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How ‘Spirited’ Director Sean Anders Crafted a ‘Christmas Carol’ Riff With a Theatrical Twist

The ”Instant Family“ filmmaker tells TheWrap how he set about making a hybrid between a stage musical and a movie musical for the Ryan Reynolds/Will Ferrell film

Filmmaker Sean Anders has long wanted to make a musical, so when he and his filmmaking partner John Morris were talking aimlessly about how the ghosts are the real protagonists of “A Christmas Carol,” they wondered if this riff on the Charles Dickens classic – telling the story from the point of view of the ghosts, not the haunted individual – might finally be a fit for the genre.

But with “Spirited” (which is currently streaming on Apple TV+), Anders added another twist to the story: what if the ghosts’ haunt was treated like a film production, and he embraced the theatricality of the staging and prep work needed to prepare a haunt by incorporating it into the movie?

“When we first started talking about it, you can’t just go in and haunt somebody. There has to be some forethought,” the “Instant Family” and “Horrible Bosses 2” director told TheWrap in a recent interview. “There has to be some research, there has to be some work. And then we thought, well, what are the ghosts really doing? They’re kind of putting on a show. They’re showing up and they’ve got a structure and they’ve got a presentation and then they’ve got drama, and they’ve got excitement, and we thought well, it’s a lot like making a movie.”

Enter Will Ferrell as the Ghost of Christmas Present, who’s tasked with studying up on and haunting this year’s target: a charming but smarmy media consultant named Clint (played by Ryan Reynolds). The whole thing is captured with a degree of theatricality not usually seen in modern musicals — the stage lights are in plain sight (and embraced) and there’s a familiar chorus of actors playing a variety of background roles.

Throw in some show-stopping tunes by Oscar- and Tony Award-winning songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“La La Land,” “The Greatest Showman”) and a refreshingly shocking ending and you’ve got yourself the makings of a potential Christmas classic.

Read our full interview with Anders to find out how he approached making a genuinely new take on “A Christmas Carol,” the musical number that was Reynolds’ idea, how they hit upon that bold ending and whether a Broadway adaptation is on his mind (spoiler alert: it very much is).

What was the initial nugget of an idea that inspired this movie?

Well, John Morris, my writing and producing partner and I, we’ve always wanted to do a musical. We were having a conversation while we were working on another script, and we were just talking story, and we ended up talking about “A Christmas Carol” and about how an argument could be made that the ghosts are the protagonists of “A Christmas Carol” because they’re the ones with a mission and a job to do. That led to a pretty funny conversation about well, imagine the amount of prep and work that must go into structuring this haunt. Then we got excited, we thought, has anybody ever done “A Christmas Carol” from the perspective of the ghosts?

We started talking about who our Scrooge be, and we were just kind of talking about the state of the world right now, and we liked the idea of what if the Ghost of Christmas Present is our protagonist? And the Scrooge that he picks is a guy who’s almost like a TV news pundit, like a guy who just has an answer for everything, and it’s always just more about winning the argument than the contents. So when we had that idea, then we called Will Ferrell because we just had a feeling that Will would spark to that idea, and we really loved the idea of him playing the Ghost Christmas Present. He sparked to the idea right away, and then it wasn’t until later, where we had fleshed things out a bit more and we had a better sense of who we wanted Clint to be, and we knew that we didn’t want Clint to be a jerk. We didn’t want him to be a guy who’s just mean to people and crass and difficult. We wanted him to be kind of slick and cool and charismatic. The effect that he has on the world is pretty evil, but as a person, he’s just a guy who’s rationalizing that as a job. So we thought we want somebody who’s slick and charismatic, what about Ryan Reynolds?

When did the musical aspect come into play?

Well like I said, we had always wanted to do a musical. And I think it was literally in that very first conversation. I don’t know which one of us said it, but one of us said maybe this is the musical. So pretty much from there on forward, what we decided is, well, let’s approach it as a musical until it isn’t. And if for some reason it just doesn’t work as a musical or whatever, maybe we’ll just go with a straight narrative on it. But let’s see if it could be a musical, and it never changed.

From the very first draft, we wrote sample lyrics of where we thought songs would land. When we worked with the songwriters, we took their advice on where the songs should go, and it turned out that we were pretty close in those initial drafts of where there were songs. There were some places that we had put songs in that we ultimately took out before we ever shot the movie and other places where we maybe moved a song to a new place, but for the most part, in that very first draft, a lot of the places that we had songs ended up being in the film. So what we would do is write sample lyrics so that people that were reading the script would get an idea. And then when Pasek and Paul came on board, we worked with them and really honed all that and zeroed in on it a lot more.

What is the process of getting Pasek and Paul? I imagine they’re inundated with requests and offers all the time.

It was pretty easy for us. They were our first choice because they write incredibly catchy songs, but they also have a great sense of humor when they need to, in their songs. So we went to them first, we had a meeting, and I think they were excited by the cast that we had and the quirky Christmas movie idea, so they kind of jumped right in. So it was a rare time where you kind of make your first choice, and you get your first choice.

Because Will and Ryan are also producers on the film, how did it evolve once they became involved?

Well, there’s almost too much to explain there. Things can adjust just in a conversation where somebody will say something funny and you’ll think, ‘Oh, that’s great, we should really put that in.’ And then there’s things that are more official where somebody will pitch an idea. For example, the song “Good Afternoon” was Ryan’s idea. We had the Good Afternoon material in the script, and Ryan had just kind of asked the question on a Zoom conversation, ‘Could Good Afternoon be a song?’ We really liked the idea but we couldn’t figure out how it fit. Because in a musical, you can’t just stop and do a song, it has to further the story in some way. We thought it’s a really funny idea, but how do we use it to tell the story? So when we went back in and we were looking at that part of the script, there had been a scene in there that was — the point of that moment was the two characters starting to bond a bit. So we thought, ‘What if Clint is using Good Afternoon to kind of get Present to loosen up a little bit and have a little bit of fun, and kind of cheer him up?’ Because he’s in a bit of a funk at that moment.

All of those elements were already in the script, so we went through and said, ‘Okay, how about they’re having this conversation in the pub, and then he starts to sing,’ and then that evolves. We had a big conversation with everybody on a Zoom and just brainstorming ideas, and there was always this thought of ‘Consider Yourself’ from ‘Oliver!’ and wouldn’t it be fun to kind of do our own version of ‘Consider Yourself’ that’s just completely off the rails? So that’s just one example of how things evolve.

The film’s aesthetic approach mirrors the experience of making an actual movie, where you’re not hiding the lights and instead incorporating them into the sets and musical numbers. How did you hit upon that approach and execute it?

You’re the first person who’s actually mentioned those two things, and I love it. Because when we first started talking about it, you can’t just go in and haunt somebody. There has to be some forethought. There has to be some research, there has to be some work. And then we thought, well, what are the ghosts really doing? They’re kind of putting on a show. They’re showing up and they’ve got a structure and they’ve got a presentation and then they’ve got drama, and they’ve got excitement, and we thought well, it’s a lot like making a movie.

So we modeled Ghost World and the ghost crew after a film crew, and that was fun for us. In fact, we had probably a few too many inside baseball references to filmmaking that we ended up losing. But there’s a few that I think go by most people like, for example, when the Ghost of Christmas Past goes in, she says, ‘Okay, last looks’ which we say when we’re about to shoot. So there’s little things like that.

I really wanted to do a hybrid between a stage musical and a movie musical. So two things that we did is we just let the lighting gear just be in frame whenever there was a physical number, because when you go to a Broadway show, you can just look up and see the gear and it’s exciting, right? Then we had a core team of dancers of about around 30 dancers, and they became kind of like our Broadway chorus, where they’re in the background throughout the movie. A lot of them have lines and play bit parts as we go, and they’re in different wigs and beards and whatever. If you pay attention, we did that the way that a stage chorus works, where you’re utilizing your dancers and singers throughout the story in the background. So we made a few intentional choices like that, just to give it a bit more of a theatrical feeling.

It also allows you to be more cinematic, and really embrace a theatrical approach to the lighting design without it feeling off-tone.

We hired Don Holder who’s a Tony Award-winning Broadway lighting designer, and Don did not skimp on the gear (laughs). Don brought he brought a lot to it and made those numbers just look exquisite.

It feels like an adaptation of a hit Broadway musical that does not exist yet. Are there conversations about taking this to Broadway and turning into a stage musical?

Yes, I would very much like to adapt it for the stage. That would be a huge thrill.

I wanted to ask about the ending, which I found refreshing and surprising in that Ryan’s character dies. What conversations went into that? Were there debates?

Well, first of all, it took a long time, we had that idea of from pretty early on, wouldn’t it be great if we could get to the end and Clint could take over? But that is a lot easier said than done, and then as we were working our way through the story, there was a way that presented itself and there were people questioning, can we do this? Is the audience gonna go along with it? For us, it was an incredibly exciting challenge to kill one of our movie stars at the end of the movie and still walk away with a happy ending feel-good movie. That’s one of the things I’m actually most proud of.

There’s a real thematic heft to it, and the decision feels not only earned but inevitable by the time you get to the end of the movie.

I appreciate that. It is really difficult, and it was a ton of work and there are a million choices to make. Everybody kind of comes in with their own baggage, and everybody reacts differently, especially when you’re doing – we, from the beginning, wanted to do a big feel-good Christmas Extravaganza, and some people love that and some people not so much. But we just thought, no, we want to embrace this, we want to go big with the musical numbers. We want a lot of twists and turns, we don’t want it to follow the usual structure. We don’t want it to just be a modern retelling of “A Christmas Carol,” we wanted to be something completely new.