We spoke to Mitchell Kezin recently about his upcoming documentary 'Jingle Bells Rocks', a journey to the heart of the Christmas music that has shaped his world and the lives of the most famous Christmas music collectors. With big name appearances and lots of humour this is one movie that we will definitely be seeking out later in the year. For a limited time we have arranged for a preview of the movie to be played on the Jingle Bell Rocks! website. Many thanks to Mitchell for his time and enthusiasm throughout our exchanges.
Kevin Yuleplay: Can you give us a little background about your documentary and what inspired you to make it?
Mitchell Kezin: I'd made a few films (shorts and a feature) which did well and even won some awards but I wasn't making any money from them, nor was I able to sustain myself entirely on arts grants. So I was at a crossroads in my career where I wasn't sure whether I could continue to bounce between the fiction and non-fiction films I was making. As I hadn't made any actual money on the projects I was supporting myself through bartending. This is how I put myself through film school at the Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design.
I had been doing some soul searching in January 2005 wondering where I fitted in within the Canadian film community and how I was going to possibly sustain a career and pursue more ambitious, higher budgeted projects. I’d watched several friends of mine find success working in television and though that didn't really appeal to me I soon learned that funding in the documentary world was governed largely by making a deal with a network television station.
Around the same time a Christmas collector friend sent me a Christmas single and he included an amazing article from the now defunct “Cool, Strange Music Magazine” (which was produced by a pal of mine in Seattle, Dana Countryman). One article about the subculture of Christmas Music Collectors, written by Dennis Flanagan, focused on 4 key legendary collectors in this genre. Up until then I'd thought I was the only one who was doing this - obsessing over weird Christmas music - and it was a revelation to discover that not only was I not alone but there was an entire subculture of Christmas music collectors out there. There were even some legends, three of whom appear in my movie.
The most amazing thing was that this article came at precisely the right time and the way it was written was a template for a documentary film. So the original idea for the movie (then titled ‘So This Is Christmas’) was that we would explore the Christmas music underground through the eyes and ears of a half dozen or so collectors. This was early January 2005 and the previous Christmas I'd given a copy of ‘Mitchell's Merrymix 2004’ to a friend named Step Carruthers who was a local Vancouver producer. Step called to thank me for the mix and stressed how it had “saved his holiday”. He told me how he’d taken it around to every Christmas party he'd been invited to that season and that the reaction was always really positive. People dug the music but what they really dug was that it was all new to them; they had never heard these songs before nor had they thought such music even existed.
On hearing that and knowing that Step was a producer I began to think that there might be a film idea there and I proceeded to pitch the idea of making the Christmas collectors documentary. He immediately saw potential in the idea and asked me to write an outline of the film as I saw it. Three months later we attended Hot Docs Festival 2005 in Toronto and it was there that we first pitched the film to a woman named Charlotte Engel who was the executive at Bravo, Canada's foremost speciality channel dealing strictly in Arts related documentaries.It was the perfect fit and she immediately got the idea and to her credit offered us a development deal. Following this meeting it was 3 years of heartache as one relationship after another went sideways due to producers and/or TV execs trying to make the film a more mainstream documentary on Christmas music, which I had absolutely no desire to make.
KY: The impression you get from the trailer to ‘Jingle Bell Rocks!’ is that this was a big budget project so how did you finance it?
MK: Well, I am glad you feel that way. And I wish it were a big budget but it’s not even close. It’s actually a very low budget and considering how many amazing artists and songs are featured it has been an incredible challenge for my producing partners and I to overcome. It was very fortunate that just around the time I was in my final development phase (in early fall 2008) one of the biggest players in the Canadian TV & Film business had announced a special fund which they were offering to support three feature documentary projects who would share approximately $850,000 between them. The criteria for qualifying for this fund was very specific in its terms which ultimately proved a perfect match for my project: The project had to be from a British Columbia based producer (which I was), it had to be feature length (which mine was) and it had to have music as its central focus.
I worked extremely hard on my submission package and in the end after Astral Media adjudicated all the entries (of which I believe there were close to 100) ‘Jingle Bell Rocks!’ was one of the three selected for the fund. Following this we had a lot of interest from other TV channels in Canada including our next biggest funder Knowledge Network, a public broadcaster based in British Columbia who operate similarly to the Public Broadcasting Service in the States. We also have about 6 smaller special channels who acquired the film based on a Pre-Sale. In Canada we are extremely fortunate to have enormously generous film funds from the Government which has also contributed to our film.
I cannot divulge the actual total of our budget but I can say that we have achieved a film that looks like twice the amount we actually have raised to date. If anyone reading this out there can help we are still in desperate need of additional funds for our music licensing and archival clearance costs so please get in touch.
KY: You've pulled a very impressive list of people together, how did you manage to get the likes of Joseph Simmons from Run–D.M.C and Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips involved?
MK: Extreme perseverance! And lots of letter writing and hounding down at concerts etc. We were able to secure an interview with Run–D.M.C through the tremendous support of Mr. Bill Adler who is one of the key Christmas Collectors in our film. Bill worked as an A&R executive at Def Jam Records during the heyday when Run–D.M.C were rising stars. It was Bill's idea (back in 1987) to involve Run–D.M.C with The Special Olympics and their first charity Christmas album ‘A Very Special Christmas’. ‘Christmas In Hollis’ is the standout track and the only original song on the entire compilation which is a point of pride for both Bill and Reverend ‘Run–D.M.C’ Simmons!
KY: What were the criteria for the song choices in the movie? Did you have to say no to a selection at any point?
MK: The key songs featured in the film are all songs which are important to me for one reason or another. It was very difficult trying to narrow down the choices and of course there were many that I wanted to include but for various reasons could not – primarily down to my inability to either reach or persuade the artist who recorded it to be in the movie. I am by no means a name director in Canada or anywhere else so the biggest challenge that I faced was trying to get through to the artists whose songs I admired and wanted to include. Getting through to their management or agent or whomever was a daunting task and this is why the film has taken as long as it has (because I pursued some folks for over 5 years!) My biggest regret is that I wasn't able to get Canada's legendary troubadour Mr. Stompin' Tom Connors into the movie with his amazing song ‘Down On Christmas’, which is one of my Top Ten Christmas songs of all time for sure.
KY: What are your hopes for the movie? Are you planning to do a follow-up?
MK: We are thrilled to have secured theatrical distribution in Canada. This is a major feat so the film will hopefully play across every major city and some smaller towns too this coming Fall/Christmas season. Our distributor in Canada is Kinosmith and they have been tremendously supportive of my movie from conception which is really an exceptional privilege. The movie is turning out to be something quite special, exceeding nearly everyone’s expectations so we hope that after the Canadian launch that we will get accepted into some of the major USA fests in the New Year and then based upon good buzz secure a distributor for a Fall/Christmas release in the USA next year. My ultimate dream is that this film becomes an evergreen, bona fide alternative to all the other classic Christmas movies that we're exposed to each year. But nothing would make me happier then to see my movie in the TV Guide sandwiched between ‘It's A Wonderful Life’ and ‘The Grinch Who Stole Christmas’. Truly if Santa is that kind to me then I would love to add one or two new songs into the film to keep it fresh from year to year.
KY: Do you think Christmas music is unfairly treated and by extension those who admit to liking it?
MK: Wow, great question and it’s the basis for what motivated me to make this movie. I think that Christmas music is taken for granted and dismissed by most. Yet without fail every person I end up talking with about this movie share some of the most intimate details of their lives. One of the biggest pleasures I've had is in being the one that people trust to hear the extremely personal story about which specific Christmas album or single song matters most to them during the holidays. And how the season doesn't begin for that person until they hear that special song.
Music is so emotional, so powerful and it seems especially so for folks around Christmas time. I know the specific memories I have of the holidays are tied directly to one song and that song drives the narrative arc of my movie. I'm not about to reveal it to you here but people are polarized when it comes to Christmas music. Either they have extremely fond memories of a very specific song that they must hear every year as the holidays roll around or a piece of music defines a very unhappy experience for them and that makes for a very painful re-living of the memory each new Christmas.
KY: In your opinion what makes a great Christmas song? Does it have to be obscure?
It definitely does not have to be obscure. There are many classic chestnuts that I love that to this day that still make me feel something. That goes for any song really, not just Christmas songs. Sincerity, genuine emotion, fabulous musicianship, heartfelt lyrics that are not sappy or too sentimental or clichéd. So many new Christmas songs are just horrific in terms of how ludicrously sentimental and clichéd/soulless they are. It's astonishing to me really that they are so obviously reaching with no imagination or connection to the song(s) they are singing. Oh, this is a chestnut therefore I must include it on my new Christmas album …Fuckin' hell!
It used to be that recording a Christmas album was a rite of passage for a recording artist. You had to earn it and only a handful of truly great artists were given the green light and the support from their record label so it was an honour and meant something. It was the pinnacle and that is why most of the records by legends like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, Brenda Lee etc. have endured - because they were and still are special.
So many of today’s artists do not hold the Christmas genre dear or with any sort of reverence. They or their managers and labels look at it first and foremost like a commercial endeavour. And trust me I have this from one of the most legendary producers in the record business who discusses this very topic in my film! So much of what I hear now is truly vapid, void of any genuine emotion and having to listen to it, single after single, CD after CD every year of the same bland approach to the same tired old song is absolute torture!
KY: Here at YulePlay we're constantly on the search for new Christmas songs so we'd love to hear how experts like you keep up to date and how you track down older tracks that might have been forgotten?
MK: Some I discover through the network of tape and CD Christmas compilation traders who I share my annual mix with. That's the surest way to discover something new and forgotten because it is almost always at least 40 years old! This used to be the only way you'd get to hear something which you didn’t find yourself but now with the internet there are numerous fabulous blogs which share freely all sorts of amazing finds each year. I have a fairly up-to-date list of them on my website.
KY: When will 'Jingle Bell Rocks!' open and can we see previews before then?
As I mentioned in a previous answer we have a theatrical release secured and in the planning stages for this coming Fall/Christmas season in Canada and the USA release will happen next year. We are just not yet signed with one of the many boutique distributors who have been tracking and the movie and with whom we continue to dialogue with. We shall wait and see but anyone who is interested in that or any other aspect of our movie, they can sign up for an exclusive Backstage Pass and I will keep you up-to-date on all the goings on and special events.
Those folks who do sign up, and become what we call ‘Hardcore Christmas’ will receive some special goodies as well as private videos and other behind-the-scenes access. Plus they will now be on my mailing list for my annual Christmas compilation which I've been creating since 1990 called ‘Mitchell's Merrymix’ which every year features the weirdest & wildest of my Christmas vinyl finds through the year narrowed down to about 25 tracks!