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Features & Interviews

Director Ken Wardrop discusses So This Is Christmas
09 Nov 2023 : Nathan Griffin, Luke Shanahan
So This Is Christmas
We spoke with director Ken Wardrop ahead of the World Premiere of his latest documentary So This Is Christmas at the Cork International Film Festival.

Ken Wardrop is a documentary filmmaker from Portarlington, County Laois. His previous documentaries include His & Hers, which sees seventy women of all ages tell the camera their feelings about the men in their lives, and Mom and Me, a portrait of the relationship between men and their mothers. 

His latest film So This Is Christmas, follows five subjects in Ireland who each have a complex relationship with Christmas. The film is having its World Premiere tomorrow, November 10th, at the Cork International Film Festival, after which point it will release in Irish cinemas on November 17th.

The potential of Christmas as the subject of a documentary is something Wardrop has been considering for a long time. The filmmaker recalls his own relationship with the festive time of year when asked where the idea to do a Christmas documentary came from.

“When I was 12, my Granny used to come and stay with us a lot. Gran passed away on Christmas day when my Mum and I were looking after her. My Mum and her were very, very close. And it really put a dampener on Christmas, for want of a better word, thereafter. 

“Obviously, that Christmas was very traumatic and chaotic, and after that, that time of year was always about Granny, and my Mum forevermore would dread Christmas.”

Wardrop juxtaposes the complicated relationship that many have with the holiday season, against the type of Christmas often portrayed in cinema. Speaking with a family member who is a single parent, Wardrop started thinking about how Christmas consolidates the issues a person may be facing in their life, such as the financial and the familial.

“Christmas can be a very difficult and triggering time if you've got particular issues. The reality in most people's lives is that we don't exist with just one problem, we exist with loads of problems going on in our lives at the same time. So Christmas can be a perfect storm for people, you know, if you've got mental health issues, or you've got financial issues… Everything comes into quite a focus, and the panic can set in. I've experienced it myself.”

Once Wardrop received funding for the project, a series of brainstorming sessions with other researchers ensued to decide what kinds of characters they would seek to participate in the documentary.

“For example, with eating disorders, how can you get through Christmas when everywhere you go, you are bombarded by foods and offered this, that and the other? These are the sorts of things that came out of the brainstorm sessions.”

Wardrop encourages researchers to “pull from their own worlds”, explaining that the researchers were not searching for “extremes” but rather to reach out to the “ordinary folk” of their respective local areas. For example, one of the researchers, Anne Marie Fitzgerald, is from Monasterevin in County Laois, which allowed Wardrop to keep the film local and base it in the Midlands, with which he is familiar.

“Anne Marie would walk the streets, walk into shops, charity shops for example. She would just have the banter, see what’s happening, and people would start to share their stories.”

The researchers started looking for interviewees in June, and by October they made their final decisions about who the film would focus on. Wardrop explains that there were originally meant to be six main characters of the film, but one participant living in a Direct Provision centre had to drop out of the film due to legal complications he was facing at the time.

After meeting with each of the characters to explain what the journey ahead would look like in regards to filming and post-production, shooting on the film began in November 2022 and lasted six weeks, plus a week of pickups in the new year.

Wardrop contrasts the five subjects of his latest film with the seventy interviewees of His & Hers, explaining that on this film the smaller number of subjects gave him the chance to spend more time with each character and develop a deeper connection with each of them.

“So with five characters, I filmed for six or seven days, where previously I'd only dropped in and out of people's lives for a day or two. So that was a new experience.”

“I've made friends for life on this.”

He explains that prior to principal photography he would have only met twice with each interviewee, but during this time they would have built a strong connection through the depth of their conversations leading up to production.

It was through these conversations with the subjects that some of the principle thematic ideas of the film came about.

“It’s a sad, emotive film but it’s also reflective. I believe there’s a message in there that has come out of the people in the film."

“I remember, specifically Jason Phelan saying ‘My story has to have hope, we have to have hope in this scenario.”

When it came time to edit the film, Wardrop jokes “someone needs to wrench the mouse away from me”. Wardrop went into post-production with a sketch of how the story should unfold, which editor John O’Connor then took the lead on. Meanwhile, Wardrop would work on the footage and look for other ideas to include on the edit while O’Connor worked. Then the pair would come together and combine their work. Wardrop also did test screenings of the film and incorporated feedback from audiences. Ultimately, Wardrop found that working with post houses helped create hard deadlines.

“I did continue to tweak it a bit, but then of course you’re locked in with the post houses, and we had the wonderful Gary Curran in Outer Limits doing the colour grading. And if you want him you kind of have to work to his schedule.”

Eimear Noone composed the score for the film. Having only met her once before, Wardrop reached out to Noone by email with a link to the film.

“I was being a bit cheeky here. So I sent her a random email like ‘You might remember me, I'm sending you a link’, and she just sent me the most beautiful email back. The film really resonated with her and she was like ‘I'm on board, whatever you need’.”

Wardrop is headed to Cork International Film Festival this weekend to view So This Is Christmas at its World Premiere, along with a number of participants from the film. This will be Wardrop’s first time screening a feature at the festival, having screened shorts there in the past. 

“The festival audience is always quite different to a regular audience,” says Wardrop. “These people are hungry for cinema.”

So This Is Christmas will be released in Irish cinemas on November 17th, following its World Premiere at the 68th Cork International Film Festival on November 10th.

IFTA Q&A Series: Patricia Kelly on Directing
IFTA Q&A Series: Damien Lynch on Sound Design
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