During the height of the worst bushfires we’ve yet experienced, I was attempting to write small-town romance and snowball fights. The irony was certainly not lost on me.
Until I was commissioned to write a Hallmark movie, I had never actually seen one. My task involved watching dozens of them so I could figure out the formula (yes, they really are the same film over and over) before sending off my first screenplay. But, even though I understood the basics, I couldn’t work out why the heck anybody actually watched them.
I completed my first Hallmark movie while sipping wine in an idyllic and remote Tasmanian setting. I was renting an Airbnb where I spent hours typing away on a wooden porch overlooking a view of the Bass Strait to the soundtrack of its pristine waters gently lapping at the shores. It was not difficult to drum up a twee small-town romance between a shy librarian and her charming dance teacher.
When I was asked to write a second Hallmark movie, I was staying at my mother’s suburban townhouse for the Christmas holidays: it was December 2019 in the thick of the worst bushfire season my country has ever known. We spent several weeks unable to venture outside in the searing 40-degree heat and smoke-clogged Sydney air.
In between the hours spent flicking helplessly from one news channel to the next, I was writing a romance set in a magical, snow-filled and entirely fictional town in the USA. On the Hallmark Channel, Christmas runs from October to February, but the fairytale my characters were enjoying was completely unlike the nightmare my family was experiencing.
As I conjured up scenes of playful snow fights for the film, my niece and nephew were evacuated to my mom’s house — the bushfires had surrounded their farm and the road was closed off. There are strict rules for Hallmark movies: they dictate how the romance must unfold, at what exact point in the story they will nearly kiss and then actually kiss.
My leading man and lady accidentally brushed their fingers against each other while decorating the Christmas tree. Meanwhile, I opened the Fires Near Me app compulsively to gauge how many more days my sister and brother-in-law would spend defending their home and animals from the blaze.
My family and I drank wine and played board games with the news playing endlessly in the background. In a Hallmark world, there is no alcohol, no swearing, and nothing terribly bad is ever allowed to happen. My characters were chastely re-kindling their childhood romance while baking gingerbread and strolling in the gently-falling slow. In my mother’s home, we also made gingerbread, but my three-year-old nephew cried and asked when he could return home. It was still too hot and smoky to go outside.
By the time the rains fell across the parched Australian countryside churning the bushfires into embers, I had reached the finale and my heroine was marrying her Prince Charming against a snowy backdrop. Our country was in ashes when I delivered my screenplay to the production company. For the month of February, life returned to normal and I went back home to Melbourne and waited for their feedback.
There are strict rules for Hallmark movies: they dictate how the romance must unfold, at what exact point in the story they will nearly kiss and then actually kiss.
The producer’s notes came at the beginning of March. I was once again at my mother’s house in Sydney, having made the trip interstate to celebrate my birthday and hers. In Australia, COVID-19 happened gradually and then all at once, but the “all at once” was a single weekend in mid-March when we made a decision to cancel both birthday events.
Instead, I spent my time re-writing a fictional winter wedding in a make-believe town in the US which in real life would be currently ravaged by a pandemic and its inhabitants shut indoors. The idea of more than five guests gathered together, let alone the entire cast of townsfolk, was now not only laughable but actually illegal.
As I worked on the second draft, Tom Hanks fell sick with the coronavirus on a movie set — and the Australian film industry was completely shut down all around me. My social media feeds became filled with artists in despair at the sudden loss of their income.
Once again, I found myself sitting on my mother’s couch drinking wine and flicking from one dire report to the next. I continued toiling away on the producer notes but only really for an excuse to take respite from the news. Once again, we were unable to go outside — only this time not because we would choke on smoke, but because it was against the law.
I spent my birthday in quasi-isolation, thankfully locked down with a few siblings who had all come to stay at my mom’s house for the now-cancelled celebrations. Because the possibility of my screenplay ever becoming a film was looking more remote as the numbers of known cases rose, my family acted out the entire thing from start to finish. They each took on a multitude of characters, distinguished by switching between different voices and costumes (or at least hats).
Amid the constant bursts of laughter, we didn’t reach the Christmas parade and wedding finale until the early hours of the morning. The number one rule of a Hallmark movie is that everything has to end happily. There are no bushfires or pandemics. It was the first time in months that we’d managed to go for several hours without talking — or even thinking — about the impending apocalypse outside.
As the Ruby Princess cruise ship docked in Sydney Harbor, spreading the infection widely across Australia, I finally realized why Hallmark movies are so popular and Christmas needs to last for five months. What’s so great about reality anyway?
Six weeks later, and I’m still locked down in my city of Melbourne. The latest producer notes have come through: it looks like there may be a way to make my seasonal romance after all. Perhaps it will come out in time for Christmas, right in the middle of the next bushfire season.
But for now, there is a new rule for the movie: no crowds. Shooting during COVID-19 requires strictly limiting and testing the numbers of people on a film set.
No crowds means no Christmas parade. No crowds means no big wintry wedding. In their safe and happy Hallmark world, my characters will never come up against something as terrible as the coronavirus — but it seems they won’t be able to quite escape it either. Just like the rest of us, they’ll probably have to get married with only two witnesses in attendance.