Can anyone really be an expert at love? The stars and creators of The Holiday Dating Guide joined AfterBuzz TV to discuss that and so much more!
Cuffing season is in full swing, but if you think you know what it takes to land a relationship before Christmas, The Holiday Dating Guide might make you think again.
Lifetime’s newest holiday romance starring Maria Menounos and Brent Bailey, puts the rules of dating to the test as it follows dating coach Abigail Slater (Menounos) on her quest to make a man fall in love with her by Christmas Eve.
The stars and creators of the film joined AfterBuzz TV to discuss what went on behind the scenes and how director Brian Herzlinger, producer Mike Donovan, writer/actor Brent Bailey, and leading lady Maria Menounos brought the story to life in their interview below:
AFTERBUZZ: Brent, you starred in and wrote The Holiday Dating Guide. What inspired you to write the script?
BRENT: The inspiration for the movie is actually based on my parents’ relationship. The original title was “You Might Be Right,” which is something my parents would say any time they didn’t agree on something. Obviously, the movie title changed, but I did keep that line in the movie in a few places.
AFTERBUZZ: Brian, you’ve directed several Christmas films over the course of your career. Do you find there’s a different atmosphere on set when you’re trying to capture the Christmas spirit in a film?
BRIAN: Definitely. There is something special about creating the same feeling and magic on a film set that we naturally feel during the Christmas holiday. Whether the snow is real or fake, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the message and delivering a story that embodies the spirit of Christmas and the holiday season. I see many more smiles when we’re doing a Christmas scene as opposed to, for example, a scary scene in a thriller. One of my favorite moments in any Christmas movie I’ve done is the day that Santa Claus shoots his scene. I insist that he is only referred to as Santa on set because I don’t want any children to hear otherwise. Honestly, the cast and crew are all on their best behavior that day…ya know… just in case.
AFTERBUZZ: Maria, as an actress, you’ve worked on action movies, comedies, dramas, and everything in between. What excites you about doing a Christmas movie?
MARIA: In 2021, when I did my vision board for the year, under acting in that category was only one thing: Christmas movie. And so when I got to be in The Holiday Fix Up with Jana Kramer and Ryan McPartlin, and Brian Herzlinger as the director, I was so excited. It was a sad time after my mom had just passed, and it was a really nice pick me up, and it was on my vision board, so it was really cool to have that manifest. And then that was it. So this year, starting around the spring, my husband Keven was like, “Why aren’t you rallying for another holiday movie?” I was like, “I don’t know, I did it. I never thought about it.” And then Brian Herzlinger called me in the summer and said, “Hey, I have this movie, and I really want you to take the starring role.” And it went from there. Christmas movies are an exciting genre for me because Keven and I are diehard Christmas fans. We love the Christmas season, we love Christmas movies, and to be a part of that world is so great and exciting and fun. It’s feel-good. Shooting these movies is always such a beautiful experience, so I love it, and I hope I get to do more.
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AFTERBUZZ: As producers, what made you say yes to working on this film?
MIKE: After working on over a dozen action films, we were interested in exploring the world of holiday movies. There is a huge audience for these films, so once Brian Herzlinger, the director, reached out…it was a no-brainer. Plus, it was a nice change of pace, not shooting guns or blowing stuff up. Although we will combine Christmas and action in an upcoming film, so stay tuned!
ALEX: Getting to work with Brian Herzlinger and to challenge our crew with a new type of film genre. To this point, we have specialized in action films, and not everyone on our crew has family that will watch those for a variety of reasons. So I knew our crew would jump at the opportunity to make a beautiful Christmas film that everyone’s family can enjoy this year and for years to come.
AFTERBUZZ: Maria, you have such a busy schedule balancing multiple jobs on and off-screen. How much time did you have to prepare for this role before filming started, and what did that process look like for you?
MARIA: I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for this movie because it came together very quickly. I think I might have had two weeks because they needed me to say yes, then Lifetime had to say yes, and the investor had to put the money together, and we went off and made it; we made this independently and sold it back to Lifetime. It isn’t a Lifetime original. So I didn’t have a lot of time at all, but I did get to have some time with the script and make Abigale my own, and I did that in a number of ways, whether it was tweaking some dialogue and some things, or even just being in charge of my wardrobe. I told Brian, “Listen, I can get great wardrobe, and we can make this movie look a little different than some of the others.” Because I feel like all Christmas movies have the jeans, the boots tucked in, the flannel, and you could wear the same thing in every movie, and nobody would know the difference, and that’s really what happens. So I was like, she’s a working, successful woman. I want her to have a wardrobe that reflects that. And so I reached out to a lot of my favorite designers: Smythe, Alice + Olivia, DSW, and so many more, and said, “Would you support me in this?” And they did and sent so many amazing pieces to the set: Mother Jeans, pajamas–I wore a lot of pajamas in this movie. I have a social post that’s going up soon that’s going to share everything that I did behind the scenes, but all of that helped me get into the role deeper with such limited time. I was really immersed in her really quickly.
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AFTERBUZZ: How have you been able to transition your skillset as a host & reporter into on-screen acting?
MARIA: Well, I feel like I’ve been doing all of them at the same time. Obviously, hosting takes a greater chunk of time in my life, and I have a greater expertise there. I feel like the cool thing about acting is I don’t feel solid in it. It’s something I have to work at, and so it’s really exciting to build that muscle and feel like I have lots of places to grow and lots of things to learn. With hosting, I could do it blindfolded with my hands tied behind my back, so it doesn’t present as many challenges to grow from now as this does, so it’s really, really fun for me.
AFTERBUZZ: Brian, after you read a script you’re going to direct, what’s the next step in your creative planning process?
BRIAN: After I read a script that I’m asked to direct, I make notes. I make a lot of notes. Notes that address story, character, story structure, as well as ideas I have that I would like to see potentially incorporated into the script. I also suggest different variations of a particular scene or moment, and I suggest things that could be eliminated from the script in the interest of story, budget, schedule, and running time.
AFTERBUZZ: Brian and Brent, what was the collaboration process like as you brought your visions together for the film?
BRENT: Brian was incredible through the whole process. He mentored me through the writing process and also helped me navigate negotiations, and then helped bring the story to life with his directing skills.
BRIAN: Brent and I have been friends for years and have always wanted to work with each other since our first meeting. It was such a blast working with him creatively on this film. Brent had a wonderful concept and draft of the screenplay, on which he was very open to receiving my notes, as well as those from my wife Megan, who writes holiday films with me. He was even open to Maria bringing her terrific instincts and suggestions as well during the revision process. A script goes through so many iterations as you creep closer and closer to the beginning of principal photography. Various factors go into what stays and what goes, and what changes within a screenplay. These changes are dictated by everything from Budget and schedule to discovering an awesome set piece on a location scout that must be included in the film because it’s creatively awesome.
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AFTERBUZZ: What was your favorite behind-the-scenes moment on set?
BRIAN: So many! If I had to choose just one, I can’t–so I’ll give you two. One, the night we were shooting in Michael’s car garage, which was populated with these amazing classic cars in pristine condition. Seeing these cars lined up underneath these beautiful holiday string lights was a highlight for me. The moment the Corvette’s engine revved to life, it ignited the souls of everyone within earshot!!! Second, the moment Maria first appeared in her Swarovski Christmas Eve dress, which she personally negotiated to have in the film. She walked on set, and it was pure cinematic magic. Maria immediately reminded me of Audrey Hepburn. She looked stunning, but also there was a classic Hollywood “romance film” feeling that elevated this moment between her and Brent’s characters. Both Maria and Brent were amazing to work with and are amazing to watch in this film. That spectacular dress was on their level, and the entire Christmas Eve sequence is one of my favorite moments of the film as a result.
BRENT: I became close friends with a lot of the crew, and at a BBQ one weekend, they taught me the game Kan Jam. It was so much fun. Mike ended up buying me the game as a wrap present.
MIKE: The majority of our crew works on all of our films, so we are very much like a family. We like to have fun and keep things light. Sounds silly, but clothes pins are a common tool on set, and it becomes a challenge to “pin” someone. Pinning someone’s hat or hair always provides for some funny moments when the “victim” realizes they have been walking around pinned for an hour. Also, Maria’s husband has some insanely elevated barista skills. With many night shoots on the schedule, “Kev Lattes” were the true hero of the entire production. The man got a standing ovation at wrap. Overall, it was just a pleasure working with Brian and this cast. Brian is the nicest man on the planet, and we will be working with him again very soon. Mason, who played James, provided some very funny comedic moments that you can see on screen. And the entire cast, starting with Maria and Brent, were consummate pros, willing to do whatever was necessary to make a great film. And more importantly, they were just fun, down-to-earth people that fit right into the family atmosphere we’ve created in South Georgia. Recently, I visited California with my mother. Kev and Maria took us to dinner and were just incredibly sweet to my mom. I consider them friends and hope to work on many more projects together!
ALEX: When I got to kiss my beautiful wife of 13 years as a background couple on camera…she’s watched me act in other films and kiss other women in scenes before, and I coordinated with Brian to sneak this in and surprise her. I owe her everything, so I wanted to share and immortalize this moment with her since she’s not an actress, and as expected…hands down, she’s my very best on-screen kiss ever and always will be.
AFTERBUZZ: What was your biggest challenge on this project?
MARIA: I don’t think I had a challenge. This was just amazing. We had an incredible team. Our production company, Workhorse Cinema, and the two producers, Alex and Mike, really made an amazing movie set experience for me, so I can’t complain. I had the biggest trailer you’ve ever seen. I had everything I needed to do a great job, so that was really cool.
BRIAN: My biggest challenge on this project was making sure the film had the scope and feel of other holiday movies that were done for a bigger budget and with more shooting days. Maria, Brent, the cast, the producers and myself have all made bigger films. My experience in the holiday space, having done a number of the bigger budget network original films, was put to the test to see how far we could take the independent film model and have it go head-to-head with original Christmas films with, in some cases, three times the budget.
BRENT: Writing the actual movie was the most challenging part. After that, the rest of the process was really easy for me because we hired people that were great at their job. I only had to focus on the acting once the script was complete.
MIKE: Well, this film was initially scheduled for a 2023 release, but when Lifetime saw the dailies, they were impressed enough to ask for an early delivery so it could air this holiday season. While a tremendous compliment, it definitely required some extra work in the post-production process. Most films we work on go through a much lengthier process, so getting this one ready for the screen only a few months after wrapping production was certainly a challenge; a shout out to the post-production team at W Squared Media who met some very aggressive timelines.
ALEX: To make muggy, steamy hot South Georgia play as a believable winter wonderland setting for such a great story.
AFTERBUZZ: What are you proudest of about this project?
MARIA: I feel like this is gonna feel a little different than most Christmas movies. I hope that we put enough of our stamp on it to differentiate it a little bit. And I’m proud of what I was able to do because the night before, I wanted to escape. I was like, “What did I do? This is so scary. I’m in every scene. Oh my gosh.” And then I remember one of my favorite parts of Santa Claus is Coming to Town is when Santa starts saying, “Just put one foot in front of the other, and soon you’ll be on your way.” And so I approached it like that and said, “Okay, I’m just gonna get through tomorrow,” and then we got through tomorrow, and that’s what I did. So I’m proud that I actually was able to do it and do it well.
BRIAN: I’m very proud of what we accomplished, and the film is wonderful- leading the pack of any of the other holiday films this season.
BRENT: Everything about it! Finishing a script and then actually getting it made and picked up by a network is not an easy thing to do. I am so grateful for the whole experience and for everyone involved in this movie.
MIKE: So many things. First, shooting a Christmas movie in the middle of summer in Georgia when it’s 90+ degrees outside is a much bigger feat than you might imagine. Pulling it off is entirely thanks to our crew. From our art team that started prepping for this film on their own time, way before it was officially greenlit, to our camera team whose hustle and vision is unmatched, to everyone in the office and on the production staff who are often the unsung heroes but without whom, the rest of us would be completely lost. Next, there is a formula for the making of Christmas movies, but I believe Brian and our crew were able to shoot some cinematic moments that might not typically fit that formula. I’m not sure the average viewer would pick those moments out, but they are definitely in the final cut of the film. And on a personal note, it was amazing to see my girlfriend, Ava Paloma, play Lydia in this film. She has been acting for a long time, but this was the first film we worked on together while dating. And she killed it! We’ve already shot our second movie together, where she plays an even bigger role in an action movie that will come out next year.
ALEX: The way our crew and community rose to the challenge and shifted gears to work under a timeline and within parameters they usually don’t have to adhere to.
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AFTERBUZZ: Maria, what did you learn about yourself from playing Abigale?
MARIA: I feel like I was probably more like Abigale when I was younger: very Type A, thinking there was a certain way to do everything. And now I understand more about the laws of the universe and that everything that’s gonna be is gonna be, and we have control to create our lives, but we also have to surrender sometimes to what’s meant to be. And so she was meant to be with Michael in the movie, and it happened whether she liked it or not or thought it was happening in the way she thought it should happen. She had a lot of rules about dating, and she’s an aspiring author who starts really breaking her own dating advice rules in the process of dating Michael and is frustrated because she wants to be a published author, and her book isn’t working for her, so sometimes the rules don’t apply.
AFTERBUZZ: You wrote The EveryGirl’s Guide to Life. If you were going to write The EveryGirl’s Guide to Dating, what would your top tip be?
MARIA: My top tip would be don’t play games. If you’re into someone, in a calm, cool way, you can let them know. You don’t have to be overly crazy about it, but I think just try to build a friendship. The foundation has to be a friendship that has trust and love and kind of building that ride-or-die relationship. I think that’s what I have with Keven. We have such a strong friendship and ride-or-die quality that just makes everything work.
AFTERBUZZ: What do you hope viewers will take away from watching The Holiday Dating Guide?
BRENT: I hope that it provides a great escape from that chaos of the world for an hour and a half. It’s a cute Christmas movie that’ll make you laugh, cry and then decorate for the holidays.
AFTERBUZZ: Brent, do you have any advice for other actors hoping to write their own projects?
BRENT: Finish the script! Don’t lose hope. This is a really challenging business, so celebrate all of the wins, no matter how big, or small they are.
Make sure to tune into The Holiday Dating Guide Saturday, Dec 17, on Lifetime at 8/7c!