Behind the Screens with Joshua Maloni
If it’s 65 degrees in Buffalo, is it too early for a Hallmark Christmas movie?
Maybe. But the famous card company has become equally well known for its round-the-clock holiday film offerings, which, snow or no snow, now arrive a week before the first trick-or-treater shows up at your doorstep.
Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas” has been so successful, in fact, that other networks have, um, “borrowed” the idea and ramped up their festive flicks pre-Halloween, too.
And who did they go to when casting? Former Hallmark Channel stars, of course.
You see, Hallmark has cemented its status as a holiday staple. It has keepsake ornaments, Balsam Hill partnerships, and more than 30 movies debuting between Oct. 21 and Dec. 18.
This is big business – but it’s also an experience – both for those watching at home, and for those communities where a Hallmark movie is filmed.
Recognizing this, the network teamed with Lighthouse Pictures for a tongue-in-cheek, movie-in-a-movie appropriately titled, “Lights, Camera, Christmas!” One of the best Hallmark offerings you’ll find this year, the film humorously and lovingly pokes fun at – and celebrates – the magic that comes from making (and watching) a “Countdown to Christmas” feature.
Equally inspiring was putting Kimberley Sustad in the lead role. No stranger to holiday films (“The Nine Lives of Christmas,” “The Nine Kittens of Christmas,” “Christmas by Starlight”), Sustad is the perfect counterbalance to the escapism often found in these pictures. The roles she’s played are of real people, with real jobs, who are big-hearted and appropriately pessimistic. Perhaps a better way to say it is Sustad’s characters are keenly aware of “This is too-good-to-be-true” moments. Still, they don’t retreat when such opportunities are presented, but press on toward the goal – whether it’s finding love, saving a family diner, or rescuing a batch of kittens.
In addition to having the best laugh of any Hallmark player, Sustad is – as her character is described in “Lights, Camera, Christmas!” – cool, smart, talented and authentic.
Her new film debuts this Saturday and, as the story goes, “When a movie shoot descends on a small town to film a Christmas movie, local boutique owner Kerry (Sustad) gets hired at the last minute to replace the film’s costume designer. As if this unexpected turn of events isn't major enough, Kerry also finds herself falling for Brad Barton (John Brotherton), the movie’s famous and charismatic leading man who is starting to pursue more challenging acting roles.”
Sustad shared more in this edited Q&A.
In "Lights, Camera, Christmas!" a holiday movie production comes to town in need of a costume designer. Kerry, a local shop owner, steps into the role and crosses paths with the film's charming star Brad. Pictured are John Brotherton and Kimberley Sustad. (Credit: ©2022 Hallmark Media/photographer: Brendan Meadows)
Q: Are you a holiday person?
Kimberley Sustad: I've been very fortunate to be able to do Hallmark Christmas movies every year, and it sort of bumps you into the (mood). … I kind of get into it in the summer, when we start filming these things (laughs), because that's when we're making Christmas movies. And then if I'm writing one, it feels like Christmas all year. All the time. So then when Christmas actually comes, I've already kind of done all the signature things – like the light shows, the decorating of the tree; and so, it's almost like round two, again, when the holidays come around.
But yeah, I love them. I think there's something so nostalgic about the holidays. I don't know what it is, but listening as the Christmas music starts playing, watching all the lights or looking at them, and driving through the neighborhoods, it just reminds you of being a kid, which was so fun and simple.
Kimberley Sustad (Credit: ©2022 Hallmark Media/photographer: Brendan Meadows)
Q: I watch a lot of Hallmark and Hallmark-type movies, and I have become – I have to admit – particularly picky about what I like and I don't like. I think you've mastered this medium and done some really good work. You mentioned a minute ago that Hallmark has sort of made you more of a holiday fan. I'm wondering what first attracted you to Hallmark, and what do you continue to enjoy about the process of working with the Crown Media family?
Kimberley Sustad: My very first Christmas movie that I did for them was “The Nine Lives of Christmas,” and that became like a big hit amongst the fans – over the years, especially.
I had two kids between that one and my next holiday one and, by the time that I had my second kid, I think the family programming and the fact that my two daughters get to watch this premiere with me on Saturday – which is the “Lights, Camera, Christmas!” this year – became really important. And I started to really believe in what they were doing, in terms of people being able to sit back, with whomever, and enjoy these films, and the nostalgia of them, as well, and that they bring people together.
And they're just one of the most incredible networks, honestly, to work for. They treat you so nice. They are like family; you get to know everybody. You get to work internally on these things – and they bring you back, which is, I think, very rare amongst networks. It's almost like they have a small company of actors that they rotate, and that fans get to know and see them in different parts, and in different pairings. I think that's so unique and fun – almost like the old Hollywood way of their studios – you know, when people used to kind of sign contracts and work for Paramount or whatever company it was, but they did a couple of films a year.
There's a reason of the quality of programming that they're doing, and then there's just also a reason that they're wonderful people, and actually family to me, as well.
Q: That's an answer that I get often, and it's nice to hear. It makes me want to continue working with Crown Media, as well.
You mentioned “Lights, Camera, Christmas!”, of course coming up this weekend. Tell me about this movie, and about your character in particular.
Kimberley Sustad: You know what it’s like? I described it as almost a “Notting Hill” – except John Brotherton is Julia Roberts, and I’m Hugh Grant (laughs).
This big movie comes to this small town, and I own a retrofit, sort of vintage/select-finds thrift store – where I also have a few of my own designs. And this movie runs into some significant troubles while they're trying to get it off. And I ended up getting recruited to help, in this wildly unknown world of moviemaking. I start to work next to a Christmas movie star, which is what John Brotherton plays. And it's a lot of fun.
You get to see a lot of how a Christmas movie is made. But we're obviously making light of it, as well. So it’s really fun. You'll be in a scene, and then they'll pull back and you'll see like the snow machines and the different things that kind of make that scene on screen, versus what it looks like actually standing there. That's sort of the premise.
I end up somewhat saving this movie from disastrous wardrobe failures. And Kerry, my character, has a number of great ideas. As problems continue to consist throughout, they're trying to film this thing. One by one, she kind of brings this magic to the movie – and you'll have to see if she does fall in love with the movie star or not, or how that works out. But – hint, hint – it is a rom-com (laughs), so there's a good chance. There's a good chance she falls in love with the movie star.
Q: Probably better than average, I would say, right!?!
I want to pick up on something you mentioned a minute ago, because I love that this movie sort of gives a wink and a nod to Hallmark movies – and particularly Christmas or holiday movies. Tell me a little bit more about what you thought about that aspect of this project.
Kimberley Sustad: Yeah, I didn't know how far they were going to let us go with it.
John gets to kind of poke fun at actors a little bit (laughs). We get to poke fun at making Christmas movies, and what they're all about. And Hallmark was just really up for that.
It's very much still a movie. It's not exactly how it is to make a Christmas movie. But there are some fun aspects of exploding Christmas over every room, and it having to be just perfect; and the snow machines having to blow a certain amount of snow in your face while you're doing this; or the scenes being extra special with Santa.
It's a sneak peek of the making of, but not too much so people get lost in what it is to make a movie. It's mostly these two people's relationship, Kerry and Brad. He's sort of learning to become a little more relaxed and real, and I think there's a persona of him that he gets stuck playing all the time. He becomes a little more of a real person. And I come out of my shell. I've sort of resigned myself to this small town. And then she, sort of through this movie, begins to bring back her dream of being a fashion designer, or a designer and really pursuing that dream, instead of just sort of hiding her designs away in her shop and not putting them forward.
The magic of making this Christmas movie pushes everybody to kind of dream bigger, and we find ourselves, obviously, with an “all is lost” moment. I won't tell you what that is, but love is found again.
John Brotherton is amazingly over-the-top as the star of "My Favorite Santa" in “Lights, Camera, Christmas!” (Credit: ©2022 Hallmark Media/photographer: David Astorga)
Q: Of course, there is embellishment. Buffalo and Niagara Falls, we're no stranger to moviemaking. But when Lewiston, my hometown, got its first taste of having a movie come and be filmed here about five years ago, I saw a lot of the things that I see in “Lights, Camera, Christmas!” It's kind of funny to me, seeing that on screen in this movie. I'm wondering, when you've been on location in different places, have you seen that Hallmark effect take over a small town to any degree like what we see in this movie?
Kimberley Sustad: Yeah, we have filmed in small towns like Gibsons, B.C., where we've had to take like a little small ferry over there; and they have transformed all the entire downtown into a scene of a Christmas movie. That was a fun one. I think that was “Godwink Christmas,” because a lot of the locals we put as all the extras. So, I think (laughs), the end-of-the-night shoot, everyone was like, “I don't know how anybody does this!” After 13 hours of kind of doing the same thing, they might have been tired of it, but there was this real excitement to be a part of Christmas moviemaking.
And it is such a cool thing to see your town be transformed to Christmas in the middle of summer, and snow all around, and trees, and lights, and like the whole nine yards; and the whole place was buzzing, and it was a lot of fun to involve the town and have them be part of it, as well.
Kerry tries to make the most of the moment in “Lights, Camera, Christmas!” (Credit: ©2022 Hallmark Media/photographer: David Astorga)
Q: You are, of course, from Canada, and we are right on the border. So, we love everything Canada. We love Canadian music. We love Canadian food. We love Tim Hortons – anything Canadian, we're a big fan. But, just within the past couple of days, I was doing some loose research – and I want to just mention some names here: Paul Campbell, Paul Greene, Sarah Strange, Luke Macfarlane, Lucas Bryant, Erica Durance, Benjamin Ayres, Merritt Patterson, Steve Lund, Cindy Busby, Niall Matter, Andrew Walker, James Tupper, Natalie Hall, Corey Sevier, Neal Bledsoe, Brooke D’Orsay, Brennan Elliott, Victor Webster – pretty much every Hallmark movie has a Canadian lead in it. Are you aware of that?
Kimberley Sustad: Yeah! (Laughs) I am. We've got great blood here, I guess. We are made for making Christmas movies, you know? Snow, most of the time.
Yeah, it is interesting, and a lot of us have traveled. I've lived in the states for over 10 years. I'm American and Canadian. But born and raised a significant portion of my life here.
I don't know. We're just made for Christmas movies, I guess. I don't know what the secret sauce is, but apparently we're churning out Hallmark movie stars.
The new, original movie “Lights, Camera, Christmas!” premieres Saturday, Nov. 5 (8 p.m. ET/PT), on the Hallmark Channel. It is part of the network’s annual “Countdown to Christmas” programming event.
The “Lights, Camera, Christmas!” cast: Matthew Kevin Anderson, Kallie Hu, Kimberley Sustad, John Brotherton, Leila Harrison, Veronica Long and Laura Soltis. (Credit: ©2022 Hallmark Media/photographer: David Astorga)