Calgary director has become Mr. Christmas
Sci-fi and horror veteran David Winning finds an unlikely niche with feel-good holiday fare
As a born-and-bred Calgarian, filmmaker David Winning was not intimidated when the Ottawa-area set of 2016’s The Rooftop Christmas Tree was taken over by a blast of ill-tempered weather.
The UP TV Christmas movie, which stars Heartland’s Michelle Morgan and WKRP in Cincinnati’s Tim Reid, is one of more than a dozen yuletide-based projects Winning has helmed in the past few years. But it may be the only one shot in an actual winter wonderland. Most of the time, these wholesome holiday romances are filmed in the Vancouver area and often in the summer. Fake snow is required. Actors must don uncomfortable winter clothing and pretend to be cold.
These real blizzardy climes near Ottawa added an different layer of difficulty to the shoot, particularly since it was the sort of project that requires a certain efficiency to bring in on time and on budget.
But Winning couldn’t have been happier.
“It was like 30 below zero,” says the veteran filmmaker, in an interview with Postmedia from his home in Calgary. “It was like typical bad Calgary weather. It was probably the hardest conditions I’ve ever filmed under. We’re shooting this movie and we’re doing all these dolly shots and steadycam shots in the snow and cameramen are slipping and actors are falling.”
Nevertheless, in sunny Los Angeles, executives were looking at the dailies with unabashed joy, wowed at how authentic it was all looking.
“They were saying: ‘This stuff looks amazing! How are you faking the snow?’ ” says Winning.
“They were so used to the summer. It makes logical sense to shoot these movies in winter places instead of trying to fake it in Vancouver. So, yeah, Rooftop was a special experience and it looks great. You just can’t fake that look. It looks like it was shot in the Arctic.”
Winning began his career with a 1980 film named Sequence, a scrappy 16-minute horror short about a young couple terrorized by a crazed mechanic. At the time, he was among the first generation of directors to emerge from the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers. He never would have dreamed that, nearly 40 years later, he would become the go-to guy for earnest Christmas TV movies for Hallmark, UP TV and Lifetime.
This year alone, he cranked out at least three. Time for Me to Come Home for Christmas, based on the Blake Shelton song and starring Mera Park and Josh Henderson, was shot for Hallmark, as was Marrying Father Christmas with Erin Krakow and Niall Matter. A Twist of Christmas was filmed for Lifetime, starring Brendon Zub and Vanessa Lachey.
In 2017, he directed former Full House star Jodie Sweetin in Finding Santa and was brought in for Engaging Father Christmas, a prequel to Marry Father Christmas. His 2016 Hallmark film, A December Bride, attracted 4.3 million viewers. The Tree That Saved Christmas, starring Party of Five’s Lacey Chabert, was named by New York Times TV critic Mike Hale as one of five Christmas movies to watch in 2014.
Winning, who divides his time between Calgary, Vancouver and L.A., has always been a prolific director. A versatile gun-for-hire, he has put his stamp on everything from preteen fare such as YTV’s Mr. Young, to the gruesome, action-horror vampire series Van Helsing, to cult phenomenon Todd and the Book of Pure Evil, to sci-fi hits such as Andromeda and Earth: Final Conflict.
“When you’re directing, you get into a little shoebox every three or four years,” he says. “I only did Nickelodeon shows for four or five years. Then I only did monster movies and then I did a lot of science fiction for five or six years.”
Long before the Christmas-TV craze, Winning was approached to direct He Sees You When You’re Sleeping. Despite its creepy title, it was actually a feel-good Christmas fantasy. The filmmaker accepted, but was secretly thinking: “I don’t do Christmas movies.” Fast-forward more than a decade and Hallmark asked Winning to direct the Magic Stocking, a feelgood Christmas romance. The filmmaker accepted, but was secretly thinking: “I don’t know if I’m really the Christmas guy.”
But Hallmark loved the results and soon Winning became a favourite of the network. This has coincided with what seems like an unprecedented boom in demand for light and wholesome Christmas fare. So Winning found himself spending much of his year in the Vancouver area shooting Christmas TV movies. He also found, much to his initial surprise, that he was enjoying himself immensely.
“It’s un-Grinched me in a way,” he says. “I started with the cynical-guy attitude about these movies, but I’ve found the challenge of surprising people with them to be a lot of fun. The movies I’ve made have all been tear-jerking and wholesome and wonderful. My mom is 95, so I feel like I’m making them for her.”
“My mom definitely does not watch Van Helsing,” he adds with a laugh. “So I do the really gruesome, gory, exciting, action-packed Van Helsings and I do these so that she still knows that I’m working and have a job.”
Winning certainly found his niche at a lucrative time. A recent article in Glamour investigating the film phenomenon revealed that 85 million people watch movies on the Hallmark channel between Halloween and New Year’s. In 2018 alone, the network produced a staggering 36 holiday-themed TV movies.
Are they formulaic? Well, of course they are. They usually deal with some sort of opposites-attract romance. Usually there’s a prodigal son or daughter returning home for the holidays and, in the end, everyone lives happily ever after upon finding the true spirit of Christmas.
They are filmed fairly quickly and cheaply, usually with attractive young TV actors and a shooting schedule that rarely lasts longer than 15 days. But Winning insists they are often much better written than they are given credit for and fill a distinct need in these troubled times.
“Of course, the stories are always going to end up the same way,” he says. “But that’s part of the comfort of Hallmark now. There’s a security in a good Hallmark movie, whatever the season. Even in the summer movies, you always know things are going to work out. As simple as that sounds, that’s probably what they need and what they want and that’s why they watch the movies. It’s like a fireplace and Christmas tree at Christmas.”
Marrying Father Christmas will air on Super Channel Dec. 17 and 25. Time for Me to Come Home for Christmas will air Dec. 25 on Citytv.