Charles Poekel has been busy of late. While his debut feature “Christmas, Again” has just hit theaters for the holidays, a time when filmmakers can generally finally let go of their film for audiences to enjoy, Poekel is returning to work at McGolrick Trees, the fir seller he started in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to serve as inspiration for his film six years ago. With the film finally wrapped, he expects his career in strapping trees to the top of people’s cars will be too.
“I never expected to do it for this long, and I’ve really just really come to love it,” said Poekel, who was just finishing up an afternoon shift when he called. “The interactions with the people in the neighborhood are just really special, so it’s bittersweet.”
That bittersweetness extends to “Christmas, Again,” which as suggested by its opening title card that “sometime fairly recently in New York,” occupies a place between the past and present, sanguine in the idea that Poekel came to learn from his experience that “someone who’s there for one month out of the year can have more of a role in the community than someone who’s there full-time.” His surrogate in the film, the serendipitously named Noel (Kentucker Audley), wouldn’t seem to leave much of an impression at first, disappearing into his trailer on the tree lot when not showing off Douglas firs and Colorado Blue Spruces to holiday shoppers.
The holidays give him purpose, but also an unfortunate reminder of his own isolation as he sells to people with families, friends and significant others who he can’t help but slightly envy. Poekel sensitively illustrates Noel’s predicament and adds intrigue when he introduces Lydia (Hannah Gross), a woman Noel stumbles upon at a park bench who is unaware of where she is even once she wakes up the next morning sober. Together, the two threaten to get some holiday cheer out of shaking up each other’s routine.
Though it ably carries the weight of memories of years gone by, “Christmas, Again” is also as light as so much tinsel, with a soft-spoken Audley and Gross allowed to inhabit their characters so thoroughly that the smallest of actions feel powerful. Despite Poekel’s first-time status, there’s a steady hand guiding such an unshowy and graceful effort with notable contributions from cinematographer Sean Price Williams (“Heaven Knows What”), casting director/associate producer Eléonore Hendricks, who gives the film a jolt of realism with her choice of customers, and editor Robert Greene. As the film rolls out to theaters including a weeklong run in Los Angeles, Poekel reflected on what has become a significant chapter in his life, filming on a tree lot while actually operating it as a business, and what life after the lot might be like.
If you worked at the stand to prepare for the film, did you have much of a story in mind or did your experience really end up shaping it?
I started the stand after I had an idea to make the movie. I just knew that it would be too hard to get someone else to donate a location for us, and I really wanted to learn first-hand what it was like selling trees. Originally, it was kind of a neo-noir, but that was a little too plot heavy, and this was going to be my first feature. I had worked in documentaries, and a lot of that deals with character and nuance, so once I started selling trees and really started to get to know the fundamental connection between the tree sellers and the customers, at that point, I started gravitating more towards that connection. Then it became more of a drama and a character study.
There are still notes of a neo-noir in there, with the enigma of Lydia and a few nods like the radio play Noel stays up listening to one evening. Where did the latter come from?
That was a personal thing. My wife and I were driving back from New Hampshire a couple of years ago. She was driving and I was napping and she had found the old time radio station on Sirius, and they were replaying this series called “The Chase.“ It was this same episode that [Noel] listens to called “Lucifer.” I woke up toward the end of it, and my wife was gripping the steering wheel — she was just so involved in this episode — and it was just so surreal to me that I wrote it into the screenplay.
Did your background in documentary encourage you to let reality bleed a little bit into the film and vice-versa? I’ve heard some of the customers in the film are real.
Yeah, from the get-go, the idea was to have a very realistic, naturalistic feel similar to the documentaries that I had been working on and exposed to. I had worked with Sean [Price Williams], my cinematographer, on documentaries, so I understood his style, and his aesthetic, and I wanted to bring that into the story. Every day had its improvised moments and episodes of spontaneity.
I had the stand running for three years before we shot it and it was a little bit of a difficult balance between the business side of it and making the movie, because we were open selling trees while we were shooting. We’d often times have to stop a scene and help a customer. Most of our cast and crew would help out and sell a tree. When one of our [production assistants] was sitting around and a customer came and we’d be filming, he helped the customer. The line between the business and the movie was definitely very blurred. I think that helped Kentucker as an actor, too. It was more experiential for him and I think that can be very difficult for actors when they’re asked to step into worlds that they have no familiarity with, so we actually had him at the stand, learning those ropes [of selling a tree] before we started shooting.
The cinematography in the film is quite beautiful and the lights throughout the film — not just the Christmas lights, but street lamps and others — have a very specific glow to it. Did you use a particular lens, or whether that was just shooting on 16 mm that achieved that look?
It’s a little bit of all those things. Shooting on film makes colors and lights have a little more of a richness, and a texture than digital can. Sean wanted to use some old ‘70s lenses because the irises only have three blades instead of five, so out-of-focus lights appear more like a triangle — almost like a Christmas tree — than it does a circle. And especially at night, these tree stands are almost an oasis of light, in New York at least, so that was something we were trying to convey.
Did the weather cooperate?
It was a really cold winter when we were shooting, and if we were in the trailer, half our crew would have to be outside because we couldn’t fit them in the trailer. We shot a lot of it at night, so we had a lot of hand and foot warmers.
If this is your last year at the stand and you’ve got this film coming out, it must feel like completing an chapter in your life to some degree. Does this mean something different to you now than when you first started?
Yeah, it really does, more so in that the curtain’s been pulled back for me, and I’ve been part of the industry and part of that whole process, so I’m going to definitely have a lot more appreciation of the season moving forward. At the same time, it’s going to be nice to finally get my holidays back. I usually set up the stand on Thanksgiving night, and often take it down on Christmas Eve. My family is going to be very excited to start seeing me again.
“Christmas, Again” opens on December 11th in Los Angeles at the NoHo 7, Port Orchard, Washington at the Dragonfly Cinema, Columbus, Ohio at the Gateway Cinema and in Cincinnati, Ohio at the Esquire Cinema, and will open at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago on December 18th. A full list of theaters and dates is here. It is also now available on Fandor, Amazon Video, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.