Christmastime is the season of giving, but when it comes to Hollywood, it’s also the season of wanting. Whether it’s a Turbo Man action figure, snow in Vermont, or a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle, the best Christmas movies always tend to involve characters chasing after something that seems impossible to get without some kind of miracle.
In 8-Bit Christmas, young Jake Doyle finds himself desperately seeking the gift that topped nearly every kid’s wish list in the late-’80s: A Nintendo Entertainment System. Directed by Michael Dowse (Goon, Stuber),the film casts Neil Patrick Harris as the adult Jake, who tries to teach his daughter about the real meaning of the holiday by describing his own attempts to secure an NES during the Christmas season in the 1980s.
Timmy Failure star Winslow Fegley, 12, plays the young Jake, whose pursuit of an NES leads him and his best friends into one crazy predicament after another, all with the hope of finding a Nintendo under that year’s Christmas tree. Portraying Jake’s parents in the film are Grace and Frankie actress June Diane Raphael and Happy, Texas actor Steve Zahn, whose characters find their own plans for Christmas shaped by their children’s must-have gifts.
spoke to Harris, Fegley, Raphael, and Zahn about 8-Bit Christmas and how the film’s themes — and1980s setting — resonated with each of them.
: I always connected to the kids’ stories in holiday movies, but as I get older, I’m connecting with the parent characters, too. What elements of the film did you really connect with, either in the story or your role?
June Diane Raphael: Well, from the moment I first started reading the script, I just felt like, “Oh, this is my mother.” I was basically reading my mom. There’s so much about this character that reminds me of my mom, and I just loved her. I loved how overwhelmed she was with life and trying to hold it all down and keep it together and make the cookies and work and the snow days and all all of the insanity of life. I really, really remember feeling like, “Oh, my mom is overwhelmed but loving and fun, too.” She just reminded me so much of my mom.
Neil Patrick Harris: I just love the concept of connection. The idea that everyone gets obsessed during the holidays about gifting, and wanting and needing things, and deadlines, and wrapping … But at the end of the day, whether there’s a lot of chaos or everything goes right or you miss your flight, it’s still those moments of camaraderie, of family time together, and of connection that really does sort of define the holidays.
Winslow Fegley: Sometimes you focus so much on the thing you want that you kind of forget about the things you already have.
Raphael: And yeah, it is a funny thing to come to these movies now as an adult and from a different perspective. You just want to keep your kids safe and you want them to have the magic of Christmas and have the things they want, but also not have things that you don’t know about and are scared about. So I deeply related to it.
You’ve been in such a wide range of films over the years, Steve. What was it about 8-Bit Christmas that stood out to you?
Steve Zahn: I just thought [the father character] was such a classic dad and something different. I haven’t played somebody like this. I loved that the script was this simplistic kind of story that’s like The Great Escape: They’re simply trying to get this one thing. That’s the entire story, and it’s the obstacles you have to hurdle in order to get this thing that make it interesting.
I thought that was really smart and and it made me laugh. And obviously, because it was the ’80s, and I’m a product of the ’80s, too.
I watched the movie with my daughter and had to explain why the family was waiting to hear about school closing on a radio, or why they couldn’t order a Nintendo online. Did any of you find yourself doing that with some of the young actors due to the film’s ’80s setting?
Raphael: The only thing I remember talking about that made me feel like, “Whoa, I’m in a different world than them,” was when we were talking about TV shows. I asked the kids, “What shows do you watch?” And they were like, “Um, YouTube?” I was like, “Oh.” That one made me feel like a grandma for occasionally turning on the TV and watching a television show.
Harris: I had to explain it a bit to my own kids when we were watching the movie. The video game technology stuff, they can understand that, but we talked about things like the lack of internet, the lack of immediacy, the lack of being able to ask Alexa what the weather’s like … Our kids were lamenting the fact that they don’t get snow days now like that.
Fegley: I thought about that, too! I still have snow days sometimes, but now that schools are realizing they can use Zoom, it’s like, “Nooooo!” But sometimes it can still happen. While I was in Toronto filming this movie, they had to cancel my school one time — even the Zoom part — because the internet connection was down. So it still worked out. We still got a snow day.
Well, what about you, Winslow? What did you think of the NES and what life was like for kids in the ’80s?
Fegley: Well, I knew what the NES was, because I’m kind of a video game geek. I like video games and play a lot, but I didn’t really understand that it was like the father of video games in a way. I didn’t really know how important it was.
But I had a lot of fun getting to play a character in the ’80s who was living in these … simpler times … when they couldn’t order things online and have them delivered to their doorstep. It was a lot of fun.
Zahn: Yeah, Winslow is a pretty smart dude. If you did bring something up like that from the ’80s, he’d be like, “Yeah, I know all about that.” He’s an old soul.
Harris: Oh, you know what? I did have to explain some of the weird toy things to the kids. They didn’t quite understand the whole Cabbage Patch Kids idea. I was like, “They’re like American Girl dolls, but they’re hatched out of patches in the dirt and they have belly buttons.” I … I wasn’t sure how to explain some of it sometimes.
Directed by Michael Dowse from a script by Kevin Jakubowski, 8-Bit Christmas will premiere November 24 on the HBO Max streaming service.