As the writer of “The Christmas Setup,” Lifetime’s first-ever holiday movie centered on a gay romance, Michael Murray has felt a sense of responsibility to the LGBTQ+ community since he first began scripting the project back in March.
But it wasn’t until Lifetime announced in August that it had given the movie the green light that Murray had a “freakout” and “major meltdown” over just how big a deal his little movie was going to be.
“It was like, ‘Oh my God, what have I done now? I hope I’ve been responsible in the portrayal of my life, our community, of Christmas movies — the whole thing. That I’ve checked all the boxes,'” Murray, who is gay, told TheWrap. “And of course at that point I thought, ‘It’s probably too late. I hope I have!’ I don’t think I completely panicked until the script was done. But believe me, I was really aware of what I was doing the whole time.”
In 2019, Lifetime had four movies that featured queer relationships in supporting positions and its first Christmas movie that included a same-sex kiss, “Twinkle All the Way,” but none that focused specifically on a gay couple. “The Christmas Setup,” which stars married-in-real-life couple Ben Lewis and Blake Lee, is the cable channel’s first holiday film that has a gay couple at the front and center of its heartwarming tale.
“The Christmas Setup,” which premieres Dec. 12, follows the story of New York lawyer Hugo (Lewis) who heads home to Milwaukee with his best friend Madelyn (Ellen Wong) to spend the holidays with his brother Aiden (Chad Connell) and his mom Kate (Fran Drescher), who is also in charge of the local Christmas celebrations. Kate plays matchmaker by arranging for Hugo to run into Patrick (Lee), Hugo’s high school friend and secret crush, who has recently returned after a successful stint in Silicon Valley. As they enjoy the holiday celebrations together, Hugo and Patrick’s attraction grows, but Hugo must make a decision about what he wants his future to look like when he receives word about a big promotion that would require moving to London.
“It’s my story, all the characters are a piece of me. Everybody in there, a lot of the experiences of those characters are pieces I drew from in my own life,” Murray said of “The Christmas Setup.” “But at the same time, I am representing the community. And I was acutely aware of that. Although, at the time I was writing, because of COVID and the fact I had two other movies going on at the same time, my desk was overflowing with material — which was a really great problem to have, God knows. If any year I was happy to be working, it was certainly this year — but writing the movie was kind of like a fever dream because it had to happen fast.”
“The Christmas Setup” had to fit into a certain production time table to quickly shoot in Canada during the pandemic, with all COVID safety protocols in place. Murray said the tight schedule was actually nice, “because sometimes it kept me out of my own way in terms of overthinking, ‘Oh my God, there’s a huge responsibility that goes with this.’
“But I was aware of it the whole time,” he continued. “Every time I thought about, how do we depict our drag queen in the club at the end? And what is the makeup of the club? Or when we have group scenes, I scripted in a certain level of diversity and inclusion in the background players… those were all really important issues for me.”
Yes, there is a drag queen, Gladys Claus (played by Canadian drag artist Lucinda Miu), in “The Christmas Setup.” It’s an element of the film that was a top priority for Murray, as he knew this movie is significant to many people in the LGBTQ community who have long been asking for more representation in cable channels’ holiday movies — an area Lifetime and its competitor Hallmark both made strides in this year.
“I thought it was really important to represent the diversity of our community in as much as, it’s a self-contained movie that’s two hours with commercials. I can’t put everybody in there I would like to, and hopefully we’ll be able to do that in the future,” Murray said.
Murray, who has been in the TV-movie business for years, said he first started “pushing for gay characters” at other networks back in 2012, but “the reception was not always super warm” and the “time wasn’t ‘right’ for those particular places.”
“But two years ago, in a movie that I wrote for Lifetime called ‘Christmas Around the Corner,’ I had a C storyline involving two gay characters — an Episcopal priest and his partner, interracial couple, they’d just had a baby. And their storyline was basically about being a young family and dealing with a newborn and trying to celebrate Christmas in the community while doing a lot of community outreach,” Murray said. “When I wrote it in the script, I checked with our executive Sapna Vyas to be sure that the network would be fine and she was like, ‘Absolutely, put it in.’ And Lifetime was proud and unashamed and unafraid to support that.”
“Christmas Around the Corner” was sponsored by Chewy.com, which was “very happy” to have their product be used by the gay couple in the film, according to Murray. And following that show of confidence and “positive online chatter,” Murray started asking Lifetime for the chance to write a gay couple with an A storyline.
“I felt like it was the right time and the right place to do this. So I’ve been constantly bringing it up, ‘Can we do a gay movie? Can we do a gay movie? Please let me be the guy, I want to write it,'” Murray said. “I’ve been doing these for a long time and there’s a real form to writing Christmas movies, and I wanted to bring the gay experience to that and to try to fuse those together in a film. With the creative team, when I talked to Sapna about it, she embraced it, fully supported it, God bless her. And then I wrote the script and [Lifetime’s head of programming, Amy Winter] became involved and we just had really amazing support from the network. I can’t tell you how much that means to me.”
Winter told TheWrap she would only give the green light to an LGBTQ holiday movie with an LGBTQ creative team behind it, which she found in Murray, director Pat Mills and executive producer Larry Grimaldi for “The Christmas Setup.” The network also worked with GLAAD to ensure the movie represented the LGBTQ community sensitively and accurately.
“Inclusion has always been a huge part of Lifetime’s plan. Across the board, not just in Christmas, we really feel like we want to reflect the audience around us and the world around us. So it’s been a priority from day one,” Winter said. “The biggest thing is feeling like we’ve got the right script in order to do that authentically. When we were first talked about doing an LGBTQ-led romance, I was at first concerned that we were going to get something that was really saccharine and ‘Afterschool Special.’ So I was like, OK, are we sure? Let’s see what we get here.”
Winter continued, “And I have to tell you that Michael Murray delivered the most fantastic script. It is a Christmas movie through and through. Delightful, funny, warm, charming and exactly what you want out of a Christmas movie, just starring two men — who are actually married to each other, which is fantastic — falling in love.”
Lewis and Lee being a real-life couple is a bit of stunt casting that Murray said “Christmas Setup” executive producer Grimaldi was hoping for early on in the production process, well before the pandemic made intimate scenes on set much more complicated.
“So when the script was finished and COVID was raging and going to be a real issue and problem for many in terms of production, the conversation perhaps amped up a little bit about how great it would be if we could find that,” Murray said. “But what was important was finding actors who could handle the roles, and remarkably, Ben and Blake were not only married, but they’re really talented. They brought just so much nuance that you might not get in a film like this because of their 10 years together and their friendship, their partnership, their commitment to each other, which I could never have imagined when I was writing the script that we would be lucky enough to have that happen.”
When thinking about how “The Christmas Setup” could change the landscape of cable networks’ holiday movie slates, Murray recalled another big moment in TV history for the LGBTQ community.
“I remember when Ellen [DeGeneres] did her big coming-out episode of her show [‘Ellen’ in 1997] and she talked about the pressure of that,” Murray said. “That was enormous. And she kept saying, ‘I’m not speaking for the community, I’m speaking for myself.’ But of course, she did speak for the community. Putting that episode on the air changed so many people’s lives in so many different ways. I remember my own mom seeing that episode and for the first time, certain things clicked for her about gay life, gay culture, in a way that they hadn’t before — but it was because Ellen did it on television. So I know she spoke for herself, but she spoke for so many of us because we all share so many of those common experiences. And I hope that’s what I was able to bring to the script.”
“The Christmas Setup” premieres Saturday at 8/7c on Lifetime.