Interview with Lewis Jackson, Director of ‘Christmas Evil’ (AKA ‘You Better Watch Out’)
Interview conducted by Marc Patterson
This year Lewis Jackson’s cult holiday classic, Christmas Evil, (or as it SHOULD be known –You Better Watch Out), is finally getting a long overdue theatrical screening in the UK hosted by our friends at Cigarette Burns Cinema. With the shake of a few hands, and a wink of an eye, we managed to get in touch with Mr. Jackson and talk about the film, which John Waters has called “The greatest Christmas movie ever made”. As it turned out we were the lucky first interview of the holiday season.
Brutal As Hell: So this film has been around for nearly 30 years now. How do you find this process, talking about the film year after year?
Lewis Jackson: It was very exciting at the beginning because the film had been ignored for so many years. You know, this whole thing started with John Waters. When the film came out I was vilified and basically my producer lost rights and the film started to get bootlegged and it was a horrifying experience. I got to live out an egotistical dream of making exactly the movie I wanted to make only to discover the distribution process was destroying me. And then John started to talk about the film and kind of revived my own desire to take it over again.
At some point John has become a fine artist and he does shows in museums and art galleries, and he did a show at the Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh. Part of that show included a film festival of his favorite films. Out of the clear blue sky I got a call; would I be part of this, and would I take the print to Pittsburgh and do a couple of shows? That started this whole process again.
BAH: Now when did this take place?
LJ: That was about 2005.
BAH: That’s about the time Synapse came out with your DVD release.
LJ: Well Synapse was the year after. What happened was I had started the process to take the film back from bootleggers – and it was a two-year process.
I had two producers on the film, one of which had passed away. The other of whom was a difficult person, and I had to reconnect with him. I got him involved and I had to prove the rights to the movie. As my lawyer had told me the production company name was right on the title card underneath the title. Now the thing is, when the film came out it was called You Better Watch Out and so the famous anonymous “They” changed it to Christmas Evil. And I had nothing to do with it, but I still retained my print of my movie.
BAH: Which is the title card that we see.
LJ: Yes, on the Synapse film.
LJ: Ironically – from my point of view – I’ve basically reached nirvana considering the fight to get this film recognized. This year the film is on Turner Classic Films on December 23rd at 11 o’ clock at night West Coast time, and in the program it’s listed as You Better Watch Out. So finally, I’m in the canon, so to speak. Turner is doing a whole month of Christmas movies and there’s only one more night of movies after this, so that’s very exciting.
BAH: And you’re at the best end of it since most people watch the films closer to Christmas.
LJ: Well for me there’s something exciting about the movie being shown the night before Christmas Eve. It could only get better to have the film shown on Christmas Eve, but the fact that’s it’s showing that close to Christmas Eve is good enough for me.
BAH: And Josh [of Cigarette Burns Cinema] is showing it theatrically in the UK for the first time too.
LJ: Yes, he said he saw the film and loved it. Luckily, I keep crossing paths with John Waters and we’ve become friends. And John travels around annually and he has his Christmas show doing a stand up act, which is basically his attitude about Christmas. He doesn’t seem to be touring the states this year, but he’s doing it in London two nights before the Cigarette Burns screening. So I contacted him and John’s going to promote the screening because he always talks about the film at his Christmas show, anyway.
BAH: Oh that’s even better. Now to be honest, and this isn’t a lie – this is one of my favorite Christmas films. I’ve never really seen it as a horror film. More like a black comedy.
LJ: It was always intended to be more than a horror film. The story that I tell is that the reason I got this made – and it was a long process – was that Halloween came out and it made a lot of money. The idea, as is always the idea with Hollywood, was “Let’s make holiday horror movies”. So suddenly I have a Christmas horror movie and nobody had dared to deal with that outside of Black Christmas, which is essentially a slasher movie using Christmas, but doesn’t really deal with Christmas. I’ve buried myself in Christmas lore for years and I had this material. And people’s eyes got very large and like a Warner Brothers cartoon and had dollar signs in them, not really understanding what it was I was seeing. But they didn’t interfere with me and I just went to town. In terms of independent film I broke a lot of barriers, and I don’t think that filmmakers can do today what I did then because the circumstances were right and I was young enough, and naive enough, to think that I could just do whatever I wanted, and I did just that.
BAH: I’ve heard that you came up with the story one night after smoking, or whatever. Was there something deeper to it that made this idea come around?
LJ: I was alone in 1970’s. I was in my early 20’s. I was smoking a joint and had an image of the Santa with a knife. It was nothing more than that.
Developing that idea into something else was just a lot of hard work and letting it evolve. The final script reflects eight years of changes. When I first wrote it I ran through what I wrote and I hated it and I threw it in the drawer. Then later I took it out and re-wrote it again. Again I didn’t like what I had. In the interim I had made two really low budget films, a soft-core film and a drive-in movie, and I started getting work writing screenplays and all of that led back to the script. I went off at some point to a yurt in Vermont and huddled in this little house and someone read the script and said – “You know you should just do the final draft. Really, you’re close”. And that’s when things started taking off. So it was never something instantaneous and I was not really seeking to make just a horror movie, because my favorites directors were Hitchcock, Fritz Lang and of all people, Douglas Sirk.
BAH: I was going to say something about Hitchcock later. I might as well say it now since you brought it up. When you watch the film, there are definite moments, like in the scene with the nutcracker and it’s like the shower scene in Psycho. You have the music cues and the stabbing motion with the axe.
LJ: For me the most wonderful moment in my film was at the beginning. In Hitchcock’s Spellbound there’s that scene where the gun is turned around and there’s a riddle about it. It turns out that Hitchcock had built a gun that was far larger than a normal gun and that’s how he accomplished the effect. So I had my crew, in the early scene with the globe, make a giant globe in order to get that shot in close-up. And it’s a giant version of the globe he holds in his hands in the forefront. That was, of all the things I’ve done, that was the glory moment because technically I had copied the master successfully.
BAH: I love that scene and thought it was really well done. A few years ago when we were doing a Christmas special I chose a screenshot of that scene to replace our banner, with the boy in the background, because I thought it was just a beautiful image in the way that it was shot and what it represented with the shattered young kid at Christmas. I’m glad you brought it up.
LJ: Well it’s the technical things, because to make a reference in terms of Lang, this film is very much derived out of him. That’s a critical reference. The scene at the end in the alley, where the kids defend Santa Claus – I spent a lot of time on that. We went into a lower class neighborhood in Jersey. We staged that in the dead of winter and we tried to re-create the Ufa studio look. Ironically I did it so well that one of the studios when they saw the film complained that “Why did you shoot that in a studio? Why didn’t you shoot that in the street?” I broke my fucking ass trying to get this to look like a studio and they didn’t have a clue.
BAH: I thought it did look like a studio.
LJ: Right. And it’s the real deal.
BAH: And it evokes that. Now I want to ask about Harry a little bit because I often, when I see the film, and I’ve seen it a few times now, it’s really a character study in how Harry moves from being that shattered boy into the Santa Claus. I’ve often wondered if he believes in the idea of Santa. I mean it obviously didn’t completely destroy his belief as a kid. But later in his life he’s waking up in bed with Santa Claus pajamas, and he runs a toy factory, and he keeps his lists and so I just think he’s an interesting character.
LJ: You know there are two elements here. There’s the psychosexual impulse of whatever struck him and you either buy that or you don’t, but at one point – one of the things about the movie – I brought in some of my own lefty views about workers. I felt I kind of anticipated the Reagan revolution. I anticipated this whole takeover by wealthy Americans and so there are two elements. I don’t know if they work perfectly in conjunction, but those are the two elements. I came up this idea that’s obviously a conceit of “I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus” and played it for all its worth.
BAH: At an extreme level.
LJ: Yeah. The thing that differentiates this from most slasher movies, and I don’t really like that term, but the thing that differentiates it is that he’s not going out arbitrarily killing people. He’s killing people who are in his life. That goes back to Hitchcock. There has to be a relationship between the killer and the victim and the only variation on that is the circumstances that allow him to kill someone he doesn’t know at the church – and that tends to make the whole thing confusing to the police and to everyone else. But there’s a personal vendetta here whereas in a slasher movie the intention seems to only be “kill girls who have sex”, which I consider to be part of the Reagan revolution as well, that you’re going to kill girls who give up their virginity, which seems to be shockingly anti-feminist, shockingly right-wing.
BAH: This isn’t a slasher film you created. Here’s a guy who has deep-founded beliefs. He still believes in Christmas.
LJ: Right. He’s crazy. I don’t want you to say he’s not crazy.
BAH: No, he’s crazy. He’s a lunatic.
LJ: But you know – I had done a lot of reading about fascism and how you lead a mob. There were a lot of famous books about that – how a mob is lit. I don’t want to get into high faluting things here but this guy Wilhelm Reich wrote The Mass Psychology of Fascism, which rather than take seriously I turned into a Frankenstein motif at the end.
BAH: The ending is… well the ending is the ending and I don’t want to spoil it for any readers who haven’t seen it, but I know what you’re saying; that motif of the mob chasing him down and backing him up in the alley.
LJ: Well in my original version – and one dreams when one makes a movie – so the way it was described in the script there were a lot more people in the mob and I was going to shoot from the air and the mob was going to look like blood going through the streets. It was going to be a big deal. When push came to shove we had so little money that the crew was the mob. I had to keep shifting those scenes and had the crew be the mob.
BAH: I wanted to ask about that too. I know there were some struggles with getting the film made and the budgets.
LJ: The thing is, what I didn’t know at the time, was my first producer was a guy who had been very wealthy, but who lost all his money on Wall Street, but had been very honorable and paid it back and was still basically playing in Hollywood. What he produced before this was the documentary The Secret Life of Plants, and he got Stevie Wonder to produce the soundtrack, which sold the movie and he was looking to make money back. He was introduced to me at a party and the whole thing got going. So, what I did was I approached a very famous cinematographer that lived in France and he had been shooting for all the great foreign directors. I wrote him a letter on a chance on a whim, and said “Would you shoot this film for me? It’s a low budget film, but it would be a thrill.” And he asked me to come and see him and I got on a plane. And he agreed to do it.
The problem was, when he came over, a couple of days before shooting was going to start, to get the lighting he needed, the people who came with him came into my office and they looked like they had seen a ghost. They said to me “Your budget is $450,000? His lighting budget is $250,000”.
BAH: Oh my God.
LJ: That sent everybody into chaos. But I fought for it and gave up points in the film and they raised more money and he shot the movie.
LJ: There are great stories in this. I’ve wanted to write a book about this, but I’ve not really gotten around to it. Maybe if I pieced together all of these interviews.
BAH: Right. It would all come together, right? (laughs). So you have the Turner movie thing – and the Cigarette Burns screening. Are you playing it out anywhere else this year?
LJ: It’s playing in LA. It’s playing on December 10th at the New Beverly. It plays there every year. They’ll be showing my 35mm print.
BAH: Good, so your 35mm print will get out there. And I know the screening with Cigarette Burns will be a fantastic night, especially with Kim Newman doing the Q&A, and of course Josh who runs Cigarette Burns is doing wonderful things for cult cinema in London. I wish you the very best with that.
Special Note: Christmas Evil will also be playing on December 13th at the Projection Booth in Toronto and on December 16th in Mesa AZ at the Royale.