Sunday, June 19, 2016

Christmas Comes A Little Early This Year

I recently produced a movie called "A New York Christmas," which Shoreline Entertainment will be releasing later this year. As part of the delivery items, I needed to create a press kit with production notes about the making of the film. Here is what I wrote. See what you think....

A New York Christmas

               The story’s origins are rooted in the filmmakers’ deep-seated love of Christmas – a time each year when people of all colors, creeds, sizes, sexes and ages come together in joyous celebration. It’s a time for sharing and togetherness, a time for romance, a time to be with the ones you love. It’s a time to set aside differences and remember what makes us the same. At the heart of the story, writer-director Nathan Ives wanted to explore the lives of some people who appeared very different on the surface, but were united in their dramatic, funny and sometimes painful life experiences. In the early screenwriting stages, there seemed like no better city for this ensemble journey to unfold than the great melting pot that is the Big Apple. A downtown hotel, with its transient nature, also presented the perfect stage, both literally and figuratively, to glimpse briefly at the lives of eleven strangers... strangers who don’t look all that different from you and me.

               The journey began in early 2014 when Ives had caught the eye of businessman Brian Conley during a screening of Ives’s first feature film, It’s Not You, It’s Me. Conley saw that Ives had a knack for telling personal stories with a bittersweet blend of humor, pathos and empathy. The two decided to team up on a feature film, and the seeds of A New York Christmas were planted. During the script’s development phase, Ives and Conley worked closely on the characters together and flushed out the meaning behind each storyline. Once the script was further along, Ives reached out to his friend and former manager, Mark Heidelberger, to join him and Conley in producing the picture. Heidelberger had been producing movies and television for 15 years, and was not only a skilled line producer, but brought an abundance of knowledge in development, casting, post and distribution. At that point, the core producing team was assembled, and the three set out to make movie magic together.

               Once the script was in solid shape, they began reaching out to cast. One of the first actors on Ives’s go-to list was big screen veteran Ross McCall, who Ives had cast as the lead in It’s Not You, It’s Me. McCall had brought a great depth of emotion to the lead character in that film, and Ives had already conceived the role of Ben with McCall in mind. In addition, McCall’s great relationships with other strong actors (and his ability to get them on board) earned him an executive producer spot on the team. When casting director Sherrie Henderson began auditioning other leads, it quickly became obvious who was right for the roles. Jaime Ray Newman’s instant chemistry with McCall made their pairing a no-brainer. Richard Herd and Lee Meriwether literally brought decades of experience and a grandparent-esque likeability that’s so often missing in older characters today. Newcomers Maurice Mejia and Catherine Toribio simply knocked their auditions out of the park. Jamie Bamber, Linda Park, Jasika Nicole, Tracie Thoms and Chris Backus rounded out the ensemble, each bringing an impressive toolbox of acting skills that allowed them to fully embody their characters.

               Production was scheduled to begin in May of 2015. Ives had flown to Manhattan the Christmas before with a second unit cinematographer to get establishing shots and B-roll of the city. Now, the next big challenge was finding a location for principal photography in Los Angeles that could play as New York. It not only had to have that early 20th century urban architecture that so readily captures the feel of Manhattan, but had to pass for it outside the windows as well. Heidelberger had decided it was just too expensive to build all the hotel sets on a stage, which would have at least allowed for the use of matte painting backdrops, and therefore a normal daytime shooting schedule. Instead, the film would have to be shot mostly at night in order for the world outside the windows to believably play as Manhattan, which meant a tiring and unorthodox schedule for the crew. In addition, the tight budget meant many hotels that were used to big budget productions were out of the question. Ives and Heidelberger scoured downtown Los Angeles for just the right place. Fortunately, the Millennium Biltmore across from Pershing Square, right in the heart of the metropolis, met the producers’ artistic and budgetary qualifications; the team had found their new home for the next 12 days.

               The production took up one whole hallway on one floor for the first five days and the two-story, multi-room Presidential Suite for the remaining seven. Rooms served as the actors’ dressing rooms, makeup and wardrobe facilities, production offices and equipment staging areas. The shooting schedule was as tight as the budget, and with only two six-day weeks to shoot everything, Ives and director of photography Kenneth Stipe found themselves having to rip through an average of seven and a half pages a day. In addition, production designer Julian Brown was tasked with making each room look just different enough to create some aesthetic diversity, while still remaining similar enough to feel like they were all in the same hotel. Not having to load in to the location and wrap out each day allowed for more valuable shooting time. And the hotel rooms often doubled as crash pads for cast and crew weary from an entire night of shooting; but at the very least, they were extremely comfortable. In fact, the crew was consistently reminded that there could have been worse places to shoot all night.

               Despite all the obstacles, the production remained on schedule, and at the end of the 12 days, the producers had a treasure trove of footage that was beautifully designed, shot and acted. Now it was time to turn it into a cohesive narrative. Ives and Heidelberger began interviewing potential editors during principal, often before crew call or at lunch. Ultimately, they settled on Lori Ball because of her take on the material and experience with similar films. While she and Ives slaved away on a director’s cut, Heidelberger, also serving as post production supervisor, began hunting for a composer who could create a score that simultaneously captured the spirit of the season and the drama of the plotlines. While many candidates seemed qualified, it was Alex Kovacs who most impressed with his whimsical melodies and passion for yuletide nostalgia. With the key post team in place, Ives and Heidelberger set about on an ambitious but doable 21-week schedule to finish the picture.

               By November of 2015, the film was complete, with the exception of a pesky little song called “Cuddle Up” by Catey Shaw, which the producers and Sony Music were still hammering out the publishing rights for. (This would finally get wrapped up almost six months later!) A cast and crew premiere was held at the AMC Burbank 8, appropriately, two weeks before Christmas, providing a stress-free venue for celebrating the achievement and the season. With the exception of a projector malfunction during the last five minutes, which was quickly fixed, all went well. Applause was genuine and excitement was palpable as credits rolled over a shot of downtown Manhattan while the track “Could Be” by The Lollygaggers, an original ditty created just for the film, played over the speakers.

There was a feeling in the air that the cast and crew had all been a part of something special, that they had made some sort of statement – even a small one – on the cultural significance of the country’s favorite holiday. Hugs and handshakes continued at the Barney’s Beanery after-party while guests sipped on stout and noshed on hors d’oeuvres. But despite the festive atmosphere, the same nagging question kept arising in conversation, one the producers would be tasked with answering at the top of 2016: Where will the film be shown? It was time to find the film’s audience. The producing team had scaled Everest. Now it was time to get back down.