Writing for the Holidays: An Interview with 'Candy Coated Christmas' Screenwriter Alex Yonks
Screenwriter Alex Yonks speaks with Script about her writing journey from acting to attending Chapman and landing a dream job on 'The Big Bang Theory,' virtually collaborating with co-writers Joey Plager and Ellie Kanner, and what type of stories and themes she's most interested in writing about.
Molly Gallant was counting on seed money from her father to help launch an exciting new venture with her best friend. However, just as she and her dad are supposed to be jetting off to Hawaii for their annual Christmas trip, Molly learns that the family business is facing bankruptcy. The only way to recoup the funds she needs is to sell her late mother’s childhood home in the town of Peppermint Hollow, Washington: the “Peppermint Capital of the World.” Molly fully intends to get the house on the market and get out of the cold to sunny Hawaii by Christmas, but then she meets the current renters, Noah Winters and his family, who warmly welcome her into their home, sharing their holiday traditions with her. It begins to seem as if fate, and the weather, are conspiring to keep Molly in Peppermint Hollow, even as she begins to appreciate the value of family. And she and Noah may discover a new way to make a mint…together.
Candy Coated Christmas is the first scripted movie for Discovery+, originally premiered on the platform on November 19th.
Screenwriter Alex Yonks speaks with Script about her writing journey from acting to attending Chapman and landing a dream job on The Big Bang Theory, virtually collaborating with co-writers Joey Plager and Ellie Kanner, and what type of stories and themes she's most interested in writing about.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What was that process like between you and co-writers Joey Plager and Ellie Kanner?
Alex Yonks: Ellie and Joey were great to work with. We wrote the entire script during the pandemic and even though we were in three different places it was a very collaborative process. I was in Texas, Joey Plager, executive producer and co-writer, was in Canada, and Ellie Kanner, who was our co-writer, executive producer, and director, was in LA. I had known Joey previously, but Ellie and I didn’t actually meet in person until we were on set. It was a really special moment when we met for the first time in real life after having spent over a year talking almost every day.
Sadie: What was the initial seed for the story and getting both Joey and Ellie on board?
Alex: It's kind of a unique process. I had previously worked on The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon, and I was trying to figure out what my next steps were and what it was that I wanted to write in the future. I’d gone to a family-friendly and holiday movie writing panel at the Writers Guild where several writers and executives were speaking about their experiences in the genre. Afterward, I found myself thinking, ‘These are the kinds of feel-good movies I like to watch, why not try to write one?’ I had known Joey prior and knew that he’d had experience in this space so I called him to see if he had any insight as to the best way to break into the world. He pretty quickly turned around and said, ‘My producing partner and I want to write a movie and we're looking for a writer to partner with, do you have any interest?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sign me up, thanks!’ And so, that was sort of the very beginning.
From there, we talked about what we wanted the project to be. We riffed ideas off of each other and then once we decided on what we wanted the main story to be, which is fairly close to what it is now, we started outlining and writing it together; passing notes back and forth throughout each draft.
Sadie: These types of holiday movies, especially with this one, have very contained worlds and locations and on top of that, needing to incorporate specific themes and character storylines, they are very tropey. There seems to be a very specific formula, especially for the quintessential Hallmark and Lifetime type holiday movies, especially produced by Mar Vista. Were you given a guide sheet basically laying out beats you have to hit to write this movie?
Alex: To answer your question about the quote-unquote sheet, no, there was not a handout that I got from the teacher at the beginning of class. [laughs] But I will say because Joey and Ellie both have an extensive resume in that space, they knew, certainly from a producer element and from a director element, what needs to happen when, how many X breaks there should be, what should happen at the end, etcetera. The experiences that Joey and Ellie brought from their background in the holiday movie world really helped us have a polished script from the get-go and hopefully it made it seamless for Discovery+ and Mar Vista.
Sadie: In terms of script structure, I noticed within the first three minutes, you have your first big turning point, which we generally don't really see in different genre narratives. I just wonder is that something that you have to keep on top of, these twists and turns in these types of movies to keep that storyline going?
Alex: Yes, is the short answer. [laughs] I think you do. And it's something that throughout the process of writing, we rewrote it a bunch of different times. Some things work in one draft, and then you forget that you haven't changed other things, and then you go back and you're like, ‘Oh, wait, that doesn't track anymore. Let's go back.’
Sadie: Tell us about your writing journey to this point and what got you excited to become a screenwriter.
Alex: Well for starters, I grew up in Dallas Texas and was a competitive soccer player for most of my adolescence. As a kid, my dream was to play on the US Women’s national team. When I was about 14 I started taking acting classes (I was still playing soccer at the time) at a school in Lewisville Texas called Cathryn Sullivan’s Acting for Film. I fell in love with it and then a couple years later had the opportunity to take a directing class there which then led to me writing and I suppose the rest is history.
I had always written journal entries and doodles and my own stuff, which I didn't realize made such an impact in my career as a writer, but from an early age, I had always been writing. I was a directing student at Chapman and I wrote a bunch on the side and took some writing classes. I had a ton of internships while I was in college and when I graduated, through lots of luck, preparation and manifestation, I wound up working on The Big Bang Theory, which was a dream come true.
Sadie: It’s just such a great journey in discovering your voice through your writing. Are there any specific themes or stories that you lean towards?
Alex: I got into writing because I wanted to see shows that I would have wanted to watch when I was 15. I tend to lean towards stories that are female-focused and oftentimes youth-oriented; coming-of-age stories. That's what I'm most drawn to both in my writing and what I watch. I was a good kid and I liked seeing characters on TV that were like me and I feel like now there's less and less of that. My hope is that I'll be able to write stories and characters that resonate with kids now who were like my friends and I growing up, and to reinforce that it is actually cool to be a good human being.
Sadie: Are you working on anything right now TV-wise or are you sticking to the feature world or maybe a little bit of both?
Alex: I'm trying to dip toes in both worlds. I have a pilot that I love. It's like a Dawson's Creek meets Freaks and Geeks show and it's basically about kids like me and my friends when we were growing up in high school. I grew up in a city, but I grew up across from 100 acres of land. And it was sort of this magical place that we could go and explore and truly still be kids there, even as we became teenagers and were growing up.
And then on the feature side, I am adapting a book called 11 Before 12, written by Lisa Greenwald. It's a series of books about two 11-year-old girls who are nervous about starting middle school. They make a list of 11 things to do before they turn 12 to help them feel more confident in themselves and survive middle school. It’s about the little details of what it's like growing up: you know, everything is a big deal because it is when you're that age, even though it might not look like it to an adult. I like capturing those kinds of stories.
Sadie: There's something so unique about being a kid in that timeframe – a day feels like a month to a kid and as an adult, one day goes by and you're like, ‘Well, the month is over.’ [laughs] Do you have a set writing routine for yourself?
Alex: Yes, and no. It depends on what I'm working on and the timeline that I have. If I have something that I need to get done in, let's say, two weeks, then my schedule will be nothing but writing for those two weeks. If I don't have a specific deadline, I kind of plan it out. Then there’s other times when you're just writing because it's flowing and it feels natural and it feels right and obviously, I think we all would love to be in that second window. When I have a little bit more time, I try to give myself some grace in that, if I'm in it, then I'll go and if I'm really not feeling it, I'll take breaks. I kind of learned that through the pandemic. I've always been one to be very self-motivated. I think that comes from my soccer background.
Sadie: Are you an outliner or do you plot it out and then just start typing away?
Alex: I've done it both ways. In the case of Candy Coated Christmas we did outline. Because I was collaborating with two other people, and we had a very specific thing that we were writing, we were able to be like, ‘OK, we have this and this happens here and this happens here.’ It was all laid out. Whereas when I'm just writing a pilot or when I'm writing other things, I kind of go back and forth. And sometimes I'll even write the script, and then I'll go back and outline and then go back to the script. And that's just kind of what I've figured out for myself. And that's not to say that every project going forward I won't outline, but so far it works.
Sadie: Advice to writers who are curious about writing a Christmas movie - is there something that you learned that you've taken with you, like a trope that you should include or shouldn't include, or is there something thematically that you should always hit within a Christmas themed movie when you're writing it?
Alex: I think the most important thing to think about is really just what would you want to watch? What makes you happy? What's your favorite part of the holiday season? Beyond that, be yourself. Be nice, kind and patient with people and stick up for yourself if you believe in something or you feel strongly about a certain thing. So, following your gut would be the crux of that advice.