“Does anyone here have the number one Netflix movie in the world? I do”: A Q&A with the writer behind Lindsay Lohan’s blockbuster Falling for Christmas
Ron Oliver, who has made more than 20 holiday movies, explains the Christmas movie industrial complex
How does a Toronto horror buff become the King of Christmas? It turns out that the two genres are more similar than you might think—at least according to Ron Oliver, the Ontario-born writer and director behind more than 20 holiday movies. His 2022 seasonal credits include Netflix’s blockbuster hit Falling for Christmas, featuring Lindsay Lohan in her first starring role in more than a decade, and Hotel for the Holidays, just released on Amazon. Here, Oliver reveals the secret to making a holiday classic, explains how the Canadian press once panned him out of town and weighs in on whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie.
You’re currently on location in Greece. Are you filming another Christmas movie?
No, this is actually a romantic comedy, a wedding movie. For me, the holiday movie season starts in February or March, which is when I sit down and start writing scripts. Then we shoot over the summer. Falling for Christmas was a little different. It was filmed last January in Utah. I was brought in to rewrite the script, which had been kicking around for a while and needed a little cinematic vision, which is sort of my specialty. So I did that work, but I wasn’t interested in directing it. I live in Palm Springs. I don’t want to spend a month and a half up to my waist in snow.
Not even to hang out with Lindsay Lohan? Was she attached to the movie when you signed on?
Actually, Lindsay Lohan came on board the day that I signed my contract. I’m not saying it was because of me—it was serendipity. Falling for Christmas follows an heiress who has amnesia after a skiing accident. But it’s really a movie about redemption, or finding your way back to the right path after you’ve been a spoiled kid. Somebody referred to it as the Citizen Kane of Christmas movies, which I thought was hilarious, because as I wrote the script, I actually made a number of Citizen Kane references—to the sled and the snow globe. When you write holiday scripts, you’re conscious of the tropes of Christmas but also of the tropes of cinema. Lindsay’s life has been examined and reported on so closely ever since she was a kid—I was aware of how Falling for Christmas might reflect her story when I was writing it.
A lot of us mostly know Lohan from her days as a cautionary tabloid tale. What was she like to work with?
She was a total professional. She knows her stuff cold and she brings ideas to the table. I think what we realize now—and this isn’t just with Lindsay but also Britney Spears and a lot of stars who started working so young—is that the reputations they had were very much shaped by the media. Once, when I was working on a project with Shannen Doherty, she asked, “Can you imagine if a camera had been following you around when you were 21?” I think that would be tough for most people.
Falling for Christmas came out November 11. Is that not a little early for holiday content?
You’re talking to a guy whose first holiday movie of this season, Jolly Good Christmas, came out the day before Halloween. Hallmark released it at that time because there are advantages that come with being early. They can rerun it constantly throughout the season—and beyond. One of Hallmark’s biggest ratings grabs is in the summertime: they call it “Christmas in July,” and they air a bunch of holiday movies. I think the last couple of years have been hard for people. Sometimes you just need a little Christmas, to quote Auntie Mame.
Falling for Christmas was the most-watched movie on Netflix for more than a week after it came out. Are you a guy who pays close attention to the ratings?
Every morning I would come onto set of the project I was working on and ask, “Does anyone here have the number one Netflix movie in the world? Anyone? Raise your hand? Oh, that’s right—I do.” I did that for nine days straight and drove everyone crazy, but it really is absurd. We just broke 105 million hours viewed. I don’t even know what that means!
What about the reviews?
I read the good ones. Hotel for the Holidays, my latest release, was called “a gem among clichés,” which was great to hear. I don’t tend to read the bad reviews, although it was a bad review that made me leave Toronto.
Tell me more.
The very first screenplay I wrote was Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night Two, and I was also involved in the directing. When it came out in Canada in 1987, the Canadian press just trashed it. Like, trashed it. It got really nasty reviews in the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. It was like a personal assault, and I thought, Okay, so I guess that career is over. And then, however many days later, I was back in the offices at North Star, the production company where I was working. I happened to be near the fax machine when a review of my movie came in. It was from the LA Times, written by the wonderful film critic Kevin Thomas. The headline read, Prom Night Two was the Blue Velvet of high school horror movies. The whole thing was just gushing. And so I figured that Canada didn’t really get what I was doing.
You made a few horror movies after Prom Night. How does one go from blood and guts to boughs of holly?
It’s funny because there are a few directors—me, Sam Irvin, David DeCoteau—who started out doing horror movies and eventually moved into the Christmas world, partly because the two genres evoke strong emotions. Both have a lot of tropes, and stylistically you can go over the top in a way that doesn’t make sense if you were making a drama.
You’ve made over 20 holiday pictures. Do you ever get sick of it?
I try to change things up every now and then and do a rom-com or a thriller. But I’m always drawn back to the Christmas movies. There is definitely an appetite, and Christmas is sort of the only free franchise. Everyone jumps on the bandwagon, but even when you’re following the holiday movie formula, there is still the quest to do something unique.
What’s the secret to an excellent holiday movie?
I would say nostalgia is key. I grew up in Dundalk, Ontario, which is a real It’s A Wonderful Life sort of town. I always go back to my memory of the main street at Christmas time: the snowy sidewalks, the lights, the tree. And then holiday movies need the element of family, in whatever form that comes. Holiday movies remind people of home. In 2017, I made The Christmas Train and got a letter from a woman who works in a nursing home. She told me that the Alzheimer’s patients who rarely connected with anything were able to enjoy and talk about this movie. I got the letter a couple of days before Christmas, and I was just a mess. Like, a good mess, but a mess.
I’m guessing you’re not a Bad Santa kind of guy?
Oh no, I love Bad Santa. Billy Bob Thornton was great in that movie. There’s also a really wonderful horror movie, a schlocky piece of crap called Silent Night, Deadly Night. It’s about this kid whose parents are assaulted by Santa Claus, and he grows up hating Christmas. Then he goes out and slaughters people on Christmas Eve. Fabulous.
Where do you stand on the debate over whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie?
Oh, 100 per cent, Die Hard is A Christmas Carol. Bruce Willis is Scrooge. He gets there and he’s against Christmas and his relationship is a mess and everything’s bad. And he vanquishes the Ghost of Christmas Future when Hans falls from the deck of the Nakatomi Plaza. Happy holidays, baby!
The Christmas movie industrial complex has exploded over the past decade. With so much content, do you feel like you don’t get the same year-after-year classics? Your Charlie Brown or Rudolph or A Christmas Story?
Everybody is looking for the next classic Christmas movie. I would say the most recent one is Elf, which came out in 2003, so it’s been a while. I’ve made probably 25 Christmas movies. Some of them end up on the top 10 lists: A Dennis the Menace Christmas, Christmas Everlasting, The Christmas Detour. I think the closest thing I’ve ever made to a classic is Christmas at the Plaza. From the numbers, we can see that people go back to it every year, which is, I think, the definition of a classic.
Speaking of classics, Love Actually turns 20 this year. Are you a fan?
Yes! I love Love Actually, and I was very conscious of it working on Hotel for the Holidays because it’s an ensemble piece that plays out over a few days and you’re looking at love in all its different forms, which is so important.
Richard Curtis, who directed Love Actually, said recently that he feels stupid for how white the movie is. In general, holiday movies have tended to be lacking in diversity.
Personally, I have always been conscious of representation. I directed the first-ever interracial kiss on Nickelodeon on Are You Afraid of the Dark back in ’92, thank you very much. These days I would say there isn’t a network or a studio that isn’t conscious of trying to make the world look less white on screen. Hallmark is doing a gay rom-com Christmas movie, the first time they’ve ever done that. Would that have happened five years ago? Not on your life. Having said that, in Jolly Good Christmas I wrote a gay couple who weren’t even the main characters, and some woman wrote me a message saying, “That’s why I don’t watch Hallmark, because of the gay crap.” It’s crazy, but it happens. You should have seen the hate mail I got when I cast a young African American actor as Dennis the Menace’s girlfriend.
What is your most overrated Christmas movie?
The Santa Clause. Highly overrated. People gushed over it, and I’m like, really? I don’t buy Tim Allen as anything, let alone Santa. And an underrated Christmas movie is Gremlins. Just genius. There is a sequence in there that’s a knock off of Jimmy Stewart’s run through the town in It’s A Wonderful Life.
What will you be doing come December 25?
My husband and I got married on Christmas, so that’s our anniversary. We often have friends staying with us. On Christmas morning, we get up and put on our Santa Claus onesies and go to our favourite dive bar for Bloody Marys. It used to be called Score Bar and now it’s called—prepare yourself—Dick’s.