By Briege McGarrity exclusively for IFQ
A Christmas Star is the first ever Christmas feature film to be made in Northern Ireland. The film marks the directorial debut for Richard Elson and was produced by Children’s Film Festival Charity, Cinemagic, who impressively utilized 11 young actors and 40 trainee filmmakers on the set. The story centers around young Noelle (Erin Galway-Kendrick), who believes she has the ability to perform special miracles because she was born under a Christmas star. When a greedy developer threatens her village, Noelle uses her gifts to save her village.
Featuring an impressive array of established talent: Pierce Brosnan, Robert James-Collier, Bronagh Waugh, Dermott O’Leary and voiceover from Liam Neeson, A Christmas Star had a spectacular world premiere at Odyssey Cinemas in Belfast on November 4. IFQ was delighted to catch up with inspirational producer Joan Burney Keatings, who is also Cinemagic’s Executive Director, for a chat about the making of this one-of-kind festive film.
Independent Film Quarterly (IFQ): Congrats on getting this film made. How was the experience of producing a Northern Ireland feature?
Joan Burney Keatings (JBK): Thank you so much. We are very excited to have produced for the first ever Northern Irish and first ever Irish Christmas feature film!
IFQ: Tell us a bit about the concept behind A Christmas Star
JBK: The project came about because each year Cinemagic makes a series of short films. Last summer alone, we shot 18 short films back to back. We wanted to give young people their first ever feature film credit, both in front of and behind and the camera. We also realized there was a huge gap in the market for Christmas films and as Cinemagic is an annual event in December, we thought it would be a perfect opportunity to produce Northern Ireland’s first ever Christmas film.
It was the most the most amazing experience of my life. It was a labor of love and became my baby. I got so passionate about this film. We were so lucky and so blessed with the amount of people who got behind the project and helped make it happen. All of the young trainees worked under the guidance of industry professionals. Honestly, the integrity of everyone who worked on the set was amazing and best of all, we had so much fun. We really pushed through together as a family. The concept was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Cinemagic and do something very, very special to close our festival with.
IFQ: I thought Richard Elson handled the material very well and I loved the mix of new and established talent.
JBK: Yes! Richard Elson did a fantastic job. It was the first ever feature film for all 11 kids, none of whom had ever acted professionally in film. There were also 40 trainees on the set as well as the A list on celebrities, so it was a big undertaking. Richard has an incredible work ethic and worked hard under pressure. We only had three weeks to shoot the film, there were a lot of location moves and only a couple of weeks pre-production. As the producer, I feel lucky that we got on exceptionally well; we were on the same page the entire time.
IFQ: It must have been great to collaborate with well-known actors such as Liam Neeson — how did the main crew and cast come on board?
JBK: Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, Dermott O’Leary, Saoirse Ronan, Bronagh Waugh and Julian Fellowes are all patrons of Cinemagic. Once they heard about the concept, all of them very quickly agreed to come on board and have their names associated with the film. It was brilliant for the film and great for the young people, who now have a credit alongside some of the best names in the acting world.
IFQ: All those extras must have been challenging? It’s obvious you were a very determined directing and producing duo to pull it off. Tell us a bit about the shoot, highs and lows
JBK: Yes it was challenging at times. The first scene alone was actually the final scene of the movie. It was the first shot the crew worked on together and it was outside Belfast City Hall in front of 12,500 people. As you can imagine it was FULL ON – We had 10 minutes to the shoot scene and it was complete adrenalin! There were lots of extras in the football scene and a couple of the market scenes as well. We had highs every day. At times, it was challenging to hold on to the buzz and energy. Other than that, I’m glad to say there were very few lows.
IFQ: “We can Shine” performed by Zena Donnelly is a powerful song and what a voice! Tell us more about the music
JBK: All of the music was written by young people and I think they did an incredible job. We were very lucky to have Zena Donnelly, who sings the closing song. She is aged 13 and came through the castings. We hope that “We can Shine,” which has now been released onto iTunes, will come out as a very big Christmas hit.
IFQ: Apart from the usual challenges such as raising money etc., what is your advice for anybody trying to get a debut feature film off the ground?
JBK: You’ve got to be confident and believe in your project because people will knock you. We added so many different layers, the trainees, the cast. You have got to be a committed to the script, to the people you are working with because when the pressure is on, you need to gel as a team. Be careful who you pick for your crew, make sure you know they have the same work ethic. Also when it comes to selling the film, understand that distribution is a big, big part of the overall success for the film. It is crucial to establish relationships with all of your distributors and be clear on expectations.
IFQ: How have press and audiences reacted so far?
JBK: So far, the reaction has been incredible – we’ve been overwhelmed. People see it as a very positive, family film, however we have had grown men in Cannes crying after the screening. People of all ages have enjoyed it and the feedback has been positive.
IFQ: How did the Belfast Premiere go?
JBK: It was one of the most amazing nights of my life. People came in from all over Ireland for the premiere. The kids were so excited and there was definitely a buzz in Belfast. We had 2,500 guests and 330 feet of red carpet, dance performances and a big pre-reception. It was more than I could ever have dreamed of.
IFQ: What is your plan to distribute the film domestically and internationally? And has your wealth of film festival management/exhibition helped with navigating the thorny process of distribution?
JBK: We are delighted with our Distribution plan. Signature is in place for UK sales, ITN are handling North American, Canada and Australia and Spotlight Pictures will handle World distribution. I’m very excited to see what the next year brings. Special screenings are happening in NY, Washington DC and at the Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. Hopefully by next year people, people around the world will get to see our amazing film.