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Interview Exclusive HTF Interview: Writer, Director, Composer Tim Janis (Buttons: A Christmas Tale) (1 Viewer)

Neil Middlemiss

Senior HTF Member
Nov 15, 2001
Real Name
Neil Middlemiss
Tim Janis, successful and prolific composer and recording artist, has worked with legends of the recording industry, including Paul McCartney and Billy Joel. In 2018 he embarked on his first directorial feature, a sweet holiday story following the fates of two orphan girls. Featuring a strong cast, including the legendary Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury, along with Ioan Gruffudd, Alivia Clark, Nicole E. Parker, Roma Downey and Jane Seymour, the film also features narration from Robert Redford and Kate Winslet.

Buttons: A Christmas Story also offers a collection of memorable songs, including playful routines showcasing the eternal talents of Dick Van Dyke.

Buttons: A Christmas Story is available to rent or own on Digital HD and DVD.


HTF: Tell me where your inspiration for this story came from. How did the story come to be, the setting, the intriguing approach of parallels – the story within a story – that gives us that double-whammy emotional payoff at the end?

"Two weeks later, we looked on our caller ID, and it said Richard Van Dyke had called us directly, and we were shocked."

Tim Janis: I attended a church in York, Maine and right after the Eucharist I had this inspiration and started writing it down on envelopes and anything else [I could find]. And when I got home, I wrote down an outline of the first kernel of the story, which then, of course, got more developed. I think that was one of the first moments where it all came together. And then I wrote the song, “Keep a Smile on Your Face,” and sent it to Paradigm to see if Dick Van Dyke would want to sing it. Two weeks later, we looked on our caller ID, and it said Richard Van Dyke had called us directly, and we were shocked. [But] he just said, "I'd love to do something with that song." So, I think those two were the catalysts that just got everything rolling.

HTF: This was also your first time serving as a director. That can't have been easy because, A, it's your first time, and B, you're dealing with traditionally complex variables when shooting. You've got a costume drama, dance and musical numbers, you're working with children, whose hours are often limited by rules. How did your experience directing this film go? Knowing what you know now, would you dive in the way that you did?

“We had 5,000 pounds of lighting gear, 100 people, a marching band showing up, gigantic crew, and you're in the field. And Dick Van Dyke comes and says basically, "Okay, now make something happen."”

Tim Janis: Well, I have a book that I've kept of all the miracles that have happened as I've filmed. Because there were many instances where [it was] like, "How are we going to make this all happen?" But I'll say that with my background-- I'm an engineer, a sound engineer, so as I got into cinematography, I was able to DP a lot of the scenes. I love lighting. I lit some of the scenes. And they were major shoots. And then other times I had full crew. But I have to say I really enjoyed and loved the challenge. I remember the shoot for Dick Van Dyke. We shot two songs one day. It was the song “The Proper Attitude,” and then another that’s on the bonus content: “Two by Two.” I think we were starting at 9 o'clock, and I was the one picking up a lot of the gear at U-Haul, risking LA traffic but got there. And we had 5,000 pounds of lighting gear, 100 people, a marching band showing up, gigantic crew, and you're in the field. And Dick Van Dyke comes and says basically, "Okay, now make something happen." And really, to me, it just was a thrill and a challenge, and to see it unfold was magical. So, I think there's a part-- as a film director, there's an element of risk. Will it work out? Will the drive that's holding all the content you filmed work or have an issue…On and on the list goes, but I think part of that element of whether everything will work out is part of the excitement.


Then, just creating with such large variables, I found really exciting. When we filmed the young children in the mill-- they found an old mill in West Virginia that had been shut because of a union strike in the '50s. Because it was in such a rural area, it was like a time capsule, and we were just able to go in there and use all these amazing features to acquire them. So, it's really kind of fun. And I think, sometimes, certain people are just designed for that kind of trauma [laughter] and bearing a heavy load. So, I really enjoy it.

HTF: And you were blessed with a terrific cast, notably, Mr. Van Dyke, and the incomparable Angela Lansbury. That had to have made a difference to have legends so well honed in their craft to know what to do, instinctively, and to follow your direction. Talk about working with your cast, and what you learned from the legends in your cast.

“I remember it was such a great day when Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury were together on set. They started talking about the Hoover administration, and I told the camera guy to just, "Keep the camera rolling. I just want to get everything.”

Tim Janis: Absolutely. Obviously, I'm very humble and grateful, and they're so talented and so natural in everything they do that, as a director, I'm not really directing. I'm just here, and then they do their thing. They're incredible to me. I love them both. Part of my inspiration was the old musicals, The Song and Dance Man, and all those things, so I was so inspired. I remember it was such a great day when Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury were together on set. They were born, I think, like a month apart. I think it was 1925. And they started talking about the Hoover administration, and I told the camera guy to just, "Keep the camera rolling. I just want to get everything, just them talking," because it was just so exciting and such a historical moment for me, in my life. And really, working with the best, there's not much you do. They are such pros. They make the scene happen.


HTF: Buttons has had a sort of a circuitous route to home video. I read that it was important to you that people had the chance to see the film on bigger screens, to come together and enjoy the story and the music and the messages of hope. So, what does it mean to you now that Paramount is able to bring this into homes on the DVD and HD Digital release? What does that mean to you now that more people will have access to it?

Tim Janis: I was so grateful and excited that Paramount came onboard. Paramount has such an amazing history. And the day I went on the backlot, it felt so right. They have movies like It's a Wonderful Life and White Christmas, and so the history that Paramount has, all that they've done over the last century is just incredible. I'm excited for people to own the movie and have it for themselves. I kind of pair it up closer to It's a Wonderful Life, in the sort of the trial and tribulations that families or people have and how, with a little guidance of these wonderful angels, Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury, they can come through those in a better place. Now that people can own it for themselves, I think it can be something that you can share with one another and people in need, and it can be a useful tool for just dreaming and healing.

HTF: And you also served as composer.

Tim Janis: Yes

HTF: I mean music is your life. And you had original compositions and songs. I spend hours just about every day listening to my favorite composers. The top of the list sits James Horner, but John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith and Howard Shore, those are right behind them. I'm interested in your process composing for this film, a film that you directed, but I'm also interested in your influences. I spent this morning listening to your Perfect Serenity album on Amazon Music, and there's a wonderful cinematic quality to your work. Is that part of the thrill, bringing your sort of cinematic compositions to actual cinema?


Tim Janis: Well, that's a very great question. I've got 30 CDs and 2 number one on Billboard charts, so it's been a long 25 years. A long stretch. But what I've found, over that period, is how people use the music for helping to get through difficult times and bringing them peace. And some of the simplest things, from a traffic jams to the loss of someone. So, it has this healing element. I think it's really just because something that's beautiful helps balance when things are not beautiful in your life. And I think that a movie is something similar, where I wanted it to have its story and how it all came together. A way to sort of inspire and bring hope and healing through the film. And to me, that matches most of the music that I've done and what I've done in my career.

I think when it came to scoring this film, that's a bit different because you're supporting these scenes, and so it's not always like in this case, a sweeping cinematic song, like what I might've had for my CDs. But I've also done two musicals. I did music on The Book of Ruth and another Christmas story called Kris Kringle, where you're really needing to react to the scenes. So, in some ways, that was a challenge, but in a lot of ways, it wasn't just digging into that symphonic music that I normally create. There was one song by Sir Paul McCartney in the film, Button, which was more cinematic. I first worked with Paul back in 2001 on a CD called Music of Hope, which was to benefit the American Cancer Society. And Paul recorded a song with the London Symphony that I was producing with my record label. And then three years later, he's MPO of the kind of license it got to be used in the film. And that was definitely more cinematic. So, I think whatever film you're doing, it is a departure from that cinematic-type soundtrack that I would do for my CDs.

HTF: And your career, the places that you've applied your talent and energy. It seems clear to me that you've known for a while what your calling was. Did you always know, or was there a moment in your life where your musical passion and your heart and your beliefs collided, and in that moment, you knew exactly the path your life was destined to take? Or is there no time you can remember where this wasn't something that you were meant to do?


“I love working with costumes and cameras and lights and actors. I like the wide tapestry of different components that you bring together to create something.”

Tim Janis: Great question. Well, I went to a military high school, and so I was not exactly a musical person. And about Eleventh grade, I decided I wanted to do music. I think that passion to be a musician - and I think other musicians would say - it was just part of your makeup, and that was it. It's what I was going to do, and through a long story, that's where I am today. And I think what's interesting is I got into film. I feel like I like doing that even more than music, so I have a very strong passion. I love working with costumes and cameras and lights and actors. I like the wide tapestry of different components that you bring together to create something. So, I do think that's part of my nature to be creative, and then also make the sacrifices that you need to be creative. And luckily, I have a large understanding of both the engineering and different aspects so I can make things happen and understand what needs to go in to make it happen.

HTF: I want to get back to the music you composed and the songs you did for the film. Because you've got, obviously, the music that you compose, and then you've got some adaptations of familiar and traditional holiday songs. You've got a wonderful use of Ave Maria in a pivotal moment of the third act. And the song where Annabelle, played by Alivia Clark, is sent to the mill-- it's the work song and it's a brilliant song!


Tim Janis: Thank you! Thank you!

HTF: It's just so wonderfully done. Is it fun to adapt other music? Is it fun to weave in your music with a traditional holiday song or Ave Maria? Is it fun to sort of hybridize music, or do you tend to enjoy more holy, original compositions?

Tim Janis: Yeah, well, let me answer that in two parts. The scene [in the third act you mention] kind of speaks to me because you're really trying to work between those-- trying to honor the scene and bring out the most emotion you can. And with the Ave Maria, I had done a lot of stuff for the Little Sisters of the Poor at St. Joseph’s Residence, the Nuns, I will do benefit concerts, so the Ave Maria, when we put it there, I knew exactly what I would change. And there's usually a meaning with the song, and I'm hoping the audience have pick-up on it. But the “Work” song I wrote. I have this thing where I write the music you've heard, but I write tons of songs that are like that. And I have it in my mind that I think I have a whole new movie that would be full of those songs, and they come out of me all the time. And I like saying, "Gosh, I've got to do something with them." So, I'm glad you picked up on that because I have a whole new show that's filled with those sorts of songs that I'm excited to do.

HTF: What would you like to tackle next? I know you've got performance at Carnegie Hall, I believe, in December. But what's your next big project, and are you looking for the next thing to write and direct?

Tim Janis: Exactly. Yeah, I have a new show with the music you just mentioned, the work song. And it’s sort of like another Mary Poppins, full of upbeat, lively songs that I'd love to share with people and children. I have that ready to go. I just love the challenge of that being the next big stride I make, to try to go into that. I think there's always a need for movies like Buttons, something that's family-oriented and uplifting and just kind of wholesome. This is my first film, and it was really made from a passion in my heart. It's just a real expression, a creative expression, and I would like to do that again with this second idea. So that would be my wish and dream.


HTF: Well, gosh knows, the world needs a little more of that hope and warmth that Buttons brings. Congratulations on it. I look forward to seeing what you come up with next. Thank you, Tim

Tim Janis: Thank you so much. I so appreciate your interview, and thanks for all your great questions. That made me happy, so thank you.
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