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Scoring “Christmas Eve” With Composer Christian Davis

Max Casella (left) and Jon Heder (right) are amongst the actors playing people stuck in elevators in “Chrstmas Eve.”

The holidays came early for composer Christian Davis.  His most recent project, “Christmas Eve”, paired him with his father, director Mitch Davis, who he worked closely throughout the process of getting the film off the ground – an activity composers are rarely involved with.

“I was giving script notes from the beginning.  I don’t give other directors script notes,” said Davis.  “It was fun to bounce ideas around.  He didn’t always take my opinions, but he did respect them.”

The film focuses on four different groupings of people, played by actors including Patrick Stewart, Jon Heder and Cheryl Hines,  that are stuck in four different New York City elevators on Christmas Eve.  The indie dramedy focuses on interpersonal relationships and self-recognition.  Noting the Christmas Eve setting acted as a side note, Davis had a lot of musical freedom to stray from typical holiday sounds and melodies.  While he did experiment with a conventional, grand score, he settled into creating a “indie band version” of a score that matched the intimacy of the small spaces represented throughout the script.

“The script was more like a stage play, it was never a jolly, Santa Claus, ‘Miracle on 34th St.’ production,” said Davis.  “I turned to synths, piano, guitar to find the magic in the story.”

Davis opted to bridge the various scenes together with music that weaves over-arching universal themes of love, hope and heartbreak as opposed to highlighting specific character arcs.  While each elevator segment acts as a stand-alone story, he focused on gluing each segment together, providing a cohesion throughout the movie.  Davis played the majority of the instruments himself, utilizing a music program to layer the piano, guitar, synth and percussion sections.

The one exception to both the musical style and the orchestration involved a group of chamber musicians caught in the elevator.  The introduction of this group, who were on their way to a Christmas concert, presented Davis with the opportunity to arrange two holiday classics: “Silent Night” and “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”  Using professional musicians to capture the right tone and musicality, “Silent Night” was presented as an improvisation piece begun with a solo violin and encompassing the remaining instruments: cello, tuba, trombone and flute.  While the reworking of “Silent Night” was rather straight forward for Davis, “I’ll be Home for Christmas” proved to be more daunting.

“It starts with a violinist improve, then grows to a montage as the power comes on. The music gets big and epic,” said Davis.  “It wasn’t daunting to arrange the Christmas classic, but it took a few takes to make the arrangement work in a cinematic version.”

A classical violinist was cast for the part, providing Davis an additional and unexpected opportunity – to learn more about bowing on the violin.  While Davis was classically trained, he concedes it is not his expertise.  The violinist had been playing since she was three, and was able to share some important tips in handling the music that both educated Davis for future compositions and enhanced the solo portion of “Silent Night” in “Christmas Eve.”

The post production process on “Christmas Eve” allowed Davis to return to training he received when he was starting his career, cutting his chops at Hans Zimmer’s studio.  Large budget features often have a more ample post schedule, where scenes are changed, rearranged or cut all together.  This requires the score to be rearranged and adjusted to accommodate those changes.  “You are constantly chasing the edit,” said Davis of the process on a large budget feature.  However, smaller budget indies rarely have the time or finances for extensive revisions.  Davis’ father wanted to get a great deal of feedback before releasing “Christmas Eve” and held a number of screenings of the movie, resulting in the team’s revisiting of the editorial structure.

“We had a 180 degree change.  It was more work but it benefited the film, we had a positive reaction to the changes,” said Davis.

Working with composing software allows for changes to be managed efficiently and quickly.  While the revisions require some creative reimagining, Davis welcomes the chance to make the changes that service the film.

“It’s the director’s baby,” said Davis.  “You never get too attached to the music until it’s done. Plus, the first idea generally isn’t always the best.”