In early December 2009, I was sitting on the couch, watching our Christmas favorite, Elf, with my daughter when I turned to her and said, “Maybe I should write a Christmas movie.”
About a week later, David White at Pure Flix called me up and said, “How would you like to write a Christmas movie?” I said yes immediately. The only trouble was that they needed to shoot in February, in Alaska, just nine weeks from our first conversation about it.
They had optioned the rights to a song called “Christmas with a Capital C” by Go Fish, which had an impressive amount of hits on YouTube (tens of millions) and which sampled the stand-up of Brad Stine, a comedian and actor they had worked with on another movie. The song is really in-your-face “it’s okay to say Merry Christmas,” and while I’m not scared to be politically incorrect, I really hated the idea of a politically charged Christmas movie. Thankfully Pure Flix and the producers, David Cuddy and James Chankin, wanted to make something that was more in the vein of It’s A Wonderful Life with David’s home state of Alaska as the beautiful, snowy backdrop.
I turned in the treatment on Christmas Eve, after a ton of research on Alaska and the Establishment Clause. My first version involved a dead mom and a family squabble, and it was no fun at all. We developed it into the story of two high school rivals, and brought in the twist that assured the story was not about politics, but rather the “real meaning” of Christmas.
Nine weeks. Two treatments and two drafts. Writer friends, did that give you a heart attack? It’s a miracle this script turned out at all. I realize now how much of a risk they were taking on me, because never before or since have I delivered a shootable script in nine weeks. A Christmas miracle…
Because the schedule was moving so fast, I was actually exporting lists of slug lines for the producer in Alaska, so he could scout locations before he had even seen a full draft of the screenplay. We wrote it for a small town, and had our hearts set on the town of Seward, but it was three hours from Anchorage where there was any talent and equipment base, so shooting in Seward meant the expense of housing the whole crew. After a lot of back and forth, and some utterly disappointing locations in Anchorage, Seward was chosen. And it was worth every penny.
While I was writing the second draft, James kept calling from Seward with grand new locations and resources he wanted to use – somebody had an airplane, a snow machine, there was an amazing harbor… In the end, all of the scenes that I had written for two different interior locations (an office and a basement, because interiors are always cheaper and more reliable) were replaced with spectacular Alaskan scenery.
And I got to see it! In most cases, the writer doesn’t get to be on set for any length of time, but my dear family sent me to Alaska for part of the shoot. Being a writer on the set watching your own movie come to life is amazing.
And when crew call is at 6am, you get to waltz in at 9am sipping coffee. If it’s snowing six inches, and not much is happening, you can go back to the hotel for a nap. (Pretty much everything in Seward is walking distance.) Sure, you feel a little guilty because the crew is working so hard, but then you remember that you did weeks of work before anybody else showed up, so it evens out!
CAST AND CREW
I loved watching the movie come to life because we had such a talented group of people working on it. The director and editor, Helmut Schleppi, took what could have been a stagnant, talking heads movie and really put life and beauty into it. His editing choices gave new meaning and poignancy to what was on the page.
Ted McGinley (Dan Reed). We called him “perfect Ted” because he was awesome on screen, and immediately looked like he was at home at whatever he was doing. (Skiing? Sure! Flying a plane? Like he’s done it for years…). But we also called him that because he was the perfect professional and gentleman on the set — a joy to be around. The man even carried my suitcase to the car on the last day! Helmut said he was glad his wife didn’t come to set because Ted was just too much to live up to. In my opinion, he should work way more than he does. He’s terrific on screen and off.
Daniel Baldwin (Mitch Bright). Baldwins of course come with baggage, but Daniel is a pro. He brought a lot of ideas to the part of Mitch, truly humanizing the film’s “villain,” and he brought deep emotion where it counted. And he didn’t punch out the people in the restaurant asking endless questions about his brothers or the reporter that asked our producer (in front of him) “Why didn’t you get Alec Baldwin?”… though I know I wanted to.
Brad Stine (Greg Reed). Based on his comedy, I expected Brad to be in a constant state of frenetic energy, but I found him to be thoughtful, funny and a real contributor to the overall story. I worked with Brad at the script stage, so we could incorporate some of his stand-up material and comedic sensibility into his character. He’s someone I want to stay in touch with because I love his vision for what faith-based comedy can be.
Nancy Stafford (Kristen Reed). Nancy was already a friend of mine, and I had no idea they were considering her for this movie until I heard they had cast her. I was really excited, as Kristen is the soul of the movie, and the one who turns the story from a political debate toward the heart of Christmas. Nancy is that beautiful soul already, and she executes it perfectly.
The rest of the cast was great too – many were local Alaskans, and all of the extras were locals from Seward. There wasn’t a whole lot going on in Seward in February (at least half the businesses had a “Closed until April” sign in the window) so the movie was a big deal both for local revenue and for something to talk about!
(For more pics from the set, click on the gallery here)
The film was finished by the following summer, so it was decided to go ahead and release the movie on TV in 2010 rather than wait for Christmas of 2011. I actually watched it premiere on an airplane because the flight I was on that night happened to have Direct TV. (My poor seatmate, I made him watch it too, by sheer enthusiasm). It was well-received by GMC — I think they aired it 15 times last December. They’ll be airing it again this year as well, after the DVD release November 1st.
It was also well-received by the “War on Christmas” contingent, who liked the trailer a lot, and thanks to Bill O’Reilly playing it on his show, it was also well-hated by angry atheists who saw it there. One of my biggest heartbreaks about this movie is the comment section on the YouTube trailer page, which is full of hateful words and foul language from people who only assume they know what the message is. It’s clear they haven’t seen the film because they’re getting it completely wrong.
I realize there are always going to be negative reviews, and I need to have thick skin. It’s just hard to stomach hateful “reviews” when they are completely uninformed. So if you’ve seen the movie, feel free to post something, good or bad. As long as you’ve seen it, I’m happy to hear your opinion!
So that’s my Christmas story. It was a joy to write this one and a proud moment to see it all turn out like it did. I hope you and your family enjoy it too – check it out on DVD and BluRay starting November 1st! There are more fun behind-the-scenes stories on the commentary track with me, director Helmut Schleppi, and producer James Chankin.