There are few, if any, Christmas films to come out of the UK in recent years that come close to touching the outstanding Nativity trilogy. From the very first instalment in 2009 which recorded fantastic results at the Box Office, the popularity has continued right up until last year’s Nativity 3, which was released on DVD last month.
The series was the brainchild of Birmingham-born filmmaker Debbie Isitt. Debbie ultimately wrote and directed all three Nativity movies, and we’re delighted to say we recently caught up with her to discuss all things ‘Nativity’.
Debbie Isitt interview
So Debbie, Nativity 3 has just been released on DVD/Blu-Ray across the UK. How proud are you with the success of the latest movie?
The Nativity films are like my children – I’m proud of all three of them! What makes me most happy is knowing that families up and down the country are loving the latest addition to the Nativity brood.
The third film in the Nativity franchise saw the students of St Bernadettes competing in a flash mob contest. Where did idea for this come from? Was it a natural progression following the first two movies that featured a school nativity and a singing contest (A Song For Christmas)?
Music and singing is such a big part of Christmas, especially for children and so it’s always going to be a key feature in the Nativity films. In this third instalment the idea of using flashmobbing as a way to help Mr Shepherd get his memory back just came to me (in a flash).
I’m also a huge fan of flashmobs – they are so much fun – and it was an exciting prospect to create a series of Christmas themed flashmobs!
There were a few changes in the cast with some excellent additions. Obviously adding the talents of Martin Clunes, Catherine Tate and Celia Imrie are only ever going to be positives. How did these changes come about? Was it the aim to mix things up a little, or were some of the cast from previous movies not available?
I like the idea of having a new teacher for every Nativity film because although there is a huge fan base out there for all of the films I’m also aware that for some people Nativity 3 will be the first Nativity film they have seen and the films have to work on their own.
I think each of the films stands alone in their own right with or without the other films so that’s a big reason behind shaking up the cast. Of course, there are always issues around cast availability so that’s a constant juggle but not as important as the films working as single stories.
There was also a trip to New York City, which is a pretty cool location for any Christmas film. How did a trip to the Big Apple become part of the movie? Was it always the intention to shoot somewhere overseas?
You know what they say – films are made up of either one of these strands “A man goes on a journey” or “A stranger comes to town” and I always think, “why can’t we have both?” So in Nativity 3, Mr Shepherd is the ‘stranger coming to town’ and London and New York are the ‘going on a journey’.
Both London and New York are also iconic Christmas locations and it was amazing to go and shoot there at that time of year – also extremely cold!
Looking back to the original Nativity movie then, I must admit this is my favourite of the three. When it released back in 2009, it was a really original storyline and just very different and refreshing. It had everything a Christmas film needs.
I read that your inspiration came from watching your own child’s nativity with school. Can you explain what captivated you about the idea and how this original idea blossoms in to a script, and subsequently a very successful movie?
Yes, it’s absolutely true that the idea came from watching my daughter in her school Nativity plays. It struck me that the children were always so sweet and funny and that the parents were always so keen for their children to get the main parts and that the teacher’s were always so stressed and I thought it was fertile ground – underexploited fertile ground – for a comedy about Christmas.
My process is quite different from most filmmakers in that I write the story but allow the actors to improvise the dialogue. This was particularly helpful for the children who could be themselves and not feel restricted by a script. I think this lends some magic to the film.
Martin Freeman played the role of Mr Maddens brilliantly, and I love the cameo of Clarke Peters. How did you go about casting for the first Nativity?
I had worked with Martin Freeman before, as he was one of the lead actors in my wedding comedy ‘Confetti’. I knew he was a great actor and a great improviser and I thought he would be a very convincing primary school teacher.
I built the cast around Martin and we work-shopped with some of the actors, but Clarke Peters agreed to do the role off the back of a phone conversation with me, which was brilliant!
Did the success and popularity of the original movie surprise you?
Yes it did, although I felt we were creating something special, I didn’t expect it to become such a big hit at the box office.
One of the staples throughout the three movies is Marc Wootton in his role as Mr Poppy. He’s almost certainly the favourite character for younger audiences. He seems perfectly suited to the role. Is he as enthusiastic and lively off camera as he is on it?
Marc has many of the characteristics of Mr Poppy but there are differences too. I think Marc really understands and connects to the child within the man – the childlike nature of the character suits him perfectly and he has brought a lot of joy to children over the last few years as Mr Poppy.
And so the second movie was released in 2012. This film seemed a perfect progression from the first; another thoroughly enjoyable festive film. I loved the final scenes at the Song for Christmas competition, it was visually very festive. Again, where did the ideas come from for this one, both in terms of the story itself and locations?
I really wanted the children to go off on an adventure in the second film because the first film had been very much more about Coventry and the school itself. I loved the idea of going to the wilds of Wales in the middle of winter. Wales is such a beautiful country and it allowed us to be quite authentic as we made our journey across the challenging terrain.
I wanted a physical and spiritual adventure but I ultimately wanted to explore the theme of family and what it feels like to be slightly set aside from your father and twin brother because you are made to feel not good enough.
I think being an outsider is a strong theme for Nativity 2 – and needing to belong – in a way being lost in the landscape was the ‘outside’ and the festive, colourful, cosy ‘Song for Christmas’ contest was the ‘inside’ – the gang had to get accepted into the contest – get accepted into the community – and get accepted by the family – if you like.
Enter David Tennant in the role of Donald. He is superb, as he is in most roles. What was he like to work with?
David Tennant is the most professional actor I have ever worked with. He isn’t phased by anything. I would say to him “David, we’re going to shoot you white water rafting and you might fall in – and it’s freezing cold and dangerous.” And David would reply. “Where do you want me to go from?” Love him!
What other projects are you working on at the moment, Debbie?
I have so many projects in development – some are just sketches of ideas and others are almost fully formed films and TV shows. It takes me quite a while to work up the stories so that’s what I’ve been doing since Nativity 3. I have a love of family films so I am developing some more of those – but also an adult based TV drama that I hope will happen soon.
Do you specifically enjoy working on Christmas films, or has the success of Nativity movies almost created a path you had to follow in terms of completing the three?
I have never done anything in my life that I don’t fully believe in. I work in such a unique process that everything I do takes at least two years of my life so it’s important that I love it. The truth is I love Christmas, I love kids and I love making people happy with my work – as long as I can keep making comedy, drama with heart I don’t mind if it’s Christmas based or not.
Should we look forward to a fourth Nativity film in the future? If so, any early thoughts or ideas you can give to us?
Nativity 4 has been developed already and so has Nativity 5 – one of them is set ‘Down Under’ in Australia. However, I am uncertain as to if or when they will be made as there are other projects competing for my attention. We will just have to see.
And last but not least, which is your favourite Christmas film, aside from your own, obviously?
I would have to say that my favourite Christmas film is Elf. What’s not to like?
We’d like to say a huge thank you to Debbie for agreeing to the interview. If you’d like to connect with Debbie and keep up with her latest work, you can follow her on Twitter @DeborahIsset
Read & See More:
Buy the Nativity movies!
If you want to get the Nativity films for yourself, Nativity 1 is currently available in the UK on BBC iPlayer. Amazon Prime carries Nativity 3 if you’re a member.
Otherwise, use the links below to buy: