‘Mr. Christmas’ dir. Nick Palmer
An offbeat, touching portrait of a man who has spent three decades turning his small Northern California home into a beautiful, towering Christmas display people travel across the country to see.
Director: Nick Palmer
DOP: Amanda Treyz
Producers: Nick Palmer & Amanda Treyz
Key Cast: Bruce Mertz
C8: How did you meet Bruce Mertz and what made you want to tell his story?
NP: I grew up down the street from him, so I remember my family driving by his house every Christmas to look at his lights. Everyone in my hometown knew about Mr. Christmas’ house. But I didn’t actually meet him until much later. It was 3 or 4 years ago, I was home on Christmas Eve, and all the festivities with my family had finished, so I just called up a buddy and we grabbed a beer at the one bar that was open. We were there for a bit when Bruce rolls in, totally decked out in his Christmas light jacket and hat. Everyone rushed over to greet him, but then he just grabbed a beer and hung out by himself. I was really curious what his story was, so I went over and started chatting with him, which ultimately led to the film.
C8: Did you have to ask Bruce a lot of questions or did he open up very naturally?
NP: It was a little awkward, initially. The first thing we filmed with Bruce was an interview, so I’m asking him all these questions about his life, but neither of us felt particularly comfortable. I realized it wasn’t working, so I switched gears, and had him show us what he was prepping that week. We went out to his garage, where he was touching up the paint on a few of his lights. Once he was working, he really relaxed and his personality started to come out.
Later that night, Bruce and Randy cracked open some Newcastles, and my DP Amanda and I played a few rounds of Liars Dice with them. From that point on, the shoot was a total blast, and Bruce was completely open in front of the camera. I guess that’s the real lesson: If you want your subject to feel comfortable, get drunk with them.
C8: How long did the whole process take you? What obstacles did you run in to?
NP: I ended up shooting with him for 9 months, following the entire set-up and take-down process.
I’d say the biggest obstacle I ran into was when I found the story I wanted to tell, then realized I just wasn’t going to be able to tell it. As I was filming, I learned a few stories about Bruce’s incredible generosity with friends – He had covered the bill on one friend’s surgery; For another friend who recently lost his job due to a DUI, Bruce not only helped him pay the fine, but also helped the guy pay for groceries and look for a new job. Bruce literally gave his friends thousands of dollars to help them out when they needed it.
When I discovered this, I felt like the whole story suddenly told itself. It was about the true meaning of Christmas. Here’s a guy named “Mr. Christmas” because of all his lights, but what you don’t know is he’s actually generous in much quieter, more meaningful ways.
Only problem? Once the camera was rolling, Bruce flat out refused to talk about that stuff. He knew it would embarrass his friends to talk about needing money, so he really didn’t want to include it in the film. I finally decided to just not include anything about that side of Bruce. I hated to lose it, and it forced me to totally rethink the structure of the film.
C8: If you could do anything again what would you do differently?
NP: I still wish I’d found a way to include that side of Bruce. There were also a number of other things I would’ve loved to have included, but there just wasn’t room in a 15 minute short. For instance, even though he’s 84, Bruce rarely gets sick because he has this complex system of vitamins and health foods he takes every day. He’s just as obsessive about those as he is about his lights, and he’s even jury-rigged this infrared lamp that he runs over his joints to help with his arthritis.
Also, while I only include the story of his wife Nellie, Bruce was actually married 3 times. Briefly to a woman in England, whom he had a couple of kids with, and later to a Filipino nurse who got in touch with him after seeing a video about his lights on the internet. The two of them started emailing back and forth, and Bruce ended up proposing to her before they’d even met! He named a deer after her and everything (Daisy Deer). Unfortunately, once she actually moved in with him, things didn’t end up going so well and they were divorced soon after.
These were all incredible stories, that all showed different sides of Bruce. But when I included all of them, it quickly became unfocused and meandering. So I just had to decide what story I could tell with the footage I had, that at least gave the audience a good sense of who Bruce was. I’m happy with the finished film, but I really do wish there’d been a way to work in some of that other stuff.
C8: The film won several awards including the audience award at Palm Spring Shortsfest. How did the festival circuit respond to ‘Mr. Christmas’?
NP: I had a great experience taking the film around. It screened at about 30 festivals and won a few awards but I don’t think anything could beat my experience at Aspen Shortfest. It’s the second time I had a film there, and for the second time it was the highlight of my festival run. It’s brilliantly programmed, exclusively shorts, and they only play 2 blocks of films a day, so everyone gets a chance to see all the films. That creates a real sense of community I’ve never felt at any other festival. I’ve remained friends with many of the filmmakers I met there all the way back in 2008.
C8: Where does ‘Mr. Christmas’ sit in your career? What had you done before it and what have you done since?
NP: It came at a funny time. When I started shooting it, I’d been out of the AFI directing program for a couple years, and was writing with a buddy of mine from the program while we both worked day jobs. By the time I finished shooting Mr. Christmas, we had managers, and within a few months had sold a spec script to Warner Brothers. It was a huge change in our lives, as we went from film school graduates to professional writers. Unfortunately that meant putting my little documentary on hold while Jeremiah and I took a lot of meetings, worked with the studio on the script, and looked for our next job.
But as I quickly learned, writing studio movies tends to be more about pleasing your masters than telling the story you want to tell. You’ve got executives, directors, stars, producers – each with their own agenda, and all with more power than you. So while it was incredible to be making a living as a screenwriter, it could be a little frustrating creatively. So I found myself tinkering with this film in the evening, and it became a kind of creative outlet. It was much easier to compromise on our studio scripts when I could view them as my work, but this little documentary was my personal project. It was a story I could tell in the way I wanted, without worrying about how it would play in China or if it would have a big opening weekend.
C8: What advice would you give to first time filmmakers looking to direct or produce a documentary short?
NP: Be open. It’s important to come in with a sense of the film you want to make, but you need to be comfortable following the story wherever it’s going to take you. ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ started out as a short documentary about birthday clowns. ‘Hoop Dreams’ was supposed to be a short about an inner-city basketball court. But those filmmakers were open enough to spot a better story when they saw it.
C8: What are your favourite shorts?
NP: I think Andrea Arnold’s short ‘Wasp’ is my favorite short of all time. Luke Doolan’s ‘Miracle Fish’ also leaps to mind. I think the best short I saw while I was taking ‘Mr. Christmas’ around was ‘As You Were’ by a Danish filmmaker named Rene Peterson. It takes place over an afternoon, as a soldier heads off to fight in Afghanistan, and tries to reconnect with his dad. I feel if you can have one really memorable moment in a short you’ve accomplished something, and this film has like 5 or 6. So much humanity and unexpected humor. It’s really a great film.
C8: What do you think is the essence of a good collaboration?
NP: I think it’s about balance. You need to come in with a very clear point of view on how you want to tell the story, but you also need to be open to ideas from the people around you. In a weird way, I find the clearer I am on the story I want to tell, the more comfortable I am with trashing my own ideas and trading up when I hear something that’s better. There’s a real confidence that comes with knowing where you’re going with a story, and it allows you to loosen up, and know which suggestions will improve the film.
C8: What’s next for you? Any future plans?
NP: Right now I’m focused on the screenwriting. My partner and I just finished a project at Sony and are in the middle of a re-write at Universal. That said, I’ve been tinkering around with another documentary in my downtime, so we’ll see if anything comes of that.