Start setting aside your spare change and your tissues, “Christmas Jars” is hoping to cash in seasonal goodwill by coming to a big screen near you.
After years of efforting, the beloved 2005 New York Times bestseller by Jason F. Wright has finally been turned into a feature film, and it will appear in theaters Monday as a special one-night-only screening, presented by Fathom Events and BYUtv.
For the one or two readers who may not be familiar, “Christmas Jars” tells the story of young newspaper reporter Hope Jensen, who, during a time of great personal despair, receives a jar full of coins on her doorstep from an anonymous source. After learning of additional donated “Christmas Jars” around town over recent years, she sets forth to uncover the story of whoever is behind the effort.
What Jensen eventually unravels proves to be a heart-warming and very personal story, guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings of nearly all who experience it.
More importantly, perhaps, than the book or the movie, the story has spawned its own movement, resulting in countless anonymous “Christmas Jars” donations each holiday season.
In town recently for a select premiere of the movie at the BYU Broadcasting Center, Wright told the story of a lady he had met at an event just a few days prior, whose husband had been killed in an auto-pedestrian accident a couple years ago. That Christmas, her family found three different Christmas jars and copies of the book on her doorstep.
“It just completely changed the way they were grieving,” Wright said, noting that it’s not the money that makes the biggest difference, but the thought that people care. “She can’t start talking about Christmas Jars without getting emotional. ... The book, the movie, that’s all great, right? But the real impact comes from that act of pure charity.”
I had the opportunity to sit down with Wright and actress Jeni Ross, who plays Jensen in the film, to discuss the project. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length:
DOUG FOX: So, have either of you seen the movie yet?
JASON WRIGHT: I saw a rough cut a few months ago.
JENI ROSS: I’ve yet to see anything.
FOX: So how nerve wracking is that?
ROSS: I would use the word excited. It’s very exciting. There’s a little bit of nerves, but I’ve seen the trailer and everybody here is really excited about it. I’m not very nervous. I’m just excited.
FOX: So tell me about the shoot. When did you shoot it?
WRIGHT: End of February, beginning of March.
ROSS: So it was four weeks. We were shooting for four weeks. We shot in Ottawa, near where I live. I live in Toronto, so an hour or two-hour flight. Pretty close.
FOX (to Wright): Were you there for the shoot also?
WRIGHT: I was there twice, two different trips up for portions of the shoot. I think what people might be interested to know is Jeni was cast really late in the production process and it was not because they didn’t want her, it’s because they wanted the right actress and they refused to settle. That’s a great quote: They refused to settle. Because they could have gone into production more quickly and shot more quickly, but they were really discerning for the right actress that could pull off a really meaty role, and so they finally found this lovely young lady. She crushed it. Crushed it!
FOX: So what really set her apart?
WRIGHT: Well, when people see the film, they’re going to see that this is not your typical holiday light and cheery movie. Yes, there’s plenty of cheer, but there’s a lot of heart and soul and tears, and what her character goes through, her journey, well, very few actresses could have played off the emotional arc that is required.
FOX: Well, we know it is very difficult to play a reporter (laughs).
WRIGHT: We do. You know, the ability to play at several layers emotionally is what set her apart.
FOX (to Ross): How did you come to be involved in the movie?
ROSS: I went in for an audition and that was the first I’d heard of anything, and I found out I’d booked it, I think, less than a week or a week later, and I think I had about five days before shooting started after that. So it was very, very fast. It was reading the script while packing, while getting on a plane, between shoots. So I was only around for a very, very small part of this big project that’s been going on.
WRIGHT: Isn’t it interesting to think, Jeni, that this has been a 13-year journey? My first meeting on this development was almost exactly 14 years ago, when you were just like 6 or 7 or something like that. And for her to come in and, like, the very last minute, literally within 10 days or whatever of being on camera for the first time in the film — it’s such a great, great story. The timing is exactly how it needed to be for this to work.
FOX: How did you prepare for the role?
ROSS: I spent a long time with the director just reading over the script, and we had a lot of rehearsal days, which was really great. Yeah, Jason’s family actually came pretty early on in the shooting process and that was the most helpful because having conversations with you guys about the meaning behind the book and the movement that it started was what really sort of sold it for me. But that wasn’t until a couple days of filming (had happened).
FOX: Had you read the book before?
ROSS: I hadn’t. I didn’t even know until I was on set shooting, and then I was told that it was a book. And then they brought the book. The minute I had a day off shooting, I started reading.
WRIGHT: It’s been interesting. It doesn’t normally work in reverse where they go back through the source material after they’ve already read the screenplay, but ...
ROSS: With how quickly everything happened ...
WRIGHT: Yeah, like I said before, it happened exactly the way it was supposed to, I think.
FOX: Jason, when you first wrote the book, at what point did you envision, ‘Hey, this could make a movie?’ I imagine that wasn’t necessarily the goal.
WRIGHT: No. I mean every writer in the back of their mind thinks, “Gosh, it might be neat to see this on screen some day, especially a novelist. But the book came out in the fall of ’05, and then we had our first meeting in early 2006 and we were already getting phone calls from people talking about wanting to develop a film. Fun fact: There’s a version of the paperback that was released in 2006 that says “Coming soon as a major motion picture” because we thought it would be out in ’06 or seven or eight at the latest, and that original team that came together — blood, sweat and tears to get it made — but we could never quite get all the pieces of the puzzle together. And then we’re so blessed that BYU and Muse Entertainment got involved and saw the vision and had some resources to make it happen. And when they threw their weight behind it, it happened pretty quickly.
FOX: Any of your other books in the film portal?
WRIGHT: So “The Wednesday Letters” is in development. It has a script, a director and a producer, and we’re working on shooting schedules and budgets now. I’m really hoping, there’s this Canadian actress Jeni Ross, I’m hoping we can get to repeat her role, I would love that. She’s so good (laughs). But some doors have just really been blown open because of “Christmas Jars,” so I have four or five others which are in various degrees of interest. But “The Wednesday Letters,” I think, is the most likely to be next.
FOX: I’ve read a couple others of your books that I’ve enjoyed, “The Cross Gardner and “Recovering Charles.”
WRIGHT: “Recovering Charles” is one I would dearly love to make, and I’ve had a major studio interested in that for a while. The problem is budget with that. They’re really concerned it would just be too expensive to make because of the setting in New Orleans and everything else. But I do love that book a lot.
FOX: Jeni, are there any particular scenes in this movie that stand out to you?
ROSS: There was one day in particular that I think was really special, definitely for me, but also for Jason, I think. It was when we were shooting one of the diner scenes. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I think it was the peak of the emotional buildup for sure. We shot that scene in one take, because it just didn’t need any more. It was near the end of shooting and a lot of the executives were there and that day felt very profound, I don’t know. It was a really emotional day for everyone on set, and I think that really translated.
FOX: Just by way of comparison, how many scenes in the movie, would you say, were shot in one take?
ROSS: Definitely that was the only one. Oh, yeah.
WRIGHT: Yeah. Certainly on the days I was there, yeah ...
ROSS: Normally that never happens.
WRIGHT: She’s done a lot of work, and she would say that on all the things she’s done, that’s a rarity for sure.
FOX: So what is your next project?
ROSS: I start shooting next week actually for a feature called “The Novice.” And I don’t know how much more I can say, but I’m excited for that.
FOX (to Wright): It’s got to be gratifying that “Christmas Jars,” first with the book and now with the movie, but also I assume the movement itself is still going on. Do you hear a lot of those stories?
WRIGHT: Almost every day. It’s 15 degrees in December or a 115 in July, people reach out to tell me their Christmas Jars story. And I think that was the most fun on set, when I met Jeni for the first time and trying to help her in the middle of all the chaos of being on a film set, I really wanted her to connect with the fact that this wasn’t just another movie, and that there thousands of people around the country with jars on their counter readying to give it away on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to somebody in need. In some cases, it’s bigger than the book now. And the movement is bigger than the movie. What more could an author possibly ask for than that?
ROSS: Also, I don’t know if you know this, but we made a jar on the set. Were you there for that?
ROSS: It was Ashley’s idea, the head of makeup, because the hair lady, she was pregnant and having a baby, and we called it Chris’ Baby Jar.
WRIGHT: Oh my goodness!
ROSS: And so everybody put in money and we gave it to her the last day — I was bawling. It was a whole thing!
WRIGHT: Oh my goodness! We need to get that in an interview at some point.
FOX: What was it like to be part of that?
ROSS: I think on a film set you get really, really close with people, and especially with me with the hair and makeup department, they’re really my support system, for sure, when filming. And it was just such a special moment. I’m an emotional person, so it’s not really a surprise that I was crying. It just really brought the film community together.
FOX: Anything either of you would like to add?
WRIGHT: I have for so long been the face of the Christmas Jars brand and movement, and I could not be more proud or honored to pass that mantle along to Jeni for a lot of reasons. But I’m just so thrilled that she is the one that gets to help take this message out to the world.
FOX: That’s a little bit of a responsibility — how do you feel about that?
ROSS: I mean, if anything, it’s an honor. This experience has been unlike anything else. It’s been an absolute joy. I’m just excited to see the movie finally.