Writing a Holiday Film (Christmas & Hanukkah Edition)

Holiday weeks and weekends are some of the busiest at the box office. People love to gather with their families and head out for some entertainment. More often than not, holiday weekends are peppered with tie-in releases. When writing a script, you want the time and place to matter. For holiday scripts, the season and day function almost like a character in the film – and can be utilized to explain zany actions, set pieces, and time locks for the plot.

** If you have written a feature screenplay with four-quadrant appeal, be sure to consider ScreenCraft’s annual Family-Friendly Screenplay Contest with major studio executives as judges!

Let’s check out some Holiday (“Chrismahanukwanzaka”) movies to see how they use the seasonal celebrations to help their screenplays:

THE JOURNEY FILM:

Typically, the journey film involves one or more characters on a wild adventure to get home. Each of them uses the holiday as a time lock, or a goal the leads must accomplish by a certain time. Whether it’s a promise they made to a spouse, a deal for money, or a favor, these movies make their characters suffer through bad transportation, assignments, and interesting bit characters trying to accomplish their missions.

Examples:

Four Christmases – The set up is simple. A couple that is afraid to get married visits four other christmases from each side of their family where marriage and commitment have faltered. This could have been a fairly serious drama but instead the families are treated like elaborate character set pieces with our protagonists always playing straight men to their family’s antics.   The journey is not so much about getting to one place as it is about getting to know oneself.

I’ll Be Home For Christmas – a more traditional take on the journey film it finds Jonathan Taylor Thomas trying to make it home for . . . you guessed it . . . Christmas. While the title explains it all this film uses Christmas to really jazz up the idea that he’s late getting home to see his family and girlfriend. This is a movie that could work without being set at the holiday time, it allows the Santa suit he’s been glued in and Christmas themed fiascos along the way to bolster the road aspect.

An American Tail – Here’s a great use of the holidays for theme. An American Tail has a touching opening where Fievel Mousekewitz celebrates Hanukkah with the rest of his family. They’re Russian mice coming to America for a better life. The movie is about Fievel’s journey back to them but it uses the melting pot of a new world, new traditions, and holidays to emphasize what it means to be with your family.

THE DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY FILM:

A tried and true version of the holiday film that can either appeal to the whole family or be only suitable for adults. Everyone has a crazy story about their family and thus many screenwriters have sat down to type them out to appeal to the widest audience. These stories usually involve the main character either hosting the event or arriving home after a long time away. These movies are rife with exposition but you’d never know it because most writers hide it behind “catching up.” They are usually about love, togetherness, and accepting your family for who they are.

Examples:

Christmas Vacation – Probably the ultimate family christmas movie people often forget that this was the third in the “Vacation” series of films. We’d already gotten to know Clark Griswold and some of his family but this film brings them all under one roof for the holidays. What sets this apart from the other Vacation installments before it is that they were traditional road movies. John Hughes, perhaps knowing his Planes, Trains, and Automobiles would never be topped, chose to keep Clark and the family indoors, forcing them to deal with each other and building the lunacy slowly. It starts with gift-wrapped cats, pool side fantasies, a sled that won’t stop, and crescendos into exploding trees, kidnappings, a SWAT team, and the best version of the National Anthem ever sung.

The Family Stone – a more traditional drama, the Family Stone takes the usual tropes of a wacky family but plays them a little softer, instead focusing on budding romances, meeting new people for the first time, and all the pent up aggression and jealousy that can only come from being with the ones you loved for days on end. This movie is really about an engagement but like most dysfunctional family films you need an excuse to get everyone under the same roof – a holiday provides the perfect caveat for such an endeavor.

THE ROM-COM

Everyone wants a little love and it seems like the winter holidays are the perfect time to be with one snuggled up by the fire. Hollywood has long played off this trope without using seasons to help but these films exploit the feelings we already get around hte holidays and inject with a bit of romance.

Examples:

While You Were Sleeping – A film with a logline that could be for a horror movie – “a woman obsessed with a man she’s never talked to poses as his fiance in front of his family after her slips into a coma when he’s hit by the subway.” – but instead is a cheerful romp around New York City during christmas as Sandra Bullock gets adopted by her mystery man’s family, falls for his brother, and finally gets the love and affection she’s craved her entire life. The holiday here supports the theme of togetherness and accentuates her loneliness.

Love Actually – savaged by critics upon its release for being overly long, saccharine, and about nothing. This movie TOOK OFF soon becoming a perennial classic and proving a lot of people wrong. The movie, at nearly three hours long, moves at a dizzying pace to give us twelve stories centered loosely around a holiday, about love. As you can see from the Honest Trailer below . . . the story does get off course . . . but still it’s an inventive, if not overused at this point, way to hook an audience.

THE ACTION FILM

One of the most fun ways to use a holiday is the action film. Action films have their own rules to live by and don’t always have the ability to create a depth of world. Holidays help make the characters more relatable and give an “everyman” quality to many of the protagonists.

 

Examples:

Die Hard – easily my favorite on this list. John McClane, toting a teddy bear, losing his sneakers, using gift tape to put a beretta on his back, “ho-ho-ho now, I have a machine gun,” killing terrorists who are in it for the money. This is a movie about being with your family, no matter what. It’s about stopping corporate greed and getting back to what matters. Also, it’s a blast to watch, full on one-liners, and really has fun with itself.

 

 

Lethal Weapon – here’s another suspect entry on our list but how can you not love Mel Gibson chasing perps though fields of Christmas trees, killing mercenaries on a front lawn draped with lights. Shane Black loves setting things during the holidays (the Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and this, his break out hit, is no exception. The holiday has no real function here except adding depth to the backdrop and fun with the family dynamic of Danny Glover’s home.

 

 

The Hebrew Hammer – the opening dredel spin says it all. Adam Goldberg’s avenging rabbi sets his course for injustice and the Shaft-like theme song lays it all our for the audience. In this rare holiday action comedy the traditions are used as gags, weapons, and exploited as plot points. Through the hilarity we follow the Hammer and receive enough nostalgia and good tidings to last all eight crazy nights.

 

 

HIDDEN GEMS:

Here are some excellent films that tend to slip through the cracks when people compile their lists . . .

Go – this title sparked a twitter debate this week when I called it a Christmas movie but the fast-paced, drug laced, tale of Christmas Eve has less to do with the season and more to do with the party.

Millions – Danny Boyle’s most sentimental film that explores what it’s like inside the mind of a child and what the “true Christmas spirit” is really about. the trailer says it all, truly an understated holiday film.

Brazil – this one is our erudite film snob pick. Terry Gilliam’s mind does wonders as we follow a bureaucrat that abandons the safety of his normal life to follow a woman who’s literally from his dreams. The setting is Christmas and Gilliam makes use of it to take a swipe at commercialism, consumerism, and the state of affairs in the economy.  Brazil clocks in one of the finest cultural commentaries of the era.

What’s YOUR favorite holiday movie?  Let us know here or on Twitter.