Writer, director and Academy member David E. Talbert has directed films like Almost Christmas, El Camino Christmas and Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, which debuts on Netflix Nov. 13.
Growing up in a Holiness Church, there was no better theater than the church sisters who started shouting and their purse fell and they stopped shouting to get their purse and make sure nobody was getting their money. There’s no better theater than the Black church in the most beautiful way. That was my introduction to the study of people, of characters, the study of words. My great-grandmother, Pastor Annie Mae Woods, was my heart. The words that she spoke moved people, touched people and in many ways changed people’s lives. That was my first entry.
I’m a writer who directs. Everything with me is about the written word. I direct because I don’t know if there’s anyone who could bring these characters to life better. But I’m a writer.
As a kid, I would watch Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Dr. Doolittle—all the originals—on television. Every Thanksgiving we watched those, and I couldn’t wait for Thanksgiving to come around again. Every time Willy Wonka came on, it piqued my sense of imagination. It just stayed with me: the spectacle of it and how good it made me feel as a child. And I always wanted to create one of my own that could give that same kind of feeling to the world.
I started writing [Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey] in 1997. It’s the third movie in a trilogy. Almost Christmas was originally called A Meyers Thanksgiving, and the studio asked me to make it a Christmas movie. The second one, El Camino Christmas, was called El Camino, and they changed the title two weeks before it came out. And then this one was called Jingle Jangle and Netflix changed it to Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey.
My inner child needed this film. The child in grown folks needs this film, too. I think that there’s so much fighting to snatch the innocence and imagination and the wonder out of children. So for me, this an opportunity to give it back in a wholesome, imaginative way. Especially with what’s going on with the racial unrest and political unrest and the pandemic, I think the world needs permission to sing again, to laugh again, to rejoice again as a community. And this film, by having Black characters at the center of it, gives us a chance to normalize people of color in these worlds of wonder, and connect us all through song, the universal language.
The throughline of my stories is that all people that do good things aren’t necessarily good people, and all people that do bad things aren’t necessarily bad people. The story of redemption at the heart of this movie … All this mean old Mr. Grinch needed was somebody who cared enough to give him a gift—and his heart just expanded. Thematically, growing up in the church, stories of redemption just moved me. This one just moved me because that character is someone that I really connected to. This little Black boy from D.C. felt connected to this furry green animated character because of his heart. That one’s probably my favorite.
The thing that moved me about this was the Christmas play that Charlie Brown put on and that nobody was feeling him or anything he was doing, and he had blown the chance of his Christmas tree, and he got that little branch and he wrapped it around. And again, it’s a Bible story: the parable of the person who had a little and he got a lot. And Charlie Brown made this little thing into a lot. It moved me. And then, when he put on his church play and he was telling the story of the nativity scene, it reminded me of the very bad Christmas plays that we would put on in church, where I would play a Christmas tree, and nobody remembered their lines, and someone would always scream at my church, “That’s all right, baby. Let the Lord use you.” So again, that reminded me of growing up in the church. It was more spiritual than I would have expected from mainstream animation. It was really a spiritual kind of God-centered piece. And so that connected me to it as a child.
This guy is visited by an angel who takes him on this journey of his life. And again, that kind of spiritual thing of being able to get outside of yourself and see your life through a different prism … It felt like another Bible story to me. I was fascinated by it.
The idea again is someone questioning: What would my life have been if I were never born? And you get a chance to see how many people you’ve touched and how valuable you really are and the impact you’ve made. Even though you may judge yourself based on finances or status in the community, you have no idea the lives you’ve touched and what you mean to people and what your absence would mean to people. And that moved me in that way.
A Christmas Story is just good old-fashioned fun. That shit is just funny. I thought that the storytelling, the narration, the literary stylings were some of the most masterful out there. I remember it piqued my curiosity, just how verbose and how poetic and beautiful and lyrical the narration was throughout. And then just how dysfunctional [the characters] were. This reminded me of a Black family. These bad-ass kids, the father always cussing … When Ralphie’s tongue gets stuck on [the pole]. It just has these really iconic set pieces, and I just thought it was masterfully done. It’s one that, if it comes on, I will never turn it off. I could play it a million times. I almost know all the lines and I know what’s coming. It’s the bomb.