Every year high expectations abound for the holidays, and it can also be an increasingly stressful time for single people as their families, friends and coworkers pressure them into meeting other singles in hopes that there may be a holiday spark of romance. Capturing this frisson filled time of year for two young people seeking to avoid holiday matchmaking and the good intentions of their families and friends, writer Gary Goldstein penned the charming holiday film HITCHED FOR THE HOLIDAYS (starring Joey Lawrence and Emily Hampshire). In an exclusive interview Gary share where this fun film idea blossomed from and creative choices he made in bringing this romantic comedy film to life.
So what was the inspiration and genesis for HITCHED FOR THE HOLIDAYS?
GARY: This movie started out as a feature script and we tailored it to be a TV-movie. Where it came from? I was at a Christmas Eve party a number of years ago and I just realized that being part of a couple made the holidays so much easier. Looking around and seeing a lot of people who were single and didn’t look all that happy being there at the party, I realized the whole intensity of the holidays can be so overwhelming for people. Like many things in life, it helps to have somebody to celebrate with. So I was sort of looking around and thinking how when I was younger and single that the holidays were more difficult, ’cause there’s so many holidays from Thanksgiving to New Years — between family things and business things. So I came up with this idea of what would happen if two people who were dreading the holidays experiencing it alone, what would be a funny way to put two people together to get through the holidays together; and eventually it evolved into this story of two strangers who have family pressures and one of them likes the holidays and the other doesn’t like the holidays. The guy always ends up breaking up with his girlfriend before the holidays, for reasons that become revealed. So the couple meets online and decide to pretend to be dating just to satisfy family pressures and help each other get through all of the holiday events and to enjoy the season a little bit more. And it just spun out from there.
It sounds like you have been thinking about this idea for a while. Do you have a secret drawer you keep your ideas in?
GARY: I wrote this original screenplay about 5-6 years ago. I started writing it right after that Christmas party I went to. Screenplays and movies in general, find their place. They have lives to them and the great thing about writing a screenplay is that if it doesn’t sell immediately, if it has any kind of timeless quality to it — and nobody does it before you do it — there are really some times new places for them. Which is that the world changes just enough for the zeitgeist to make a story really work at that particular point. So I don’t have drawers, but I have shelves. I’ve got a lot of screenplays that are on my shelf that eventually do find their place and I’ve fortunately have had three of them in a row made into TV-movies, and now I’m ultimately able to tell my story.
You have had a pretty good recent relationship with Hallmark Channel. How did that come about?
GARY: It started about 3 years ago when I sold my screenplay THE WISH LIST to Hallmark. They were looking to do more romantic comedies and they had the idea of basing their movies on written screenplays. Because of the change in the feature film world where romantic comedies and things that may seem a little smaller (meaning not franchises or comic book movies or special effects movies) it mean it could find a place as a TV-movie. So Hallmark made the movie THE WISH LIST and it went really well and they were happy with it. Later they came along and asked me to write another script and then I was sort of off and running with them. It’s good because I think our sensibilities are really well matched. I like writing romantic comedies and I think all of those I’ve written for Hallmark are more or less romantic comedies. Some are strictly romantic comedies and some have something else going on in them, but most bring that kind of dynamic to the films. It’s been a very good partnership.
In creating a romantic comedy world, how do you go about creating your key characters and populating it with other characters?
GARY: I tend to go logically from a point of view with an eye towards fun and entertainment. Meaning, it’s always fun to write scripts where opposites attract. Where the couple starts off at odds and who then later realize that they are either more alike than they thought or who are drawn to each other because they are so different and romance blossoms; and then there are complications, and ultimately the will-they or won’t-they get together. We generally know that they will end up together in the end, so it’s really about how do they get there in twisty, yet realistic ways where they pull apart and then realize that they are made for each other. So it’s coming up with characters who are in there with them. I love putting in parents ’cause I always think that the adult parents of adult children is always a very interesting dynamic to watch. And it’s always fun when somebody is either a sibling as a confidante and best friend or an office buddy or their football friend, or whatever who becomes their wing-person or confidante. So then you roll it out from there. Just looking at who is in the office who can create havoc and problems or to become a mirror for one of the main characters. It’s who else do they need in their life to meet or for us to see a change in that relationship. Just to see how the character is changing because of the situation of the movie that they find themselves in. So it kind of rolls out pretty logically. But it is about trying to create characters — not so much about the types of characters — it’s the kind of character that offers a unique, yet realistic personality that can lend itself to humor or that can be both funny and real, both humorous and touching. To try to find the real people that can grow while giving them a comic spin. That’s always a challenge. You don’t want to end up with types of stereotypes, but that you end up with real people.
One of the cute little things I noticed is that you did the twist on the name Julie, by explaining it as Rob’s nickname for her and calling her his “jewel”. Where did you come up with that?
GARY: Those things just really come up out of nowhere as you’re writing it. It’s almost like as a writer that you put yourself in the situation that the person is in. In this case, in the movie, Rob (Joey Lawrence) had no idea that he was going to mess up the name he had created for Julie (Emily Hampshire) and he had to find a way to backtrack to her real name. So it was that very impulsive last-second where he had to wiggle his way out of it and it just popped into my head. So the name Julie came first and the nickname ended up coming second.
It was a cute little tie-in, so it felt fun. You also created a meet-cute for Rob and Julie as far as they way they met online and then you gave them an end-cute scene as well. Where did you come up with the idea of bookending it that way?
GARY: How they meet initially and then how they meet up again at the end was always that way. What was really great about this film and doing it as a TV-movie, which is more economical than a feature film, is they were able to transfer what was supposed to be a big Times Square big romantic closing, they were really able to duplicate it in the way that it was shot. I just loved the heroism and the unlikeliest of this guy being able to jump on a horse and chase after her as her cab is driving away. It was the white-knight kind of idea and I felt that if there was anyway to keep that in the TV-movie from the feature film script that it would be such a great ending because it is so much fun and so visual. It feels so big and our director who did a fantastic job was really able to make it work. I love the ending. In terms of how they meet, these days everyone meets on the Internet. Since I’ve written this film, there are other ways people meet through social media, electronically and internet-wise, but when I wrote it and it still functions to this day, people end up meeting or find something they need on whatever version of Craigslist there is. For our movie, we have Ricky’s List. But it seemed like a fun and simple way that two people would meet each other.
You also created so many different layers to this story, such as that these characters might have a bit of a “white lie syndrome” and the story of Rob’s childhood memories with his mother. There were just so many different levels, which is unusual for romantic comedies. What made you want to embed those kinds of issues?
GARY: That’s a really good question. I really appreciate you seeing those because I think one of the hazards in any romantic comedy, whether it be TV-movie or a feature romantic comedy, is so often characters are given quirky personalities or character flaws to set them apart from each other and hopefully those characteristics become complimentary and the characters kind of complete each other. What is missing so often is why they are the way they are. And without getting too deep into the psychology, yet trying to stay kind of unique in terms of why somebody has the fear that they have — and for Rob it is the fear of commitment — it needed a reason where that came from. I felt specifically for Rob that because it is so deep-rooted, his discomfort around the holidays and his inability to commit to a relationship, that for it had to be significant him to continue a relationship through the holiday period. All the things from preferring freelance work to not being able to decide between dinner dishes, these are all symptoms of a life-long problem. He doesn’t use it just as a joke. I really wanted to find something that was real and poignant and very specific so that we not only feel for this guy, that we understand him. I think that the problem that he has that stems back to his childhood is something that a lot of people deal with. That abandonment as a child. So much of it is wrapped up in a kid’s head than what’s really there. But it can inform a person for the rest of their life and you have to fix it at some point. I would say that we live our childhood every day anyway, and it affects so much of our choices in life. So I kind of felt that was important and to make the characters as dimensional as possible. So that they are not stereotypes or types, but instead really human.
It made it very interesting to watch, adding a layer of seriousness to Rob and Julie’s insecurities and issues they address.
GARY: I think when you can present something serious but with comedy in ways that can make people laugh but can make it poignant for people too, then they can relate to it and it can remind them of themselves or their own childhood and parents. The holidays sort of bring out that stuff in everybody anyway. I just think it makes better characters. I think Joey Lawrence did a great job with that character, as did Emily Hampshire in terms of creating hers by making the characters believable and accessible and fun and warm without them being just being a bag of neurosis, which sometimes can happen too.
They were charming in their roles. Because you had been working on this script for such a long time, what kind of actor did you envision for these kinds of roles?
GARY: It’s a good question because so often as a writer I’m asked: do you envision actors in the part you are writing as you’re writing them? I can honestly say I’m not the kind of writer who does that only because I feel it locks me in a little too much. Sometimes if I’m having some trouble with some dialogue or something, I’ll think of the right kind of actor for that moment and how would they say it or how would another actor say it. But I don’t look too deeply at that. I can’t say who I thought of. Once it became a TV-movie, it opened up the doors to so many fun people, particularly people who have a TV-Q. When I heard Joey Lawrence was doing it, I was so excited because he obviously has a very high awareness in terms of who he is. He has been working for such a long time and just brings so much depth to the comedy and is such a hand-and-glove fit for this character that I was excited about that. I think he brings a really fun wryness to the character that really kind of makes him even more charming and accessible, but also real. It’s also set in New York and it’s great having an actor who kind of projects that New York sensibility in the part to sell it as well.
Now that you have had a chance to see the final version of the film, is there a scene that you would have done differently after you have seen how it came out visually?
GARY: I don’t think so. We did pare down the script over time so that we could shoot closer to what the final running time would be, which I think helps to get a movie that tracks a little more clearly — especially with a movie like this that has a lot of moving parts. But in terms of anything that wasn’t in there that I would have liked to have seen or done differently, I don’t know. I felt like they pretty much nailed everything that was there within certain budgetary parameters and things like that. I think they did a really good job of recreating it all. To me, I just love it when there is popular music in movies, and that’s always fun and I think we have enough holiday songs to put in for the season. But I was really happy the way it turned out. Fortunately, I had a really good relationship with the director and we worked well together. I had good input on it. He was really very collaborative, which is so great for a writer. By and large, there’s nothing I would change.
Did you have a favorite scene that once you saw it, you went, “Oh that worked so beautifully”?
GARY: I don’t want to say because I want viewers to discover it for themselves. But I will say it was when Rob goes to celebrate Hanukkah with Julie’s parents and the surprise that happens in that scene. I love the horseback scene at the end as well. I think it is really charming and really so romantic and holiday-oriented. I think it is a great way to end the film, so I love that scene too.
As a writer, what would you like the audience to take away from the film as an overall message or theme?
GARY: I would say not to let the concept of the holidays or to let your expectations or the expectations placed on you for the holidays overwhelm your enjoyment of the holidays, and also to know that generally people feel the same way. I always think of people having Thanksgiving dinner with their families that there’s always a dynamic and that is just what family is all about. I think people are very fortunate to have family that they are close to, even if they bug them a little bit — as the families do in this movie — and yet they really love them very much and are very close to them and the parents are really there for them ultimately in the end, which is important. So love your parents, love the holidays, don’t take it too seriously. Finally, I’m very proud of this movie and I think people will really enjoy it.
On that final wish for holidays filled with cheer, family and friend, be sure to tune in to see how the romantic story of Rob and Julie unfolds in HITCHED FOR THE HOLIDAYS which premieres Sunday, November 25th at 8PM on the Hallmark Movie Channel.