By Robert Tate Miller, Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor DECEMBER 12, 2003
LOS ANGELES — As snowflakes swarmed in the glow of the streetlamp, actress Jennie Garth - decked out in a heavy overcoat and gloves - fanned herself to stave off the heat.
Blizzards in Los Angeles in June are only a slightly less frequent occurrence than one occurring off-camera that day: I was a writer standing in a place few writers are welcomed - the set of his own movie.
Six months had passed since I'd first read the treatment for the TV movie that would become "Secret Santa." Producer Beth Polson's synopsis put forth a whimsical supposition: What if a cynical newspaper reporter journeyed to a town in search of a mysterious philanthropist - and ended up finding something more than she'd bargained for? I felt the yarn held a plausible premise and I buckled down to pen the script.
CUT TO: ONE MONTH LATER. The teleplay was complete, and I'd arrived at the moment screenwriters most dread. My newborn "baby" was off to live with a new family, and I wouldn't be granted visitation rights. It was only my second movie, but I'd been around enough to know that writers were about as welcome on a movie set as a rabid possum at a Brownie campout.
The first time out, I'd naively phoned the producer on set to ask if I could drop by and say hello. He abruptly cut off the conversation, promising to call right back. The next time I saw him was five months later at a media event where he looked at me as if he was struggling to put a name with my vaguely familiar face. Needless to say, I was wary that "Secret Santa" would merely be a sequel to the previous unpleasantness. Then, I received the shock of my professional life.
"Just so you know," Beth informed me the day before production began, "you are welcome on set."
I asked her to clarify when I was welcome. "Always," she said succinctly. "After all, you're the writer."
From Day 1, the cast sought me out to offer kind words about the script and did their best to make me feel welcome. When I went out of town one Friday, Garth welcomed me back on Monday with a playful scolding for writing a scene that had kept her busy plucking flecks of mud out of her hair all weekend.
Being on set, I learned that the best laid scenes can be ruined in an instant by a barking dog, a backfiring car, or an irrepressible sneeze. I discovered that the writer's cavalier choice to set a scene at night could throw the whole week's shooting schedule out of whack. I learned that "check the gate" means it's time to move on to the next set-up, and that a "martini" shot says it's almost time to go home. I learned that a good director can make the impossible a reality and a good actress can turn a simple line into a magic moment.
The huge crew had even managed to tiptoe around a nuns' retirement home. ("Shhh," Beth admonished everyone one night. "The nuns are sleeping.") The sisters had agreed to let us invade their shaded sanctuary after approving the script and learning that June Cleaver herself, Barbara Billingsley, would be a resident in the film home. So far, the 18-day shoot was just swell.
SCENE TWO: "The movie's short," Beth greeted me one morning. "We need more meat."
I felt I'd been socked in the solar plexus. The dilemma was immediately clear: How do I add to the script without it looking as if I was adding to the script? I desperately scoured each page, looking for any scene that could use a bit of flesh and then, just when I was about to admit defeat, I remembered Scene 84, the walk. This was our reporter's romantic stroll with the mysterious millionaire. I flipped to the scene, and my hunch was right. She did most of the talking. Maybe it was time to find out more about him.
"I like it," Beth said the next day. Our male lead now had a page worth of personal history to learn - and fast.
CUT TO: "Report to wardrobe immediately." It was the last night of shooting, more extras were needed for the Christmas party scene, and I was a warm body. The costumer took one look at my 6-foot, 4-inch frame and announced that she didn't have a jacket my size. Minutes later, I was standing on my mark wearing a yard-sale sweater. I was ready for my Hitchcock moment. Then the director called "action," and I proceeded to blindside a cluster of fellow extras. "Cut!"
"It's a wrap." The famous words were spoken just after midnight. As I watched the cast and crew file away, I wished I could cling to my Christmas in June just a little bit longer.