Every couple of years, we catch up with screenwriter Gary Goldstein to talk about one of his Christmas movies.
For 2022, Gary has written Lights, Camera, Christmas, which stars Kimberley Sustad as Kerry, an owner of a boutique who gets caught up with the filming of a holiday movie in her small town when she’s unexpectedly asked to work as its costumer.
John Brotherton stars as Brad Barton, the movie’s leading man, who has captured hearts across America with his good looks and charm.
As reconnects with her lost love of the holidays and rediscovers her passion for fashion design, she catches Brad’s eye, and as their relationship deepens, they’ll find out of career ambitions and romance can coexist.
This year, Gary’s got a lot of exciting things to report as in the two years since we last talked, he’s also added a new credit to his resume as a novel writer, with his second being published just last month.
“That’s been really interesting and something I’ve wanted to do for as long as I’ve been a writer and just never figured out the time to do it or how to do it,” Gary said. “And a couple of years ago, that’s three years ago, I just decided I’m going to do this, and I did,”
I’ve always imagined writing a novel to take up a significant amount of time, and it does, but Gary used the pandemic lockdowns to his advantage, and The Last Birthday Party was published in under a year.
As a screenwriter, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s already written the script for The Last Birthday Party. “I’ve been shopping that,” Gary said.
“I’ve been trying to attach talent. It’s a story that I think if we can get a really meaningful actor attached to play the lead, it’s a really rich part. It’s really funny, it’s really serious.
“I need an actor who’s got some good physical comedy chops yet can deal with all the emotion that’s in it. It’s a coming-of-age story for a man who turns 50. So, it’s got a lot going on.”
He describes the process of bringing The Last Birthday Party to print as a “really joyful writing experience,” so it’s no surprise that once he scratched that itch, more ideas would begin to flow. With everything he learned writing the first book, he didn’t want to languish when it came to his second.
He’d been sitting with a seed of an idea for years, and The Mother I Never Had came to light.
“It feels like a story that you’ve seen one version of [before]. I know you’ve seen [them] made into movies or TV movies or TV limited series. This one has some similarities, but I think is really unique in and of itself.
“And again, really great parts for a lead actor who’s about 30, and the actor who plays his mother who’s like late forties. And I think, really, it’s a much more serious book than the first book.
“And mostly, in my career, I’ve written a lot of comedies, romantic comedies, family dramedies, that kind of thing. I’ve written a few straight-out dramas, a couple of thrillers, but The Mother I Never Had, well, I say it’s a very serious book and a very serious story.”
Gary was thrilled with his editor’s first thoughts that he’d ‘found the humor in the darkest places.
“I was so gratified to hear that because I didn’t mean it that way. I didn’t set out for it to be. It’s certainly not funny, but I think you’d find there’s a lot of humor in the darkness in the story.”
He hasn’t written the script for that yet, but his hope remains that both books will be developed to screen in film or limited series format. “But honestly, I didn’t write either of them to be made into any kind of big or small screen projects. I didn’t want to try that because it felt like I wanted to be really true to a book.”
His next novel, a period piece set in the 70s and present day, is already in the works. “It’s something that’s ambitious, but it’s something I’m excited about. So, we’ll see what happens.”
Part of the reason that Gary finally made his novel-writing dream a reality is that he finds it’s a harder sell for spec scripts than it was in the past, especially in the area of high-concept or romantic comedies.
“That market has really changed so dramatically that there’s not that much you can do with them,” he said.
“Listen, you can write a spec romantic comedy and maybe get it made into a TV movie or a streaming film, and that’s definitely a possibility. I actually have one that’s out there now with the producer that they’re trying to set up that way.
“But it’s a harder road than it used to be. So yeah, I’ve been writing a long time, and I’ve really had to bob and weave with the way the business has changed and for better and worse, and just keep finding ways to be creative. And it’s what you have to do.
“For anybody who’s writing, whenever you enter the business, it’s really about figuring out what your place is in the business at any given moment and how you can find a way to succeed and be effective in what you’re doing.”
Gary has a great love for theater, but it’s even more difficult to get plays produced as the avenues continue to dwindle. “But you put it out there. You write it, you put it out there. If you don’t write it, it doesn’t happen.
“So yeah, it’s been really interesting. It’s been a very interesting career, but I’m really grateful for my big and small screen work because it has really, really helped keep the engine moving and keep propelling me forward. And it’s all good.”
Writing the script for his own novel presented its own set of challenges, but Gary says it’s sometimes hard even to get his friends to commit to reading a book. If it’s a movie, more people will be introduced to his story.
“I would still rather somebody read the book than read the script first because the script shows what the movie can be. But there’s just so much more in the book. And that particular book, The Last Birthday Party, is written in the third person, but its main character is a very rich and very funny inner life that really propels the story.
It’s very hard to translate that, per se, into a movie script, where you really have to depend more on dialogue and pulling maybe some of the inner thoughts and turning it into dialogue and that sort of thing. And I feel like I definitely got the essence of the book, and one could see what the movie could be.”
“But I just feel like I want people to read the book first. I just think it’s a little more unique experience.”
Gary keeps the plates spinning because, in this business, dependability isn’t the norm. He’s got to have many things in the works because sometimes life gets in the way of projects, and other times, projects get in the way of life.
Gary has had quite a few TV movies produced for outlets like Hallmark, and there are always more people entering that world, including the talent themselves.
Kimberley Sustad stars in Lights, Camera, Christmas, but she’s also written Three Wise Men and a Baby with her writing partner, Paul Campbell. The competition increases from all directions as talented individuals look to expand to new avenues.
Gary has previously written Mr. 365, aka Forever Christmas, about a man who celebrates Christmas year-round, and with Lights, Camera, Christmas, his actor is known as The King of Christmas.
Gary is very happy with how Lights, Camera, Christmas turned out.
“I thought the actors did a great job. I think John Brotherson is hilarious, and it’s always very interesting when you write any movie to see how it goes from your own visualization to how the director and the actors interpreted or reinterpreted it. And they just add so much to it in ways that you never even expect it.
“So, it is such a team effort, ultimately. And it was very fun to write, and I loved the concept of this. It’s a fantasy, in a way — the actor comes to town. Yet, I think we brought a lot of humor to it. I think it was funny.”
There’s also a surprising amount of warmth to this particular movie. “The trick was certainly having our King of Christmas be actor-ish, but also, ultimately, a real person [who could] be warm and draw somebody into his life. That was definitely the arc that we had to find, and I think we did.
“For Kimberly’s character, she’s a strong person and has her insecurities, but really the joke of it is that she doesn’t quite know who [Brad] is, and she doesn’t fall all over him like other people do. She’s a bit of a challenge — and everybody likes a challenge — until she finally sees the real guy behind the King of Christmas.”
The setup of the film is a little different as the Lights, Camera, Christmas begins with the movie premiere and then flashes back to how it began for the characters. “I think it’s just a different way of telling that story and giving it a little more pizazz,” Gary said.
I’ve always been a fan of the movie-within-a-movie scenarios, and Gary agrees they offer something special.
“When you’re watching a movie, of course, all you’re seeing is what’s on the camera. You don’t see what’s behind the camera. Not only everything goes into it, but any kind of disagreement and arguing [as you can see through some of the characters here], and somehow or other movies get made.
“It’s almost like all the stuff that we don’t want people to see is cut away but is behind the scenes. I think [Lights, Action, Chrismas[ lays a little bit of it out there, and I think that part is fun.”
There are scenes in which Brad takes advantage of the movie magic available to him to romance Kerry.
“They go into both worlds in front of the camera and behind the camera, real world versus fantasy. It’s a bit of love letter to Christmas movies, too. It’s all about why people love Christmas movies. And Kerry, our main character, is a little bit of a cynic about them, but she definitely comes around, which is nice.”
The cast of the movie is terrific, and they make the story authentic. “The key with these movies is to really understand why the couple is interested in each other, that it’s not about what somebody looks like or what their job is, but really what’s underneath — what draws us to people in general in real life.
“Generally, some of the best relationships are where people are not necessarily opposites, but where they compliment each other and help each other grow, where you’re strong, the person is weak, where the other person is strong, you’re weak, that kind of thing.
“And I think those do make the best relationships, but certainly, in these movies, there needs to be a real reason why these people are together.”
Gary says crafting these movies requires finding the “mess of the movie,” or what someone needs to address to right the wrongs in their life. “It’s the person who they meet along the way, let’s say who they end up in the relationship with, who helps them find their way out of what they’re doing wrong and achieve their goal.
“It’s like we don’t achieve our goal, whether it’s a job, whether it’s a relationship, whether it’s a family situation, whatever, generally on our own. Really, there is some outside force that comes in that helps pull us away from what’s not making our life work and then starts making it work.
“Generally, in movies, you catch a character at a moment when they are their most vulnerable, or where they are starting to change, or where the world has to change.
“They have to change with the world or something so that you don’t realize it, but you are reaching a character at a pivotal moment in their life. They don’t even realize it in the beginning.
“So in Lights, Camera, Christmas, Carrie’s character may not realize it, but she’s trying to move forward with her career and leave her town and leave some of the ghosts and insecurities behind.
“And it’s just the fact that she fortuitously ends up working in this film that opens up a whole new world for her. And that was not planned, but that’s how life is. But she didn’t even know she was at the precipice of change. But we do, in creating that character.”
Gary is always working, and he’s already planning what he might bring to the screen next year. As the market broadens and the storytelling changes, Gary has the opportunity to tell tired and true stories differently.
You can see his movie magic at work when you tune into Lights, Camera, Christmas tonight at 8/7c only on Hallmark Channel.
And if you’re interested in seeing a different side to the screenwriter, think about checking out his books. You won’t be disappointed!
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.