Graham Young meets the director of this year’s Christmas film hit, Nativity!
Debbie Isitt has already made her festive bed – and she’s ready to lie in it.
The Birmingham-born director’s new film Nativity! is probably the best movie since the adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda to feature a gang of junior school pupils at the heart of some considerable laughter.
The story concerns two rival junior schools trying to put on the best play possible in a bid to impress the Coventry Telegraph’s pompous drama critic (Alan Carr). It features a stunning climax set in the bombed ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral which was all but destroyed in November 1940.
Filmed in the summer of 2008, the labour of love produced 140 hours’ worth of material and took Debbie’s husband, Nicky Ager, a year to edit at home on an Apple Mac computer. Such is life when you are comparatively low-budget filmmakers trying to take on the big boys of Hollywood at their own game, but 43-year-old Debbie has full confidence in the finished product – the couple are so talented they even wrote the film’s original music together.
“Some people might feel they want to see more of the romantic comedy aspect between Martin Freeman and Ashley Jensen developed in the film,” says Debbie. “But this is a family comedy and when you watch how children watch it you see that they are picking up on things that we’re not picking up on and vice versa.
“When I was making the film my priority was the children, so I can take the rest on the chin!”
Nativity! is the result of 30 years’ worth of trial and error, perspiration and sheer bloody-minded determination.
Now based in Coventry, the former Lordswood School pupil from Harborne learned her trade by watching, re-watching and then re-writing Birmingham theatre hits like The Wizard of Oz. But making movies is something else altogether. And such hard work that this is only her second film – after Confetti in 2006 – since Nasty Neighbours opened the 15th Birmingham International Film Festival in November 1999.
It clearly helps that stars such as Martin Freeman (The Office/Hot Fuzz) and Ricky Tomlinson (The Royle Family/Brookside) have been happy to work with her again.
“This means they get better at improvising in the way that I work,” says Debbie. “And, because you know them better, you can push them further. There’s a mutual trust there now, and a wonderful atmosphere.”
New to the Isitt camp is Pam Ferris as headteacher Mrs Bevan.
How did she approach the role, having given such an extraordinary performance as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda?
“Pam was lovely to work with,” says Debbie. “She’s got a BIG personality, but the improvisation we do probably helped to quieten her down.’’
Other appearance in the film include Debbie’s own ten-year-old daughter Sydney (‘she’s quiet and I thought it would be good for her confidence’), as well as her own parents, Barbara and Peter, who appear in everything she does. So where does Debbie, now 43, go from here?
She is now writing two scripts for other people. One is a true-life story about a woman directing The Fron Male Voice Choir, the other a Marian Keyes adaptation for BBC Films that is set to be called Is Anybody Out There, about a young woman who loses her husband.
“I’m just looking for something new ... I would love to do a full-blown musical,” says Debbie, before doubting whether it is possible to achieve such a thing in Britain.
But then I remind her that all of the children in Nativity! are examples of the X Factor and High School Musical generation. And that she ought to surf the waves set to be created by one of next year’s hottest movies to be called StreetDance, a 3D film featuring Britain’s Got Talent winners Diversity and filmed on the streets.
Despite feeling as if the flu has invaded her house in this week of all weeks, it seems that Debbie suddenly has, once again, got stars in her eyes.