On Sunday, December 6, Dylan Neal stars with Danica McKellar in Christmas She Wrote. The two actors are Hallmark favorites, and it’s their first time teaming up together, so we expect we’re in for a very fun film, indeed.
We had the chance to chat with both of them, and right now, we’re sharing parts of the discussion we had with Neal, edited for clarity and content.
If you’re a big fan of Hallmark productions, you’ll enjoy getting to know this talented man who writes, produces, and performs some of our favorite programming while still finding time for interests away from the network, too.
How did you get involved with Christmas She Wrote?
They called and asked if I wanted to do it. And I said, “Sure.” It’s like most of the things at Hallmark. I’ve got a long history of working with Hallmark, going back to their first TV series, Cedar Cove when they offered me the male lead opposite Andie MacDowell.
And usually every year there’s a movie that, if I have not created it and written it and produced it, and then there’s something where they’ll allow for me something to do, and this year it was one of their Christmas movies.
And it seems that your character makes a big mistake of letting his columnist go. So what kind of challenges does Tripp face trying to fix that mistake? What are his Christmas foibles?
Well, he personally doesn’t see it as a mistake at first. He’s hired as the new editor in chief of this paper, and the mandate from his boss is to bring the budget in line, and just like most newspapers out in the world these days with the trying time, to actually make a profit.
So he’s simply giving layoffs and slashing the budget where possible. He’s not actually a bad guy.
And what he doesn’t understand is when he lets Kaleigh go, who’s a columnist at his paper, is exactly how popular her column was and how loyal her fans are. And so then it’s his boss that tells him, “Look, that one that you fired, we need to get her back, and I don’t care how you do it, just do it.”
So Tripp tries to get her on the phone several times and email, and she’s not responding. He goes to track her down in her hometown to try and get on bended knee and see if she’ll come back.
And her nose is so out of joint at being fired that she says, “No.” But as things escalate, Tripp’s own job is on the line from his boss, that if he doesn’t get Kaleigh back, he’s going to be fired. So the pressure’s on for Tripp to figure out how to woo her back to the job. And, of course, in the process, starts to fall for her.
The movie has a really great cast. Had you worked with most of these people before, or are they new to you?
I knew everyone. I hadn’t worked with anyone other than the director, Terry Ingram, who had directed one of my franchise movies, The Gourmet Detective. That’s one of the murder mystery franchises. And Terry and I go back before that. We probably go back about 15 years.
And I had met Danica at one or two network functions, but we’d never worked together. And everyone else, we knew each other, but, well, we just haven’t worked together.
And what did you most enjoy about filming this particular movie?
Let’s see. Well, I got to get on skates again. It’s been a long time. I don’t do a lot of skating down here in LA. Oh, it must’ve been with my kids. Years ago, we used to take them to a local arena and get some little winter in our winter teaching my kids how to skate, but it’s always good to get on skates again.
And certainly, I practiced up on my math with Danica over the course of… A math genius. And it’s just a fun Christmas story. Those were always fun to work on. And it puts you in the Christmas spirit, even if it was a little bit early while we’re still filming it, but they’re all just sweet little stories and puts a smile on your face.
It’s funny that you mentioned skating because I watched the preview, and it looked like you took off like a rocket on those skates, and I thought, “Wow, you really know what you’re doing.”
Well, it’s funny because Danica doesn’t skate, and we had to build a rig to put her on, so she’s faking how to skate, and we had a body double for her. So that one where I take off after that skater, that’s not Danica. And then when you see me give an arm to Danica, she’s on a sled being pulled around on the rig.
And that’s why I’m looking at my feet a lot because I’m trying not to trip over this thing that’s right beside me, and I can’t take a normal stride because I’ve got to get as close to her as possible, but I can’t get right up next to her because she’s on a sled being pushed and pulled by three crew members.
And the cameraman is on skates, skating backward, carrying a very, very heavy camera, trying not to get run over by this sled that Danica’s on. It took a real village to make that and were a little dubious that it would work.
And I hadn’t really seen the results other than the little trailer, but that was good. That’s always one of those conundrums or those risks that you take as a writer.
When you write a scene like skating or horseback riding or something that’s technically a special skill, and you have no idea whether the actor that eventually gets hired can actually do what you’ve written.
Sometimes you can lose the scene. It’s not important, or you rewrite it. Or sometimes, if it’s a little more instrumental, you got to figure out how you’re going to cheat it. So, it was a good job by the director and the crew to come up with this little solution.
I love those little movie magic moments.
Yeah. Well, yeah. Exactly.
And I have to admit that I have never read any of the books or seen any of the 50 Shades movies, but it makes me laugh that in the midst of all your Hallmark, you visited the 50 Shades franchise.
Right? Well, that’s more of my life. When I work at Hallmark, that’s more a detour from really any actor’s regular life. I mean, Hallmark says family-friendly and sweetly and anything that they get, but that’s not most of what television and film are about.
It’s a little more realistic human drama. As much as I’m thrilled to work at Hallmark, it’s nice to be out in the real world, too, and film a more traditional role of dramatic stories.
What does it feel like to have to go in and out of those two different worlds, essentially? I realize you’re not doing it daily, but you know what I mean?
Well, it’s tricky because I wear a bunch of different hats of Hallmark, as a writer and as a producer, as an actor. And people make a mistake when they think that Hallmark movies are just really simple to write and execute. They’re not because Hallmark has a very, very, very particular way of telling a story.
And it’s not just simply family-friendly, it’s a challenge, and it’s very difficult. As a writer, I’ll tell you that having written seven or eight movies for them now, it’s very difficult. In many ways, it’s more difficult than writing more challenging material in traditional broadcast or cable or features. And so, on the one hand, I’m always up for a challenge.
I technically prefer writing the murder mysteries. I like the puzzle of putting together a mystery over nine acts. I like those mental gymnastics more than rom-coms.
But then, as an actor, it’s much more fun to work in a traditional cable broadcast environment where the conflict and the stakes are a little higher because Hallmark doesn’t generally want high stakes.
They want a very enjoyable ride that grandma and a seven-year-old can enjoy together and as they should. But that means that the story, it’s simpler, right? And that’s not, from my perspective, that’s not as fun as an actor to deliver than something where a little more is on the line.
Having said that, it’s always enjoyable as an entertainer to make a product that the audience really enjoys, no matter what it is.
And there’s certainly no question that the Hallmark audience really, really enjoys the Hallmark product, especially over the holidays, where Hallmark has really established a beachhead as sort of must-see television for a lot of the country.
And in fact, we all know that Netflix, Lifetime, and Freeform are completely copying the Hallmark model of Christmas programming.
And Hallmark takes it. It starts in October, but that was Michelle Vicary’s baby to do that Countdown to Christmas, of really churning out Christmas movies over a two month period.
That was really her baby. And she has to get a lot of credit because you know you’re doing something right when the entire rest of the industry starts copying it, and they have.
They have. Absolutely. And you mentioned Gourmet Detective. I love the mystery movies, too.
And I’ve watched Gourmet Detective, and I know you do that with your wife, right?
Yep. Becky Southwell.
Are you going to have more? Is there more on the way?
I don’t know. But we’ve had a good run. We were the first one out, actually, before they’d even rebranded Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. I pitched that while I was still doing Cedar Cove, and what they had done to that date were Good Witches and Garage Sale Mysteries.
I knew they were interested in doing more with me and knew that Becky and I had a history of selling pilots.
And so I pitched them a couple of ideas. They liked Gourmet Detective the most and said, “That this is actually a really fortuitous time mainly because no one knows yet, but we’re about to rebrand our second channel into something called Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, and we’d like you guys to be the first up.”
I think that yours is unique because so much of it is from a male perspective. Usually, the male characters are secondary, but I feel like Henry is the main attraction there.
Right. Well, and it was an experiment for them, and in some ways, it worked; in some ways, it didn’t. Again, coming off Cedar Cove, I think they were pretty high on staying in business with me, and so I had pitched, “Yeah, even though this is a female network, we’re going to be at least 50/50 in this. And because it’s called the Gourmet Detective, maybe Henry is going to be a little bit front and center.”
I didn’t get everything I wanted in how we envisioned that show, which, there’s no pretending; it’s basically Castle in a Hallmark bow. It’s dialed down in sexual innuendo and violence, but it’s basically, we were shooting for a type of Castle. And so Henry has to be kind of front and center because there’s no show without him.
And, of course, the world really revolves around Maggie. And I think we’re one of the only if maybe the only one of those where the female is the cop. She’s the expert. He’s the one who’s sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong.
And I purposely built it with Becky to be basically a vehicle for a weekly TV series, if they should ever feel they wanted to do that. So that’s why we have a more natural engine than some of the other murder mysteries where let’s say, it’s a librarian, or it’s just someone who bakes cookies who stumbles on a mystery. Ours is around the police station with strong supporting characters.
There’s a family that supports Maggie and Henry. So it’s built to be a TV series, and that was done on purpose. And that’s not the case with the other ones. And so, we never got that. I don’t know if they’ll ever do a weekly series, which I think they should, whether it’s mine or somebody else.
I think so, too.
I think they should absolutely, absolutely do their version of a Castle. I mean, why would Hallmark not do that? I think that’s natural. I’d always hoped it would be us, but I don’t think that would be the case. But after the second movie, and I said that our numbers went up after the second movie, our first one did pretty well.
The second one didn’t do that well, but the entire network that night tanked across the board, and I can’t remember what the network was up against, whether football or other multiple programming. We’ve always been up against something.
I’ve had the worst luck with premiere nights, but it spooks them, and they laid the blame I think on, “You know what, we’re going to be too male-centric. We got to dial Henry back.” And so after the second one, if people are really paying attention, you’ll see that the role of Henry pulls back and happy to do what they wanted.
I always felt that it wasn’t really about Henry being too front and center. I thought it was more about just getting the right tone of the show and the balance of the banter, which really is what people tune in for with Gourmet Detective. It’s really about the banter between Henry and Maggie. That’s what they love.
And I think everyone comments that Brooke and I have particularly really good chemistry together. She’s a really good friend of mine, and she really gets what we’re trying to do. And I think that also kind of separates us. I understand I’m biased, but I think ours is a little more fun. I think it’s different; it’s a little more irreverent. It’s been a fun ride.
So why did you choose a gourmet for Henry in Gourmet Detective?
Well, I didn’t, actually. I pitched two projects on that day. So, as I said, Becky and I, I think we’d already sold one movie to them, and it was my wife just getting back into the business after staying home with the kids for about seven years, and she was ready to get back into television.
And I said, “Why don’t we just pitch a few things to Hallmark while I’m here and see where that goes, and then you can move back onto prime time if you want.” And so I think we sold as one, which was originally called Disorderly Conduct and became Valentine Ever After, which was a different experience.
And then I talked with Michelle Vicary about, “I’d like to bring a franchise.” As an example, what I had mentioned to her was the Tom Selleck TV series at CBS, Jesse Stone.
And she said, “Funny you mentioned that because we’re in talks with Tom right now about bringing the next one to Hallmark.”
And so I got my marching orders that they were open to that. And we partnered up with Muse, with who Becky and I had a long association with outside of Hallmark, who just by coincidence, Muse and Joel Rice, the president of Muse, is one of their top producers.
So I said, “Joel, why don’t you come on to what I’m pitching over at Hallmark, because I think that will strengthen our team.” And so we pitched it as an adaptation of BBC series, ABC series, and I won’t name it, but that was my favorite, in fact. And then we had this book series by Peter King called Gourmet Detective. I liked it, but I knew it was going to be problematic as a writer.
There were a lot of problems in adapting those books to A, television, and B, Hallmark because they’re 40 years old; they’re completely the wrong tone for Hallmark. The guy in the books is actually very misogynistic. There was no supporting cast as a franchise. Each book has a completely different set of characters, and each book has a cast of thousands.
I’ve got to break it apart completely, and, really, all we were selling to Hallmark was a good book title because The Gourmet Detective is a good name and the fact that it was a book series, and we all know that the producers know Hallmark like adapting books.
It makes them feel, I think, a little safer that there’s a template and that there’s already a book and a story versus something completely from scratch. And so, sure enough, they didn’t go with the BBC series, which I really, really wanted to do. And we ended up with Gourmet Detective.
Then I was still doing, I think, probably the second season of Cedar Cove, Becky was finishing up the Disorderly Conduct script, and then I was working at the end of each day and on weekends, all weekend long, on writing the first Gourmet Detective, while also breaking down each book — I think there are eight books — because they had ordered three movies right out of the gate.
So I wrote the first one and then broke down the outline for what I thought should be number two and number three. And, anyway, so I was working nonstop 24/7. I was doing Cedar Cove, writing Gourmet, checking in with Becky on Disorderly Conduct. So it was a really busy time. And that’s the genesis of how Gourmet Detective came about.
And my last question for you is how are you guys going to spend the holidays this year? Because it’s kind of strange, and it’s been less than savory, so how are you going to make up for it?
We are really looking forward to it, actually. It’s just going to be us. We’re not growing anywhere. We normally go down to Newport to see my sister-in-law and her family, my wife’s sister, and we have a good time there. And her parents fly down from British Columbia, and we have a blended family, bigger Christmas.
And this year, it’s just going to be us playing board games and just having fun activities. And of course, we can go outside and keep distance and do all kinds of fun things, go to the beach, depending on how LA cracks down with the surge.
But assuming we’re allowed to actually leave the house, we’re really looking forward to it. I’m just keeping it a really simple Christmas. It won’t be anything extravagant, and it’ll just be about focusing on the family and just us, which I really like. As much as I love going down to Newport and being with the bigger family, sometimes I miss just us doing something.
And in years past, we’d gone as a family… We might go up to Mammoth and go skiing and get a cabin or something, but this year, it’s just going to be us. And there’ll be a lot of movies. There’ll be a lot of board games. During the pandemic, we bought probably a dozen board games to add to our regular stack.
And I think a lot of families are doing that, which is really great because kids nowadays, they’re on their phones, they’re on tablets and TV, and I think there’s probably been a huge surge in old-fashioned board games.
And they’re as good today as they were when we were growing up as kids, and it’s fun to see some of the old classics and some of the new ones, too. So really simple, and I’m kind of looking forward to it.