Interview – Paul Tanter

Personality and a unique take on your subject matter are two of the key elements in creating films that are enjoyable and, ultimately, memorable. Placing a deviously twisted spin on some of your favorite Holiday mythos, Once Upon a Time at Christmas is a film that is definitely a standout – for its deranged humor and wonderfully unique script, excellent acting, and the balls to bloody the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

Behind that film stands Director Paul Tanter, a UK native who began his career as a writer and ultimately parlayed his scripts into a successful and eclectic career in directing. His credits range from gangster and action films, to the vampire series Age of the Living Dead, to, most recently, the brand new, aforementioned Horror/Slasher flick Once Upon a Time at Christmas. Ready to talk blood in the snow and the inspirational qualities of vodka, Tanter sat down for a candid conversation about film, Christmas, casting, and Horror. – Everybody has to start somewhere. You have a lengthy and varied resume of work to your credit as a director, writer, producer, and even actor. What inspired you to go into film-making?

Paul Tanter – Well, I always knew I wanted to be a writer – and after a period doing short stints for a few magazines and radio stations I thought I would go into journalism. A chance connection with a film producer who was looking for a writer to rework a script he had ended up getting me my first job. That led to writing a couple of scripts from scratch and also some graphic novels (Jack Says and Jack Said).

By the time we got to the third film (Jack Falls, 2011), I’d had enough of seeing other directors adapt my scripts in ways I didn’t entirely agree with, so I then asked the producer if I could direct the next one. He very graciously let me – and that got me started directing, which I fell in love with very quickly. I do love being able to tell stories and create characters, in my own voice. – There is nothing better than being able to have your credit voice heard and heard exactly how you hear it inside your own head! Your most recent release, Once Upon A Time At Christmas, is clearly not the work of a first-time director. Please tell us a bit about the roads that you have travelled to get to the here and now.

Paul Tanter – I’ve done a fair bit to get here! In the UK I’ve done a lot of gangster, hooligan and Action films such as The Rise & Fall of a White Collar Hooligan (2012), The Fall of The Essex Boys and Kill Ratio (2013), but lately it’s been more TV – the vampire series Age of the Living Dead and time travel show Dystopia would both probably count as Sci-Fi, while No Easy Days is a mix of politics and action. It terms of this genre, my film Shame the Devil (2013) had some Horror elements, but to me it was more a police procedural. Once Upon a Time at Christmas is my first full-on Horror/Slasher film, and I loved making it.

Momentum Pictures – That shows in the final product: it is just a fun film. Now, obviously Once Upon A Time At Christmas is a Holiday-themed Horror flick. That is a somewhat obscure idea. What inspired the idea to put a bloody spin on the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year?”

Paul Tanter – When you start looking for them, there’s actually quite a few holiday-based Horrors – although I didn’t watch any before shooting as I didn’t want to see something that I’d then consciously or unconsciously steal from. Myself and Simon were keen to do a Horror and the more we talked about ideas, the more we liked the idea of setting one at Christmas and basing it around a psychotic Santa and Mrs. Claus terrorizing a small American town that’s virtually cut off from the outside world by snow drifts.

There’s so many myths, stories, and songs based around Christmas that we wanted to use something as a basis for the killings and for the investigation into it. I won’t give away what the killings are based on, but it’s something very Christmassy! – All this killing at Christmas: are you not a fan of the holiday?

Paul Tanter – (Laughs) I’m a fan of the time you get to see friends and family, and it’s always nice to have an excuse to drink prosecco at 10 AM, but I could do with less adverts and hordes of Christmas shoppers getting in my way when I’m trying to walk down Oxford Street! – Indeed, Christmas has become overly-commercialized, but that is a whole other conversation! One can assume that, as a little boy, you did not necessarily hear “Eight maids-a-milking” and think of blood and psychotic murder, so what inspired the evil twist on the 12 Days of Christmas that is at the center of Once Upon A Time At Christmas?

Paul Tanter – We went through a massive list of Christmas-related stories, songs, myths, religious texts – you name it. There’s something about the cumulative nature of that particular song that lends itself very well to a killing spree – as the numbers increase; so do the stakes and the tension. – It is such a fun idea, in a twisted sense of the word “fun.” Obviously, your lead actor, Simon Phillips, and yourself authored the concept behind the screenplay. What were the two of you thinking (or drinking) when dreaming up this project?

Paul Tanter – We were mainly thinking that we wanted to stamp our own take on the Slasher genre, setting a suitably crazy concept against the backdrop of a police investigation in a Twin Peaks type town. However, there is a good chance we were drinking vodka and diet coke for some of the discussions!

Once Upon a Time at Christmas still. – Ah, sweet vodka, queen of the muses. The film itself is a fun viewing that pushes aside all the real-life stress and chaos inherent in December, and allows your main characters – the psychotic Mr. and Mrs. Claus – to bring their own brand of fictional mayhem to this month. Sayla de Goede’s character, as Mrs. Claus, conjures comparisons to Suicide Squad’s Harley Quinn. Presumably that was intentional and a boost to the merry mayhem?

Paul Tanter – Sayla’s Mrs. Claus definitely has a nod and a wink to Ms. Quinn, for sure. I think there’s an element of Natural Born Killers (1994) to the pair, as well as Harley and The Joker, but I’m also pleased to say that Sayla brought something of herself to the role too. My direction to her for the character was “be batshit crazy” and, bless her, she pulled it off. – Yes, not many sane people can do “batshit crazy,” but Sayla does a splendidly fun job! On a similar note, how did you go about casting the film?

Paul Tanter – Some of the actors we had worked with before and others either came via recommendations or we auditioned via Skype and self-tapes. Getting non-union talent is always a challenge, but I was hugely pleased with the excellent cast we assembled, who braved extreme Canadian cold and long night shoots to go the extra mile for the film. – It is wonderful when you can find a talented cast who are also committed to the project and not simply wanting the paycheck at the end! That said, many of your cast are Brits. Why set the film in upstate New York?

Paul Tanter – Actually, there’s only two – Simon playing Santa, and myself playing the Coroner. I didn’t plan on playing any role as acting is something I really don’t aspire to, but sometimes on a low budget shoot you have to jump in to save money, fix it when an actor is unavailable, etc. It’s set in upstate New York as we wanted to make it U.S. set as I think the most credible Horror films are set there, and that area is perfect for those isolated small towns up in the snow that get cut off during bad winters.

Once Upon a Time at Christmas still. – Upstate New York does have an excellent sense of isolation, so that makes perfect sense. Now, for many years, Horror films have sought to gratuitously splash as much gore across the screen as possible, though, in recent years that seems to be receding a bit. Considering the premise of the movie, the splatter-factor here is not too over-the-top. How conscious of the gore factor were you in making the film?

Paul Tanter – We were conscious that it was a Slasher film – so a certain amount of gore is expected. That said; although the concept itself is fantastical, it’s still grounded in the real world, so we wanted any injuries, bloodwork, etc. to reflect reality. I think we managed the right balance between realism and enough for gore-hounds through a mixture of on-set practical SFX and some further VFX in post. – It is an excellent balance – there is blood, but it is not too much splash-the-walls with guts gore. That said, there is already a sequel, Twice Upon A Time At Christmas, in pre-production. What can fans expect from that film, and should we expect a third installment in the series, as well?

Paul Tanter – We’re excited that the response to Once Upon a Time at Christmas has already made talk of a sequel possible. I won’t give away who lives and who dies in this one, but let’s say that the story has a way of continuing in the next, as well as exploring some characters backstories a little more. The audience can expect an even bigger and bolder story – more killings, more action, more scares, more of everything. Yes – I’d love to do a third if the opportunity presents itself. – Perhaps we will be seeing a ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas theme somewhere along the way. Beyond the Christmas series, what can fans look forward to from you next?

Paul Tanter – We’ll start shooting the second season of Age of the Living Dead soon – it’s about a near future in which a vampire outbreak in the U.S. has been contained by the rest of the world by building huge walls along the American borders, trapping everyone inside. The vampires and the surviving humans come to a truce, with vampires living on the east coast and humans on the west, with a no man’s land in the middle. Humans provide the vamps with weekly blood donations to keep them from attacking, but both sides are secretly planning to destroy the other while the rest of the world plots and interferes. I’m so pleased with and proud of season one that I can’t wait to get back to making more. – That absolutely sounds like a series that is worth binge-watching! Last question. covers films – particularly Horror and Sci-Fi flicks – as well as music. Assuming that you do indeed enjoy Horror films, what are some of your favorites in the genre and/or in Sci-Fi, as well?

Paul Tanter – My all-time favorite Horror is probably The Omen (1976). I was watching it on TV again recently and it’s amazing how shocking and scary it is even now; it just induces such a sense of dread and fear in you when watching it.

I’m also a huge Sci-Fi fan with my favorites being Sunshine (2007), Children of Men (2006) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Our spaceship-set Sci-Fi The Last Scout was out earlier this year, and I want to do more of that kind of thing.


For more on Paul Tanter: Facebook | Twitter 

For more on Once Upon a Time at Christmas: Facebook | Twitter

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