand to be able to write the screenplay and to have a location to shoot at. And to try and raise the money for the production. I did that for three years before we finally shot the film.
And did you raise a lot of money for the film?
Not really. (laughs) Selling trees didn’t end up being as lucrative as I anticipated.
This was your debut feature. How was that experience for you?
It was fantastic. It was pretty scary for awhile, up until we began shooting and through the first few days. I had made short films and done some stuff in TV, but I hadn’t worked with actors in a long time and I was just taking a leap of faith. The first day of shooting was pretty terrifying, actually. But after the first day or so, I started feeling very comfortable and that all sort of washed away.
How did you end up casting Kentucker Audley as Noel?
My casting director Eleonore Hendrick had worked with Kentucker a few times and I was a big fan of him as an actor. We sent him the script and he really liked it.
How was working with him?
Fantastic. I think he brought so much focus and discipline to that role. It’s a very quiet role and Kentucker thrives with physical, emotive acting. We shot on film so we didn’t have much leeway, as far as playing around with stuff and doing takes 10 times. And that also brought a little bit of rigor to the process. He was great and very collaborative.
Were you envisioning shooting on 16mm as you wrote the screenplay?
I definitely was not envisioning it. All my documentary experience was on digital. So, to me, I always equated micro-budget, scrappy filmmaking with digital. I’d never shot on film personally, but my cinematographer had a lot of experience with it. The first year of the tree stand, he came out to shoot test footage and he brought his 16mm camera. Once I got that roll back, I knew that’s what we had to shoot on.
Kentucker Audley (Noel) and Hannah Gross (Lydia) have great onscreen chemistry. Did this happen naturally?
Hannah was the first person we cast. Once Kentucker said he was interested, the first thing we did was bring him in to read with her. When we saw them sitting on the couch reading lines, it was clear that these two were perfect together.
Was it as cold on set as it looked on film?
Yes! I’m glad you think it looked cold because it’s very difficult to display coldness on film. We got a little bit of snow and we used a lot of handwarmers.
About the soundtrack. What role did music play in your filmmaking process?
A huge role. A lot of the soundtrack was stuff that I was listening to while writing because I thought it conveyed the kind of mood I was looking for. Before we began shooting, I made Kentucker a little mixtape of music that had the tone I was hoping he would reach for. And then, when we were editing, a lot of those pieces felt very natural.
How was your first Sundance experience?
It was pretty surreal. I was definitely jaded going into that experience, thinking this type of film would never play Sundance. And just the fact that they would play it and we were so well received kind of reaffirmed my hope in modern day independent filmmaking. Everyone who worked on the film did it out of love for what they do and not anything else. And being able to sort of give that back to my cast and crew was really special.
What’s your relationship with the holiday season?
I think before making this movie I was kind of just in the middle about how I felt towards the holidays. I didn’t love or hate them. Now, I feel almost like a holiday insider, as someone who kind of worked to help provide the holiday to others. But I’m definitely eager to get that back next Christmas and just experience of the holidays.
Christmas, Again opens in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Noho 7 on Friday, December 11th.