DEBBIE Isitt must really like Christmas. Never mind getting antsy about the early appearance of gaudy baubles and the jingle of sleigh bells, Isitt’s spent the past five years in a winter wonderland of yuletide good cheer.
It started when she wrote and directed the 2009 film Nativity!. Starring Martin Freeman and Ashley Jensen, it was an unexpected hit, taking nearly five million quid at the box office. Now Isitt has done it again with a sequel, Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger, starring David Tennant, Jessica Hynes and Marc Wootton as well as a gaggle of woolly-hatted cuties. The plot isn’t a million miles away from the first outing, but instead of teachers trying to outdo each other with ever more elaborate nativity plays, this time it’s X-Factor-lite talent competition A Song for Christmas.
If five years is a long time to be in the snow globe of Christmas cheer, Isitt’s looking remarkably perky on it, even on the morning after a West End premiere when a Leicester Square cinema was packed to the rafters with squealing, antler-bedecked children who seemed to think Isitt’s film was the best thing since Santa squeezed down the chimney last year. She does admit she’d quite like to make her movies a bit faster, though.
“I’ll have to move quicker,” she says. “I don’t know why it takes so long. It’s just really hard to make films in Britain.”
It’s not the creative process that she’s talking about. Isitt may shoot in story order and ask her cast to improvise on camera after being given just the “general idea, but nothing written down”, still, though, it’s the money that’s the hardest part of filmmaking.
The success of Nativity! proved there is an appetite for homegrown Christmas fare – surely it also proved that Isitt, whose previous features include Nasty Neighbours with Ricky Tomlinson, and Confetti with Martin Freeman and Jessica Hynes, is a safe pair of hands?
“I’d like to think so,” she says. “But in the end it’s all about people going to see the films and no-one really knows whether that’s going to happen or not. They try to put as many safety nets in as possible – big stars, safe genres – so a British family film is still quite unusual. The first one did do well enough to warrant a second one but there were still gaps in the financing. It wasn’t helped by the climate we’re in. It’s tough.”
It can’t be easy either shooting a feature in six weeks, in the wilds of Wales with a load of kids and a donkey that doesn’t like moving and no more budget than the first film. But Isitt looks like a woman who’s up for a challenge and, more than that, knows exactly what she’s trying to achieve.
“Movies for kids are mostly animation – it’s chipmunks and cartoon characters. It’s rare for them to see actual human beings, but also for them to be British and like them: ordinary. So it really resonates.”
It might also be that kids respond to the way in which Isitt makes her films. With a background in theatre and performance, for Isitt improvisation is the way to make a film set less technical and more fun. She wants the filming process to be creative, not just for her, but for everyone involved.
“It’s a big juggling act really. I have to work out the story as carefully as I can. I know it can shift its shape but I try to get a really clear structure and I know the characters really well. When the cast come on board I give them a general idea but we don’t rehearse, we have a little play. You can’t rehearse it because you’d kill it.
“That playfulness is just so creative. On film of course you can improvise because you’ve got the edit – you can just cut out the stuff that doesn’t work. It’s so much safer than improvising live on stage. As long as you always shoot more than you need. It’s a process that’s proved that it works to me but even more than that, it’s just fun. It can be stressful for all concerned but so can setting up lights and learning lines.”
It helps that Isitt’s partner, Nicky Ager, edits her films so together they carve out what they want from what they’ve shot. It’s not the conventional way, but who’s to argue? Isitt is clear that for her it’s the only way.
“There’s a tradition of filmmakers who want to express themselves and don’t mind not meeting an audience. Filmmaking as an art is their primary concern. There is a very respectable tradition of that in Britain and long may it continue. I think what’s tricky is if you’re a filmmaker like me and you want to meet an audience above everything else. I want to be populist and I think that’s harder because I’m competing with multimillion-dollar films with no money and no time. You’ve just got to try to resonate with people.” She pauses. “I am proud to say that we did knock Jim Carrey and Disney off their spot last time with the first Nativity! and I’m hoping that we might be able to do something like that this time.”
l Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger is in cinemas from tomorrow. See page 4 for our critic’s review.