The global pandemic of 2020 has altered our lives in many ways. One major example is how frequently we communicate virtually over video chat apps. In true 2020 fashion, now movies are even produced that way.
Host is a supernatural Horror movie that made waves and delivered bone chilling scares. That was produced entirely through Zoom in the middle of the Covid-19 lockdown in the UK. You can read my review of Host here.
Now for something completely different. Christmas Staycation (2020) is a feature length Comedy which was also shot virtually. Christmas Staycation is about a family who cannot get together on Christmas, so they unite the whole dysfunctional family online.
The talented, extensive cast of Christmas Staycation includes Annie Abrams (“True Blood (TV)”), Gloria Garayua (“Grey’s Anatomy (TV)”, “NCIS: Los Angeles (TV)”), Leena Kurishingal (“Chicago Fire (TV)”, “Get Shorty (TV)”), Marisa Dzintars, Kerstin Porter, Ian Longway, Jackie Nova, Jon Harrison Taylor, Ray Carsillo and many more. I was happy to talk with Jordan Imiola, the Writer/Director/Producer of Christmas Staycation. We go into detail about this ambitious production.
Much like with Host, the actors in Christmas Staycation were largely responsible for their own lighting, production design and camerawork during the shoot.
Full disclosure: I played a small role in Christmas Staycation, and was happy to pitch a few jokes which made the final cut. The script was developed with helpful notes from a writer’s group Jordan and I are part of called Deadline Junkies. We get into that during the interview, so let’s light this tree.
First, you can watch the full movie of Christmas Staycation for free at this website:
Curt Wiser: Briefly tell us about your career as a writer and in entertainment which led up to this point.
Jordan Imiola: I’ve been writing comedy scripts non-stop for the past 12 years. The first feature I sold, Ray and Sunny, a feel-good comedy about a boy trying to kill himself, was the 10th feature screenplay I wrote. I’ve optioned and sold a few other screenplays since then and produced a couple of TV pilots. I’m also the showrunner of several web series such as Monster Therapy and Romantically Hopeless.
CW: What gave you the idea to make Christmas Staycation? Was it in part due to us being in the middle of a pandemic?
JI: Yes! For six months, I really didn’t love anything I was writing. I made myself write, but my head-space was just not there. I had the Covid blues for much of the year. At the very end of September, I was trying to think of a new movie idea, and I started thinking about Christmas and how I may not be able to see my family. I had already canceled my plans to see them earlier in the year.
Then I started thinking about how relatable that is to everyone, and in my mind I started to ask, what if a family couldn’t be together on Christmas and the main character only found out on Christmas Eve? What if she had to throw a virtual Christmas Party, and chaos ensued while trying to get her whole family together? And what if I had a bunch of wild and wacky characters that could pump up the funny and make her life a living Christmas Hell?
For two weeks, I had a blue sky period where I wrote down every idea that came to me. Then I spent another two weeks putting the structure and story together. The script took me a month. I wrote it all in October and it was the first screenplay idea I had that I was genuinely excited about all year.
CW: While Christmas Staycation is a Comedy, which makes it very unique from other movies made this way, did movies like Unfriended (2014), Open Windows (2014) or Host (2020) have any influence?
JI: I still want to see Host. Curt, you have recommended this movie several times to me. (This is true, I have. I feel Jordan will find it very interesting to compare Host and his own feature. They are both made virtually, in the middle of the 2020 pandemic, yet tonally they are worlds apart.)
But I did watch Unfriended during my research/blue sky period. I also watched the TV Show Connected which I liked a lot, and I wrote down all my thoughts about what worked and didn’t work.
CW: What were the biggest challenges producing a feature shot virtually, and how did you overcome these obstacles?
JI: The biggest challenge was thinking about the audience and making sure they don’t get bored watching a movie that’s all on Zoom. I noticed if a character was on screen for too long, my mind would start to wander off. I tried making the dialogue as snappy and jokey as possible so we’d always be going from one character to another, and the camera shots would never get stale.
(This makes perfect sense. Especially given that in 2020, most of us are spending more time connecting with people over video chat apps than we ever thought we would. These days we can feel a little zoomed out, so making this movie play less like a singular virtual conversation, was a wise choice. Christmas Staycation has a variety of humor and moves at a quick pace, so I feel he succeeded.)
CW: Most of your cast and crew on this movie are part of a writer’s group based in Los Angeles called Deadline Junkies. Tell us about that.
JI: Deadline Junkies started in the summer of 2009 by a friend of mine, Adam Strange. I joined in January 2010 when I moved to Los Angeles, and it’s helped me immensely with writing a ton of scripts and making writing a daily habit. Being part of this community, I’m always presenting new material every five weeks, so it makes me a junkie to the deadline.
Deadline Junkies used to be just on Tuesday nights but it has grown to five nights a week, and I run the comedy heavy, Deadline Junkies Wednesday. Every night has an amazing pool of writers and fantastic actors. I’d love to name drop, but there’s so much talent in this community we’d be here for a while! (He’s right. You can just look at the sprawling cast crawl of Christmas Staycation knowing that it is just the tip of the iceberg, and that should give you some idea of our numbers.)
We do three table reads every night at Deadline Junkies and it helps me so much hearing the script out loud and having a deadline every month that puts good pressure on me to write.
CW: How was writing/directing a project of this type different from a more traditional production?
JI: It’s faster, for one. I loved that! In September, several Deadline Junkies and I started filming sketches via Zoom, and we called them SkeDJes (The DJ in the title is for Deadline Junkies.) You can find them on YouTube. Look up SkeDJes. When filming these, I noticed, on average, we filmed three pages or an entire sketch in an hour and a half. Sometimes even less. This made me realize that filming an entire movie on Zoom is possible in a short amount of time.
CW: Christmas Staycation features many talented actors. (I’m not really considering myself as one of these talented actors, yet I am thrilled to be a part of this unique production. My character was in a few fun scenes) You seemed very open to improvising after doing a few takes as written. Please talk about that process?
JI: I adopt the Judd Apatow method. I make sure the actors stick to the script for the first two takes. That way we’re sure we’ve captured the story and lines we need to move the story forward. For the 3rd and 4th take, I let the actors break away from the script if they want to. I might also have some additional jokes that I thought of that day or in the moment. It also helped that the actors I cast are hilarious!
CW: This was a fast-paced production for a feature. How many shooting days was it, and around how many hours each day?
JI: Weekday nights and weekends in November. I have a day job at MarVista Entertainment so most weekdays, we filmed at 6:15 pm when everyone was done with work. We’d usually film 3 – 5 scenes per day, and we wrapped around 7:30 pm each night, give or take. We had about 17 shooting days altogether.
For the big Act three party finale, I needed a lot of people to play ex-convicts who crash the family party. (I played one of these party crashes called Hoodlum Harold.) We filmed all those scenes over 8 hours on a Sunday. That was by far the longest day of filming, but it was a lot of fun and still wasn’t that long compared to films shot traditionally. I also found out people love playing ex-convicts. (I would add Zombies and any character that gets to die on screen to that list.)
(If my math is correct, averaging one hour and a half for 16 days, plus that last 8 hour day, would mean shooting a feature film in only 32 hours. Okay, I’m impressed. I’m sure you know most productions shoot at least 18 days for a feature and with long hours, 8 to 12 hour days.)
CW: Would you ever want to do a project like this again even after the pandemic is over?
JI: Another movie, possibly, but a short, yes. I still plan to film SkeDJes sketches.
CW: What is your favorite experience from making Christmas Staycation?
JI: Good question. (Phew, glad I got one good question in there.) All of it was fun, and each phase was different and unique. First and foremost, I’m a comedy writer so coming up with the script and finding jokes that have to work within the limitations of Zoom was enjoyable to me.
Directing the actors and finding out ways to flesh out the funny in each scene was also a great experience. There are many jokes that the actors and I thought of on the fly that I’m proud of, and the cast is so immensely talented that it was easy to riff with them when we were filming.
CW: Were any elements of the Christmas Staycation story related to your personal experience?
JI: I think everyone who Zooms for their job can relate to this movie. I tried to think all the time of what experiences I have on Zoom and how do I make them relatable and funny to all of us.
Here again are those links to watch Christmas Staycation for free! Enjoy, and please tell your friends.