News Column

Portlander John Kent Harrison directs the touching 'Christmas in Conway' Hallmark Hall of Fame movie

November 28, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 28--In a television climate that values all things edgy, where a TV series protagonist may be a chemistry teacher-turned meth-maker, or a philandering advertising man, it might seem that there's not much room left for "Hallmark Hall of Fame" TV-movies. The roots of this series of occasional, made-for-TV films go back to 1951, which, in this fast-moving media age, might as well be eons ago.

But while they're no longer promoted as "events" -- as they were back in the 1960s, when the fact they were broadcast in color was something special -- "Hallmark Hall of Fame" movies aren't going anywhere.

In recent years, the movies, still sponsored by the Hallmark greeting card company, have often been gentle tales -- some adapted from novels, others original -- of people working to build lives together, dealing with everyday challenges, doing the best they can. The hallmark of these movies is they leave the viewer feeling not sad, or despairing, or cynical, but enriched and uplifted.

That description may sound sentimental, but the best "Hallmark Hall of Fame" movies walk a fine line between touching the heart and milking easy tears. There's an art to finding that balance, one that director John Kent Harrison has mastered.

Harrison, who lives in Portland, has directed eight "Hallmark Hall of Fame" movies, including the newest one, "Christmas in Conway," airing Dec. 1 on ABC (2). While the title makes "Christmas in Conway" sound like one of the candy-sweet TV movies that air on the Hallmark Channel during holiday season -- with everybody wearing sweaters and gathering around towering Christmas trees -- it's a far more substantial work.

"It turns out to be incredibly romantic," as Harrison says of "Christmas in Conway." And as he's had his own transformative experience with romance, he should know. But more on that in a bit.

The "Christmas in Conway" story, credited to Stephen P. Lindsey and Luis Ugaz, is simple. We meet Natalie (Mandy Moore), a young woman who works as a hospice care nurse. She heads to a new assignment in Conway, South Carolina, moving in temporarily with Duncan Mayor (Andy Garcia) and his wife, Suzy (Mary-Louise Parker.)

Initially, the story seems predictable, and sad. Duncan is gruff and short-tempered with everyone except his wife. Suzy is terminally ill, and seemingly accepting of what's to come. There's an overbearing busybody of a house-proud neighbor ("Saturday Night Live" veteran Cheri Oteri), for some broad comedy. And a handsome young landscape designer (Riley Smith), who's working for the neighbor, seems like a convenient romantic interest for Natalie.

But as the tale unfolds, the emotions deepen. Duncan is on a quest to construct a Ferris wheel in his yard as a romantic tribute to his wife, because they were riding a Ferris wheel when he proposed. Things don't go smoothly, but as Garcia plays it, we feel that Duncan's obsession is both a grand gesture of love, and a way to focus on something other than the reality of Suzy's illness.

Good as Garcia is, what really sets "Christmas in Conway" apart is Parker's honest, moving work as a woman living with the knowledge that the end of her life is near. At times, she's joyful and appreciative of mundane neighborhood gossip. Then, she's maternal toward Natalie, encouraging the young woman to get to know the landscape designer. But the film, and Parker, don't shy away from the anger and frustration Suzy also feels, depending on the day.

Most important, Garcia and Parker immediately convince us that Duncan and Suzy were meant to be together, and have shared a love that has been the center of their lives.

It's perhaps not surprising that Harrison handles the love scenes between Garcia and Parker with such tenderness and conviction. He's been living a love story of his own. The Canada native was living in Los Angeles, he recalls, when he got a call to come to Portland to do a film.

Harrison had done two "Hallmark Hall of Fame" films back-to-back: "The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler," starring Anna Paquin, about a Polish woman who helped more than 2,000 Jewish children escape the Holocaust; and "When Love is Not Enough: The Lois Wilson Story," starring Winona Ryder as the wife of the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, who went on to co-found Al-Anon.

"I just wanted to get back to my place," Harrison says. "I didn't want to go up to Portland. I fought it tooth and nail, and the phone keeps ringing, and OK, OK."

That was in 2010. He came to Portland to direct "A Walk in my Shoes," about a mother and school teacher who learns life lessons thanks to intervention by an angel. The company hired to do some of the visual effects to make the angel seem otherworldly was Portland's Hive-FX, which also currently does effects work on NBC's filmed-in-Portland "Grimm."

Harrison met Hive-FX executive producer Gretchen Miller, and that, as they say, was that. Not for nothing does Harrison jokingly refer to the angelic character as "the love angel." He fell for Miller. She fell for him.

"And we've been inseparable since then," he says. "I got rid of my place in L.A., and moved to Portland, and I have to tell you, I love it. We live in the Pearl, and it's like New York Lite. There's a jazz club down the street and coffee shops everywhere and a bookstore up the street. It's hard to beat it. One does time in L.A. But one lives in Portland."

When talking about how he kept "Christmas in Conway" from feeling too emotionally manipulative, Harrison approaches the topic intellectually. "You cast the film really well, and you never go for the obvious choice. You look for the incongruity, and contradiction."

He worked on the script, and exercised restraint about using music, and framed the actors so we can see Garcia and Parker playing off each other, instead of cutting back and forth, from close-up to close-up.

"It's a hundred little things like that," Harrison says. As with poetry, he wants the audience to respond to the "unsaid thing," the emotion that's implicit in the material but not blatantly stated.

When he returns to the subject of Miller, Harrison's own emotions pour out. The couple are planning their wedding. "Directing a movie is chump change compared to that," he says.

The plan goes something like this: the couple will get married in their loft on Nov. 30. And the next night, Dec. 1, they're inviting all their guests to join them at the Living Room Theaters, where they've rented out two screens, which will be showing "Christmas in Conway."

But life won't be imitating art. The movie may have its serious moments, but as Harrison says, "We don't want the drama. We just want to have the fun."

-- Kristi Turnquist

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(c)2013 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

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