Interview: Kevin Commins
Screenwriter Kevin Commins was inspired to write his script for “The Santa Suit” while stuck in traffic on a hot day. A few notes, a two-page submission to The Hallmark Channel, and less than six months later a new television Christmas Special was born.
“It’s really funny,” said Commins, “people go, ‘Oh, screenwriter, it’s glamorous.’ I sit in my office in front of the laptop… That’s what I do. Occasionally go out to the set, but, more frequently no. Usually, I’ve moved on by the time something hits the cameras.”
Commins, originally from Middlebury, Vermont, earned a theatre degree from Vermont’s Middlebury College. He headed to California about 15 years ago with aspirations of becoming an actor. Instead, he obtained employment in film development, “because I was always a big reader,” he stated. Then he started doing open assignments.
He currently works on open assignments for Chesler/Perlmutter, a Canadian company that produces low-budget films for T.V., including, “The Santa Suit.” His credentials include Co-Producer for T.V. programs like “UFO Hunters” (2008) and “Cybermutt” (2002); Associate Producer for T.V.’s “Killer Deal” (1999); writer for T.V. movies such as “The Santa Suit” (2010), “You Lucky Dog” (2010), and “Every Second Counts” (2008); and Music Supervisor for the T.V. movie, “Recipe for Murder” (2002).
Kevin graciously answered questions for us about his writing process, “The Santa Suit” script, and working with Kevin Sorbo. Thanks Kevin!
SW: Please describe your writing process.
KC: I come to a script from the point of a reader. I read far more books than I watch movies. I have ideas that other people think are fresh because I haven’t gotten them from other films.
I usually write two single-spaced pages outlining the story very, very briefly: who’s in it, this is what happens, they do this, this is how it ends. I submit the two pages to the network, and, if they like that they would probably come back with some notes and suggestions. If it flew the next step would be to break it out to seven or eight single-spaced pages, but that would be the entire story. There’s no dialogue or anything, but this is what happens in the movie. Then if you have that you can write a script in about three weeks.
There’s a fine art to writing a script for production in that inevitably the writer overwrites. He puts things in that can’t possibly be done for the budget. You want it overwritten so that if somebody gets really excited about doing it, there’s this understanding that you’re going to have to scale things back depending on the budget. Usually, special effects or crowd scenes have to be trimmed down or cut out, locations have to be cut, (and) speaking characters have to be cut down or cut out. This is all cost-cutting stuff, and I got pretty good at it, so I tend to work directly with the producers on all my films.
SW: What was your inspiration for “The Santa Suit”?
KC: There’s always a market for holiday movies. I had done a couple films with Hallmark. It was May or something like that I was driving down the 405, the air conditioner in my car was broken, it was 85 degrees, and I was stuck in traffic. It was just awful! So, (I thought), “Christmas, let’s see… What do I like about Christmas?” One of the songs I’ve always liked is, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas.”
I remember when I was in college somebody had a comic book that the premise was the hero was this miserable, misogynistic, misanthropic guy that happened to look like a clown, so everybody expected him to be jolly, but, he wasn’t.
I started thinking, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas; what would it mean to look like Christmas? You’d probably look like Santa Claus. But, what if you didn’t want to look like Santa Claus?” That was the just premise, so I wrote a couple pages outlining the story, and a couple months later Hallmark came through with the production order. I wrote it, and, I think, four weeks later it was in front of the camera. It was really, really rushed.
SW: Did Kevin fit your vision of Drake Hunter?
KC: Yeah, he was great! I didn’t write it with him in mind, but, once I knew that he was going to be (Drake) I could absolutely see it. He’s a great combination of leading man and comic actor, which is not easy to find.
(Kevin) was in every scene after the second draft. I knew he was a strong enough actor to carry it. It was only a 12-day shoot, which is really fast.
SW: Kevin is known to ad lib, did he do so in this?
KC: The scene at the end where Sebastian’s saying “goodbye” to Santa Claus, if I remember right, I think all I had was, “Sebastian grabs him and hugs, swaying gently from side-to-side and then finally Drake goes, ‘Gotta go.’” They added everything else. I was doing the rewrites after (Kevin) was cast, so some of the stuff was adapted to him. We knew he had very good comic timing from “Hercules,” and we thought, “What is the most embarrassing thing that a man goes through?” And it’s like, “When another man hugs him and he has no idea what to do.” That’s why we put that moment in there.
SW: What was it like working with Kevin?
KC: He’s a very nice man, totally professional, very funny. He makes people laugh off-camera, which is great. There’s not a lot of tension. I’m sure he’s a perfectionist, but he doesn’t come across as a perfectionist; he doesn’t make people nervous. And he doesn’t throw hissy-fits, which is great, too!
SW: What do you like best about the final product?
KC: From a professional standpoint I like the way the story hangs together. Emotionally, I like the way it taps into the idea that most people are not evil (or) malicious; they are careless. I think society encourages us to forget that we’re human beings and that we have not only a responsibility, but, a relationship with other people. When we remember that relationship, it’s extremely satisfying; it really is what makes life worth living.
I think that our society uses more and more images and icons, which is only a symbol of reality and is ultimately unsatisfying. What I really liked doing in this script was playing around with the idea of, “How does the image determine the substance? Is how you appear what you are? Does it change you, if you appear one way to people, will that change your behavior toward them?” I think it actually does.
Remaining U.S. air dates ET on The Hallmark Channel:
Sunday, Jan. 2, 10 p.m.
Monday, Jan. 3, 4 a.m.
(Photos courtesy of The Hallmark Channel)