"This is the fastest feature known to man," theater artist and filmmaker E.G. Bailey said late last week as he raced to finish postproduction on "Dickens' Holiday Classic," the Guthrie Theater's "Christmas Carol" offering that starts streaming Saturday. "The whole process — from getting the call to basically delivering this for the [opening on Dec.] 19th — was about 2½ months. Warp speed from concept to finish."
If Bailey feels whiplash, he doesn't mind. He's living out a dream marriage of theater and film while working in partnership with Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj on something that's new.
"It's a hybrid conceived and built intentionally as a film on a virtual platform," Haj said. "E.G. is a very sophisticated theater artist and filmmaker — supersmart about both mediums. And the opportunity for us to kind of press these things into one another is just fascinating and interesting."
Bailey, whose work has been accepted into the Sundance festival, has been filming stage productions for decades, including for Pangea World Theater. Those shoots usually involved one or two cameras, often stationary, that captured a theater performance. The closest he has come to doing something like "Holiday Classic" has been a poetic capture of Zell Miller's "Evidence of Silence Broken."
For "Holiday Classic," Haj, Bailey and their crew turned the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium Stage into a film studio. They lowered the lights, set up booms and dollies and deployed the whole arsenal of filmmaking techniques to create a 75-minute telling of "Carol."
The story of Ebenezer Scrooge's transformation from crabby miser and ornery misanthrope to a generous and fulfilled human has been a Guthrie mainstay for 45 years, introducing and hooking generations of Minnesotans to theater. Like holiday shows elsewhere, it also has been important to the company's bottom line. Last year, 59,000 patrons saw the show, which grossed about $3 million.
The theater is not trying to replicate "Carol" on film, Haj said. It is offering something new in a medium where the audience automatically has different expectations about what they're seeing.
"Theater calls for a willing suspension of disbelief, and we give it up automatically," Haj said. "In film, we typically expect a kind of verisimilitude and want things to be absolutely truthful. When they're not, it's confusing to us."
He gave an example that theater directors use.
"Say I'm sitting in a chair onstage in the thrust with 1,100 people in the audience, and lights come up on me," Haj said. "If I say, 'I'm in a rocket ship to the moon,' a theater audience goes, 'Cool, what's next?' They're gonna believe you are in a rocket ship to the moon because you said it."
"If you open a film with an actor in a chair going, 'Oh, I'm in a rocket ship to the moon,' we go, 'What's wrong with this person?' We wonder if this is set in an asylum and this person is someone who's gone crazy.
"What's interesting here is that we've collided these two ideas, using many of the tools of film but with some of the structure of theater."
That structure comes in part from the text. Charles Dickens condensed his five-chapter "Carol" novella into four "staves" for public performances that he took to New York and Boston in 1868. Haj and Bailey have tapped a quartet of top-shelf actors who have long associations with "Carol," each delivering a stave.
The concept is that each of these performers is a writer — Dickens himself. And they are in their little writer's room with teapot and stove and other Victorian elements. Regular viewers of the Guthrie's "Carol" will recognize props and costumes.
Because of the pandemic, actors Ryan Colbert, Nathaniel Fuller, Charity Jones and Meghan Kreidler rehearsed separately on Zoom. Then they were shot, also separately, in the theater, impressing Haj, who has been on film shoots and knows the slow, laborious process that it can be.
"These actors, man — they are unbelievable," Haj said. "You have actors with 20 pages of text, and if you had to cut every five lines because the actor went up or they stumbled over a line, we never would have gotten this thing shot on this very tight schedule. They knew this thing stone-cold. We could stop. We could start. We could take things out of context. We could shoot this way, that way — they were so ready a hundred percent of the way. I was so admiring of the four of them."
Avoiding archival films
The partners considered the landscape of theater films, from "Masterpiece Theatre" to London's National Theatre films for cinema distribution.
"It could be bad if it's an actor sitting in a wingback chair reciting for two hours — that 'Masterpiece Theatre' kind of thing would be deadly," Haj said. "The other thing that would be idiotic would be watching someone hop around changing voices and changing hats every moment trying to play every character."
Bailey points to "Dogville," Lars von Trier's 2003 avant-garde crime film, as perhaps the closest to what he wants to achieve, both in its impact and immediacy.
"I wanted it to have the standard cinema language of wide, medium and close-up shots, and to have dolly moves, push-ins and booms — the whole range of cinema composition and movement," Bailey said. "But we also have it where you feel like you're watching a play that's intimate."
As for the audience, he said that he imagined a mother and daughter in a kitchen.
"The mother is at the stove telling a story as she's cooking," Bailey said. "We're bringing the audience into the story and making an emotional connection."
Haj recalled that when Dickens delivered his staves in 1868, it was just a couple of years from the end of the Civil War.
"America was hugely divided and absolutely devastated," he said. "And here he was with a story about a man learning that he's not just responsible for himself but also for his neighbor. That story is important and meaningful now as we're reminded that we have more in common with one another and more responsibility for one another."
"Our ability to make some version of 'A Christmas Carol,' humble though this offering may be in this pandemic year, is a way for us to do something good."
Dickens' Holiday Classic
What: A virtual telling that condenses "A Christmas Carol" into four "staves."
Cost: $10 per household.
Viewing: You will receive a link and password to view the show, which can be watched as often as you wish through Dec. 31.