Pat Mills: The Christmas Setup

DGC Ontario Production The Christmas Setup premieres Friday, December 18th on CTV. The Christmas Setup is Lifetime’s first queer holiday film, and features actors married in real life. Ahead of the premiere, we spoke with Director Pat Mills about shooting during a pandemic, why representation matters and the magic of Home Alone.

How did you become involved in The Christmas Setup

My agent, Drew MacKenzie, emailed me about it during the summer and we set up a Zoom with Executive Producer Danielle Von Zerneck, whom I immediately hit it off with. Once it was officially green-lit, it was a race. By Labour Day, I was in prep in Ottawa scouting locations while the cast were in quarantine. It all happened so fast. We wrapped two months ago and it airs in the US this weekend – I’ve never worked this quickly before. 

What was the most challenging aspect of shooting The Christmas Setup

With 16 shooting days, it was already going to be challenging, but this was during a global pandemic. I was initially worried that communicating with actors was going to be awkward since they could only see 10% of my face, but everyone had such a great sense of humour about it and they were all pros. Working with DP Russ Goozee, I wanted to make this TV movie as cinematic as possible. We shot in picturesque small towns and I wanted to show off the locations as best as I could, but when you need to bring in fake snow and snow costs money, it limits how wide you can go. You can’t shoot it if “Christmas” isn’t in the shot! We overcame the problems, and I may have worn a mask for 14 hours a day, but the maskne was worth it. 

The Christmas Setup is Lifetime’s first queer holiday romance story and joins a few other LGBTQ2IA+ holiday films this year.  How does it feel to see this representation in mainstream media? 

I’ve never felt the need to be normalized, but I recognize how privileged that is. Growing up queer, I mostly saw myself represented in darker, challenging, thought-provoking narratives. Lifetime Christmas movies are engineered NOT to provoke too much thought. What I loved about The Christmas Setup script (written by the talented Michael J. Murray) was there was zero trauma in it. No one questions whether they fit in or not; their sexuality isn’t a plot point or exploited for conflict or a joke. They just happen to be two men who fall in love and everyone accepts them without question. In fact, the only “villain” in this movie is a career opportunity. These holiday movies don’t feel real, nor are they supposed to – but what we attempted to do was make it feel as authentic as we could and casting had mostly to do with that.

I’m proud of the performances in this movie, all thanks to real life married cuties Ben Lewis and Blake Lee, the super Ellen Wong, the charming Chad Connell and of course, the one and only Fran Drescher, who is so warm and kind (in the movie and in real life). It was a privilege to work with all of them. The Christmas Setup is the nerdier, earnest cousin of Happiest Season, but we have zero triggers. I’m proud to have been involved, especially after seeing so much homophobia about it online. It’s an important step forward for even more inclusion and representation. It’s been a hard year and everyone deserves a chance to ignore the trolls, turn their brain off and see themselves represented in glossy, escapist fluff. 

What do you love most about directing in Toronto/GTA/Ottawa?

The crews.  I had such a great time shooting this movie as everyone was such a joy to work with. 2020 has been a shit-show, but it was clear that everyone was happy to be working again. The crew put so much work into this movie and it was an added bonus that there were lots of jokes on set. Maybe it was because we were surrounded by twinkling lights, but everyone was in such great spirits. I looked forward to going to work each day (even the overnights).

What’s your favourite holiday film? 

Home Alone.  I always rewind the parts when Catherine O’Hara is on the payphone and says “Hello, hello, hello? She’ll have to call you back” and when Macaulay Culkin gets a chill and shakes his arm after spraying on deodorant. I also love thinking about how hard it must have been for Joe Pesci not to swear, considering he had just come off Goodfellas. I’ve seen it 900 times.

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