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Nativity 2: Danger In The Manger! - Debbie Isitt interview

Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger!

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WRITER-director Debbie Isitt talks about making Nativity 2: Danger In The Manger! and why she works using an improvisational style rather than sticking to a script.

She also talks about working with the children, what she feels about Christmas and why she feels the Nativity movies have struck such a chord with audiences.

Q. This film’s a bit of an homage to Mike Leigh with the improvisation…
Debbie Isitt: It’s really different to Mike Leigh’s process though because… he’s been doing it for years as you know and he actually workshops and improvises for six months with his actors, I understand, and we don’t do anything. We do all our improvising on camera, which he doesn’t. He works it into a script. We don’t rehearse, so we do everything spontaneously on camera. It’s a fantastic way to work because it means everything is fresh, the actors really own the characters and the children can be themselves without having to deliver lines and learn lines. I welcome all dyslexic actors to work with me, they don’t have to learn lines either. A lot of them are actor-writers and they contribute in the moment really to the scenes. And instinctive actors. As long as I cast instinctive actors it works.

Q. Do you have a schedule of some description?
Debbie Isitt: That’s the only paper that they see.

Q. Do you ever have trouble convincing actors to do it?
Debbie Isitt: I think sometimes they’re a little bit nervous of the idea. I have met actors who thought they might want to and then gone, “I’m just too scared”, and backed out. That’s fine because you have to be courageous. You have to feel yes, you’re being brave, like Joanna [Page] says, and you are willing to continue in the process. You can’t start it and then back out. I do try to do a little bit of workshop, just a couple of hours here and there, to make sure everyone’s had a go and feels comfortable enough to sustain themselves through the project. And usually once you’ve had a little go you feel better about it. On the odd occasion, an actor has said: “You know what? I don’t think I can.”

Q. How did the children take to that? Didn’t they need further direction?
Debbie Isitt: They’re very uncomplicated children, aren’t they? They just believe in it. If you say you’re part of this class now and this is your teacher, they believe it and that’s what helps us all believe in it then. We’re all playing a game really and make believe.

Q. Is it difficult to keep a straight face, though, with some of the things they come out with?
Debbie Isitt: Pixie, she’s only four and she went through the whole journey, just looking like a little doll. But she was sometimes in the middle of a take and would say: “The thing is Mr Peterson…” – because they all called them by their teacher name – “when I’m at my real school instead of my pretend school…” And I was going: “Cut! You can’t talk about that, Pixie, you can’t talk about your real school, this is your real school now!” So, they were always funny about random things. A lot of it you see in the film.

Q. How easy is it when it comes to editing all the footage?
Debbie Isitt: There’s hours and hours of stuff we filmed and you shift through looking just for the moment you want to see and it does take months in the edit. So, we have very little prep, shoot it very quickly and spend a long time sifting through it to find the moments that tell the story. Really, that’s where the writing process takes place, in the edit.

Q. Will there be a lot of outtakes?
Debbie Isitt: Plenty and really quality stuff!

Q. Is there a piece of music you love and a Christmas song you hate?
Debbie Isitt: I am a Christmas lover. Obviously, you’d have to be to make these films but on Sunday the children are turning on the Christmas lights in Coventry and Roy Wood is performing. We’re singing I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day with Roy Wood. I think we do get a lot of Slade and Roy Wood at Christmas-time but it depends where you are. Because it you’re at a party it can be fantastic but if you’re shopping and they keep coming in your ear they can drive you absolutely crazy. So, I think it depends on context really. In the film they’re all new Christmas songs so that at least is a refreshing change, and the kids sing them brilliantly and they’re funny.

Q. How challenging was the shoot for you – not only do you direct and drive the story but there’s also the choreography?
Debbie Isitt: I had a lovely choreographer. A local dance school actually came to do the dance and choreography. I write the songs with the editor. I like doing the muscial numbers, I find them quite easy. I think that’s because of my theatrical background. They’re not as challenging as some of the other things, like the mountain rescue, which was a bit more complicated.

Q. So, how was the mountain rescue sequence?
Debbie Isitt: It was tricky. Obviously, your first concern is safety for the kids and the donkey. I hate heights myself so it was quite terrifying watching the actors up there. We did it all in two days that sequence and had some stunt people helping us achieve it. It was just get up there and do it really. We had to work it slowly and in pieces but managed to get there. I’m very proud of it because we had no money and no time really. It’s just about everybody throwing themselves into it and overcoming the challenges.

Q. And how was the weather? It didn’t look the best…
Debbie Isitt: The weather kept changing. One hour it was sunny, the next hour it was raining, which for film and continuity is awkward. There was nothing to do but go with it. I was hoping it would snow so we got the Christmas landscape but of course it didn’t snow. But we had every other weather condition!

Q. Talking of your theatrical background, aren’t you turning Nativity into a musical?
Debbie Isitt: We are going to make a musical of the first film as a stage show. A full-blown musical. You know what? Due to popular demand. So many people have asked us to do it that in the end you say “yeah, that is a good idea”. People do like a festive musical and why not? It’s an alternative to panto. The songs are catchy, kids love it.

Q. Were you ever in a nativity play?
Debbie Isitt: I was Mary and I got terribly good reviews. I have two sisters as well and we were all Mary. I don’t know why. In different years. And when my sister once got a cold and they cast someone else, my mum went down the school and complained and they had to go back to my sister. She must have been pushy in those days, my mum. I was only seven so I don’t really remember it.

Q. Will there by a Nativity 3?
Debbie Isitt: They’d love it [the children] and I’d love it too. It’s just really good fun to make and people seem to like… take the films to their heart. The atmosphere last night [at the UK premiere] was very warm. It’s nice to have a homegrown British family film.

Read our review of Nativity 2

Read our interview with Joanna Page