Although it can often feel like every seasonal scenario has been set to music and turned into a holiday hallmark classic Northern Irish filmmaker Emmet Colton offers a fresh festive perspective in his new short film – Unlocking Christmas.
The film follows the story of Jason, a young man who discovers that he can use Santa’s magical key to sneak into his neighbours' homes on Christmas Eve and treat himself to the present-filled Christmas that he never had.
“The idea came shortly after I first heard about those Christmas keys. I just started to think about how funny it would be if they actually worked,” Emmet explained.
“It was probably around three or four years ago that I had the idea, and we just never had the opportunity to actually make it.
“Then there was a funding call for Northern Ireland Screen, and I was asked if I had any ideas for short films. In the world that we operate in you have that many ideas but it’s just the ones that people will actually help you make or help you fund that get seen, so a big part of it is luck.”
Having worked within the world of documentary at west Belfast television and film production company Triplevision for several years, Unlocking Christmas is Emmet’s debut short film.
“We almost exclusively make factual programmes and documentaries, so although we have all dipped our toe in dramas before this is the first short drama that the company has made in a long time,” he said.
In addition to writing the script Emmet also directed the project which he says was “a real eyeopener”.
“I didn’t realise how difficult it is to make a low budget short film and make sure that everything aligns on the days at the times that you need them to. It was incredibly stressful trying to juggle that many balls at once.”
Initially pitching the short in November 2021 Emmet and the team didn’t hear back until early 2022 with sponsors expecting filming to commence either before or during the summer.
“We had to meet with the funders and convince them that Christmas time would suit better because people’s houses will be decorated, and the darker nights would help us.
“So, they agreed and that was a big help as it allowed us to refine some of the scenes, inject more humour into it and also take the time to find the right actor.”
Leading the small ensemble is young Belfast actor Odhrán Feeney.
“We were just getting head shots sent to us from different drama societies and we were struggling to find the right fit.
“We had narrowed it down to a couple and we’d spoken with the Youth Lyric which Odhrán came through and asked their opinion on him and they were singing his praises.
“Then when he came in to see us and he was wearing a Dave Chappelle cap and I’m a fan so I figured he must love comedy and we sat and had a good chat about that.
“It was only afterwards that we asked him what he thought the main character should be wearing and he was wearing the exact same clothes that the character is wearing in the film he was just dressed perfectly for it,” Emmet recalled.
The film follows a cartoonish pantomime style with little dialogue, opting to tell the story almost entirely through visuals.
“I was steering away from a lot of dialogue because it is my first short drama and I wanted to keep it simple.
“But Odhrán did so well, it would have been easy to be too over the top or not be expressive enough, but I think he got it.”
With the exception of Odhrán, Emmet tells me that the rest of the actors in Unlocking Christmas were found much closer to home.
“Everyone bar our main actor is family. My two parents are in it, my dad plays Santa, but he’s used to that because we would always put on Christmas parties in our house for our extended family so my dad is known as Santa at Christmas time so if you need a Santa it’s my dad,” laughs Emmet.
“My sister is one of the police officers in the film and my brother was the other.
“The father and daughter at the start is the producer of the film and that is his actual daughter. The young boy was the DOP’s son and then the extras in the shop were people who we work with and family members.”
It, therefore, feels fitting that the family of the cast and crew were among the first to see the short at the Queen’s Film Theatre on December 2 - the previous day it debuted at a Christmas film festival in New Jersey, though Emmet wasn't able to be there.
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“But we are going to Germany with it as it’s being shown on December 21 as part of Weihnachts Christmas Film Festival in Berlin.”
Despite the film being selected for two festivals what struck Emmet the most about the whole experience was the sense of community he felt whilst making the short.
“I got Christmas decorations from anyone and everyone - I’m from Derry and it was like half of Derry was lending us Christmas decorations,” he said.
“My mum was cooking for everyone and organising transport. It just felt like this big family event, and I really don’t think we could’ve done it without them.”
On the surface the short appears to be a festive spoof poking fun at the overly sentimental Christmas stories we have become accustomed to. However, it also dives deeper than that by highlighting the importance of family which is something Emmet wanted to emphasise both on and off screen.
“Regardless of who else sees it or where it’s screened, we will all be able to watch it every Christmas with our families and the fact so many of them are in it makes it even more special.”