Julia Stiles stars in the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, “The Makeover,” premiering this Sunday night, Jan. 27, 2013 on ABC. It’s a modern day gender reversal on the classic Pygmalion story by George Bernard Shaw, and Julia plays Hannah Higgins, a political figure who transforms a diamond in the rough (played by David Walton) into a “politician for the people.”
This charming, funny film shot on location in Boston was written by screenwriter C. Jay Cox (“Sweet Home Alabama“) and directed by John Gray (the creator of the ”Ghost Whisperer” TV series). I caught up with each of them to talk about the movie and how much they love what they do.
Hallmark wanted a twist on Pygmalion and contacted Cox, asking him to figure out how to bring it to life. Setting it in the political world of Boston was his idea. “That social strata that George Bernard Shaw was originally talking about in London? I think Boston is the perfect representation for that,” he says.
As someone who didn’t grow up in Boston, Cox luckily had some help. “It seems like my whole circle of friends in L.A. either went to Boston University or moved here from Boston. They were really helpful … and they knew most of the local actors who got cast.” In fact, so many local Boston actors were hired for the film that Gray asked Cox to write additional scenes for them.
When Hallmark called Gray about the project, they asked him to “start on Monday,” which meant he had to cut his vacation short. He has directed Hallmark Hall of Fame films before, so he understood the process well. Plus, he liked the script very much. “I love anything to do with transformation and people finding out what they’re capable of,” he says. “That’s always a winner for me when I find a story like that.”
He also loved shooting the film in Boston. “I said, ‘Let’s make this a love letter to Boston. Let’s just show Boston off in all its beauty,’” he says.
So, they prepped the movie for four to five weeks, shot it in 23 days, and edited it over a couple of months. This is fast compared to the theatrical feature film world, which can take years to get to production.
That efficiency doesn’t mean quality is sacrificed, though. Hallmark Hall of Fame has a reputation to uphold, after all. It’s an institution that has been around since 1951 and, over the years, has starred such luminaries as Richard Burton, Lawrence Olivier, and Julie Harris, to name a few.
Adding Julia Stiles’ name to that list was exciting for everyone involved. “It was great to get Julia,” Gray says. “She was reluctant at first because I think she was concerned about playing what she saw might be another kind of stiff, buttoned-up person. And I got on the phone with her and made her see that we wanted the character to have vulnerability and humanity, and we really felt that if she took the role, it would have a dimension that we wanted to make sure was there…. I felt like she hit some really nice emotional beats in this movie. She’s a great pro.”
Playing Elliot Doolittle is David Walton from “New Girl” and “Perfect Couples.” He’s very appealing in the film. “I think he’s really going to be someone to watch,” Gray says. “He’s really, really funny on screen…. He came up with a lot of great ideas and just a real joy to work with. And the camera loves him, obviously.”
Even though Walton is originally from Boston, he didn’t grow up speaking with the southie accent required for the role, so he worked hard on it.
“He was really concerned about getting it right. At the same time, he didn’t want to make it so cartoonish that it felt ridiculous,” Gray says. “The other challenge for him was, of course, that we shot the movie out of sequence, and he had to keep really careful track of where he was in the evolution of his accent.”
Camryn Manheim plays Hannah Higgins’ best friend and colleague. Of course, Gray had worked with her before on “Ghost Whisperer.” “Camryn’s always just a delight,” Gray says. “She’s sort of from the Gene Hackman school of acting where it just looks so easy. And it’s not at all, but she makes it look so natural.”
Frances Fisher plays Elliot’s mother, and Gray had a lot of fun working with her as well. “She’s kind of zany and has great energy. She has great ideas,” he says. “I just love actors. They’re funny, they’re smart, and they’re brave. I’m always in awe of them.”
Gray is clearly a man who loves his work. What is it about directing that is so fulfilling? “You basically create a little piece of reality that is just the way you want it to be, for better or worse, unlike life where you can’t really do that,” he says. “I think as a kid, that’s what attracted me to wanting to do this because I felt like I couldn’t control a lot of aspects of my own life.”
Screenwriter Cox also directs on occasion and is currently developing television pilots. “I really love what’s going on in television these days,” he says. “I think television has great opportunities for groundbreaking drama.”
Gray also writes. I loved “White Irish Drinkers,” a theatrically released independent film he wrote and directed, which stars Karen Allen, Stephen Lang, Peter Riegert, and Nick Thurston. While funding and making your own indie film is a harder way to go than being hired by an established television network, “it’s hard to have a bad experience making movies,” says Gray.
Be sure to catch “The Makeover” on ABC-TV on Sunday. Check your local listings for the air time in your area.