Considering the frequency with which Christmas movies are churned out by networks and streaming services as of late, it’s no surprise that the vast majority turn out to be cliched and formulaic, each fairly indistinguishable from the next. But every once in a while, a standout comes along, one that is decidedly deserving of prominent placement in any family’s annual holiday movie-watching rotation, like “Home Alone” in 1990, “Love Actually” and “Elf” in 2003 and “The Holiday” in 2006. This year, that honor goes to “Spirited,” Apple TV+’s modern musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic “A Christmas Carol,” which hit both the streamer and theaters last month.
Directed by Sean Anders of “Instant Family” and “Daddy’s Home” fame, the film centers around a group of good-hearted spirits who work tirelessly all year creating simulations of Christmases past, present and future for one Scrooge-like miserly mortal, or “perp,” in the hopes of transforming them into a decent, caring individual, thereby creating “ripples” of kindness that will, in turn, affect everyone the newly redeemed comes into contact with. As Will Ferrell, who plays Present – as in the Ghost of Christmas Present – explains in the movie’s opening, “We haunt someone, change them into a better person and then we sing about it.”
But Present and his fellow spirits, Past (Sunita Mani) and Yet-To-Come (portrayed by Loren G. Woods and voiced by Tracy Morgan), have their work cut out for them with their latest assignment, perp Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), a cutthroat public relations executive and so-called “unredeemable” who makes his living utilizing social media to polarize the public for his clients’ gain via his high-powered company, Briggs Media Group.
Sprinkled throughout with rousing tunes penned by Oscar-winning “La La Land” songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and boisterous dance numbers exquisitely crafted by Emmy-nominated choreographer Chloé Arnold (which saw Ferrell and Reynolds undergoing a whopping five months of dance training in order to prepare!), “Spirited” makes for two gleeful hours of toe-tapping fun! Undeniably feel-good, the flick is charming, warm and teeming with holiday cheer. If the uplifting storyline and rollicking tap routines don’t get you in the holiday spirit, well then, you may just be an unredeemable!
Adding to the charm is the movie’s sprightly setting. Purported to take place in wintry Manhattan, the film was captured in its entirety in Boston, Mass. Shot on a massively grand scale, the elaborate backdrops give off the illusion of being whimsically-fabricated sets. But, in truth, “Spirited” was lensed not on a soundstage or studio backlot but at a handful of real Beantown sites! As location manager Mark Fitzgerald told The Globe, “The whole thing was shot within 30 miles of Boston. There were three ginormous locations in the movie where most of the scenes were shot.”
The raucous “Good Afternoon” number was captured on Marshall St., a tiny cobblestone lane spanning Union and Hanover Streets that dates back to 1652 and was established thanks to funding from local shoemaker Thomas Marshall. The grandiose “Do a Little Good” finale was also captured on a city street, with Clint and Present dancing their way through the 100 block of Devonshire St. in the Financial District.
But the film’s most memorable site by far is The Saunders Castle at Park Plaza, a former-armory-turned-special-events-venue that the production team transformed into the headquarters of the whole “Spirited” spirit operation, where the “dedicated staff of support ghosts” – led by Jacob Marley (Patrick Page), natch! – report to work each day. Though the locale is never officially named in the movie, according to Fitzgerald, cast and crew took to calling it “Ghost World.”
Situated just a couple of blocks south of Boston Common at 130 Columbus Ave. in the Back Bay neighborhood, the towering Romanesque Revival structure started life at the tail end of the 19th century as the Armory of the First Corps of Cadets. It was constructed to supplant the group’s prior training facility, which, per an 1890 Boston Globe report, had proven “entirely unfit for drill purposes . . . so small that hardly a dozen men can be taught to march; company drill is impracticable, and battalion drill impossible.” Prolific Boston architect and former Corps member William Gibbons Preston was enlisted to design the replacement at a size “large enough to assemble a battalion of 500 men,” and the cornerstone was laid by Governor William E. Russell on October 19, 1891. The armory was completed a little over five years later, with the cadets hosting their first battalion drill at the site on January 13, 1897.
As detailed in a Landmarks Commission Study Report, the majority of armories built at the time were fashioned after medieval fortresses and the Boston facility is no different. Its façade is a glorious amalgamation of regal castle-like elements, including detailed stonework, corner turrets, a drawbridge and a moat. Tall and imposing, the structure, which comprises a six-story tower, an adjoining head house and a single-level drill hall, was built out of heavy granite, with exterior walls measuring a broad 20 inches! Per Lost New England, the “whimsical” design “served a very practical purpose; in the event of riots or other civil unrest, it would be able to withstand any attacks. The tower could even be used to exchange signals with officials at the Massachusetts State House, which is located on the other side of Boston Common.”
The Corps occupied the space for close to seven decades, with The Globe noting that the building’s “creaking floor has been, for fighting men, a corridor to action in five wars.” In late 1965, facing high tax bills and costly necessary repairs, the group voted to offload the structure, with many locals fearing it would likely fall to the wrecking ball.
It was ultimately saved by parking lot developer William J. Fitzgerald, who purchased the site that December, telling The Globe, “Really, I don’t have any hard plans for the building. I just think it’s a good real estate investment.” It was an astute prediction. As he pondered what to do with the place, he began offering it for special events, hosting everything from dog shows to antique exhibitions on the premises, before leasing it long-term to The University of Massachusetts at Boston in August 1967. The school proceeded to utilize the armory as a library and study space for more than a decade.
Then in 1981, it was acquired by hotelier brothers Donald and Richard Saunders, who set about restoring the structure to the tune of $500,000. The project removed “years of dirt and layers of grime,” according to The Globe, transforming the space “from a gloomy cavernous, almost uninviting address” into an exhibition/banquet hall known as Park Plaza Castle. As Roger told the paper, the renovation “illustrated again that old buildings with irreplaceable charm and historic distinction can be recycled, restored and returned to community service.” Indeed! The site, now known as The Saunders Castle at Park Plaza, is still a bustling event center today, over 40 years later!
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the location boasts two massive venues available for weddings, conferences, retreats and expositions. The four-story Tower offers multiple rooms accommodating up to 500 guests, while the Castle (formerly the armory’s drill room) is a cavernous arena comprising a whopping 15,000 square feet of open space. Both were utilized to portray Ghost World in “Spirited.”
The bulk of the filming took place in the Castle. Featuring sweeping high ceilings, arched windows, stone walls, a second-level mezzanine lining the perimeter and a massive staircase, the gaping room basically served as a blank canvas for production designer Clayton Hartley (who was also behind the looks of such classic movies as “Jerry Maguire” and “Almost Famous”) to redress. As Fitzerald told The Globe, “We needed a giant space with no columns. Building Ghost World was a gigantic undertaking.” Hartley certainly worked his magic, transforming the space from empty room to magical Christmas wonderland!
For the shoot, which took place over the course of three weeks, the production team outfitted the Castle with an elaborate staircase, a hexagonal desk, wooden shelving, a fireman’s pole and scads upon scads of holiday trimming. Embellished to perfection, as a Boston Globe reader who worked as an extra in the Ghost World scenes commented, “I can attest those sets were ridiculously well-appointed.”
Although exhaustively overhauled for the film, the main bones of the space were left intact, with the handsome brickwork, windows, archways and mezzanine visible throughout. As such, the room, even when devoid of its “Spirited” trappings, is thoroughly recognizable from its big-screen role.
To create the office where Past, Present and Yet-To-Come prepare for their annual hauntings, Hartley transformed the second-floor dining room of the adjacent Tower, a grandiose space awash with historic chandeliers, copious glass-fronted built-ins, arched doorways and a massive fireplace fashioned out of stone, brick and wood. Hartley made use of all of it, adding in spirited bits and baubles to give the enclave a screen-worthy holiday flair.
Although the set decorations have long since been removed, I’m guessing Present and his ghostly buddies left some holiday magic behind at the venue, a little bit of that Christmas Morning Feeling for visitors to experience for years to come.