Seven years ago, thousands of people descended upon Jeremy and Kristy Morris’ “Christmas House” in suburban Idaho, where holiday lights, a camel and a 35-member choir singing carols beckoned festive visitors. The holiday event, which served as a fundraiser for children with cancer, was so big that the couple decided that they needed a bigger house with more property for the following year’s festivities. U.K. based director Becky Read chronicles the ensuing neighborhood war and legal battle over the family’s 2015 holiday event – litigation is still pending appeal — in her Apple TV Plus documentary “Twas the Fight Before Christmas.”
Executive produced by prolific filmmaker Chris Smith, the offbeat, dark and comedic docu offers various perspectives of a Christmas event gone wrong and sheds light on a divided America. In advance of the documentary’s Nov. 26 debut, Read explained why she was drawn to the project and her take on the political battle the holiday decorations inspired.
After reading about the Morris’ Christmas dispute with his neighbors in Idaho, you decided to visit the town of Hayden to meet with all involved. What made you think that this story would make a good documentary?
The headline alone – “War on Christmas lawsuit” and ‘camel’ in capitals — struck us that this was a Christmas story with a twist. It was immediately interesting that this small-town story had hit national news in the U.K. Of course, if it resonates beyond a small town in the U.S.A., then there might be a wide doc audience. It seemed extraordinary that an argument about a Christmas show ended up in a jury trial – so the conflict that storytelling is all about was built in – one side wanted one thing and the other side wanted another.
How did you gain the trust of not only Morris, but also his parents and the various neighbors who were not enthralled with his annual Christmas event?
It will be of no surprise that Jeremy himself was very happy to tell his story and was even suggesting (and still is) that we make a series out of this, a sequel or his life story. Kristy, his wife, was very reluctant. While Jeremy enjoys having his say and seems comfortable being in situations of conflict, Kristy is very different in that she doesn’t want the attention and is also worried about their children.
I felt it was important for Kristy to be on board, she adds vital context, explains the challenge of being married to someone like Jeremy, who doesn’t do things by halves, and was able to express things that I don’t think Jeremy could or would on camera.
It was extremely difficult to get the neighbors to trust me and decide to take part. Many thought that, because Jeremy is very open about his life to the press and had previously contacted the news, that he had called us and that we were making the film for him or with him. So I began by having to undo that perception.
I spent from July-September 2019 writing to and calling people, then on the ground knocking on their doors, mailing letters, and trying to explain that I very much wanted to understand their perspectives on all of this. I was able to get some people to talk to me on camera for the sizzle tape (two of whom later changed their mind about being in the doc) and some would talk only off the record and off-camera. The main concern was further litigation from Jeremy and how the neighbors would be perceived.
In December 2019, it became apparent that I was going to need to talk to Jeremy about the litigation issue. We sat in his office, and I explained that hearing other people’s stories was crucial for the film to work and that they were all too worried about him pursuing litigation against them over anything they said on camera. He agreed that he would not pursue litigation against anyone for anything they said in the film which went some way to helping reassure others.
The film’s producer Julia Nottingham stated that, “the story here is wrapped up in Christmas, but it’s also very much wrapped up in a conversation that everyone is having across the globe about what is truth, their version of things, and the division that we’re seeing.” Did you know that the subject of truth was a subject that the film would explore before you started filming or was that a topic you discovered while filming, editing or doing interviews?
It was apparent from early on that this was a film about very different perspectives and that we could have fun exploring those, allowing them all space and allowing the audience to decide themselves. Is this a wonderful charity event or a total nightmare? It can be both. It has a Rashomon-like lens and I loved that about it. We all have different versions of events and subjective realities. We can be honest people and yet still be unreliable witnesses. As we edited it became clear we could allow the audience to feel empathy for different people at different times, as my own sympathies shifted all the time on the ground. I want people to question their own ideas about what is wrong and right and see that change as the film plays out and we unpack the absurdity of how far it all went and the collateral damage.
The Morris Christmas story seems funny – comical initially, but as you watch the film you realize that it is not just a story about a Christmas celebration, but instead a meditation of sorts on the divided country we currently live within. How did you map out this complicated story?
Based on the research calls we had done with all possible contributors during pre-production, I wrote this story into a script before I started shooting and editing so I had a guide of how I saw this unfolding — in a way that would reveal a surprise for the audience. I think it’s hard to get people to want to engage in a story about politics, division, and conflict, so pulling us into what was initially a fun Christmas story was a good way to start. I wanted people to be on Jeremy’s side and enjoy his zest for life and understand why this mattered so much to him before we revealed the other side to his character that would ask you to question what you thought you knew about him. The story naturally turns into something more complicated and darker as he comes up against resistance — and it was about ensuring we tell the story from the perspective of those who experienced him as it happens, so you are on that journey but stay with it long enough for the story to reveal itself.
The film’s opening scene involves the Morris family at a Christmas tree farmers debating about which size tree to purchase. It’s funny, endearing and in the end speaks to what kind of person Morris is. How did you decide on this scene as the opening scene for the documentary?
My editor and I had a few battles about that. Ultimately, we needed something up top that would establish both Jeremy as a character but also Jeremy and Kristy’s relationship – Jeremy as this over-the-top guy who has big ambitions, a sense of fun but equally who doesn’t listen — and Kristy as the one who has to somehow make sure things are safe and practical for the family and often pick up the pieces. It ticked a few boxes as well as being a nice verité scene before we go into past tense storytelling
While the film is not a right-wing versus left-wing doc, guns, religion and the first amendment – all hot button political issues — are part of the film. Do you consider this a political film?
Maybe it’s a political film under a blanket of festive snow? Politics, but wrapped in a Christmas blanket? I would say this is a film that seeks to gently underline how political everything has become – from Christmas to mask wearing. We wanted to add to the conversation in a nuanced and subtle way while not adding fuel to the fire. It was refreshing to have that opportunity.
“Twas the Fight Before Christmas” debut Nov. 26 on Apple TV Plus.