While made-for-TV holiday movies have enjoyed an explosion in popularity in the past five years, they’re not a new phenomenon for Lifetime. The network has been making ripped-from-the-headlines films for three decades at this point and has the whole process down to a science: a few months for development and writing, 15 days for filming, a few weeks for post-production, and voila — a feel-good romance ready for air. In the case of “A Christmas Dance Reunion,” COVID-19 precautions meant that the production, which filmed in November 2020 at the height of the pandemic, had a little extra wiggle room. But not much.
“A Christmas Dance Reunion” reunites “High School Musical” stars Corbin Bleu and Monique Coleman as a pair of childhood friends who rekindle their romance — and love for dance — when the hotel where they spent their childhood holidays announces it’s closing. Director and co-writer Brian Herzlinger, who has made several movies for Lifetime, tells Variety that the genesis for this particular movie came from his childhood vacations.
“My parents would take my sister and me up to the Catskills every summer to the Raleigh Hotel, and I thought it was the most magical place in the world. They had an arcade, they had horseback riding, they had ice skating,” he says.
In the spirit of another famous Catskills-set film, he and his co-writer, wife Megan Henry Herzlinger, envisioned “Dirty Dancing” — but set during Christmas. The result airs Dec. 3 on Lifetime. Here, the Herzlingers, Bleu, Coleman and executive producers Margret Huddleston and Stephanie Slack recount the years-long journey “A Christmas Dance Reunion” took to TV.
Henry Herzlinger and Herzlinger have worked with Lifetime on multiple occasions and usually submit four or five ideas to the network around October of each year. In 2019, Herzlinger’s favorite was their Catskills idea. “Then we wait a couple months while Lifetime internally goes over all the pitches and decide how they want to fill up their slate,” Henry Herzlinger explains.
Lifetime brass got back to the Herzlingers in February — “right as things were changing in the world,” Henry Herzlinger notes. After getting the green light to write the Catskills project, they were ready to outline and then write a full script. While they’d usually be headquartered at their Los Angeles home, this time the family packed up and headed to Henry Herzlinger’s parents’ house in Florida where they’d ride out the first six months of the pandemic together.
“It was the most perfect situation,” Henry Herzlinger says. “My parents have a guest house and we would go up there, get our coffees in the morning. They would watch the kids swim, go to the beach — they live right on the beach — and then we would work on the outline and get it to where we wanted. It was such a nice way to to go through that process. In the middle of the world being so crazy, to have this creative outlet and to be able to just dive in, it was it was great.”
To be able to have a creative outlet and be surrounded by family during such a tumultuous time in the world is not lost on the family, which is why they ended up staying in Florida for so long. Though, Herzlinger jokes, 189 days with in-laws, no matter how much you like them, is a long stretch.
Herzlinger and Henry Herzlinger are both very hands-on during the outlining and writing process, adhering to some simple traits that are common to every Lifetime romance.
“The Lifetime movies are a nine-act structure,” Herzlinger explains. “There are certain boxes you have to check: People to have to fall in love and they have to have a little bit of something that gets them apart — for only about two and a half [acts]. And then you have to have them come back and that’s what people tune in to see. There’s a comfort level with with the familiarity of the magic of these lifetime Christmas movies. They want a movie that that the 7-year-old can watch with the 70-year-old and no one has to worry about having to change the channel at any point.”
The writing partners work hard to nail that structure — and add some original flair — in their very detailed outline, so by the time they move on to the first draft it’s a breeze, taking about three weeks to pull together. In a normal world, they would’ve completed production in August or September with an eye on a December 2020 airdate. But because of the COVID numbers and the precautions they’d have to take in order to film safely in Toronto at that time, the network decided to film it for a 2021 release.
Herzlinger and Henry Herzlinger say they’d already been thinking about Bleu and Coleman when they were writing the movie because certain people always come to mind when you think about movie musicals. The duo ended up being perfect in another way, too — while the pair have remained friends since their “High School Musical” days, they haven’t appeared on screen together in more than a decade. And since the characters are old friends who haven’t seen each other in 15 years, the stars’ on-screen reunion was fitting. Bleu was the first attached, with Coleman following a few days later.
The idea of reuniting with an old friend was certainly a major draw for the role, but Coleman says the fact that she and Bleu would play romantic leads was even more important.
“For me, it was very special to really be the central storyline,” Coleman says. “So often we are, as Black actors, supporting another storyline, and it felt really, really good for it to be about us and for for it to be solely about the love and the relationship. These are very fleshed-out characters, which, in many ways, mirror our own experience.”
Within one month, the costars were flying to Canada to begin their two-week government-mandated quarantine, followed by the two-week shoot. The quarantine proved to be an asset to the film because they were able to learn their dance choreography while cooped up in the hotel.
“Normally for a dance movie you would have a couple of weeks of rehearsals. We didn’t really have that,” Bleu says. “So we instead did rehearsal over Zoom from our quarantine rooms in the hotel. We’re doing partner choreography, lifts and intricate movements together, and we don’t actually get the chance to do those those moves together. We’re basically learning over Zoom with the choreographer, and he’s telling us, ‘OK your right arm is gonna go here, step left here, turn here,’ and we’re trying to mimic that in our rooms, by ourselves.”
Once production began — and Bleu and Coleman had literally two days total to rehearse their dances together — it was full steam ahead.
“To shoot any movie in 15 days is difficult, let alone a dance movie. To shoot any movie at any time other than a pandemic is difficult to do. Then you add in the pandemic of it all, and now every single day you’re just praying that nobody tests positive,” Herzlinger says.
A positive COVID test would have meant a mandatory 48-hour pause, but luckily that didn’t have to happen, says Slack. “In Ontario [at the time of filming], numbers weren’t so high. People weren’t vaccinated at that point. We consider ourselves to be quite lucky that we didn’t have any delays or pushes, and people were just happy to be together making this Christmas movie during this time.”
Because there wasn’t a rush to get the movie on-air in 2020, Herzlinger could have had extra time for post-production. But he stuck to the standard schedule anyway, save for some extra shots the production team in Toronto filmed a few months later when COVID restrictions allowed more people to gather in a room together.
“You do have a little bit more flexibility, but you still stick to the standard schedule because other people have other other things to do and other projects so you want to have that movie finished even if it’s not going to air for a few months,” he says. “Because of the protocols, we weren’t allowed to have that many people in the same space. We couldn’t have an audience watching the dance numbers. Those shots of the audience watching the dance numbers were done months later — in one day. When I wasn’t even there.”
Adds Huddleston, “Once we got into pre-production and production then it sort of follows the normal schedule, where you have like six weeks for editing and then six weeks for post.”
But there was plenty of cushion built in to the schedule, she continues. “One thing that was great on this one was that even though we, for financial reasons, stuck to the normal post schedule, we could take a week hiatus and wait for a VFX shot and come in if there was another thing that we needed. There was a little bit of luxury that we had because we finished the movie in March, and then we didn’t have to deliver to Lifetime until later. So I think that’s something where maybe the quality of the movie gets much better because of that extended time. I think the hard part was you’re done with a movie, you’re so excited, and then you have to wait a whole year before the world’s going to see it.”
By November, it had been a full year since Bleu and Corbin filmed the movie. They’d gone into the studio in the spring for ADR, where they’d seen themselves on screen together for the first time in more than a decade.
“By the time I was in ADR, I had already shot another movie. So you have other scripts bouncing around in your head, other characters. At this point, you’ve left that world, and you get to go back into ADR and you’re going. ‘OK who is this person? I gotta get back into the zone,'” says Bleu. “And it’s the first time that you actually get to see some of those scenes edited together and on screen. To top it off, for this particular movie, there’s this special feeling of oh my god. Mo and I are on screen again together 14 years later, and it looks great!”
As the pair reunited to discuss the project, they reflected on how they were even enjoying the conference calls they’ve had to join while preparing for the movie’s release.
Say Coleman, “It actually feels like Christmas. It’s really special. We haven’t done [press] in years either. A lot of times, this is not the most enjoyable part of the process. Corbin and I are both very passionate about the work and sometimes promoting it can can just, you know, you’re dealing with people’s personalities and egos and different things. But this has literally just been a purely joyful experience, all the way around, 360 degrees.”