The On Being Project

The Nightmare Before Christmas
  • Ashley C. Ford

The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas helped writer Ashley C. Ford accept life’s imperfections. As a kid, the movie taught her that it was okay to be different and to embrace the weird and the creepy.

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Guests

  • Ashley C. Ford

    Ashley C. Ford

    is the host of the news and culture radio show 112BK and the new podcast, Fortune Favors the Bold. She’s also written for nearly everyone, including Refinery 29, ELLE, BuzzFeed, and The Guardian, just to name a few. We loved her guest spot on the Dear Sugars podcast — check it out if you’re looking for an extra dose of Ashley’s wisdom.

Transcript

Lily Percy, hostHello fellow movie fans. I'm Lily Percy and I'll be your guide this week as I talk to writer Ashley C. Ford about the movie that changed her life, The Nightmare Before Christmas. If you've seen the movie, awesome; you know what to expect. But if you haven't, don't worry; I'm going to give you all the details that you need to be part of this conversation.

[music: “Overture” from The Nightmare Before Christmas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Special Edition)]

Lily Percy, host: One of the things that’s amazing about Tim Burton and the films that he makes is how he walks the line between darkness and light. And he does this so beautifully in The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s a movie that is about a character, Jack Skellington, who is the king of Halloween Town. He’s an expert at making all things Halloween happen — everything gross and creepy and scary. But he’s bored.

[music: “Jack’s Lament” from The Nightmare Before Christmas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Special Edition)]

Ms. Percy: And he decides that he wants to take on a new challenge. And that comes in the form of Christmas. And I think what’s amazing about the movie is that, somehow, it turns Christmas into Halloween, and Halloween into Christmas.

[excerpt: The Nightmare Before Christmas]

[music: “End Title” from The Nightmare Before Christmas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Special Edition)]

Ms. Percy: And as much as we’re drawn into the movie because of Jack Skellington’s creepy creatures and all of the visual effects that come from the stop-motion animation, the thing that I always think about, and that almost everyone talks about when they think about Nightmare Before Christmas, is the music. “What’s this? What’s this? There’s white things in the air.” “This is Halloween, this is Halloween.” These are the songs that always come to mind when you think about this movie, and that’s entirely due to Danny Elfman’s whimsical and infectious score.

[music: “This is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Special Edition)]

Ms. Percy: One of the things that’s so unique about the movie is Jack and Sally’s relationship. Sally is this kind of Frankenstein’s-monster rag doll. She’s got stitches all over her body, and her body parts literally can come apart. And she admires and loves Jack from afar. They’re both outsiders in their own way, and I think the movie does such a great job of talking about that: about what it means to be an outsider; to not quite fit in, in the light or in the darkness, and to kind of straddle both worlds.

And that’s something that Ashley C. Ford really, really loved, when she first saw the movie as a kid — that it didn’t just embrace one aspect of life or one part of being a human being. It’s not just about bad and good. It’s about that gray in-between.

[music: “Sally’s Song” from The Nightmare Before Christmas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Special Edition)]

Ms. Percy: So I want to know what role movies have played in your life. I have a sense from your writing that movies have been a big part of your life, but I don’t know the specific details of that. What is the role that they’ve played for you?

Ms. Ford: It’s so hard to answer that question, because I feel like I don’t have a part of my life that’s not influenced by movies. I really don’t think I do. I was telling my fiancé the other day that most of my memories, especially my early memories, are kind of attached to a movie playing in the background or a feeling I got from a movie. So many, so many of my memories are: “Oh, I remember when we lived in this…” — what was essentially a studio apartment that I shared with my mom and brother. And I remember my brother being at one end of the couch, me being at the other end, us being tucked in with our pillows and blankets, and my mom putting in a VHS of Cinderella. And we would often go to sleep watching movies, because we went to sleep so early, and my mom still stayed up.

So that’s what she would do to calm us down and give us something familiar to look at, was to play our favorite movies over and over, which were usually: Cinderella; we watched a lot of Home Alone on VHS — to the point that these movies — my boyfriend is constantly — well, fiancé, whatever. I’m probably just gonna keep saying “boyfriend” — but is constantly startled by the fact that, at the drop of a hat, I can act out an entire scene from a movie that I've seen, or a musical. I know all the words. And he’s like, “How do you keep all that? How do you know all that?” And I'm just like, “Because it’s just part of me.”

Ms. Percy: Because it was the soundtrack of your life. This is what you were — yeah.

Ms. Ford: It was.

Ms. Percy: Well, speaking of memory, I want to have you take a little trip back. I don’t know if you’re familiar with — well, I'm assuming you know Mr. Rogers.

Ms. Ford: Oh, my goodness. How dare you? [laughs]

Ms. Percy: [laughs] Right?

Ms. Ford: Yes.

Ms. Percy: Well, when he accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Daytime Emmys, he did this amazing thing where he asked everyone in the audience to take ten seconds, and close their eyes for those ten seconds and think of everyone who brought them to that moment, to where they were, and helped them along the way. And I'm not gonna ask you to do that.

Ms. Ford: Oh, thank God. I was like, “Oh, you trying to make me cry here?”

Ms. Percy: I know, right? Because that automatically takes you to a dramatic place, and we don’t want to do an ugly cry here.

Ms. Ford: Right.

Ms. Percy: But I am gonna ask you to take ten seconds and close your eyes and think about the first time that you saw The Nightmare Before Christmas. I'll chime in when the ten seconds are up. Go ahead and close your eyes and think about that — the first time you saw it.

So what memories came up for you just then, when you were thinking about it?

Ms. Ford: It actually was the trailer.

Ms. Percy: The trailer?

Ms. Ford: Yeah, the trailer for the movie, which came out when I was still in that studio apartment, when — that’s where my whole family [laughs] was housed.

Ms. Percy: How old were you?

Ms. Ford: I was probably four, I think — four or five.

Ms. Percy: Oh, my God, you remember that from being four years old?

Ms. Ford: Oh, I remember really far back.

Ms. Percy: That’s amazing.

Ms. Ford: I have intense far-back memories that sometimes freak me out. [laughs] But yeah, I remember the trailer. I remember Jack Skellington’s long legs. I remember him and the Santa costume. I remember the music in the background.

[excerpt: trailer for The Nightmare Before Christmas]

Ms. Percy: How did you feel when you saw the trailer? Because watching the movie again, I'm struck by how scary it can be at times, but then, also, you’re drawn in by the grossness and scariness of it too.

Ms. Ford: Yes. I tell people all the time — my fiancé always calls me his “little Goth queen” or “Goth-muffin” or whatever, even though I’m not a person who wears a lot of black or talks about death all the time.

Ms. Percy: But your soul is Goth. It’s inside.

Ms. Ford: But my soul — he’s like, “Inside, you’re so Goth” — because I absolutely am always attracted to a little bit of darkness and a little bit of death and a little bit of the macabre. I remember watching so many scary movies at a very young age and sort of just thinking that they were kind of beautiful… [laughs]

Ms. Percy: Oh, that’s fascinating.

Ms. Ford: Thinking they were really interesting and kind of beautiful. I found a weird beauty in the gore and the weird and creepy stuff. And I was scared, but I wasn’t — and sometimes, definitely, scared to the point where I was like, “Could this be real? Are we OK?” But The Nightmare Before Christmas was different. There was music. It was animated. It was Claymation.

Ms. Percy: Exactly.

Ms. Ford: And I felt, even as I was watching it — Oogie Boogie’s the only bad one.

Ms. Percy: Exactly.

Ms. Ford: Everybody else has a good heart, or they’re children who are mischievous. It just made me feel like there was room for creepy and all those things to also be fun and beautiful. And the music still messes me up internally. I sing it all the time. I can’t help it.

[music: “Jack’s Lament” from The Nightmare Before Christmas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Special Edition)]

Ms. Percy: Well, I think the subliminal message that I get from The Nightmare Before Christmas — and even, really, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, when I think about the other Tim Burton movies — is that difference and being different is not ugly.

Ms. Ford: Yes.

Ms. Percy: Yeah, there’s this amazing painter and artist, Enrique Celaya, and he talks about how you should look for the strangeness in another person, rather than trying to find the thing that connects you or the things you have in common. And I think that’s what we’re talking about. Even the whole movie of Nightmare Before Christmas, it’s what are the ways that Jack is strange and Sally are strange in the same way, and finding those connections.

Ms. Ford: Yes. They’re so strange. And as an adult, when I watch the movie, a lot of times the lesson I get from it is, “Hmm, I think this is about cultural appropriation.” [laughs]

Ms. Percy: [laughs] I was gonna ask you about that, because I know you did a whole Twitter stream about it.

Ms. Ford: I did. [laughs]

Ms. Percy: And I never thought about that. Yeah, tell me. Explain a little bit about that realization you had.

Ms. Ford: Well, I was watching the movie, and I was just like, “Oh, Jack is trying to take over another culture. And he doesn’t really get it.”

Ms. Percy: And he’s really egotistical.

Ms. Ford: He’s really arrogant.

Ms. Percy: That’s the one thing that struck me this time around, this week, watching it, is — he’s having an existential crisis, and he has a huge ego. [laughs]

Ms. Ford: Yes, yes. He’s so arrogant about it. “Oh, well, I saw Santa Claus once. I know what he does. I can do that too.”

Ms. Percy: Exactly. “I can do it.” [laughs]

Ms. Ford: “I could do that” — which is just so, to me, indicative of the conversations that you see happening online and off today, about cultural appropriation, where people are like, “Well, I don’t get it. Why — shouldn’t it be for everybody?” And it’s like, technically, Christmas is for everybody. But in Christmas Town…

Ms. Percy: Exactly.

Ms. Ford: These are the people who have been preparing and working and living in this culture their whole lives. So for you to come in from, literally, Halloween Town, which a lot of people think of as the opposite of Christmas — and it was just very interesting, because I'm like, man, they blasted Jack’s ass out of the sky.

Ms. Percy: [laughs] Literally, yes.

Ms. Ford: They blasted him out of the sky because he tried to take another man’s job. [laughs] And as I was watching it, I just kept thinking, “This is the definition of ‘Stay in your lane.’”

Ms. Percy: I dream of the day when you will talk to Tim Burton about this.

Ms. Ford: Oh, my gosh, I dream of the day when I talk to Tim Burton. [laughs] But I will talk about this with him.

Ms. Percy: You better. I always just pictured him to be Edward Scissorhands, always, basically. [laughs] I’m like, “That’s Tim Burton. That was his autobiography.”

Ms. Ford: Yep, absolutely. Edward Scissorhands, it’s a hard movie for me. But all of Tim Burton’s movies are, to be perfectly honest, a little hard for me, because they’re all attached to my childhood so, so deeply that it’s the kind of nostalgia that makes you a little weepy.

Ms. Percy: Yeah, and I think they also poke at that thing we all have that makes us feel like we’re different and ugly or not normal or not accepted. He knows how to poke at that.

Ms. Ford: Yes. I think the reason why I liked Tim Burton movies, as well, is because they spoke to some of the pain I was feeling and didn’t understand.

Ms. Percy: Yeah.

Ms. Ford: Yeah, absolutely. There was a lot of — as a child, there was a lot going on all the time. And things were tense, and things were hard, and we were poor. And I think that — on TV, everything was kind of perfect. And in these movies, things were not perfect, and people died, and people left, and people got hurt, and their feelings got hurt. And they hurt each other and forgave each other.

And for me, that just — it was so familiar. It was so familiar. And it made me feel like somebody else out there got it. I didn’t know it was old white dudes. [laughs] But I knew that somebody else out there got it, and I knew that somebody else — I knew that I didn’t fully understand my feelings, but that I would be able to at some point.

[music: “Sally’s Song” from The Nightmare Before Christmas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Special Edition)]

Ms. Percy: So I'm curious about who your favorite character or characters are in The Nightmare Before Christmas. My favorite is the Mayor, which — the Mayor of Halloween Town, which is really odd to think about.

Ms. Ford: I love the Mayor.

Ms. Percy: I love how emotional and dramatic he is, and I love how his face shifts back and forth, depending on his emotions — if he’s happy or sad, or if he’s delivering bad news or good news. I just love him so much. He just feels things very deeply and has to be yelling them all the time.

Ms. Ford: He does. “Where is he?” — looking for Jack.

Ms. Percy: “Where is he?”

Ms. Ford: “Where is he?”

[excerpt: The Nightmare Before Christmas]

Ms. Percy: [laughs] So who are your favorite characters, or who is your favorite character?

Ms. Ford: Oh, this is so hard. I mean Jack is, I think, to me, a perfect protagonist, because he’s so flawed.

Ms. Percy: Yes, and he doesn’t see it. He just keeps going forward.

Ms. Ford: And he doesn’t see it; he just keeps going. And I love Jack as a protagonist. I think that he is the definition of “You can have a good heart and still do bad things,” and that you can have all the good intentions in the world and still [laughs] have an impact that you didn’t expect; and also, that you can’t — one of the things I always loved, the song that I love that Jack does, is the Town Hall song, when he’s explaining to the other residents of Halloween Town what Christmas Town was like. And they’re not getting it, and so he changes the message. He tries to turn it into something so that they get it. Like instead of Santa Claus being Santa Claus, now he’s “Sandy Claws.” You know what I mean?

Ms. Percy: Yes, Sandy Claws. Yes. And he makes the hand gestures.

Ms. Ford: And he makes the hand gesture, and his face widens, and his mouth — he turns it into a scary thing so that they can get it.

[music: “Town Meeting Song” from The Nightmare Before Christmas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Special Edition)]

Ms. Ford: And it was one of those things that, even as a kid, I was like, “Oh, that’s the wrong choice.” [laughs] Even as a kid, I was like, “OK, you have a vision, because you saw it. But they didn’t see it. And this is not gonna” — even as a kid, I was like, “Oh, this isn’t gonna work out,” because — I was like — Christmas is not supposed to be scary. That’s just the point. They are diametrically opposed to one another.

Ms. Percy: Exactly.

Ms. Ford: And there was something about his arrogance; but also, when he recognizes that he’s wrong — when he’s in the cemetery, and he’s singing, and “What have I done?” And he feels the full gravity of that, and he owns it, and he takes it on. And then, after he feels that, he doesn’t go, “Oh, I'm just gonna lay here and die,” or “I’m just gonna” whatever. He’s like, “I can fix this. I get what I did wrong now. I get what I didn’t see, and that means I understand that this job isn’t mine and that I never should’ve taken it in the first place.” You know what I mean? That moment of realization, for me, is really, really amazing.

[music: “Poor Jack” from The Nightmare Before Christmas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Special Edition)]

Ms. Percy: Well, we have to talk about the music, which you touched upon a little bit there, Jack singing at the Town Hall meeting. I know you’ve talked about, on Twitter, that you love writing to music scores.

Ms. Ford: I do.

Ms. Percy: And I can only imagine that this has been in the rotation for you.

Ms. Ford: Absolutely.

Ms. Percy: Tell me about your favorite songs in the movie. I’m not gonna ask you to sing them — unless you want to; then you can feel free.

Ms. Ford: I might, just because that’s what’s in my heart, but… [laughs]

Ms. Percy: I know. There’s some mornings I wake up, and then — I'm not even kidding — the first thing I hear in my head is, “What’s this? What’s this?”

Ms. Ford: “What’s this? / There’s color everywhere / What’s this? / There’s white things in the air” — I love it.

Ms. Percy: Exactly. It’s so infectious.

Ms. Ford: I actually — my favorite songs are probably — obviously, “This Is Halloween,” which I think is a brilliant opening song.

Ms. Percy: Oh, yeah. Oh, my God, yeah.

Ms. Ford: And then “Jack’s Lament” is amazing, to me.

[music: “Jack’s Obsession” from The Nightmare Before Christmas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Special Edition)]

That’s the [sings] “Christmastime is buzzing in my skull / Will it let me be? I cannot tell / There are so many things I cannot grasp / First I think I've got it, and then at last / Through my bony fingers it does slip / Like a snowflake in a fiery grip” — and it’s just — I love that song.

Ms. Percy: I’m crying here, listening to you talk and sing.

Ms. Ford: I’m sorry! I love “Jack’s Lament.” And then I actually really like the song right at the end, when Sally — after she has basically sabotaged the love of her life to get him to understand that this is a bad idea. She’s standing on the top of that hill.

Ms. Percy: Oh, yeah, and the moon is in the background.

Ms. Ford: And the moon is in the background. And he just shows up. And the thing that I loved about the Jack-and-Sally romance was that it was really a friendship. Even if there was a little bit of unrequited love on her end, it’s like — she was his friend. And she would have been his friend no matter what, you know what I mean? They never had to get together.

But in those final moments, he recognizes that “This is a person who cares for me so much that she did not let me destroy myself.”

Ms. Percy: Yeah — ugh, I love that he goes to her.

Ms. Ford: I love that he goes to her in the end. I love that there’s this big celebration, everybody’s so excited to see him, and he’s very excited, but he starts looking for her, and when he can’t find her, she’s the only thing. He has to go find her. And there’s just something in that — because he knows she would’ve come back. She hadn’t disappeared. But in that moment — I love the idea that, in that moment, there was no celebration without her. And that was, I think, the recognition, for him.

[music: “Finale/Reprise” from The Nightmare Before Christmas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Special Edition)]

Ms. Percy: One of the things that I love about movies is that every time you watch them — and especially as you get older — they change for you, and you learn new things, and you see things differently. And I just wonder how this movie has changed for you, as you’ve gotten older and you’ve kept watching it. How have you guys grown together?

Ms. Ford: I think the way we’ve grown together is that, as I've gotten older, I have recognized, more and more, that nobody can be summed up by the best or worst thing they’ve ever done. And I think this movie is a great reflection on that — that there is light and shadow in all of us and that we will always be attracted to what’s different, but what’s different isn’t always necessarily right for who we are. And we have to take a moment to really think about who we are and what we enjoy and what we love.

And I think another thing — revelation — not even a revelation, because I heard it from Fran Lebowitz. I can’t act like I was sitting around, and I was like, “Aha!” But Fran Lebowitz has this thing that she said in an interview, where somebody asked her about happiness. And she said, “One of the biggest mistakes we make about happiness, or in defining happiness, is that we think of it as a condition. And happiness is not a condition. It’s a sensation. Happiness is not something that you can hope to maintain at all times. We should never be thinking we should always be happy. We should just know that moments of happiness will come. They’ll always come. And we can look forward to the next moment of happiness.”

And one of the things that I kept thinking about — actually, the last time I watched the movie —was the fact that Jack sincerely thought he was always supposed to be happy and satisfied by his work.

Ms. Percy: Yeah, and that drove him to make that really bad mistake. [laughs]

Ms. Ford: It drove him to make a terrible mistake. And it’s like the lesson that I think he ultimately learns is, “Oh, I don't have to tear down my whole life to find happiness or to find fulfillment or satisfaction. I just have to try something new. I just have to encourage myself to think about ‘OK, we’ve been doing these same things for Halloween for this long. What if we changed something?’” Because that’s ultimately what he realizes, in the end, is that he still loves Halloween. And the only reason he loved the Christmas that he created was because it was so much like Halloween.

Ms. Percy: Exactly. But he is the Pumpkin King.

Ms. Ford: Yes, but he is the Pumpkin King. And there is a reason why he’s the Pumpkin King. And it does have to do with his passion for Halloween and his ability to continue to make Halloween better and better and better. It’s a thing where you do what you can where you are with the time you have.

Ms. Percy: And with the gifts that you have.

Ms. Ford: Yes, and with the gifts that you have. And I think that that’s what he got, in the end, and that’s sort of what I'm beginning to get about my life, that — I sometimes get really caught up in all the things that I can’t do [laughs] or all the things that I'm not good at. I’m like, “Oh, man, why can’t I be good at that? Something would be easier. I would be more — whatever, if I could do that thing.” And I think that what I really have to understand, sometimes, about myself, is that I do have a gift. Writing, and communicating and connecting with people that way, is my gift. And…

Ms. Percy: Well, it’s about further knowing who you are and accepting who you are.

Ms. Ford: Yes. Yes. There is a great acceptance at the end of The Nightmare Before Christmas that I understand in my life now so much more than I did as a child — so much more. And I love that that film reaffirms that truth for me — that you can accept where you are and what you are. And you can try a million different things; it’s not wrong to try things. It’s just that — know where you are. Know who you are. Know what your gifts are. And honor them by giving them your best shot in a lot of different ways.

[music: “End Title” from The Nightmare Before Christmas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Special Edition)]

Ms. Percy: Ashley C. Ford is the host of the news and culture radio show 112BK and the new podcast Fortune Favors the Bold. She’s also written for nearly everyone, including Refinery 29, ELLE, BuzzFeed, and The Guardian, just to name a few. I also loved, loved, loved her guest spot on the Dear Sugars podcast, so definitely listen to that one for an extra dose of Ashley’s wisdom.

Next time, we’re going to be talking about the movie You’ve Got Mail, so you’ve got two weeks to go check it out before our conversation. You can find it streaming on Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, YouTube, and Vudu.

This Movie Changed Me is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Marie Sambilay, and Tony Liu, and is an On Being Studios production. Subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts. And definitely leave us a review, because that’s what people care about. I’m Lily Percy. Be kind to yourself and go see a movie.