Crown Media has been providing dozens of cute and adorable made-for-television films for decades onand one of their go-to writers is , who previously wrote such Hallmark favorites as: THE WISH LIST, HITCHED FOR THE HOLIDAYS, THIS MAGIC MOMENT and THE CABIN. Then upcoming on the Hallmark horizon are two of Gary’s latest creations: ALONG CAME A NANNY and MY BOYFRIENDS’ DOGS.
In an exclusive interview, Gary talked about the inspiration for writing these fun tales and some of the behind-the-scenes magic that is used to whip up these delightful confections.
What inspired you to adapt the book MY BOYFRIENDS’ DOGS, written by Dani Daley Mackall, and turn it into a Hallmark movie?
GARY: The producers Marcy Gross and Ann Weston had the rights to the book, which they had set up with Hallmark, and ultimately they came to me to adapt the book because of the romantic comedy element of it as I had done a number of romantic comedies for Hallmark. Basically, I went back to the book itself. I really loved the book. I thought it was really charming. So we aged up the characters because in the book Bailey is 16 years old and in the movie she is in her late 20’s, and I tried to take the best parts of the book and make it all as cinematic as possible. The challenge was in a relatively brief movie to create four very distinct, and hopefully memorable, romantic relationships — and then four dogs that are hopefully memorable. There was a lot to put into the story, particularly the whole flashback element. So it was really a matter of being able to honor as much of the original book as possible and yet make it as cinematic as possible. It was a fun experience. I am a dog person, so it was really enjoyable to be able write those dogs. I was actually able keep the breeds of the dogs that were in the book — they actually found all those dogs, and that was nice.
What about coming up with ALONG CAME A NANNY? Where did that idea come from?
GARY: It started off as a feature pitch called “Man Maid.” I had it for a while. Then when Barbara Fisher, the producer of ALONG CAME A NANNY, was looking for a comedy to produce for Hallmark, she asked if I had any ideas. So we bat around some ideas and she said, “I like the WHO’S THE BOSS kind of idea, the male nanny kind of thing.” So I said, “Well, as a matter of fact, I have a pitch called Man Maid and it is about a cop who goes undercover as a nanny to solve a string of robberies.” She liked the idea and we took it to Hallmark and pitched it and they bought it. Then I took the feature pitch and reworked it to make it work for a Hallmark film. I added more mystery to it because it ended up being the first original movie that is premiering on the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries Channel. It was fun expanding the mystery element and to kind of populate the movie with a lot of potential criminals, a lot of red herrings, and create this little community where everybody is a suspect. That was really fun to do.
You have done a number of romantic-comedies for Hallmark. How was it doing a mystery movie for a change of pace?
GARY: Because there was a romantic element to the movie, ALONG CAME A NANNY, between the Mike and Jessie characters, I was able to put in a little romance and that flirtation carries through much of the movie. I have written a number of dramatic scripts over time, so it was not such a big leap. But you have to find the balance of comedy and domestic comedy. He is a nanny and you want to have fun with the fact that he is a nanny-out-of-water, basically, and he has to do certain things that are really beyond his ability as a single-guy-cop. So it is putting enough of that in to give it that flavor and color, but then stay very focused on the issue at hand, which is crime and the criminal investigation. It is seeing how those worlds intersect.
You seem to be working a lot with Hallmark. Is that a full time writing opportunity for you right now?
GARY: It has been consistent. I have done eight movies for them in 5 years. I just started on a ninth for them. So that has been the most consistent of everything. But I have a lot of projects in development at other places. I have a mini-series that I am trying to get set up. I have a couple single-camera comedy series and a couple one-hour pilots that I am trying to set up. So I work on a lot of different things. But the Hallmark work has been very consistent and it is a good fit. I love working for them and I enjoy the product. And they make the movies, which is always gratifying.
How long does it take you write these kind of scripts?
GARY: Writing the first draft of each individual script probably takes 6 to 8 weeks, and they go through various drafts and various development stages as we go. You are pretty much working on them (not all time) over the course of first draft through production; and for both of these films I was involved through production, making changes along the way — particularly in pre-production when they are scouting locations and they have to compress some scenes and use one location over another. There is a bit of re-writing that goes on for that. In both these cases, I was working on them over the course of about a year and a half. So they would leap-frog each other and I was doing other work as well. MY BOYFRIENDS’ DOGS filmed in March and ALONG CAME A NANNY filmed in July, but it is coincidental that they are airing a week apart.
As a writer, how does it feel when you finally get a chance to watch what was created from what you wrote in a script?
GARY: As a writer, we spend a lot of time working on things that do not get made. So when things do get made, it’s great. That is what has been so valuable and gratifying about doing all these Hallmark films, they have been gotten made. I have been very happy with how the movies turned out — these two movies in particular. I was very involved along the way and that was great. I think both directors did a great job with them and there were great producers on both of them. They really worked very hard to honor the script, and in the case of the book, the original source. It is great to see things come to life.
Were you surprised by anything once you saw the visual version and the actors in the roles?
GARY: Honestly, I am always surprised at how good they come out — at how effective the movies are and how charming the actors are and how good they look. It is always a pleasure to watch them. I do see a couple edits along the way, so it is not a great surprise. I saw early cuts of them. I was aware what was kept in and what was cut out. I am always proud of how these actors handle the scripts and how professionally and effectively the movies are done.
All your films seem to have a secret ingredient — they are fun and charming. So when you are writing these scripts, what are you latching onto that brings that magic?
GARY: It is a combination of trying to create realistic characters, real people who are likable and relatable that we care about on their journey. But they learn things and are not perfect. It is when the other main character comes into their life and it kind of helps them fix some of the things that were not working quite right in their lives, and vice versa. I love writing comedy, particularly finding ways of keeping the characters and the situations funny, but real. Your comedy comes out of character and situation, not out of jokes or one-liners or anything contrived. Too make them as humanly funny as possible. Often in comedy, they say to put people where they would least like to be and that is where a lot of the comedy comes from. So some of the comedic moments in ALONG CAME A NANNY were putting this cop in an environment that he is not comfortable in, which is being a nanny. But he is so gung-ho and it is his idea to do it that he has to rise to the occasion. So you see that learning curve and there is some good natural humor that arises out of that. I think in MY BOYFRIENDS’ DOGS, and some of this was from the character in the book, but to find the humor in a young woman who is trying to find love and is kind of thwarted at every corner; and as she learns along the way, in finding the real things that happen in relationships. Bailey’s character is very optimistic. She sees the world through rose-colored glasses, a little bit. She hopes for the best all the time. So she starts these relationships really being optimistic and then realizes little by little that she maybe missing a little bit of the big picture in terms of what these guys are really about. It’s about how people fall in love and why they fall in love — and how you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince. There’s a lot of humor that just comes from the general world of dating and romance and integrating that into your life. So it’s mostly about keeping it real and keeping it funny and charming and hopefully provide some good laughs.
You also write women voices well. You make them confident. It is reassuring as a female viewer to see a confident, successful woman who knows what she wants.
GARY: I appreciate that. I think one of the things is you never want to write down to a character. You never want to do a common denominator kind of thing or create characters who are not real. To be along for the ride with these people on these journeys and invest in them, you want to care about them and you want them to be real. So you want them to have strength. They all need to learn something, but they have to have strength — particularly with women. Female characters are not always written strong or proactive, and I think that is important. You want to show the women as strong, confident, capable people as women certainly are. I love writing women characters. It is gratifying to see them come to life.
What would you say is something you are most proud of from each of these experiences, like a specific scene or moment?
GARY: I would say in ALONG CAME A NANNY that one thing I am proud of is that a lot of information is given out in the film in terms of building the mystery. You try to write it so that you are building the tension and also building the possibilities and the pairings, keeping the viewer off guard a little bit in terms of who they are looking for, who the criminal is. I was actually very proud of the fact that in the end when all the characters come together and we finally realize who it is — how Cameron’s character is able to tell the story to everybody in a swift, effective way — recapping the entire story. That is always the hard part. It is like on MURDER, SHE WROTE or MISS MARPLE and how they bring everyone into the proverbial drawing room and explain what happened. That is very challenging because this was a very twisty, complicated story and I think that scene really works great. I worked very hard on that scene to make it as efficient, but as clear as possible. I am really happy the way that turned out. It is a good mystery movie moment. Then in MY BOYFRIENDS’ DOGS, there is another challenge: it is all told in flashback. So you have to start it in the present, use the convention of telling the people in the diner the story, and it flashes back and flashes forward. Having to keep that momentum going back-and-forth, so you are building the story and moving forward to the point where we first pick up the character in the beginning, that is very tricky. I love the way, ultimately, the story unfolds — particularly each individual section. Each individual relationship is its own little movie and has its own life and is very distinct from the other ones. That was the hardest thing and I’m really happy with the way that came out. So the structure, rather than a particular scene, is what I’m most proud of — and to not give away the ending. That was the challenge and I think that came out really well.
One of the interesting things about ALONG CAME A NANNY was that it felt like it was the beginning of a series. Is that a possibility?
GARY: It would be great. I think a series about a cop who goes undercover as various things that are out of his realm would be a great series. So I am all for that.
To see both these fun films, be sure to catch ALONG CAME A NANNY (starring Cameron Mathison and Sarah Lancaster) as it makes its big debut on the newly renamed Hallmark Movies & Mysteries channel on Sunday, October 12th at 9:00 p.m.; and the debut of MY BOYFRIENDS’ DOGS (starring Erika Christensen and Tyron Leitso) on the Hallmark Channel on Saturday, October 18th at 9:00 p.m.