Sean Brown, an off-Broadway playwright who also co-ran the beloved food cart No Fish! Go Fish! before it closed in 2013, has spent the past decade busily compiling a sharply disparate and defiantly underground filmography. Despite negligible budgets and minimal crew, the indie auteur won awards at festivals across the globe for a succession of uncompromising and achingly raw cinematic fever dreams. Those films leapt without warning from mummified-body horror to absurdist lucha libre pastiche to, in a truly shocking twist, the soon-to-premiere Christmas Freak—a gently whimsical fable about a 43-year-old boy who loves too well the most wonderful time of the year.
Recently picked up by distribution giant Gravitas Ventures for an autumn digital release, Brown’s fifth feature doesn’t shy away from the paternal abandonment and emotional trauma fueling the Yuletide fixation that has kept our titular elf-on-the-spectrum Rudy’s (Sean Marlow) chestnuts unroasted despite the best attempts of adoring co-worker Clarice (Amy Hagan). Hardly a fit for the Hallmark Channel, in other words, but the candy-colored, effervescent romp embraces the sweeter side of seasonally affected delusions and lets the sugarplums dance along to six original songs written by Brown and co-producer/Rudy’s mother Gemma Bulos. (A jazzy rendition of standout tune “Cool Christmas” won radio airplay on the U.K.’s largest R&B station, and they’ll soon release a soundtrack album.)
Currently finishing the “Cool Christmas” music video, Brown spoke with WW about applying maverick sensibilities to family-friendlier fare.
“Most people will relate to Christmas Freak,” he laughs, “but it was written for the outsiders. The story’s about an outsider, it was designed to appeal to outsiders, and, frankly, it’s about as mainstream as this aging outsider can muster!”
WW: Had you always planned to make movies?
Sean Brown: No, I really didn’t think about film until we sold the restaurant. I was very focused on theater—that’s what I studied in school—but, you know, I can’t just write a play and have it produced all by myself. It’s always a struggle. You’re always asking somebody to do something for you. So, time suddenly on my hands, I decided to have some fun and see whether I could make a movie. It turned out pretty well. I got this crappy camera off Craigslist and shot Kokoon for $500. That one actually made money because of festival honorariums.
The entire budget was $500?
I didn’t even have any crew for the first three. They were all $500 movies shot with this $50 Canon C100. I upgraded for Strictly Professional, the movie just before Christmas Freak, and that was a little better technically than the others. Too edgy to interest a distributor, but it got into the Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival. That was an experience. Everybody else was a big-time filmmaker with recognizable stars, and, you know, here I am with this $700 movie. I couldn’t further anyone’s career, so they lost interest in me pretty quick. Nobody cares how little you spend on your movie. Everybody wants to see how much.
Did any of the other films have a theatrical release beyond festivals?
This is the first. We spent a lot more money—deep into the five figures [laughs]. We definitely went high candy. The editing style has been described as manic—you know, jarring, fast-paced—but Christmas Freak is family friendly. It’s been characterized as John Waters meets Burl Ives.
Was that the intent?
Every movie I made was a different challenge. Not so much technically, but each one was a bit more ambitious. With Christmas Freak, I decided to go full commercial, see if I could make one that I could sell. I also discovered something. While I love to watch these crazy movies, I don’t like making them. I’ve always loved those gritty, indie, kind of shocking movies directed by John Waters and Andy Milligan. So I thought that was the type of filmmaker I wanted to be, but I kind of gravitate to wholesome stories. They’re a little bit quirky, devoid of meanness. You leave the theater happy, maybe whistling one or two of the tunes. They make people feel good. I think Christmas Freak has that effect.
Do you have a favorite Christmas movie?
It’s a Wonderful Life is just amazing. I love that movie. The Rankin/Bass stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I have a favorite Christmas Carol—the 1951 version, although Albert Finney’s is good too. And then, of course, Female Trouble. It’s a Christmas film to me!
Plans for a sequel? Christmas Freak 2: Boxing Day?
I think there’s a whole cinematic universe for Rudy. He’s such an unusual person—kind of like Pee-wee Herman—that there’s a lot of potential. At the end, Rudy doesn’t give up on Christmas. Rudy starts celebrating other aspects of life, but he’s still a Christmas freak. So, in the sequel, I’d love for Rudy to be discovered and find his star. He goes down to Hollywood, Clarice becomes a real housewife, but then, everything starts to go sour because that’s not what Christmas is actually about. Rudy strays and then comes back to the true meaning of Christmas.
So Rudy is another oddball loner searching for kinship?
When I created Rudy for Sean Marlow, I wanted to explore a man made miserable by his own compulsion to be happy—borrowing Scrooge’s alienation and flipping the script. After we began working on set, everyone could see he had the hallmarks of an iconic character as both representation of misfits and a new classic figure in the Christmas canon. Christmas Freak celebrates the imperfect, freakish beauty of all life. It’s about hope. We tell outsiders they’re beautiful as they are. In my story, Christmas is the medium, not the message.
SEE IT: Christmas Freak debuts Friday, Sept. 17, at McMenamins Kennedy School, 5736 NE 33rd Ave., 503-249-3983, mcmenamins.com/kennedy-school/kennedy-school-theater. Through Sept. 23. $3-$5.