by Christine Wolkin
Christmas is for kids … and we all stay kids.
Filmmaker and Chestnut Hill native Andrew Repasky McElhinney, 39, reminds us of this in his new whimsical holiday season feature, “Christmas Dreams; The Little Drummer Boy Meets the Nutcracker,” on which McElhinney collaborated with composer and producer Michael Rapp and partner Gene Foehl.
Told without any dialogue, the movie presents a series of inventive dance sequences linked to the simple tale of a contemporary Little Drummer Boy (played by Conrad Sager) trying to win the heart of a pretty girl (Francesca Flamminio). Meanwhile, a magical toymaker keeps an eye on this youthful pair as their dreams spin them through vibrant fantasy detours before settling in a delightful reality.
“Michael and Gene had a rough vision for a feature length children’s holiday film that would fuse two interconnected dreams, one about the Little Drummer Boy, you know, ba-rump- a-rum-rump, and the little girl from The Nutcracker, and they needed a director,” said McElhinney, who immediately jumped at the opportunity.
“I love the idea that this is a motion picture that people can watch with their families every year,” he explained. “I was also deeply interested in the movie taking place largely in dreamscapes and the idea of interconnected dreams or lovers who dream together.”
The movie opens up to a winter wonderland, where a beautifully choreographed snowball fight between the village children quickly ensues to the beat of a rock rendition of Dance of “The Sugar Plum Fairy.” The film’s soundtrack is a mix of Christmas favorites by Rapp, while Philadelphia choreographer and teaching artist Jenn Rose’s choreography presents an innovative blending of ballet and musical comedy theater.
McElhinney said he enjoyed working on “Christmas Dreams” because it gave him a chance to work with new collaborators. “The choreographer Jenn Rose had been hired before I was,” said Andrew, “and our discussions were essential to shaping Michael and Gene’s movie. Jenn and I got along right from the start. We’re both Broadway Babies at heart and big fans of Busby Berkeley and Bob Fosse. I think we watched Ken Russell’s film of Tommy to get in the mood at our first script conference.
“Along with producer Kim Lenny, who is one of the best eyes for young talent out there, Jenn and I auditioned the dancers and actors together over a period of about a month, both in Philly and New York. The child actors were all fantastic — so professional and so enthusiastic — with great parents, and the kids’ energy never failed.”
Weaving together seamlessly all of the components that make this movie so magical — from the music and the choreography, to his own camerawork — McElhinney makes it look easy, but every film comes with its own unique set of challenges, he insists. “All but two shots, adding up to less than 40 seconds of screen time in the movie (an overhead shot and a close up on a Nutcracker doll), have some component of computer generated imagery.”
The movie was shot over six weeks entirely on a soundstage and features extensive special effects and CGI, making it the largest, independent movie ever produced in Philadelphia. “Special effects, like action scenes, almost always take longer to shoot than dialogue, and this eats up a huge amount of on-set time,” he said. “You’re doing everything shot-by-shot or frame-by-frame. Then in post-production, special effects again add a huge amount of time, as you’re negotiating the seamless fusing of two elements: ‘real’ live action and ‘irreal’ computer-generated special effects. But you know, filmmaking is problem solving!” McElhinney’s favorite part of the shoot was the week they spent shooting the center- piece Christmas Eve party sequence. “I really tried to give it that ‘Magnificent Ambersons’ vibe with a little of the wedding at the top of ‘The Godfather’ tossed on top.”
“Christmas Dreams” is McElhinney’s fifth feature film. His other works include “Magdalen” (1998), “A Chronicle of Corpses” (2000), which was named one of the top 10 films of that year by a New York Times film critic, “Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye” (2003) and “Animal Husbandry” 2008. McElhinney currently has a film in post-production that connects several famous Philadelphia true crime stories from the last 25 years.
In addition to being an active theater and film director as well as a scriptwriter, McElhinney teaches at Rutgers University. His cinema work is in the permanent collection of MOMA: The Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
To watch Christmas Dreams, visit McElhinney’s website at ARMcinema25.com.