On a sunny day in May, I’m bundled up in my Christmas finest — red pea coat, cream turtleneck, and fluffy earmuffs — ready to make my on-screen debut as an extra alongside Candace Cameron Bure and Tim Rozon in the Hallmark Channel original film Christmas Town. While summer may be on everyone else’s mind, Christmas is in full-swing in the fictional town of Grandon Falls (a.k.a. a backlot in Burnaby, British Columbia, just 30 minutes east of downtown Vancouver).
My Hallmark movie experience begins before I even get a glimpse of the lights, camera, and action: “Transpo,” the shorthand for a group of people who drive Candace and rest of the cast, from one spot to the next, takes me from a nearby church parking lot to the set. Once we get through the gates, I’m greeted by the most picture-perfect sight: a backlot that has been transformed into a fictional town center that looks just like the movies with stores outlined in twinkle lights, market stalls displaying an assortment of sugary sweets, and a trimmed tree in the middle of all things holly and jolly. Each storefront — Sweet Tooth Anna (the bakery), What’s Old Is New (the antique store), and Christmas Cafe (the coffee shop) — is packed with detail, from treats made of temperature-resistant silicone and wax to custom signage with sweet phrases like “Warm up with Candy Cane Cocoa.”
Although there’s a calm vibe on set, I can’t help but get distracted by the 70 crew members — prop assistants, makeup artists, producers, you name it — making sure that all the garland looks just right, the sidewalks are hosed down for a snowy effect, and all real and artificial Christmas trees are fluffed with care. (FYI: Crew members spent four hours fluffing the artificial trees for the movie’s attic scene.) As I weave through the cables, cords, and cameras on set, I catch an interesting, unexpected whiff of fish. “That’s the snow,” director David Weaver confirms. While they normally use white snow blankets and ice shavings from local ice rinks to get an authentic look, the unusually high temperatures forced the crew to settle for ice from Vancouver’s fish markets, which had a slight pink-ish color and fishy scent.
The temperature is also weighing on the actors. While I was comfortably sitting behind the cameras in a spring-appropriate outfit, Candace was bundled up in a burgundy peacoat, thick scarf, and wool gloves. “It takes a toll on you to film in this heat. Not only are you sweating, but you have to act like you’re cold, which takes another element of your energy to pretend that you’re shivering instead of just naturally shivering,” Candace explains while taking a sip of her coffee (“her Hallmark movie lifesaver,” she jokes).
But really, the “Queen of Christmas” says Hallmark movies only look “sweet, romantic, and feel-good” because of the behind-the-scenes magic done by David and his crew. “The reality of making them is a much tougher job than Fuller House or any other series, really,” she adds. “This is definitely some of the hardest work that I do because they’re such a grind: long hours, quick turnaround, putting on your happy face every day, and going out there to make Christmas happen.”
The turnaround on Christmas Town is exceptionally fast. By the time I arrive, they’re already halfway through the 15-day shoot, which explains why when they’re shooting a romantic scene in the gazebo, another group is manually (yes, manually) moving the clock hands on the town center’s clock tower to prepare for the main event: Grandon Fall’s tree lighting.
Still, Candace and the rest of the crew are as cheerful as say, Noelle in A Shoe Addict’s Christmas. As if on cue, the crew is constantly passing around homemade sweets and Canadian chocolates, “a must-have in Hollywood North.” As Candace’s stand-in marks her spot to test angles and lighting, the actress keeps cool behind the cameras, chatting about her Mother’s Day plans with the crew and joking around with producers about their past projects: “Remember how nervous I was for my first kissing scene?” she asks as she pops in a piece of gum before — you guessed it — her big kissing scene with Tim.
Before we know it, someone calls: “Candace, we’re ready for you.” “Time to go make some Christmas magic happen,” she says before rushing back to the fictional winter wonderland.
Everyone on set is quick to point out the Hallmark Christmas movie clichés — “Where’s our Hallmark twinkle?” one production assistant asks. “I don’t see enough snow,” adds another. But Candace says that even if they come off trite, those sentiments work for reason: “People know they can take away something from every movie that they watch.”
And although Christmas Town packs in the romance and holiday cheer, Candace makes it clear that this movie has a deeper message. It tells the story of Lauren Gabriel (played by Candace) who leaves the big city for a quieter life and finds herself delayed in Grandon Falls, nicknamed “Christmastown.” While there, she meets Travis (played by Tim) who is fostering a young boy. Because Lauren was also in the foster system growing up, she connects with Tim and his child, and rediscovers what the holiday season is really about: family.
“It’s special because the fostering and adoption storyline is about a bigger sense of family and not just about traditional one,” she explains. Lucky for Candace, she was able to use personal experience to tap into her character: “As I got older, my mom and dad fostered kids. Many friends of mine have adopted and fostered children. It’s something that’s very real, close, and personal to me, and I love being able to put the spotlight on that, especially since we haven’t seen a lot of it in Hallmark movies.”
In fact, her hope is that the movie inspires more people to become foster parents. “I bet you I will get an email that says, ‘I watched the movie and it gave us the nudge that we had been praying about, and we’re going to do it,'” she says. “These movies have a bigger impact than just making people feel good. They actually move people into action.”
Once the sun sets, David gives me a cue, telling me that the time has come for me to prepare for my Hallmark Christmas movie debut. I change into my movie-ready outfit and get a quick haircut, blowout, and makeup refresh in the hair and makeup trailer. Normally, extras and background actors don’t normally get this treatment, but it was very much appreciated. While I had the option to be dressed by the wardrobe team, once I confirmed that I already had a red pea coat at home, the crew told me I could wear my own clothes since “it looked as Hallmark as it gets.”
My outfit choice landed me a spot in the front row directly next to Candace and Tim. As the group of 20+ extras got settled in, David offered my fellow background actors and I some sage, Hallmark-approved advice: “No smile, clap, or cheer is too big.” Because we’re filming the movie’s tree lighting scene (the grand finale, obviously), we’re told to imagine that the tree rivals the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. In reality, it pales in comparison when unlit.
As we shoot that same scene several times in about an hour, we’re sometimes told to talk to our neighbors (I joked with another extra about how delicious my fictional mug of hot chocolate was). Other times we’re told to be completely silent and gawk at the tree. And finally, we’re told to count down to the big moment when the lights are switched on. “It’s like the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, but bigger,” David says.
Maybe it was the energy, maybe it was my red peacoat, or maybe it was that famous Hallmark twinkle, but as soon as those lights went on, that little tree in Grandon Falls looked more magical than any I’ve ever seen.