Exclusive: Star Jennica Schwartzman & Director Hunter West Talk The Christmas Challenge

The Christmas ChallengeIn The Christmas Challenge, during their “Modernly Independent” podcast, host Laura Ross (Jennica Schwartzman) and her best friend and producer, Paul (Zack Gold), receive the “Christmas Challenge,” from a listener: an advent calendar of daily holiday activities that promotes togetherness, which proves a bit difficult for Laura, who always displays her strength of independence. When they get a chance to be picked up by a national podcast network, network executive Michale (Galadriel Stineman) joins them for December, and like Paul, loves everything about Christmas. Will Laura be able to make room for new traditions, or will she spend her holidays alone?

To promote the film, SciFi Vision recently spoke with director star Schwartzman and Director Hunter West about making the film, their favorite Christmas traditions, and more. Read the full transcript below. The Christmas Challenge is currently available on Up Faith & Family’s streaming service, and starting today, on other platforms.

The Christmas ChallengeSCIFI VISION:  
For people who haven't seen it, can you just kind of tease a little bit about what they can expect?

HUNTER WEST:  Yeah, so I always grew up loving watching these Christmas romcoms with my family. We wanted to really amp up the Christmas traditions, and so in our movie, a podcast host has twenty-four days to do as many Christmas challenges as she can, and we fit as many of our favorite Christmas challenges in the movie as possible.

SCIFI VISION:   I know your husband, wrote the script, so I'm guessing that's part of how you became connected with the project, Jennica. But can you both just kind of talk about sort of how it all started?
JENNICA SCHWARTZMAN:  Yeah, we've known each other for years. I've had the opportunity to audition for Hunter and his team's last movie and had a great time working together on it. It was a wonderful success and multiple years working together. We knew that we would want to do that as many times as possible. So, when we started talking about the next project that Hunter wanted to do, my husband's a writer; we have a lot of people in our life who want to support a Christmas movie and do something that's really heartwarming and wonderful to do together. It just became the perfect project for us.

HUNTER WEST:  …I've wanted to do a Christmas movie for a really long time, and they're a favorite part of my traditions and getting to do with some of my best friends was really fun.

SCIFI VISION:   You sort of I think said this a little bit in the first question, but can you sort of talk about why I guess this movie is unique to all the other rom com Christmas movies, because obviously there's a lot out right now.

HUNTER WEST:  There are. There are a lot, and they all have certain hallmarks - no pun intended - that they're trying to meet. I mean, there's always a romance; there're always Christmas traditions. What we wanted to do is, one, everybody loves podcasts right now. My wife listens to them nonstop; I listen to them nonstop. So, we thought it'd be really fun to set a movie in that world, but also, we just thought that a podcast and how educational they can be was a really good opportunity to really fit every Christmas tradition we could think of that comes between both of our families and some of our crew's family, and let our characters walk their way through all these Christmas traditions together.

JENNICA SCHWARTZMAN:  Yeah, it's really fun to watch all of the characters celebrate and do the traditions differently. I think that is also part of the fun, [that they] have a different interpretation. My character wants to do things independently, and watching my best friend Paul and the producer Michale, who's amazing, do all this fun stuff together, I get really, not just jealous, but interested in wanting to maybe adjust how I celebrate Christmas, adjust, like, what my expectations are for how to be together with other people and try new things.

SCIFI VISION:   So, Jennica though, are you in your own life, are you kind of a lot like Laura, that you're more independent?

JENNICA SCHWARTZMAN:  I feel that I am a strong personality, and I really like my independence. I get along with my character, Laura Ross, so well. I have a lot of things that I want to do, and I forget sometimes that doing it with people and collaborating and cooperating and planning things together and opening my heart to new opportunities is kind of what the holiday season is for a lot of people. I identified a lot with this character, because having to balance who I am and being true to who I am with creating a new version of traditions, that makes space for people who love me and care about me and the community we care about and the other people that we want to serve and bring joy to. It was a very emotional, personal experience for me getting to play this character, because I feel like I was learning a lot.

HUNTER WEST:  She does love. She's a fierce friend, so she does love spending time with her friends too. I'll let her say that.

JENNICA SCHWARTZMAN:  I'm a good friend.

SCIFI VISION:   Was there any part though, I guess, you had difficulty connecting with, with her at all?

JENNICA SCHWARTZMAN:  Well, I feel like it's okay to say as an actor; I hit back and reacted and felt a lot of conflict with the actor, Zack Gold, who played my romantic interest Paul. I was spicier and a little bit feistier than I think the character really wanted to be. So, I did have to pull back a little bit and not be defensive. That was kind of the point of the character, finding a way to communicate and be a better friend, and also staying true to what it is that I actually want. And reflecting and spending time together with friends really helps bring that out in people. Being able to spend time with my best friend and her husband and talk out my feelings, it is just such a good growth experience for me and for the character to share how she's really feeling.

HUNTER WEST:  Jennica is someone who is really good at her job and doesn't really have a lot of leeway for people telling her she's not good at her job. So, having a character where she's constantly told she's not doing a good enough job was probably hard.

JENNICA SCHWARTZMAN:  Yeah, it was hard. [laughs]

SCIFI VISION:   So, out of the traditions, which one is your favorite? Not necessarily watching but just in general, what's is your favorite holiday tradition?

HUNTER WEST:  Mine is riding and looking at Christmas lights with my kids. [We] take a couple hours, we fill up a thermos with hot cocoa, and we just go look at all of the fancy Christmas lights and sing carols. It's just time that we get to spend with them. They are ten and eight, and so I've got about three years before my daughter doesn't want to hang out with me anymore, I'm guessing, maybe sooner. So, the more time I can spend with them just kind of creating those memories and traditions, the better.

JENNICA SCHWARTZMAN:  My kids, we're in California, so we don't have a very cold or white Christmas experience. We fly out to – well, now we drive out, because it's like a family experience to drive out to Arkansas where my husband's family is. Spending time in the woods and going on our Christmas hikes and spending time together doing the activities we do with Nana and Papa is just really special. It's completely changed the way I feel about Christmas, because it's cold there.

HUNTER WEST:  And snow.

JENNICA SCHWARTZMAN:  And snow! And people looking at Christmas lights together and walking around with hot cocoa and coats. So, I just really like being in a winter spirit for holidays.

HUNTER WEST:  I would say a favorite one in the movie is watching her try to carol all by herself and that is pretty funny to me. I wouldn't recommend that for a lot of people, but that's my favorite one.

JENNICA SCHWARTZMAN:  Caroling is best done together.

SCIFI VISION:   Yeah, that was actually going to be my next question, for favorites in the movie. What about you Jennica? What's your favorite one that is in the movie to watch?

JENNICA SCHWARTZMAN:  Oh, I think the caroling scene in particular was really fun to do. Just imagine what it's like for a couple or a person in the home to have one single caroler come up. It's very awkward and uncomfortable. It's not going to be the experience that you want to receive as well. I feel like it's a turning point for this main character. Also, I really liked the baking cookies and delivering it to people. My character and Paul have a different idea of what it means to bake cookies and deliver it to somebody special, and watching our different versions of it really opened my eyes to how different people celebrate all these traditions.

SCIFI VISION:   It may not be, I'm just curious, but I assumed this was probably filmed during the height of COVID, because I noticed how you don't have a very big cast. I wondered if that was partially because of that, and if so, some of the difficulties you had on that end.

HUNTER WEST:  Yeah, so we tried to start filming this in February of 2020. The week in March before we were starting to shoot, the whole world shut down, and so we had to cancel everything. We were the second, I think, movie back. We shot this in Nashville, Tennessee, and we were the second one back during the height of before vaccines, during the height of COVID production craziness. So, yeah, we had to really limit and reassess what we were going to do pre COVID and try to make this as safe as possible while still delivering a quality Christmas experience for everybody. But yeah, it was tough.

JENNICA SCHWARTZMAN:  It's also really hard to be intimate and connected and spend all these times doing something so connected and textured, and maybe there's kissing. So, I feel like there were a lot of protocols, a lot of new things you had to do, and there're a lot of boundaries that are really hard to do a romantic comedy in. So, we all pulled together and made it happen safely.

SCIFI VISION:   I was thinking about the Christmas party in the film. Just out of curiosity, which is your favorite, I guess I want to say “act?” Because there're funny things. I just was suddenly thinking about it. What's kind of your favorite part of that scene?

HUNTER WEST:  Yeah. I mean, I think ours is both the same. What the Jasmine character, Jessica [Anderson], brought to that scuba snorkeling scene was absolutely hilarious…It was written that she just walks out in a scuba suit, and she had researched how to do scuba and things.

JENNICA SCHWARTZMAN:  Yeah, she brought a lot to that moment, she delivered, and the audience was wowed.

HUNTER WEST:  Our whole team was shocked. There're probably fifteen minutes of her just going off about scuba and what she sees under the ocean and how to stay safe. I could not stop laughing.

JENNICA SCHWARTZMAN:  I will say the juggler is pretty great, too. We have a cameo with our director juggling, which was a great treat for everybody there to discover that we have all these talents in the room.

SCIFI VISION:   Which reminds me, I wanted to ask, who was the the woman who sang? I don't know if she just seemed that way, but she seemed familiar. Either way, she was a really, really good singer. Who was that?

HUNTER WEST:  The artist is named Kathleen Regan. She is an artist in Nashville who has a bunch of fun stuff out…She knocked it out.

JENNICA SCHWARTZMAN:  She's amazing. It was so soothing, and having her come out and sing some more, I just feel like that was a treat for everybody.

SCIFI VISION:   Yeah, she was really good. I just wanted to make sure in the article I mentioned who she is, because she was good. You're a good singer too, though. I don't know, I could never go caroling; I'm an awful singer. That is not my thing.

JENNICA SCHWARTZMAN:  I love singing, and I think that doing it a cappella isn't the nicest thing, but no, it was wonderful to have so much singing in it…There're a lot of opportunities for people on set to sing. Each character gets to be a part of caroling, or there're two different days of Christmas music and how to celebrate it and what to do. And singing Acapella isn't something that you love throwing all your actors into, but being able to sing with everybody? Every time we filmed, I feel like it was [so] exciting, he feeling of the energy in the room I really think translates to the scenes. It's beautiful.

SCIFI VISION:   Then, the last thing I want to ask you is what are your own personal favorite Christmas movies? Other than this, obviously.

HUNTER WEST:  Mine is probably Love Actually. I love just the different stories that are told and how it all comes together at Christmas.


HUNTER WEST:  I do. I'm a sap

JENNICA SCHWARTZMAN:  I don’t think a lot of people know that] Stepmom with Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon is like a beautiful Christmas movie…I love The Family Stone…but I also really love Stepmom, which has so many feelings, and it's just a really unsung hero of the Christmas world.

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