It’s Christmas Eve in New York City, one of the busiest days of the year in one of the busiest cities in the world. A power outage traps six diverse groups inside six different elevators, and as their stories unravel, their humanity is revealed through humor, drama, pathos, tenderness, sorrow, and joy.
The story has become a major motion picture aptly called Christmas Eve and will be released Dec. 4. Directed by BYU alumnus Mitchell “Mitch” A. Davis (BA ’82), Christmas Eve unfolds through a series of vignettes, and its stars include Patrick Stewart and Jon Heder (BFA ’10) of Napoleon Dynamite fame.
Five years in the making, Christmas Eve began with an unsolicited manuscript Davis received from BYU graduate Tyler McKellar (BA ’99). “I always write my own screenplays,” says Davis, “but I made an exception when I read Tyler’s fascinating story. I bought the rights, and Tyler and I did a number of rewrites together.”
The screenplay’s working title, Stuck, suggests the predicament of the occupants of the elevators, but more significantly, suggests a parable of the human condition.
“We all become stuck at different times throughout our lives,” Davis explains. “Our choice to become unstuck and succeed in getting unstuck depends on many factors: who we are, how hard we try, and who is there to help us.”
Davis, a Hollywood veteran writer/director/producer probably best known for his film, “The Other Side of Heaven,” says the McKellar’s script intrigued him. “I write all my own screenplays, but Tyler wrote such a colorful and fascinating story that I purchased it and began adapting the original script and raising money to make it independently. It’s funny, poignant and uplifting, and the fact that we were able to attract a stellar cast is a tribute to Tyler.”
Just before production began, Davis says he had an epiphany and decided TO have the story unfold on Christmas Eve. “A producer friend read the script and told me that the story was so celebratory of the human spirit that it ought to be a Christmas film. It seemed like such a clear choice and the perfect night for the story to unfold. It is about busy people who are forced to stop and evaluate their lives. Christmas Eve is an especially stressful night for people trying to get home, and we put a holiday spin on it that adds a touch of magic to the tale.”
Among the characters is a Donald Trump-like real estate tycoon (Stewart) who gets stuck in an elevator at a construction site. He only has the four walls of the elevator with which to communicate, and before the night is over, he is pleading for his life. Davis said it was vital to secure a highly accomplished actor who essentially performed a one-man show.
“Getting Patrick Stewart was a real coup, and I need to give his wife some of the credit,” David says. “When she heard about it, she told her husband he had to take the role because Jon Heder was a comedic genius. So he agreed.”
Heder, for his part, was thrilled that Stewart was going to play his father. He had grown up a huge fan of Star Trek Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Stewart’s character, and he reminded him of his own father. Ironically, they performed in different elevators, and Heder did not meet Stewart until the cast party.
“Baby steps,” Heder says. “We got to be in the same film. Maybe sometime we can actually act together.”
A familiar face in one of the stories is Utah resident Jenny Oaks Baker. One story involves an orchestra jammed in the elevator, and Davis needed a world-class violinist who performs a dramatic violin solo near the movie’s climax. He secured the talents of Baker, who had never acted before. “I think some of the veteran cast wondered why I selected a novice, but no one wondered after she picked up her violin. We were all blown away. She was amazing, and there was not a dry eye in the house.”
In other stories, a cynical doctor, terminal patient and nurse occupy on elevator. In another two strangers become close friends during the night. In Heder’s segment, he has just been terminated from his job, and he gets trapped with the heartless HR executive who has just fired him.
Other actors include James Roday (“Psych”), Max Casella, Julianna Guill, Shawn King and Gary Cole. Behind the scenes are more than 11 filmmakers -- the director, writers, editors, colorist, mixer, composer, visual effects artists and cinematographer -- with BYU ties working on the film.
Davis explains that while he has never been stuck in a New York elevator, he has been a busy guy living in a big city and is accustomed to the anonymity that comes from living in a metropolitan area. But he recently moved to a small town and his mindset changed.
“In a city it is tempting to be unkind, discourteous and aggressive, because you are not likely to ever run into that person who you cut off in traffic or cut in front of in line at the post office. But you can’t hide in a small town. You probably will see that person again at church or your kid’s basketball game. It alters how you react. In this film, these frantic, busy, anonymous people are forced to live in the smallest of cities in the elevator, and they have got to interact. I completely identify with the movie and am passionate about its success.”
The delight he finds in “Christmas Eve” reminds him of the first time he felt real magic in a movie. Davis was a freshman at BYU and was shown the classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in a film appreciation class. He found viewing it one of the most profound, serious experiences of his life.
“When I saw this George Bailey character, who had led a purpose-driven, selfless life, I couldn’t get it out of my mind for three days. I wanted to be George Bailey. I picked up litter, opened doors for everyone and wanted to be nice and good and wonderful. I have always wanted to make a movie that would make people feel the same way I did, and they just might find it with ‘Christmas Eve.’”