The timeless tradition of Christmas movies, causing a lump in your throat and forcing the tears to well up in your eyes, will get a new twist this holiday season thanks to the mind of Michael Heaton.
The Plain Dealer columnist teams up with his Emmy Award-winning sister, Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond, The Middle), for the Hallmark Channel's The Christmas Heart (debuting at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 2). Heaton first wrote the screenplay 15 years ago when he and his sister pitched it to CBS.
"The woman liked it so much she almost fell off her chair," he remembers. "Of course, we never heard from her again."
Patricia had no problem selling the movie to Hallmark this time around, a channel that has a long tradition of presenting holiday movies. She serves as an executive producer for The Christmas Heart, a story about a boy in need of a heart transplant, a Life Flight team caught in a blizzard, and a neighborhood's holiday tradition that works magic.
"Michael's got a really great imagination," says Patricia from her home in Los Angeles. "This was completely spun out of his mind."
Michael was inspired by his annual holiday visit to Arthur Avenue in Lakewood, an area where he used to live. Each Christmas season, residents decorate the street with luminaries, creating a magical setting that served as inspiration for the tension-filled outcome of The Christmas Heart. "I call this movie a Christmas thriller," he says.
Michael visited the Winnipeg set last March and was amazed at the tight 15-day shooting schedule, as well as the talents of cast members Teri Polo (Meet the Parents), Tess Harper (No Country for Old Men) and Paul Essiembre (Rescue Heroes). Ironically, the biggest problem was lack of snow. "They found a snow bank in the parking lot of a church," he says. "God was on our side."
But how did Heaton, now in his 25th year of writing offbeat columns and features for The Plain Dealer, change gears for such a screenplay? "I embraced the schmaltz and laid it on with a shovel," he laughs. "How do you remain faithful to God when things go wrong? I'm really proud of Hallmark for going deep on this one."
Patricia, who starred in the holiday film A Town Without Christmas, agrees.
"Many Christmas movies are silly and light, but this has a depth to it," she says. "It's deeply satisfying and exciting to see Michael's words come to life."