What It's Really Like to Star in and Write a Hallmark Christmas Movie

Paul Campbell, who has starred in Hallmark movies since 2015, wrote two of this season's most successful "Countdown to Christmas" movies. Here's how he did it.

By Tierney Bricker Dec 24, 2021 7:04 PMTags
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Paul Campbell is ready to deck the hallmarks of what it means to make a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie. 

Known as one of the network's funniest leading men, Campbell has also become one of its most creative. Not only did he star in what was arguably one of the most comedic movies of 2021's "Countdown to Christmas" lineup, the 42-year-old actor also wrote two of its most successful outings, both in terms of ratings and audience response. 

There is a running theme among the three movies Campbell had a hand in making this year: There's heart and humor in equal measure, which is a hard tone to strike on a network previously known for dry kisses, struggling Christmas tree farms and hunks in flannel sweeping the work-obsessed city girl off her feet. 

"It's such a fine balance, both in acting and writing because, obviously, you're trying to honor what it is that Hallmark is trying to do," Campbell told E! News in a recent phone interview. "And what Hallmark has done so successfully is bring movies with a certain tone and a certain feeling that leaves people feeling like they got what they came for. If you stray too far in any direction it can be kind of jarring and sometimes it doesn't necessarily suit the network or it doesn't necessarily suit the tone of the movie."

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The key, according to Campbell, to walking that twinkle-lit tight-rope is making sure that the heart is always on the metaphorical sleeve, citing Paul Newman's "twinkle behind everything he did" as an inspiration.


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"Even in [Newman's] most sarcastic or cutting [moments], you never really felt cut and I always ty to eschew a lot of that in what I do," Campbell explained. "You can deliver a snarky line, but if you believe enough in the person delivering it or you know that the underlying intention is warmer than that, you can get away with a lot. You get a lot of leeway to push in different directions if it comes from a slightly warmer place." 

Over time, Campbell has finessed that muscle, adding more of his signature dry delivery and wry wit to his performances, admitting, "I take a lot of leeway, I take a lot of liberties. Its not very often I am handed them."

But, for The Santa Stakeout, his 2021 movie co-starring Tamera Mowry-Housley about a pair of detectives forced to go undercover as a married couple, Campbell said he was given (mostly) free reign.

"I was like, 'Great, now I don't have to feel like a bad guy for just steamrolling whatever we're trying to do here!'" Campbell joked. "They have been really good casting me in roles where they think I can be off the leash a little bit. Not always, but this one, they really wanted it to be more of a traditional rom-com and they were like, 'We think Paul could probably go and have some fun with it,' and I certainly did."

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While Campbell was in front of the camera in The Santa Stakeout, he wrote two of "Countdown to Christmas'" most successful movies: An Unexpected Christmas—the Tyler-Hynes and Bethany Joy Lenz-fronted rom-com we ranked as the best of the 2021 season, NBD!—and Christmas at Castle Hart, which was the network's highest rated original movie of the year, attracting 3.31 million viewers. (Never doubt the power of Lacey Chabert, people!)

The first movie Campbell wrote for Hallmark was 2017's Sun, Sand & Romance, two years after he first began pitching his ideas. Then, in 2018, he and his A Godwink Christmas co-star Kimberley Sustad decided to work together on a spec script for Christmas by Starlight, the film they reunited on-screen for in 2020, though Campbell said, "It went through two or three pretty big changes over the course of development."

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Still, despite the adjustments from the network, Campbell understands the assignment.

"We all know the sandbox we're playing in and all I do as a writer is just find the very edges of the sandbox," he said. "I go, 'I'm going to write you jokes that I know straddle the line and I know some of them are going to get pulled back in and some of the scenes are going to get pulled back in.' But I think as Hallmark expands its storytelling, the sandbox is getting bigger and the edges are getting further away."

(An example: "In Unexpected Christmas, you have [Hynes] drinking wine out of the bottle. I don't know when I've seen that in a Hallmark movie and they let it go. And that's a pretty soft edge to go, 'Ooh, he's drinking wine out of a bottle,' but it is a step further outside of the zone than we've seen historically.")

Those horizons have been slowly but steadily been expanding over the last five years, observed Campbell, who has worked with the network since 2015.

"Two years ago was probably when they kind of reached the point where, wait a minute, most of these stories have so many similarities and a lot of script notes were like, 'Ok, we have to have x, y, z holiday traditions. We have to do this, we have to see the character arcs go from A-to-C,'" he said. "It became really hard to differentiate between a lot of the stories. It was sort of this overlay."

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But Campbell has noticed a shift in recent years, with the network's new executives really making "a push for different storytelling and types of characters...and the mandate is like, 'Let's get way outside of what we have been doing. Let's start telling stories about really different types of people, who are maybe more relatable, we can go deeper emotional, we can have people who are slightly broken and we can start telling very different stories. So the doors have kind of been flung open in terms of how we tell stories and the types of characters we tell stories about."

2021 Crown Media United States LLC/Photographer: Allister Foster

But while viewers can expect fewer films about a female protagonist finding true love in a Christmas-obsessed small town, they are, of course, going to get their fairy tale ending. 

"People still want the happily ever after, they just want to get there in different ways," Campbell said. "Its not easy to reinvent that wheel over and over and we're not really trying to. We don't need to save community centers or plan Christmas parties every time. Maybe Christmas can be slightly secondary to the story instead of the story being about how we celebrate Christmas. It can be a story that takes place at Christmas."

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Which is exactly what An Unexpected Christmas was, "Two people reconnecting and falling in love at Christmastime and not going like, 'Here's the snowball fight, here's the cookie decorating and here's the tree decorating.' So people still get what they came for, just in a slightly different way and it is tricky to do that."

There's also the concern of alienating long-time Hallmark fans who have planned their holiday season aroung the "Countdown to Christmas" schedule for years and will gladly take another movie about a party planner falling in love with a prince—aka Christmas at Castle Hart, which Campbell was brought in to rewrite after Chabert "expressed an interest in being funny and having a little bit of a bite in her character." Sugar and spice and all that.

2021 Crown Media United States LLC/Photographer: Michael Mc Laughlin

Some of his biggest changes included adding in an Irish heritage sub-plot, making Chabert's character a struggling waitress instead of an already-established event planner, and, oh yeah, killing her parents. Purely for practical reasons, of course.

"If you are going to Ireland to fall in love, I want to be able to move you there without feeling like you left family behind," he explained. "So let's kill your whole family, you have no job, you have nothing and could conceivably move your whole life to Ireland and you can live happily ever after."

But, as a writer, there are some things out of Campbell's control, like how the performances will ultimately impact the script. 

"A lot of Stuart Townsend's delivery was really understated and it worked in such a lovely way," he said. "But coming out of somebody else's mouth you could go much harsher and those jokes are a lot more sharp. That character, as written, probably could've gone way in the other direction in terms of how snarky and bitter and dickish he really was. I didn't know what to expect from Castle Hart, but it turned out really well. It was very sweet."

And more than a decade after "Countdown to Christmas" first began in 2009, many fans still want stories sweeter than hot cocoa with whipped cream and marshmallows.

While Campbell felt the Christmas at Castle Hart script "could potentially be sharper" than others, it still was "pretty-down-the-middle Hallmark" and was the highest-rated movie of the year, proving the network "has to be strategic" moving forward about balancing the sap and the snark. 

"They're writing films to attract a new audience, and they're doing that with the Unexpected Christmases, but there is a big, big appetite still for the Christmas at Castle Harts," he acknowledged. "I think they do have to tell stories that appeal to all different audiences now and to honor the brand that they've built and honor the audience that has been so loyal."

Hallmark Channel is re-airing all of its 2021 "Countdown to Christmas" movies all weekend.