There are very few directors whom I know by name without having to research their assorted works, and Peter Sullivan happens to be one of those extraordinary directors. When I ascertained that he was the director of the upcoming Hallmark film entitled My Summer Prince, I jumped at the opportunity to interview him. He was kind enough to answer a wide variety of questions concerning many of his best-known works, including his current and forthcoming projects.
What inspired you to pursue a job in the entertainment industry? What kind of training have you had?
I’ve always been interested in movies ever since I can recall. When I was a kid, some of my fondest memories were going to the local theater with my parents and seeing all the Disney classics (and some not-so-classic). Coming of age in the 80’s, I got to experience a lot of the great Amblin titles on the big screen. I’ve always loved writing, and I became fascinated with the idea of using this medium to tell stories. I started writing screenplays in high school and then enrolled in NYU, where I studied film. Ironically, my first color 16mm film with synchronized sound was a Christmas movie! I hadn’t really thought anything of it back then, but I guess I had a destiny.
What is your all-time favorite Christmas film? What has been your favorite film that you’ve worked on?
My all-time favorite Christmas movie is A Christmas Story, which I missed in theaters and saw on cable with my family. It’s such a charming story and the use of narration by the irreplaceable Jean Shepherd was absolutely dead on.
As for my own favorites, it’s tough to single out any one film that I’ve worked on, but I can certainly narrow it down.
On the family/holiday front, I have a few: Eve’s Christmas, which was the first Christmas movie I ever wrote, has become a perennial favorite because I think Elisa Donovan did such a tremendous job in the lead role, and the film strikes a nice balance between reality and fantasy. I also have a fondness for Dear Secret Santa, because I absolutely love the father/daughter relationship between Bill Cobbs and Tatyana Ali. Also, there’s Christmas Under Wraps, which was the first film I ever directed for Hallmark. Jen Shapiro did a great job on that script, and it’s got a wonderful cast, including David O’Donnell, Brian Doyle Murray, and Robert Pine. There’s a reason it became, and still is, Hallmark’s highest-rated program of all time. It’s impossible to watch that movie and not fall in love with Candace Cameron Bure.
As far as other genres are concerned, I’m really proud of a true story I did for Lifetime called Kidnapped: The Hannah Anderson Story. It’s really dark and gritty and has some great performances, especially Brian McNamara, who plays a grieving father, and Scott Patterson, who plays a deranged kidnapper.
If you could direct ANY actor in a future film, whom would you choose?
That’s a tough question. I prefer to say that I have been incredibly fortunate to work with some amazing people in the films I’ve directed, written, or produced… like Cuba Gooding, Jr, Brittany Murphy, Mayim Bialik, Peter Fonda, Tom Skerritt, John Ratzenberger, Ernie Hudson, Della Reese, Danny Trejo, Christian Slater, Lea Thompson, Paul Sorvino, William Atherton, Tom Berenger… these are all people I grew up watching in movies and on television, and now I’m working with them. It feels so surreal sometimes! The first film I directed, I had Lance Henriksen, who’s been in some of my favorite films of all time: Aliens,Terminator, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Right Stuff, and he was just the nicest guy.
Between directing, producing and writing, what do you like best about each? What is the most challenging thing about each?
I started as a writer, so I’ll say that remains my first love. I enjoy sitting with an audience and watching them getting drawn into a story I created…seeing characters and situations make the transition from your imagination to the screen. One of my favorite scripts I’d written was Finders Keepers for Syfy, and I was blown away when I saw what director Alex Yellen did. If you want to see Marina Sirtis as an eccentric neighborhood cat lady, I suggest you check it out.
The challenge with writing and directing is that you don’t always have enough time to tell all of the stories you want. As a producer, I have the ability to see some of those other gems through to fruition. It’s rewarding to put together teams of filmmakers and watch the magic unfold. For example, working with directors like Sean Olson, who had worked with me as an editor for years, and watching them make fun movies like The Dog Who Saved Summer, which I feel is one of the best in the series.
While I’d always wanted to direct, that’s still a fairly recent development in my professional career. I wrote Eve’s Christmas back in 2004, but didn’t direct my first film until 2011. A lot of writers like directing their own material, but I actually feel the opposite. I love the collaboration process of developing and working with a writer on their own material, for example Topher Payne on My Summer Prince, Jen Shapiro on Christmas Under Wraps, or Hanz Wasserburger on Kidnapped. I think some of the better movies come from having multiple points of view.
The other advantage of directing is working closely with actors. When I first started out, the process intimidated me, but now I really look forward to it. To use My Summer Prince as an example, I cherished the experience of getting to work with every single actor on that set: Taylor, Lauren, Jack, Marina, Vanessa, Brian, Kassandra… they were all so wonderful. When we wrapped the picture, more than one of them got a little misty-eyed and I admit I was sad too.
Okay, you are younger than I, but have had an incredible string of hits on multiple networks. What is the secret to your success?
I’m very persistent, and I usually stop just short of being annoying. When I was first writing, I was constantly emailing and calling… trying to dig up more work, coming up with new ideas. Even when I was an assistant, I convinced a producer to let me do some uncredited rewriting on a major TV movie. I was pitching material when I was still an intern. And then, when I did finally start writing, I was begging to direct. It only took eight years.
On all your films, how much ad libbing is allowed/encouraged?
I love the collaboration process, and I’ll allow as much as I can, but usually time becomes a factor because we do have to shoot relatively quickly. Oftentimes, we’ll discuss scenes in advance and change things before we get to the set. I remember during Christmas Twister, Casper Van Dien would pull me aside a lot with ideas about the day’s scenes, and they were terrific suggestions. When we were doing All About Christmas Eve, Haylie, Chris, Glenn (my first assistant director), and myself would go off while the lighting and art teams were working, and workshop the scenes as a small group.
I’ve learned comedians are usually very comfortable with the process of improvisation, and I’ll try to stay out of their way because they’re usually funnier than me. (Although my dog thinks I’m hilarious.) Mindy Sterling is great coming up with some wonderfully hilarious stuff off the cuff. Same thing with Fred Willard. I did some pickups for a film with Chris Kattan, and he would drift so far off book, none of us could follow along, but it was comedic gold. And God bless Lacey Chabert for being able to keep up with him and never miss a step.
Speaking specifically of My Summer Prince, how did the idea for this film come about? From inception of idea to final form, how long was the process for this film to be completed?
The idea came from a conversation about doing a twist on the “royal” romantic comedy in which it was the prince, not the protagonist, who was the fish out of water in America. It had briefly been discussed as a Christmas movie before we changed it to summer. We had our first script draft in April and started shooting in June.
How did you choose Topher Payne as writer?
Topher is a wonderfully prolific playwright with a unique voice. He was perfectly suited to capture the emotional, but also humorous, tone of the movie. When I read his first draft, I found myself laughing a lot, particularly with the interplay between Mandy (Taylor Cole) and her boss, Deidre (Lauren Holly). There was an energy to the dialogue that I don’t often find in this genre, and it was refreshing to read an electrifying new voice. I’m excited to be working with him on a fun new project that we’ll be announcing soon.
How did you go about the casting for the film?
I was familiar with Taylor from her work on NBC’s The Event, and then I saw her in her film Appetite for Love, which I thought was a fun romantic comedy. The character of Mandy was very different from the other roles I’d seen her play, so I thought it would be fun to try.
Lauren was suggested early on for Deidre, and I thought it was a great idea. I was a fan of her work from over the years, and I’d seen her in A Country Wedding playing a much different part. She brought a level of vulnerability to the character of Deidre that I felt made her more than just a stock antagonist.
Jack Turner came in and auditioned for the role of Prince Colin. I was already in Utah in the middle of pre-production when the casting directors sent me a link. I knew within ten seconds that we had our Colin. Unlike some other similar royal films, Colin needed to have a rebellious streak, so he couldn’t be too proper or buttoned up. Jack captured that feeling perfectly.
Marina had been in Finders Keepers, which I’d written and co-produced. I knew the archetype for the character of Penelope, and once the executive producers and I started talking about Marina, I knew she’d be perfect. If you’re familiar with Marina from Star Trek or some of her work like Crash, you’ll be surprised to see how funny she can be.
Any interesting filming stories from this one? Any difficulties or things that went better than anticipated?
I’ve had some doozies over the course of my career, but this was probably one of the smoothest filming experiences I’ve had in a long time. One of the fun things about shooting on location is that everyone bonds so well because you’re not only working together, you’re also hanging out together when you’re not on set. Marina would join the crew for karaoke. I’d see Taylor walking her dog around the hotel on our days off, or bump into Jack on the way to the pool.
There’s always a bit of fun trivia that comes from making a movie like this. Here are a few nuggets:
· The town of Park City, which plays Greenbriar in the film, does not have a fountain. The fountain you see in the movie was brought in and assembled by truck from Los Angeles. It was only used for one day of filming. The rest of the time, the fountain sat in a parking lot at the Westgate Park City.
· The locals thought the fountain was real and had thrown coins into it while we were shooting another scene elsewhere.
· There are only two suits of armor in the whole castle. We just kept moving them from room to room and changing the colors on the sashes.
· The police station was actually the accounting office of the Zermatt ski resort, which we shot the Fourth of July festival and carousel sequence, among others.
· Jack Turner actually plays piano. He taught himself to play the REO Speedwagon song “Keep On Lovin’ You,” which you see him play in the film.
· The foam darts that Mandy and Prince Colin play during the carnival scene were physically incapable of knocking over the targets. We solved the problem by attached string to the back of each of the ducks and pulling them over at the right time. The foam darts you see in the film are all computer generated.
· The dignitary who compliments the Queen on her jubilee is Darya Gemmel, wife of REO Speedwagon member Neal Doughty.
· Fans of our films might recognize cast members from our previous movies: From Christmas Under Wraps, we had Jacque Grey (Nurse) and Jessica Villeneuve (Keisha’s mom); from I’m Not Ready for Christmas, we had Ashley Santos (Jess) and Walter Platz (Sheriff Wrigley); from 12 Gifts of Christmas, we had Melanie Nelson (Barbara Kirkland) and Raquel Baldwin (Sunrise USA Host); and from Christmas Twister we had Kassandra Clementi (Lady Isabella).
· Topher Payne, our writer, has a cameo in the film as a tourist in the elevator during a pivotal scene.
What do you hope the viewers will take away from this film? What message and/or feeling?
My Summer Prince is a modern day fairy tale, but this time, the Princess is the one who has to save the Prince. I think it’s great to turn storytelling tropes on their heads, and I love to challenge the norm.
Also, these are complicated times that we live in and I think that sometimes we need a little uplifting message of love. I love hearing about the joy and happiness that people get out of the films that we make, and if we can help brighten someone’s day, make someone feel better, or even just a bring a family together to watch a movie by the TV… then I know I’ve done something right.
Any other upcoming works you can mention?
Topher and I are collaborating on something new that hopefully we’ll be able to announce soon. I have also co-produced a holiday movie, Vermont Christmas Vacation, coming to ION this coming holiday season starring Chevy Chase, Abigail Hawk from Blue Bloods, the great Howard Hesseman, Zack Ward from A Christmas Story, and David O’Donnell, who fans might remember from Christmas Under Wraps. That one is directed by the prolific and immensely talented Fred Olen Ray, who did A Prince for Christmas, Holiday Road Trip, and All I Want for Christmas, among others.
I’ve also written a horror movie that will be airing on Syfy later this year, starring Michael Jai White, Amber Benson and Dina Meyer. It’s got a great villain that’s part Freddy Krueger, part Tall Man (for you Phantasm fans). I think it will be a real treat.
If you could go on a summer vacation anywhere, where would you go and why?
I’ve never been to Europe, and I’m sucker for Disney World, however for me, the perfect vacation should have some personal meaning.
I have fond memories of vacationing with my family in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was never too crowded, and the views were beautiful. I visited with my family a few years ago before my father passed away, and I would like to continue the family tradition. One of the appeals of shooting in Park City for My Summer Prince, was that it reminded me a lot of that area… right down to the alpine slide.
Peter is one of those unassuming guys who is so humble and down-to-earth in spite of the fact that his talent is extraordinary and far surpasses so many who walk around in this business with egos that far supersede their reputation. It was sheer delight that Peter was willing to share so much about an incredible variety of fan-favorite films, and it just raises my level of respect for him. Furthermore, he is “on the ball” when it comes to social media–a rare trait amongst many behind-the-scenes personnel (at least, in my experience). Moreover, I can relate most significantly to being persistent to the point that one is almost “annoying,” as I have become just that this year as I have entered this formerly alien realm of “interviewing.” In recent years, Peter has become a household name amongst Hallmark and Lifetime viewers alike, and it’s almost not Christmas without a “Peter Sullivan” film on the horizon. I look forward to what he has “up his sleeve” in the not-to-distant future. Be sure that you tune in tonight (August 6) to the Hallmark Channel as the film that is near and dear to his heart will make its much-anticipated premiere–My Summer Prince. Additionally, be sure to follow him at the various links below as he is perfectly amazing at keeping his followers up-to-date with his current projects.