Santa’s making a list and checking it twice, but the jury’s still out if Jeremy Morris has been naughty or nice. ’Twas the Fight Before Christmas shares the yuletide story of a neighbourhood divided. The case concerns Morris’s annual Christmas fête. Morris brings Clark Griswold of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation to life as he plasters his home with a multitude of lights, adorns the yard with penguins, illuminated figures, a 35-member choir, a robot, and a camel. Buses bring people by the thousands to share hot chocolate and Christmas cheer with donations collected for kids with cancer.
However, when Morris moves to the tightly knit suburb of West Hayden Estates, which has strict housing rules under the homeowners’ association, the neighbours find the pageantry a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking. Morris fights on grounds of freedom of religion. The homeowners’ association, meanwhile, argues that the Christmas pageant violates their collective rules. The case, which awaits yet another legal decision, snowballs into an unpredictable spectacle. It’s the wildest trial of the Christmas season since Miracle on 34th Street.
“An unknown ending is always tricky,” says director Becky Read, speaking with POV ahead of the film’s release. “When you’re pitching your film, one of the things that commissioners always want to know is ‘What’s the ending?’” Read embraces the openness of the story by inviting audiences to be the jurors in this wild-but-true tale. The ups-and-downs of the case inevitably have viewers shifting allegiances and second-guessing motives. As various participants give their side on the feud, Read creates a Rashômon-like Christmas carol of competing perspectives. The film should fuel many debates around the eggnog bowl as the world awaits the verdict.
No End in Sight
The case is especially protracted as Morris uses his background as a lawyer to finagle arguments in his favour. “It’s tricky with lawyers who often don’t want people to talk and say something that could put their foot in it,” she explains. “I spent a lot of time trying to convince the homeowners’ association’s lawyer to neither encourage nor discourage the homeowners to speak and just let it be their decision. They were all very nervous to speak because of any litigation from Jeremy that might come out of anything they say to me on camera. It was really, really hard.”
However, the delicacy with which some participants choose their words adds to the film’s charm. On one hand, the cautious phrasing used by some neighbours could validate Morris’s suspicion that they’re a crafty bunch. Alternatively, one sees how they need to choose their words carefully around Morris, who threatened legal action at every turn. Either way, ’Twas the Before Christmas illustrates the nuances of perception. Read plays with the idea that several people can interpret one event quite differently.
“That was one of the pulls of the story for me,” observes Read. “Everyone has a different version of events. The bigger picture takeaway from the film is about how we tolerate each other, how we get along with each other, and how we agree to disagree when there are differences. I really wanted to play on the fact that everyone tells this story and has a different perspective. We will have subjective realities and we can all be honest people, but unreliable witnesses.”
Rudolph Meets Rashômon
Read says she considered contrasting the perception of the event with split screens that played on the gaps between competing perspectives, but ultimately found that the interviews themselves created the strongest interplay. “As people meet Jeremy, the story starts to change,” notes Read. “As Jeremy gets pushed back, he starts to change, so our experience of Jeremy as a character starts to unfold.”
In the beginning, Morris’s Christmas spirit seems genuine and a viewer might quickly side with him. Weighing a mission of seasonal goodwill against a NIMBY cabal might be a breeze, especially as the sleigh bells on the soundtrack and the breezy pacing put one in the mood to be forgiving. However, as ’Twas the Fight Before Christmas introduces Jennifer Scott, a West Hayden resident who reluctantly became president of the homeowners’ association when Morris moved into the neighbourhood and notified them of his intentions, the doc makes one reconsider whose heart is really two sizes too small.
Owning the Story
Scott gives her version of events with calm, measured, matter-of-fact interviews. She recalls ample targeted harassment from Morris and phone calls that simply wouldn’t end. Fatigue and frustration are palpable as she explains to Read how Christmas went from being a yearly celebration to an annual nightmare.
“We decided early in the edit that Jeremy could tell the Christmas story the first year, and then the second year could be more from the neighbours’ perspectives with little tidbits from each side,” explains Read. “Ultimately, you have to give people ownership of the whole story. I wanted audience to question their ideas about what was wrong and right, and see that change as the film plays out. Sympathies can shift back and forth.”
Events take a dramatic turn when Scott learns that Morris was recording their conversations. The fastidious lawyer shows how he documented everything—all his interactions with the neighbours and the homeowners’ association—and recorded ample footage of his Christmas pageantry. The recorded conversations, however, simply add another facet of the truth to the story. Some accounts don’t jive with interviews with Read. Other recorded statements are problematic because Morris clearly baited his neighbours with challenges to use against them later.
The Christmas Tapes
Read says that Morris was very forthcoming in sharing his archive, which also plays a key role in the trial and appeal. “He’s a lawyer, so kept really tidy notes, binders, archive files all labelled and detailed, which is a dream as a documentary producer to receive a folder of archive that was so labelled so well,” admits Read. “But we talked about a lot and when to reveal this archive. There are things that we haven’t used because there’s just too much and there’s stuff where Jeremy sounds really aggressive or he’s recorded it—sometimes it would be 45 minutes of a screaming match with him and a neighbour.”
Viewers eventually hear the recordings when the neighbours encounter them during the trial. Read says it was ultimately most effective to withhold the archive until after viewers had sifted through competing narratives. The evidence includes a compelling deposition, led by Morris, in which Scott answers questions succinctly and matter-of-factly. Morris becomes audibly agitated as Scott holds strong and refuses to play his game.
Other recordings prove damaging as neighbours make derogatory comments about Morris’s faith, although many of the West Hayden residents are observant Christians. The evidence, rather than necessarily exonerating one side or the other, offers further proof of how much the situation spiralled out of control. (At this point, one should also mention the gun-packing believers who patrolled the ’hood to protect Morris and the allegations that some neighbours faked a traffic accident with hopes of sabotaging the Christmas display’s harmful chaos.)
Griswold or Grinch
As the case spirals out of control, Morris embodies the spirit of numerous iconic Christmas movie characters. On one hand, he’s the aforementioned Clark Griswold with his earnestly over-the-top efforts to make Christmas merry for all. On the other, his adversarial fight to enjoy his Christmas at the expense of his neighbours’ well-being likens him to the Grinch. The dark undertone to his story, couple with his perceived good-intentions, make him a modern-day George Bailey in his own mind.
“Jeremy would talk about himself as if he was a character in a film or he would always liken his life to a movie,” observes Read. The film opens by exploring his grandfather’s role as an actor in the silent film era. “He has a performative side that is very fun. It becomes part of the story because, ultimately, I spent time thinking, ‘Is this real or is he performing? Is he playing the role of the persecuted?’ That’s what his neighbours feel.”
“I know Jeremy will have recorded us talking and the crew and everything else,” admits Read when asked how it feels to document someone who was covertly documenting others. “I hope that Jeremy sees that film is fair. But I think he is given equal, if not more, time talking. I talked to Jeremy a lot on and off camera about the decisions he made and if he sees that other people find his behaviour alienating or aggressive. He was very happy to answer the questions and some of them were difficult questions.” Read adds that Morris’s wife, Kristy, plays a critical role in ’Twas the Fight Before Christmas as she expresses regrets about going to war with their neighbours and notes that everyone played a critical role in the feud.
A Neighbourhood and Country Divided
“One of the important lines in the film towards the end is Jeremy saying, ‘If people do disagree with my methods, then I would it’s important for us to stand up for our values,’” notes Read. The perspectives of both Jeremy and the neighbours make West Hayden a timely snapshot of a divided America. Politics don’t enter the picture overtly—one can only speculate if neighbours lean left or right—yet ’Twas the Fight Before Christmas observes a microcosm of contemporary America.
Read, a Brit who has been working in the USA for a number of years (her credits as a producer include the Sundance winner Three Identical Strangers), says she saw the feud as indicative of both a polarised climate and a growing habit in which people may create alternate realities to suit their values. “The themes are universal. We all have neighbours,” notes Read. “We will have to get alongside other people, share space with people from different walks of life. And we all have to sit around a table with our family at Christmas and Thanksgiving and hear uncle so-and-so’s views that we don’t like.”
However, she says the implications of the fight aren’t restricted to the USA or to Christmas. “I was attracted to the film because I think people love Christmas movies. This was an entertaining way into a much more serious conversation that everyone’s having across the globe about truth, about division, about personal liberties, and about who ‘wins’ so to speak.”
’Twas the Fight Before Christmas debuts on AppleTV+ on Nov. 26.