Interview With Writer Topher Payne, “My Summer Prince”

By Ruth on August 6, 2016 in Interview, movie, television
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Because we are blessed with such an impressive Hallmark Facebook group with such circumspect administrators, there are many times that I rely on their expertise and knowledge when it comes to landing and/or conducting interviews. In this case, one of them (whom I will name in the body of the interview) mentioned to me a new screenwriter at Hallmark–Topher Payne. Immediately, he and I set up a time to chat, and he graciously took time to answer a hodgepodge of questions encompassing a wide variety of topics including the origins of his writing career, his upcoming Hallmark premiere, and his general outlook and approach to his professional and personal life.
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RH: So is writing something new for you or–

TP: I’m a playwright. I’ve been working as a playwright for the last fifteen years. And then this is my screenwriting début.

That’s why I struggled to find information about you because if it’s playwriting, it’s tough to find that information, depending on where you live.

It’s just a whole different kettle of fish.

So have your plays been local, national, inernational?

All of the above. I’ve been based out of Atlanta since 2000, and so my career really started here. And I’m still based out of Atlanta now. I just worked my way up steadily in the theater community here. And then fortunately, some of the works that I had done started getting traction in other cities. I had a play in 2013 called Perfect Arrangement that was produced in Washington D.C. That was the one that finally really landed. So we had several subsequent productions of that. Then that premiered off-Broadway last fall and had a really, really wonderful run in New York. I got to see my name on the marquee in Times Square, which was something we had worked very, very hard to achieve.

Oh I can imagine that. Definitely.

So after Perfect Arrangement did really well for me there, we started getting interested inquiries from publishers. I signed with a manager in Los Angeles. My agent is based out of New York. And once you have a manager in LA, everybody starts talking about TV. So I came out and met with a bunch of different networks in March and had some really great conversations. And one of the conversations I had was with the director of programming at Hallmark. We hit it off great and just found that the things that were important to me as a storyteller were important to them, too. And it was just one of those wonderful conversations where everyone walks away saying, “I think we can do something here.” And then very, very quickly, they found an opportunity for me.

At my off-Broadway premiere

At my off-Broadway premiere

Everyone always seems to speak so highly of Hallmark. Of course, as a viewer and a fan, I appreciate their work. But it seems like across the board, I always hear all these great things about Hallmark. Actors, crew, writers–basically, everybody has a positive experience at Hallmark.

It’s a refreshing thing because, of course, everyone has their horror stories about their introduction to the television and film business, but it was so delightful and really such a blessing to find that the product that they’re putting out for the viewers really comes from a sincere place. The product really is reflective of what’s important to the company. It’s absolutely a smart business decision to tell the stories they tell for the audiences that they try to draw in. But more than just being smart business, it is what is legitimately important to everybody I dealt with at the network. And that was a really reassuring thing. You’re doing good work with good people.

So this will be your first venture into television–is that right?

As a writer, yes. I’ve done some work in film and television as an actor, but this is my first chance to hear my words spoken on TV. And it’s really exciting!

So going back then, what is it that made you want to become a writer?

I come from a family of storytellers. I was raised in a town in Mississippi called Kosciusko, which is about an hour away from the nearest interstate. It had a population of about four thousand people when I was growing up. I guess that’s the way you tell your family history is through stories. Telling stories was always the way I made sense out of the world. Now I was the only member of my family who was fool enough to try to make a living out of it. (laughs) When you want to communicate faith and history, it often comes through in a parable. I’ve always believed that all the lessons you need to know you can tell through a story. And if you can do it through humor, it goes down even easier.

Did you study writing in school?

Nope, I started working in professional theater when I was seventeen, and I started as a technician–building sets and hanging lights and running the light board during performances of shows. It gave me the chance to stand behind the scenes and watch stories being told. And I’ve learned a lot through that sort of apprenticeship. And then I started writing my own content, and they were all quite, quite terrible. (laughs) But the way you tell a good story is write a bad one and make it better.

Well, that’s a good way of looking at it. 

So it’s just attempting to refine the skill set.

So I’m curious then. Why did you go the route of writing plays as opposed to writing stories or books?

I think for me because the most interesting aspect of storytelling is voices. I love the quirks of language and the way people talk and the way we try to communicate with each other. I would write it and then assign it to a group of actors and make this a community effort. I love that piece of it. I guess I feel like if my voice was the only one I was interested in hearing, then I’d write a book. But I love getting the gang together to tell a story. And for that, that’s performance.

As a writer, I’ve tended to write narratives as opposed to plays. For me, I love putting in all the description when I write. When I have written plays, I have typically added in way too much. It’s so hard to be concise sometimes, but I have forced myself to do that as I’ve gotten older. 

I’ve definitely seen the evolution of that in my own work. In my early works, the stage directions are these big blocks of paragraphs. You learn to trust the process. You learn to trust the team. One of the pieces of advice that I always give to other writers–“Don’t attempt to direct from the page.” That’s not your job. There will be a director assigned to your project, and he or she is going to do amazing work with it. You have to have faith in that and have faith in the process. And the great thing is that you do get all these other experienced professionals coming in and putting their stamp on it to come up with things you never would have imagined. And they make you look so good. (laughs)

Where do you draw your inspiration for your stories?

Oh gosh, everywhere. I wish that more of my day was actually filled with productively writing. I find that most of my day is filled with almost writing. The thing that is really gonna sit you down at the desk and keep you from moving is the story that just will not get out of your head. And I have a lot of passing thoughts, like, “Oh that would be a good story.” And then it kind of comes and goes, or I’ll make a little note on it.  And then there’s that nagging thing that will not go away. And it could be a particular story element or it could be a particular character’s voice. Often, for me, that’s what it is. I’ll know who I’m writing, but I won’t know what her story is yet. But I know she won’t leave me alone.

I actually can relate to that. I’ve been there when I’ve been writing, too. (pause) So with your film My Summer Prince that Hallmark is airing on Saturday, August 6–it is amazing the machine that Hallmark has in place. They seem to get these films done quickly.

Oh, darling, you and me too! Do you know how jealous my other writer friends are at how quickly all this came together? (laughs) All of this managed to happen since March. Work happened quickly and very efficiently on this. And that I think was the greatest relief. When I was initially presented with the timeline of how quickly these films come together, I had my own concerns about whether I would be able to maintain that timeline and whether everybody else would. But it is a well-oiled machine which is one of the reasons I think it works. At least in my experience on My Summer Prince. The crew is so accustomed to working on this very quick timeline that everyone works just so efficiently. There is not a wasted moment in the day.

After they cleaned me up for my cameo appearance in the film, Marina said I looked like a schoolboy and couldn't look at me without laughing.

After they cleaned me up for my cameo appearance in the film, Marina {Sirtis} said I looked like a schoolboy and couldn’t look at me without laughing.

So did you get to go to set during filming and see what was happening?

Yeah, they brought me out to Utah, and I stayed with them for about a week. They gave me a cameo in the movie, so I pop up there for a moment. I guess they figured as long as I was out there, they might as well put me to work. (laughs) So I ended up getting the full cinematic experience on both sides of the camera. I was watching them work for a few days. Then on the third day I was there, I had to report to make-up and clean myself up and stop looking like a writer and look like an actor. (laughs) I told my friends it was like doing screenwriting sanity camp. I got the whole experience in a week.

That’s good. Not all writers get that opportunity. 

Oh, I’m aware of the rarity. I’m aware that I had a very rare experience.

Not too long ago, I got to talk to Sherryl Woods, author of Chesapeake Shores, and as much as she wanted to come to set while filming, it didn’t work out. But they made it a point to send her the dailies so she could see what was being put on screen each day.

Peter {Sullivan} was so great about that with me. They were already two weeks in before I came out to Utah, and he knew I was sitting in Atlanta dying to know what was happening on set. He was really great about texting and emailing me clips and pictures from the set each day so I could see how things were progressing.

So where did the idea for My Summer Prince originate?

The original story treatment was done by Peter Sullivan, who is the director of the film. He has a list of screenwriting credits as long as my arm. (laughs) The original treatment that they brought to me was just a basic outline of the story and was originally pitched as a Christmas story. And that was one of the reasons things happened so quickly because they made the decision to put it in “Summer Nights,” rather than doing it as a Christmas film. Which meant we had to get to work ’cause it was already March. So they presented the story beats to me, and from reading it, I thought, “Yeah, I can absolutely do something with this.” And then I just dove right in.

On set with Taylor Cole

On set with Taylor Cole

I was looking over the cast list, and I saw that Taylor Cole was in it.

Yes, Taylor Cole, Jack {Turner} is our lead. And then Lauren Holly and Marina Sirtis.

As this wrapped a bit ago, I’m sure you’re already busy on other works that will probably be in the future.

I am, I am. The response from the producers and the network has all been very, very positive. Everybody’s really happy with how this one turned out. We’ve already started having conversations about other stories we can tell together. That’s kind of where we’re at right now. Just having those coversations. I am premiering a new play in January. We’re about to start in the casting process for that here in Atlanta. I’m getting very, very excited about that.

On set with Lauren Holly & Jack Turner

On set with Lauren Holly & Jack Turner

The network must really have liked you if they’re already talking about the next potential projects. 

I don’t know what lucky star I managed to wish on to make everything happen, but I’m certainly not going to question it. Just try to live up to it. It’s been a real delight–every Christmas when I go home to my mother’s or my sister’s, Hallmark is on a constant loop. (laughs) So I have seen any number of the holiday movies. And of course when I knew I was actually going to be talking to the team at Hallmark, I did my due diligence and did my research and got to watch a lot of other movies. It’s so amazing switching from just being a viewer of the work and enjoying it like any other audience member to then being put in a position of “Okay, if you were part of this team, what contribution could you make? What sort of stories can you bring to the table?” And to be presented with that opportunity, and from everything I’ve seen, to see that it’s gone quite well…well, it’s a relief more than anything else. ‘Cause you come in saying, “I really think I have a contribution to make,” and from all appearances, I did have a contribution to make and was able to be a part of an extraordinary team. So I feel very, very blessed in that.

Something I love about Hallmark is this. Basically, I love everything on Hallmark. Oh, once in awhile, something may not be my favorite of all time, but there is one thing I am certain of. You see, I have a thirteen-year-old daughter, and we live with my parents. Hallmark is the one channel we can have on, and we can all sit around and watch it together.

Exactly! It’s really nice. In my years as a writer, I’ve written thrillers, mysteries, dramas, and wherever that particular story takes us. And I certainly hope to continue to do a variety of stories as a writer. Just before all of this happened, the most recent play that I had written was a commissioned Christmas play for a theater here in Atlanta called Let Nothing You Dismay. It was my first time writing a holiday story. There is a contract you are signing with your audience when you write a holiday show. They are expecting a certain experience, and you can take them on the journey however you want to take them. But there are some rules on the destination because people are seeking that story at that particular time for a very specific reason. And I think it’s so important to respect and honor what the audience is asking for from you. And I’m so grateful that I had that experience just before I wrote a Hallmark movie where I feel like the audience’s expectations are similar. You know, we are hurting for positivity these days. There is an endless stream of negativity, and it can be found quite easily.  And to tell stories that lift you up and make you feel good about life and about possibility and romantic possibility and the strength of family. We could use a good dose of that these days. And I think it’s extraordinary that we have a resource like this that can make that happen.

I know what you mean about positivity. I am one of those reviewers who tries to always find the good stuff in whatever I watch. I get sick and tired of reviewers who just rip everything apart in the film no matter what. 

All the time with theater reviews, I’m like, “Can’t we acknowledge that nobody sets out to tell a story badly?” Even if it’s not your cup of tea.  Even if the thing is a fiasco. And sometimes it is. There’s just no way around that. Sometimes it is. You can look at the intention behind it. You can look at the story they were trying to tell, and you can find something of value within that. So then let that drive the conversation.

On set with Lauren Holly & Jack Turner

On set with Lauren Holly & Jack Turner

That is exactly what I do. Even if I don’t like something all that well, I make it a point to review it in such a way that I’m not tearing anybody down. But I know that my view on this does not match the views of a lot of reviewers out there. 

With all the things that can go wrong… I mean, thing one, it’s amazing that any movie ever gets made ever. Thing two, it makes it so extraordinary when things come together well when you know how many moving parts are involved and how many personalities and how many people’s ideas and notes are going into play there. The thing to celebrate is when it comes together beautifully. And if there are elements or missing pieces in play, well that’s far more common, but it sure doesn’t detract from everybody’s efforts in the process.

Yes, I agree with you. That’s the way I view things.

Well, I appreciate that. Thank you.

Well, I’m glad to do it. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only voice of positivity in the world of reviewers. But I keep plugging away at it. 

And that’s one of the things we talked about when I had my first conversation. In the current political climate and the way people’s anonymous presence on the internet has given them free rein to say whatever comes into their head…maybe taking a moment and thinking would have been a better idea. It is so brave to be sincere. Sincerity in this day and age is a real act of bravery. And I think that one of the reasons that there’s a certain group of journalists that dismiss programming like Hallmark out of hand is because they have an instinctual response to reject sincerity or to be suspicious of it. To assume that it’s promoting some other kind of agenda or that’s it’s being done with irony. Actually sincerity takes a great deal of thought, hope and consideration. But I think there will always be naysayers who for whatever reason see something like that and it makes them afraid. Because it calls up something that they struggle with personally. I don’t mean to “armchair psychologist” anybody, but if your natural response to sincerity is fear than it says something more about you than it does about the work.

I think you make a very valid point. That’s a good way of looking at it. And another thing I love about Hallmark is that they listen to their fans. In fact, from what I’ve seen, Hallmark listens to their fans a lot more than most other networks do.

That’s who they’re doing it for. And I think sometimes people lose sight of that. Because it is a very advertiser-driven business. We’d love to say that we’re just doing art for art’s sake, but no, everybody’s got bills to pay. But at the end of the day, the networks exist for the benefit of the viewers. And if you’re not paying attention to viewer feedback, then you do so at your own peril.

Filming the Queen's arrival

Filming the Queen’s arrival

When My Summer Prince does air, I will tell you something the viewers really do like. Live tweeting is really big with the Hallmark fans.

You are not the first person to give me this piece of advice. (laughs) I am definitely and I have become much more aware the past couple of months–Saturday night is a Hallmark takeover on twitter.

And also Sunday nights when their various series are going on is big. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen When Calls the Heart–

Yes, I watched the first season in preparation for my meeting.

If you watch for the Hearties and get the Hearties on your side, then you will have a massive support system behind you. They are the most unbelievable fans I’ve ever seen. Add that to the rest of the Hallmark Channel fans, and they are an unbeatable support system.

I joked with one of the actors on set that between the Hallmarkies and–thanks to Marina–the Trekkies, if we get this right, we’re gonna have some happy people.

Are there any When Calls the Heart actors in this movie?

There are not. Taylor and Lauren are two returning Hallmark actors. And everybody else is new to Hallmark which is very, very exciting. ‘Cause the audience is going to fall so in love with Jack. He is the most charming human being on the planet. And he and Taylor are so genetically blessed that it’s hard to look at them. (laughs) Taylor is a really great gal. I hope you get a chance to talk to her sometime. She wrapped filming in Utah and she has one of those mini airstreams you hook up to the back of your car, and she was taking a nice, slow trip back down to Southern California. So my understanding is that she and her dog experienced the magnificent American West together.

That is so great for her. I am always amazed at how busy these actors are–I don’t know if some people understand the grueling schedule they have, but I have come to appreciate it.

Oh, yeah, because when you’re shooting, I mean, two of the days that we were on set, we were on a three P.M. to three A.M. schedule. So you’re going to bed around 4:30 in the morning and then you wake up midday and you’re quite confused.

And so many times, this business is so last-minute, as I’m sure you’re well aware of.

Oh, yeah, as they say, “God willing and the creek don’t rise.” (laughs)

I think that making all these connections with actors has helped me understand the business so much more. And the best thing is that when they are late to interview or cancel at the last minute, they appreciate the fact that I don’t get upset and make an issue of it. After all, most of the time, it’s not their fault.

Well, they are so lucky to have someone like you who is so dedicated to giving people a little more insight into the process. Or I guess I should say, WE are. I’m part of the group now.

Yes, you are. (pause) Well, I really am happy to do it, and as you saw, it was really one of the Hallmark Facebook group administrators {Abby–how is it that I mention you yet again?}who directed me toward you. I didn’t even know about you. She told me that you joined the group and I needed to interview you. 

One of the reasons I was so grateful that you did reach out is because this is my first effort in a new medium. Those that know me from theater have been extremely supportive. I think the night that it airs, they’re going to see unusually high numbers in Atlanta. (laughs)

On set with Marina Sirtis

On set with Marina Sirtis

Well, and that’s another thing. Some of the interviewers are only interested in the big names, but for me, I have interviewed everyone from actors who are just starting out as well as a lot of kids. I love highlighting people who get overlooked, but not everyone has the same view. 

Well, don’t they realize that we’re just chasing what the kids do naturally? We just get better at playing pretend.

I couldn’t agree more. And as I’ve explained to people, this person may not be known now, but give them ten years, and they might be the person with the big name. 

Exactly. Someone has to be the next Harry Potter. (laughs) People shouldn’t look at it like, “Why are you writing about this person I’ve never heard of?” Instead it should be, “Congratulations, this is the FIRST time you get to hear about this person.”

Right, see? And that’s what we’re going to do with you. 

Heck ya! (laughs)

I really enjoyed chatting with you, Topher. As you see, I don’t do formal interviews.

That’s good because I’m not a very formal person.

And I am one whose focus is the person. We’ll always talk about your works, but I want to know who YOU are. 

I really appreciate the fact that your questions provoked a real conversation. It was like a breath of fresh air, and I’m grateful. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the years I’ve been doing this–“If you stay true to telling the stories you want to tell the way you believe they should be told, then the right opportunities present themselves.” Then you don’t have to worry so much about forcing yourself into somebody else’s mold. You just stay in your lane, and you reach your own destination. It might take awhile, but if you are approaching your work with respect and positivity, people are going to eventually notice. I’ve spent a decade and a half trying to become an overnight success, and I think I’m getting pretty close.

I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed our chat.

Me too. It has truly been a pleasure, and I can’t wait to be on your “second interview” list.

 

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Have you ever started conversing with someone and it’s like you’ve known them forever? In so many ways, that’s how it was with Topher. We chatted about so much (be thankful I omitted much of our chitchat or this interview may have been twice as long), and I found myself thinking, “He gets it.” And indeed, he does. I’m sure that our mutual writing giftedness ensures that interviews like this are like a true dream come true, but regardless, I cannot tell you just how much Topher impresses me. I appreciate his quick wit, savvy outlook, and general positive perspective on his life and his career. Although I have not had occasion to review My Summer Prince ahead of time, I greatly anticipate luxuriating in all the overabundance of joy that Topher’s TV début on the Hallmark Channel on Saturday, August 6, will provide. I wonder if we’ll be able to hear the hootin’ and hollerin’ from Mississippi as “a star is born,” or should I say “a prince is crowned.” Although Jack Turner is playing a prince in this film, don’t be deluded. We know who the genuine royalty of this film is! Therefore, I invite you to follow “Prince Topher” below at all his many links because after all, you don’t want to miss a moment of his impending stardom, right?

FOLLOW TOPHER

Website

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YouTube

IMDB

 

 

 

 

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About the Author

RuthView all posts by Ruth
42-year-old single mother of an active 13-year-old girl Born in Tacoma, WA; lives in Yelm, WA Entertainment Writer Available For Interviews and Reviews Substitute Teacher

2 Comments

  1. Faye Gates August 6, 2016 Reply

    I enjoyed reading this post so much! What fun you had! I have been an extra on lots of movies, so I know the drill, but I always have fun!

    • Author
      Ruth August 6, 2016 Reply

      Faye, thank you for stopping by. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. You’re further ahead than I. I’ve never been in any film. I have met an actress and director of an indie film, and that is the extent of it. But I do enjoy doing these interviews. Glad you enjoyed it!

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