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Filmmaking 101: Getting Inspiration from Where You Least Expect it


A still from ‘Mercy Christmas’

Where does any idea come from?

Screenwriting teachers will tell you to write from your life. Well, “Teach”, I want to make high concept stories with fight scenes lasting seven minutes, limbs getting hacked off, and a person’s head catching on fire.

I’ve never experienced any of that.

So, where the hell did the idea for my film Mercy Christmas come from? A story chock full of blood, guts, cannibalism, dark humor, and yuletide cheer.

Well, I’ll tell you. When I was a kid, Christmas with my family was a really big event. My mom would kick into high gear the moment we finished eating Thanksgiving turkey. Put the fork down, it’s time for Christmas. Like clockwork, my brother and I could depend on the exact same details every year.

Day One: Decorations came pouring out of the attic. Holiday hand towels, potholders, candy dishes, doorknob danglers, plates, and mugs. Not to mention those damn Dickens houses placed on white cotton.

Day Two: Get the tree. An event held holy in our family because only the perfect tree would do. A seven foot tall, full-bellied, triangle topped Douglas fir.

Day Three: Mom spent the entire day in the kitchen baking at least twelve kinds of Christmas cookies. Sand Tarts, Press Cookies, Wreath Cookies, Buckeyes, Iced Cookies, Kolatchkies and a few others I never ate because they had nuts.

Beth Levy Nelson & Ryan Nelson at Shriekfest

This all seemed utterly normal to me. That is until I brought Beth Levy Nelson, my future wife, co-writer, and collaborator, home for her first Christmas. You see, Beth is Jewish and Christmas wasn’t much more than a day her family ate Chinese food. So, needless to say, she was a little stunned by our yearly attempt at a Norman Rockwell holiday.

By stunned, I mean she was amazed! Like a kid at Christmas, she fell in love with the insanity of decorating a perfect tree, eating for days on end and playing old board games as we watched classic Christmas movies. Speaking of classic Christmas movies, I assumed everybody had seen them all.

Not Beth, of course. Growing up, she spent her winter holiday evenings eating latkes, lighting a menorah, and giving one gift each night. One gift? What kind of insanity is that? Everyone knows the holidays are about gluttony. A time when you are supposed to shower loved ones with a present you really thought about and thirty tiny presents you picked up in the checkout line.

But, I digress. Beth’s family had their own unique traditions. I learned that right away celebrating Passover later that spring for the first time with her family. In fact, I also learned something else. Beth’s family traditions, however different in practice, were very similar to my own family’s traditions.

In preparation for Passover, Beth’s mom began the brisket, potato kugel muffins, and matzo ball soup days before the meal. On the morning of Passover, things happened the same way each year. Beth and her brother set the tables while bickering about who sits where. Her dad practiced the Haggadah text. And the whole family chipped in with tables and chairs for forty guests.

Being with Beth, showed me something about holidays I never understood before I met her. Traditions are as important to family as love and acceptance. Having tradition is a common thread all people share. It doesn’t matter what holiday we practice, each family has its own unique way of celebrating.

When Beth and I started making movies together, we were always looking for ideas we could both relate to. It’s a long, tough road making a feature film. We’re often asked how a couple can stay married throughout the process. My first suggestion is to find a concept both people have passion for and care deeply about.

For Beth and I, our loved ones and family traditions became something we knew we wanted to share with an audience. We knew people could relate to our characters’ yearly traditions, bubbly holiday cheer, and conversations centered at the dinner table. Our life became our art.

A still from ‘Mercy Christmas’

In Mercy Christmas, Bart brings home his fiancé Denise for the first Christmas, as I did with Beth. We gave Cindy, the daughter, Beth’s own desire to carry on her mother’s culinary legacy. Granny has the sharp no-nonsense wit of both our grandmas. And Michael Briskett got my mom’s innocent hope for a white Christmas.

A few years ago, when Beth and I were looking for a concept for our first feature film, we found the inspiration where we were least expecting it – family traditions. Our holidays gave us the springboard for the twisted idea of the Robillard family in Mercy Christmas. The Robillards are a very normal family with their own special traditions. Of course, their traditions are more sinister, but we worked very hard to make them relatable to the audience.

The Robillard family in Mercy Christmas cherishes their traditions. The family’s most important tradition centers on food and a feast like many of us share on the holidays. Their meat of choice just happens to be human as opposed to turkey, ham, or roast beef. Tonally, this became a perfect vessel for the dark humor in our script, an element Beth and I worked hard to balance with the horror.

Behind the scenes of ‘Mercy Christmas’

In creating the story, we felt it very important to make the Robillard family as much like our families as possible. We wanted them to appear like your neighbors. Through that process, we found the Robillards to be much scarier because they could literally be living next door. No, this family doesn’t hide in the shadows. In fact, you probably see them at church each week.

Our goal with Mercy Christmas is to showcase the love, tradition, and absurdity the holidays hold tucked within a horror film. We created a story people could relate to, but could also really enjoy as a wild ride. Sure, Mercy Christmas has its share of blood, severed limbs, and cannibalism, but it’s also chock full of holiday cheer!

And like all the classic Christmas movies, Mercy Christmas centers on the most important part of the season – family.

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