Sarah Smith has a background in British television, having worked on "The League of Gentlemen" and "The Armando Iannucci Shows," and was brought to Aardman to help get their upcoming slate in order (including next spring's "The Pirates! Band of Misfits"), but as development on "Arthur Christmas" wore on, she found herself getting more and more attached. "It became my baby," Smith told us. "And I just couldn't bear to let it go." When she proposed that she be the director, at first they weren't quite sure. "I said, 'I really want to make this movie!' And they looked a little startled, as I'd never done animation before. But they were brave enough to back me."
Still, once she was in the thick of it, she made very strong decisions, and while she says that she "wanted it to bear a relation to other Aardman movies," like the 'Wallace & Gromit' films, a different ethos governed the production. "The whole look was defined by 'it could be true,'" Smith told us. "I wanted the world we created to very much be a child's real world so that it was contemporary, but that the whole world would feel transformed in the way that it does on Christmas night."
And there are some of her favorite holiday movies in "Arthur Christmas," too. "The two I love that made their way into the movie are 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles,' which is kind of a crazy road movie between two mismatched characters, which is very much our movie," Smith said. "And the other is 'The Snowman,' a beautiful 2D thing about flying, and I wanted to capture a little bit of that."
One of those actors was Bill Nighy, who plays Grandsanta, the grumpy old member of the Santa family who longs for a return to the spotlight. Nighy said that despite his status in big time productions like "Love Actually" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," he still had to audition for the role. "They were looking for a four-foot tall guy with no teeth and no hair and he's 136 years old and they thought of me," he explained. "There's two ways to take this: one is to be very flattered, like, 'Oh they admire my range.' The other is to get very worried."
Earlier in the year, Nighy starred in Gore Verbinski's terrific animated western "Rango," a process that was altogether different than "Arthur Christmas." "Gore Verbinski assembled everyone in the room and you did it like you'd be doing a play and they filmed it," Nighy explained. "With 'Arthur Christmas,' it was the more familiar process of it's just you, on your own, in a booth." When he finally saw "Rango" at home he said "it completely blew my mind" but was quick to note that he loves "Arthur Christmas" just as much: "I think they're both really cool."
When Nighy initially read the script he was struck by its potential. "I thought if they do it halfway decently it will linger; it will be a perennial Christmas movie." This was a sentiment he shares with his director, Sarah Smith. "One of the the really tough things for anybody in animation is you spend years and years of your life, and then it's gone!" Smith laments. "It would be lovely if you could make a movie that could find a perennial place in people's affections."
They don't have to worry: "Arthur Christmas," which opens today, will be around for a long, long time.