Features and Columns

6 Filmmaking Tips for How to Make Christmas Movies

Writers and directors of holiday films share the secrets to making a classic.
how to make a christmas movie
Twentieth Century Fox
By  · Published on December 8th, 2017

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one covers tips on how to make a classic Christmas movie.

What do you need to make a Christmas movie? On a basic level, you obviously need a Christmastime setting. That’s why anything with holiday decorations, from Die Hard to Eyes Wide Shut, counts. But for a true Christmas classic, you need more specific elements. Below are six tips from the makers of holiday films that should help anyone hoping to be the next Bob Clark or Rankin/Bass or even just a hired gun for the Hallmark Channel.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Christmas movie directors

1. Add a Christmas Setting for Lasting Success

Think about your favorite Christmas movies. Would you have watched them so many times were it not for the holiday setting? Not every Christmas movie begins as something broad that then tacks on the yuletide element, but a number of them do. One such movie is Love Actually, which might not have the same classic significance without being a holiday film.

Love Actually writer-director Richard Curtis admitted to Hindustan Times in 2013:

“I found my old notes for ‘Love Actually,’ from when I started writing it; and it was only months into writing it that I decided to set it during Christmas. I’m very glad I did, I didn’t quite realise how that gives the movie such a long life. I’m thinking I should write a movie about birthdays because it’s someone’s birthday every year.”

2. Put Your Heart Into It

You can’t just tack on the Christmas setting and all its iconography and expect annual viewings at the holidays. For a genuine holiday classic, you need something more than the superficial pieces. You need to put something of your self into the movie, whether it’s merely your experiences (Office Christmas Party screenwriter Justin Malen piled on things he’d known from holiday parties he attended as a corporate lawyer) or your heart. Or both.

In an interview for Den of Geek, Arthur Christmas writer-directors Sarah Smith and Barry Cook discuss holiday films and how many are either too twee or too edgy and what it takes to find that perfect middle ground. Smith says:

“I think the key to it is that you have to put your real, own emotional experience into the film. You don’t do twee and sentimental, and you don’t add on a bit of Christmas feeling. We created characters that we cared about, and we put them through hard places and experiences based on things that we feel. If you don’t put something in a movie that isn’t very personally true to you, that you feel, that makes you cry a bit, then nobody will feel it either.”

3. Christmas Has to Be in Jeopardy

Filmmaker David Jackson Willis, who is currently working on I’ll Be Next Door for Christmas due out next year with Jennifer Tilly and Lil Bub the cat, decided to prepare for the project by researching and analyzing what makes for a classic holiday movie and revealed what he learned to Film Courage (also see the video below). The first thing a great Christmas movie must have is a threat to the holiday itself, whether on a macro or micro scale.

4. The Holidays Unite Characters

Another of the three must-haves for Christmas movies that Willis shares above is family. “Christmas is about reaffirming the family unit,” he says. Now, that can be as literal as the blood-relative families in A Christmas Story and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or it can be about professional partners or teams needing to work together. The latter is certainly a part of Shane Black‘s many Christmas-set action movies.

The filmmaker explained this during a press conference for Iron Man 3 back in in 2013 (via /Film):

“If you’re doing something on an interesting scale that involves an entire universe of characters, one way to unite them is to have them all undergo a common experience. There’s something at Christmas that unites everybody and it already sets a stage within the stage, that wherever you are, you’re experiencing this world together…It’s a time of reckoning for a lot of people, when you take stock of how you got to where you are now and lonely people are lonelier at Christmas and you tend to notice things more acutely.”

Around the same time, Black told Den of Geek:

“Christmas is fun. It’s unifying, and all your characters are involved in this event that stays within the larger story. It roots it, I think, it grounds everything. At Christmas, lonely people are lonelier, seeing friends and families go by. People take reckoning, they stock of where their lives are at Christmas. It just provides a backdrop against which different things can play out, but with one unifying, global heading. I’ve always liked it, especially in thrillers, for some reason. It’s a touch of magic.”

Frank Capra, who made the classic Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life and also used the holiday for the backdrop of Meet John Doe, recognized that people need each other at Christmastime and how that inspires dramatic situations. In a 1980 interview with Neil Hurley collected in the book “Frank Capra: Interviews,” the filmmaker says:

“Christmas makes people vulnerable, brings out deep feelings. No one is neutral. People either feel more joyous or sadder. It’s a time when some people feel lonelier, more abandoned.”

5. It Has to Be Family Friendly

Christmas movies should be about family, but should they be for families? Obviously there are some films considered among the staples that aren’t for kids — such as Black Christmas (and other holiday horror films), Eyes Wide Shut, and Bad Santa — but some people believe a true Christmas movie is one that is family friendly. One of those people happens to be Susan Coyne, who wrote the script for this year’s The Man Who Invented Christmas.

Coyne told LA Screenwriter last month:

“A Christmas movie should be one that the whole family can enjoy, in the same way that reading or seeing ‘A Christmas Carol’ has become an essential part of many families’ holiday traditions. Seeing a movie at Christmas time that manages to affirm our hope in humanity seems to be something we need in this world, just as Dickens understood.” 

6. The True Meaning of Christmas Horror (and Other Dark Holiday Movies)

Of course, there are indeed a lot of horror movies set during Christmas that aren’t family friendly. There’s Gremlins, which is relatively fine for kids, but then there are the many slasher and monster films that are not. They have their own key elements, too, which may distinguish Christmas horror as an offshoot that only partly meshes with the more family-geared holiday classics. Krampus writer-director Michael Dougherty is someone who understands the difference.

He told Den of Geek in 2015 how the exploitation of the holidays for commercial and material reasons is what should inspire the sub-genre of Christmas horror:

“It seemed like a non-brainer. If Krampus really is a figure that is meant to be sort of the harsh protector of the holiday, something he would frown upon is most definitely over-commercialization of the holiday. We sort of wanted to give Krampus almost sort of this biblical wrath of God feel that he’s sort of looking down from above and really looking at us collectively and not just going after kids because they told a fib or something. That he will descend upon this entire town because they’ve lost their way.

“But if you are going to make a monster movie around Christmas, to me that only makes sense. I even feel like ‘Gremlins’ touched upon that first, because what Chris Columbus and Joe Dante have said is that the gremlins really sort of represent the worst of human nature. They are us. They look like little monsters and they are covered in green scales and big ears and teeth, but they are really all the nasty parts of human nature embodied. That to me is also what Black Friday and a lot of the over-commercialization of Christmas really means.”

Chris Columbus actually said something similar regarding Gremlins around the same time in an Entertainment Weekly interview about the 25th anniversary of Home Alone, which he acknowledges has a similar matter of contrast:

“I thought there was a really strong emotional context to the film. I’ve always been fascinated by Christmas, even back when I wrote ‘Gremlins.’ I set ‘Gremlins,’ which is a very dark story, against the bright cheery time of Christmas, and I thought it was a good contrast. Christmas is a time when people are at their happiest or at their most emotionally low place in their lives, and I thought that this is a great backdrop for a kid who’s left home alone on Christmas.”

Chris Peckover, who directed last year’s holiday horror film Better Watch Outactually sees Home Alone as a scary movie from the kid’s point of view. In a recent interview for Daily Dead, he also expands this tip to consider why black comedy is similar:

“Christmas is just always the most fun to mess with, in my opinion, because it’s such an idealized time and setting. We’re always on our best behavior. Families actually get together and decorate together, and even spend more time together than usual. I find myself reveling in [the times] when things go horribly wrong, and I think general audiences do, too. Those elements can make for a great black comedy. I also feel like ‘Home Alone’ kicked off this Christmas genre of where things go horribly wrong, too, and I think we just enjoy seeing something ‘perfect’ go off the rails.”

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

Christmas movies can be successful for a variety of reasons, especially depending on whether you want it to be a traditional family-friendly type or the more adult-geared horror kind. But one thing that is notable is how Christmas movies tend to deal in elements that contrast against the normal expectations of the holiday, whether its something that threatens Christmas or is darker in tone or, as Willis adds with his third tip, or a primal sexual component. He puts it perfectly thus:

“Christmas itself, the holiday season, has kind of a nobility about it, a sort of higher purpose. People are being their best selves. They’re giving. They’re buying things for people. They’re getting together by the fire. They’re snuggling up. There’s all these really wonderful, positive, noble things that people are doing, higher things. And when they bring in this sexual element, no matter how silly it is…it’s earthy. That is a little touch of earthiness — of something base, something a little course, something very primal down here. Whereas the other thing hits you in the heart, this hits you in the gut. It’s just there, I’ve decided, to provide contrast to the nobility of the rest of the movie. It gives the sentimentality a bigger impact in the end. If they didn’t have little course elements in there, the film would be treacle, it would stick to the bottom of your shoe, it would just be too sickly sweet. By doing that, you have the perspective, by diverting a little bit into the earthly area, the viewer then gives themselves permission to enjoy the sentimentality and the sweetness at the end.”

Additional research by Natalie Mokry

Related Topics:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.