Pat Mills got a taste of show business early, when he was a child actor in some of the later episodes of the produced-in-Ottawa comedy series, You Can’t Do That on Television. The son of former Ottawa Citizen publisher Russ Mills and brother of Algonquin College music-industry arts professor Colin Mills, Pat went on to film school at Ryerson and found his niche as a director.
Now he’s back in the Ottawa area for a sugar plum of an assignment. Mills is directing the first Lifetime channel Christmas movie to feature a same-sex romance as the central storyline. Starring real-life married couple Blake Lee and Ben Lewis, with Canadian Ellen Wong as the best friend and comedy icon Fran Drescher as the matchmaking mom, The Christmas Setup is shooting in Almonte, Smiths Falls, Arnprior and the Glebe over the coming weeks. It’s slated to air Dec. 12 on Lifetime in the U.S. (a Canadian date has not yet been scheduled).
In this edited interview, Mills talks about the significance of the LGBTQ plot, the appeal of shooting in Ottawa and the challenges of making a movie during a pandemic. Here’s how the conversation went:
Q: What makes Ottawa an attractive place to shoot a movie?
A: The production company has shot Christmas movies here before. They did one two years ago called Christmas Around the Corner that was shot in Almonte. I know that the executive producer loves the crew here, and the Ottawa area is actually a really great location. You’ve got so many amazing, cute, quaint towns like Almonte and Smiths Falls. And it’s a bit of a stretch but you can make some places in Ottawa look like New York City. That’s what we’re going to be doing in the Glebe on our last day.
Q: Do you have to make it look like winter, too?
A: We’ve got an entire team in charge of making sure there’s snow in all the exterior shots. They have a system in place so you see the white snow on the grass and everything. It’s an interesting thing: You have to plan ahead because you need to be able to communicate to the special effects people where to lay down the snow and make it actually look like December. It’s a challenge when you have all the beautiful fall trees.
Q: This is Lifetime’s first same-sex storyline in a Christmas romance. How significant is that?
A: I think it’s pretty huge, especially after the backlash that happened last year. Hallmark had pulled an ad featuring a lesbian couple because people were offended by it (but quickly reversed the decision after an outcry). I think that’s one of the things (that) created a desire for this kind of movie. They’re feel-good, warm blankets of movies, like a romance novel or a fantasy, but representation is important for everybody, no matter what genre. Everybody should see themselves reflected on the screen, and we should have access to seeing ourselves in fluff romances as well. I know this isn’t going to radically change storytelling or filmmaking or cinema but I think if this TV movie can touch some kid or some family and help them with their struggles, that’s great.
Q: You say “we” because you’re a member of the LGBTQ community. Why is that important?
A: It’s why I think Lifetime is doing it right. A lot of the people on the creative side of this film are members of the LGBTQ community. When I got involved, I wanted this to be as authentic as we could possibly make it, with me being a queer person, and then our male leads are actually married in real life so we don’t have to manufacture their chemistry because they already have it. They’re also really good friends with Ellen Wong who plays the best friend of Hugo, the lead in the movie. So the greatest thing is it feels really authentic because it was written by a member of the LGBTQ community, I am a member of the community, our leads are and one of our executives is. It feels like we’re doing it properly.
Q: And Fran Drescher, of course, is known as a strong ally. What’s it like working with her?
A: You get a bit nervous when you work with certain actors but she’s the warmest person and I’m really loving working with her. She elevates the material and she’s just a really kind, nice person who’s helping fight the good fight. And she’s so funny, I can’t stop laughing.
Q: You’ve referred to it as your ‘dream cast.” How come?
A: We got our first choices for all the roles, which doesn’t happen very often. Ben and Blake were cast first. Because of COVID, it was brought up that we should look at actors who are together because they’re going to have to kiss. I’d met them before – we both had films at the Toronto Film Festival one year – and they were the first people I thought of for the leads. I knew they were friends with Ellen Wong and then we got Ellen. Then Fran signed up, and it was like, ‘Whoa this is amazing.’ We didn’t think we’d be able to get her but she dug it.
Q: What’s it like shooting during a pandemic?
A: Well, with this shoot, we have a very capable crew. We’re being very cautious. We all get tested every two or three days and we have check-in points (when) we have to fill in a questionnaire. I’m wearing a visor and a mask all day. It’s uncomfortable but you kinda get used to it. You’re working so hard that you don’t realize how uncomfortable you are. It’s like this extra thing that everyone is hyper aware of and wanting to be safe around, but I actually don’t think it’s affecting the creative. Which is great.
Q: You recently directed the first season of Queens, a digital web series about drag queens, and The Retreat, a queer horror/thriller. Do you have any concerns about being pigeonholed as the LGBTQ director?
A: Not at all. I hope more get made and I get hired to do all of them.