My heart jumped out of my throat when executive producer Sam Haskell called in March and asked, “How would you like to write a movie musical for Dolly Parton, to air on NBC this Christmas?”
Of course, I said, I’d love to.
But first Dolly had to approve me, and I had never met her, so a few days later there I was in Dolly’s living room in Nashville with Sam, producer Billy Levin, Dolly’s creative director Steve Summers, and Dolly herself.
Was I nervous? No. I was paralyzed.
Dolly was prepared: she had a list of, I think, seventeen songs she wanted to sing in the movie (we ended up filming even more) as well as some ideas for jokes and dialogue moments.
Sam had already come up with an overall story idea that I liked, and as we were all pitching on that, Dolly suggested we open with “I Will Always Love You” – and she looked over at me with those amazing eyes and started singing it to me right there.
Now I was paralyzed and melting.
I also suspected if Dolly Parton is singing “I Will Always Love You” to me in her living room, there was a pretty good chance I was approved.
She was so clear about what she wanted to do with this material, I realized, this is more than a movie to her, this is a very personal statement.
So, what I had to do was create a script that would give Dolly opportunities to speak from her heart in her own words and with her unique sense of humor.
I told her that I thought with all these great ideas we had the makings of a wonderful movie, and if we do it right, at the end, we’ll have America crying happy tears.
Dolly said, “Oh, I don’t want to make anybody cry – I’m trying to lift people up.”
The movie’s plot had Dolly trying to rehearse a live Christmas special where everything behind the scenes goes wrong, but the final product would come off perfectly and snow would fall on Dollywood.
A list of thrilling guest stars agreed to join Dolly including Willie Nelson, Jimmy Fallon, Billy Ray Cyrus, Jimmie Williams, Mary Haskell (from Dolly’s “Coat of Many Colors” movies), Zach Williams, and Miley Cyrus.
Ana Gasteyer – who is wonderful –played the fictional head of NBC.
About the time I delivered a first draft, Dolly was in Los Angeles for a few days, so we sat down to read the script out loud together.
We dove in so quickly and so fully that it took about twenty minutes for me to realize what an extraordinary experience this was: I was reading my script with Dolly Parton!
That day – indeed, throughout the process – Dolly’s spontaneous wit bubbled forth with little interjections and jokes that made everything I wrote even better.
There was a meta aspect to the story in that several of the producers were characters in the movie.
Dolly originally wanted us to play ourselves, but acquiesced when Warner Brothers and NBC preferred that actors would be used (thank goodness).
Tom Everett Scott played Sam Haskell. I had the great good fortune to have David Rambo played by irrepressible Bryan Batt. Billy Levin was portrayed by Brendan Bradley and John Newberg played Sam’s longtime line producer Hudson Hickman.
Choreographer Kathryn Burns played herself and staged the musical numbers, using many dancers plucked from the Dollywood family of entertainers.
We decamped to Dollywood in East Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains –an amazing place, well worth discovering – where we would spend the summer together.
Covid protocols kept us isolated from the Dollywood crowds, and we formed a happy family on the set and within our own corner of the DreamMore Resort every night after filming.
We traveled as a group to barbecue joints on backroads, hiked together in the surrounding mountains, and spent nearly every day in Dolly’s company – the greatest gift of all.
The schedule was demanding and the work was often grueling, especially in the sweltering heat, but the joy we found in being together made it one of the happiest work experiences I’ve had.
On the last night of filming, after the final shot, which is the end the movie, director Joe Lazarov called, “Cut!” First A.D. Todd Hilyard shouted, “That’s a wrap!” and I went over to congratulate and thank Dolly.
It was half-past one in the morning on Showstreet in Dollywood after nineteen days of filming; she had to be exhausted – we all were – yet she was just a radiant angel, looking up at me again with those amazing eyes, she was so happy.
She said, “I think we made something real good together, don’t you?”
I said, “I think so, too” and we hugged – and here it was, the end of the movie, and I was crying happy tears.
You might find yourself doing the same thing.