In the world of feature films, the term "movie magic" brings to mind Avatar's bright blue humanoids and Michael Bay's explosive action flicks. But in the realm of holiday films, movie magic is achieved by an actual expertise in optical illusions and sleight of hand—no CGI or stunt doubles required.
As a producer and the Executive of Development for MarVista Entertainment, Julianna Hays knows what it takes to create a movie worthy of Lifetime's massive catalogue of holiday films. In 2020 alone, Lifetime has 30 new seasonal movies on its slate, one of which Julianna executive produced: Christmas Ever After.
The project posed a challenge especially unique to 2020. Julianna and the Christmas Ever After team were tasked with orchestrating a scene in which actors Ali Stroker and Daniel Di Tomasso kiss. The problem? In the Canadian province of Quebec, where the film was being shot, Culture Minister Nathalie Roy explicitly outlawed hugging or kissing in any production because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
At the time, Roy suggested the use of body doubles, like the actor's real-life significant other, during scenes where its stars got too close for comfort. But Ali and Daniel weren't able to find stand-ins, forcing Julianna and the team of producers to come up with a truly creative (and safe) solution.
Instead of kissing each other, Ali and Daniel kissed a Plexiglass barrier placed between them, which was removed using visual effects in post-production.
Julianna explains, "So in the film, it looks like they're kissing, but they actually never touched lips."
She continues, "That took a lot of planning, because you want to make sure you get it right. And you want to make sure you're following the rules. The rules are different in Vancouver, but in Quebec, there's a 15-minute proximity rule where we can be within a meter of someone for 15 minutes cumulative per day but absolutely no kissing."
In the days before the coronavirus, Julianna and her team faced other issues, namely how to make the set look as realistic as possible.
Typically, these obstacles have simple solutions, according to Julianna. For films made in the summer months, she says they often wet down the surrounding exterior to create the chilly outdoor appearance, have snow machines on blast and fans on standby for when the actors are taking a break from filming.
Julianna recalls her days on set, describing, "It's really interesting when you're like, sitting in a video village and running around in shorts and tank tops, and your actors are in sweaters and coats. Then, you look on the screen of the video monitor and what you're seeing is this Christmas wonderland, like the magic of filmmaking."
Sarah Fischer, who starred in the 2017 MarVista film Spruces and Pines, tells E! News that Julianna isn't exaggerating. "You cross this imaginary line from normal to full-blown holiday season the second you get to set and it's very cool," she shares. "Even scenes featuring a small coffee shop, the way they can create this holiday vibe via decor, frosted windows, wardrobe—it's amazing."
Equally important in creating this vision is the wardrobe of their stars.
Despite the fact that they're working in "complete summertime"—often on-location where it's about "a hundred degrees"—their actors are in full winter gear. Sarah shares, "You arrive to your day of filming in shorts and a tee shirt, and two seconds later you're in a Santa hat, a coat, mittens and boots walking into a Christmas gift shop."
Because of their costumes, Julianna says that from the moment the director yells cut, she's hustling to get the actors inside to prevent them from overheating.
All of these details, minuscule or large, are taken into consideration weeks prior to the start of productions. They start with a script before searching for the town and characters that match the "look and feel" of the movie they're creating. Then, their winter wonderland is built from scratch, with the finishing touches coming from their "stockpiles of Christmas decorations."
Unlike other movies that take years to write, produce and film—we're looking at you Avatar 2 through 5—these projects are often completed within a six-month window of time.
It's a challenging process that Julianna describes with excitement, recalling one of her favorite experiences: filming the 2019 Lifetime movie Grounded for Christmas. "We had to shoot in an airport and it was such a challenge to find an airport, you know, where we could shoot," she recalls. "But we found this little airport that literally, we had to wait outside in the parking lot and as soon as the plane—they have one flight a day—took off, they let us in. And then we decorated the whole place in about an hour and a half, because we couldn't get in ahead of time. And we literally just turned this airport into Christmas."
Another proud accomplishment was filming a driving scene, since actors can't exactly drive and film at the same time. Some studios use a green screen and sound stage or film on the back of a truck bed, but that wasn't an option for their team. Julianna says, "On these movies, we don't have the budget of a feature film, so what we did was we got a big screen—literally like 70 inch TVs—and we put them to the side of the car. We had a crew guy who was like, pushing the trunk of the car to make it look like it was moving. Another crew guy had a light and he was like rolling it around his head to make it look like lights on the road. And we had our actors doing the scene inside. And it looks like the car is moving and it was literally stationary in the driveway of our hero house."
(To see how it's done, check out the video above.)
"It's definitely the magic of filmmaking," she shares. "Every movie has its own little challenges and it's really fun to put together that puzzle."
Other problems that arise during production are typically solved on the fly.
A scene may require a large feast or baking scene, meaning food not only has to be readily available, it has to be yummy. Julianna, whose real-life love story loosely inspired Mistletoe & Menorahs, says the crew goes to great lengths to ensure the food "actually tastes good," and matches any dietary restrictions the actor may have. After all, it may require multiple takes before they nail the scene.
She recalls these work days with the passion of someone who knows and understands the comfort that Christmas movies offer to those hurting throughout the holiday season..
At the age of 16, Julianna's father passed away from brain cancer, leading her to find comfort in what she describes as the "wonderful escape" of television. "That's really kind of what drove me to want to be in the industry, because I feel like it's just a wonderful opportunity to give people an escape from their daily lives, or to inspire them, or just to entertain them." She shares, "And what I love about the Christmas movie space, is that it is just so lovely. And it gives everyone so much hope and joy and there's such positivity in these movies."
Considering the chaotic year that 2020 has been, it's clear holiday movies are needed now, more than ever.
This story was originally published on Sunday, Dec 6, 2020 at 3 p.m. PT.