I don’t believe I have missed a single “Countdown to Christmas” movie this year on the Hallmark Channel nor its sister network Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. While I have my personal favorites, there is no denying that a massive hit this year was their film A Heavenly Christmas starring Eric McCormack, Kristin Davis, and the legendary Shirley MacClaine. My family and I thoroughly enjoyed this film, and when I discovered that Gregg McBride was the screenwriter for this Yuletide treat, I quickly reached out to him for an interview. I was incredibly elated when he responded (and so quickly too). Gregg graciously agreed to answer a few questions about his passion for writing, his personal struggles in his own life, and even a bit about his future aspirations.
RH: What inspired you to become a writer? What kind of training have you had?
GM: I have been writing since I was old enough to hold a pencil (or maybe a crayon). I’ve always had ideas for movies and books and even as a little kid was writing “novels” and also putting on original plays in my backyard. Not only did I get a lot of excitement by imagining (and creating) other worlds, but also examining life from different perspectives. I was extremely overweight as a child and also suffered pretty severe child abuse (both of which I wrote about in my book Weightless: My Life As A Fat Man And How I Escaped). Because of this, I used my writing as a means of escape. I later took creative writing classes and continued to hone my craft. Thankfully my imagination is as active today as it was when I relied on it as a form of survival.
Please tell us about your journey to write a weight loss book and how that all came about.
When people meet me today, they have no idea I used to weigh over 450 pounds (which I did right after graduating from college). I had struggled with excess weight (and tried to get rid of it) my entire life. I had quite a few skeletons in the closet (including the previously mentioned child abuse) and soon realized that the REAL excess weight I needed to get rid of was the mental weight. That’s what the title of my book, Weightless, refers to — the mental weight. Once we let go of what’s haunting us, we give ourselves the freedom to reach our true potential. Yes, I had a lot to deal with as a child that I wasn’t responsible for. But once I was old enough to know better, I knew I was the one who had to get rid of those demons that I was carrying around.
As you have worked for multiple entertainment companies, why did you become a screenwriter?
After graduating from college, I went into advertising copywriting. After working in the fashion and retail biz in New York, I moved to San Francisco to become an associate creative director. While I loved the work I was doing, my passion for writing scripts was still a driving force in my life. I would always work on screenplays when I wasn’t at the office. Although I got a little interest from producers here and there, I soon realized that unless I was willing to move to Hollywood (AKA Los Angeles), I wasn’t going to give my dreams a fair shot. So I gave it all up and moved to tinsel town.
I’ve always loved Christmas (I’m the guy who plays Christmas music all year long). A Heavenly Christmas (originally titled Christmas Angel in Training) was an idea I got while walking my dog one day. I found myself wondering about what kind of Christmas Angel someone who didn’t celebrate Christmas would be. The notion intrigued me (and made me laugh) and so the story quickly developed from there. Being a big fan of the Hallmark Channel (and a Hallmark card addict since birth), I’d always longed to work with them. I was fortunate enough to get a meeting there and, after mentioning the idea, received tremendous encouragement and enthusiasm. The project was fast-tracked and I wrote the script pretty quickly. Again, the story was already “in” me, so that part came easily. Add to this working with the team at Hallmark (Randy Pope, Michelle Vicary and Bill Abbott) and it was a win-win. Talk about a labor of love.
What was your role once they accepted the screenplay? Did you have any input as far as actors, scenes, etc.? Were you on set at all during the filming?
The team at Hallmark Channel was always very welcoming of any ideas I had about casting and music (since music is an important element in the story). It was actually the team there who assembled the cast for A Heavenly Christmas and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I was already a big fan of all three lead actors in the project. And needless to say, the “Shirley MacLaine-factor” sent me over the moon with excitement. Because the project was shot in Vancouver, I wasn’t able to visit set. But luckily the actors posted pictures via social media from time to time, so I could see my vision coming to life. It was enthralling and remains such a blessing. I feel like the luckiest guy on the planet.
Once it was filmed and you got to see it, were the actors essentially like the characters you had envisioned? Did the story come off the way you imagined it?
A valuable lesson I learned while working in advertising is that nothing is created in a vacuum. Making movies (especially ones that can stand the test of time and really speak to people’s hearts) is a group effort. What you see on the screen is the result of so many people giving their all to the project. Even people that we don’t think of like the movie’s director of photography. His lighting is genius. Add to this the performances (I never realized Eric McCormack was such a fine singer!) and it all works beautifully. Of course, there were some small changes to the story along the way. That’s part of the process. The folks at the Hallmark Channel know their audiences and are very committed to them. I love that. And yes, the vision of what I’d come up with while walking my dog is there one hundred percent. I remember thinking the plot through (on another dog walk) and imagining Eric McCormack’s deceased sister revealed as another angel who was “in on things” from the beginning and got a tear in my eye due to the emotion (yes, while walking my dog!). To see that come to life? Wow!
The message of the movie is what’s most important to me. The message of not missing out on the beauty of life — no matter how busy we are or how many commitments we have. Every aspect of life is so precious. To be reminded of this and shine that light so it inspires others is something I hoped this movie might do. I’m so glad it seems to have done just that.
Did you expect the fan response to be so amazing? Have you heard any stories as of yet about how the movie impacted and touched others in a real way?
I have to say that getting to interact with people who watched A Heavenly Christmas has been so amazing. People seem to genuinely love the movie. That makes me very grateful. And their willingness to share that joy has been so generous and gracious. I got to watch the movie’s television premiere with an audience — and to see and hear people tearing up at certain scenes helped me to know the message was being delivered. Of course, with the team the Hallmark Channel assembled (both behind and in front of the cameras), how could it not? Oh, and I’ll also mention that I love when parents tell me, “I love being able to watch this movie with the whole family” — no matter how young or old their children are. A mom of a four-year old girl recently stopped me to say that the movie inspired her daughter to ask her about angels, which she was so grateful for. These are things I’d never imagined. It’s truly my honor to be part of something that spreads a little light and love into the world.
Any other upcoming works you can mention (whether book, movie, TV, etc.)?
I am at work on a new movie that, unfortunately, I can’t reveal the plot of at this time. But to say I’m excited about it is an understatement. It’s something that also has the potential to touch a lot of lives (while being very entertaining at the same time).
What advice would you give to prospective screenwriters?
When I first moved to town, I had the good fortune to meet noted screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct, Flashdance, etc.) who kindly passed on a little advice: “A writer writes.” I made that my edict and it’s proved an essential part of my success time and time again. There’s always a certain amount of luck involved in any screenwriting success, but when those lucky breaks happen, you need to be prepared to seize the moment and run with them. So many people TALK about writing. But again, to quote Mr. Eszterhas, “A writer writes.”
If you could write a screenplay that would feature one actor or director of your choosing, whom would you choose and why?
I am a mass consumer through and through. I love to be entertained and enthralled. There are certain filmmakers who can do this while delivering messages that inspire hope and applaud humanity. An example of this is director George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road — on the surface a really over-the-top, action-packed movie, but at its core a story of hope and caring about one another even under the bleakest of circumstances. Another recent example of this is kind of storytelling can be found in director Travis Knight’s Kubo and the Two Strings. I would love to work with filmmakers with this kind of vision. And, truth be told, I hope to get to do more with the Hallmark Channel. Again, their commitment to their audience and to delivering stories that make everyone feel good is something to be admired.
There is no question that Gregg is committed to writing stories that inspire, encourage, and resonate with others. And as one who used to struggle with her weight as well, I find myself even more mesmerized by his motivating story of courage in this area. I will admit that when I first made the choice to watch this film, I was a bit leery as “angel stories” are often overdone and sometimes even ridiculously excessive in this day and age. Until the story made the surprise change towards the end of the film, I was wary of how my ultimate reception to this film would be. However, I can definitively declare that keeping an open mind on this film served me well, and I found myself unexpectedly savoring this film even more the second time. If you have not seen A Heavenly Christmas this month on the Hallmark Channel, I invite you to check it out as I’m sure it will be replayed again before Christmas. Furthermore, I invite you to watch out for Gregg and check out his other works as he seems to be one who is in tune with what so many of us are craving in this world of negativity–hope and inspiration. Please take a moment to check the links below for even more information on Gregg and A Heavenly Christmas as I believe that we have not heard the last of the impressive talent of Gregg McBride!
MORE ABOUT A HEAVENLY CHRIMSTAS