[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]
This Friday, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries is making fast work of the heartstrings with Guiding Emily, a dual-track story of Emily (Sarah Drew), a woman who has to reclaim her independence and determine a path forward after an accident leaves her blind, and the spunky young yellow Labrador, Garth (voiced by Eric McCormack), who will eventually become her guide dog.
The cast is rounded out by a gaggle of familiar Hallmarkies, including Antonio Cupo, as Matthew, her longtime friend who steps up in a big way (and his performance here will not help you if you already have a problem), Toby Levins as her conflicted fiance, Connor, Christine Willes as her mom, Martha, and Matty Finochio as her colleague, Drew, who brings innovative adaptive tech to the table to help her step back into the world.
Over in Garth’s arc, Sharon Taylor is his foster mom, Katie, and Peter Benson is Mark, the rep who hand picks puppies and places them with foster families before they’re ready for guide dog training.
The film, directed by Andy Mikita and written by Betsy Morris, is based on the first book in a series of books by Barbara Hinske. I recently chatted with Hinske about having her story adapted for a film, which she hopes will begin a series of movies.
Hinske was moved to write the first book after touring the Foundation for Blind Children located in her neighborhood back in 2018. “They have a large adult population as well as the child population. And I was so moved by what I saw. I was holding back tears. and I [asked] the development director giving me the tour, ‘What do you need? What can I do to help?’ And he said, ‘Well, we’re a nonprofit. We need money, of course, and we need to raise awareness within the sighted community of the isolation that the visually impaired feel,” she recalls.
“I said, ‘Well, I can help with both those things because I’m a novelist.” She realized she could raise awareness by writing about it, wrote the first book, and donated half of her royalties to the Foundation. They also helped her with her research, including giving her white cane training, where her vision is blocked and she only has a white cane to navigate.
“It was fascinating. When I did my solo cane walk outside, I had glasses that replicated visual impairment. But I still had a pinprick of vision. And of course I knew in my mind, ‘I’m not blind, I can take these off and I’m fine,’ but I still had a panic attack,” she shares.
“I actually had a full-blown panic attack, which the writer in me [recognized I should] pay attention to. They let me sit in on counseling sessions with newly blind adults. They all signed waivers and I got to hear, in their own words, their own fears and triumphs. All of that was enormously helpful.”
Hinske visited the Vancouver production earlier this summer before the SAG-AFTRA strike and said it was a dream. “I wish everyone could go. There are no divas, there’s no acting up. People are lovely to each other. And there are at least 75 people there. They’re all kind and good to each other, which is lovely to be in that kind of atmosphere,” she explains.
She was on set for a pivotal revelatory scene and was moved by the empathy Drew and Willes had for the characters and each other. “They filmed that in the early evening on a Friday. It was the last scene of the week. Every single solitary person on set cried during those takes and between takes. I could see Sarah’s chin quivering at one point,” Hinske says.
“She and Christine were just hugging each other. And the amount of emotional work it takes an actor to do that … I’m not an actor but I just thought, ‘Well, they do this emotional scene and then between takes, they’re just checking their e-mail and taking a sip of coffee or whatever. They’re just normal.’ No, they are in that space. I’ll never forget that. That was so moving to me.”
One change from the book to the screen was the flip of Garth from a black Lab to a yellow Lab, and Hinske explains that was because it was easier to film the expressions on a yellow Lab. “The black Lab that’s on the cover of my book is based upon a real black Lab that I knew, and his name was Gnocchi. It was a mouthful for the book, so I changed it to Garth.”
She wasn’t told ahead of time that McCormack would be voicing Garth. “They saved that news as a surprise for me, and I just about lost my mind,” she laughs. “I could not be more excited about that. And we’re thankful. He’s such a big actor and I think he did it out of the goodness of his heart.”
Hinske had spent such a significant amount of time on research that she was thrilled to extend the first story into multiple books. “I always hoped it would be a series. I had done so much research and I knew so much of the story of blind people who have children and are successful parents. And I needed to write all this. And I was just so gratified that the first book did so well,” she points out.
“I also wanted it to be accurate and honorable to the visually impaired community. It was so important to me that that community embraced the book. I did not want to victimize anybody because that serves no one. The response within the visually impaired community has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. And with that behind me, I said, ‘I need to keep doing this.’”
Guiding Emily isn’t Hinske’s first book adapted by Hallmark. She also wrote The Christmas Club, which starred Cameron Mathison and Elizabeth Mitchell, and she loves being part of the network’s Christmas library. “That has been such a wonderful thing, frankly, for my career. It has elevated my career. I was on set for that, and I made such wonderful friends,” she says.
“And now I still get people who stop me in the grocery store, because my picture is on the back of the book, who say, ‘Hey, I know you,’ especially in July when they run Christmas in July. This summer, in Safeway, somebody came up and said, ‘Are you the author who wrote that book? We watched that last night.’ Who doesn’t love that?”
Hinske will be doing a watch party and live Tweeting during the East Coast and West Coast airings. “I’m gonna wrangle it both times. I’m so proud of myself. We’ll watch the movie and then at commercial break, I will come back and answer questions and do a little bit of behind the scenes stuff. I did that for The Christmas Club movie and people loved that,” she says.
“So I’m gonna do it again, and then I’ll take a little break between eight and nine my time. And at nine o’clock Pacific time, I’ll just do it all again. We’ve got Hallmark bingo and some little fun recipes, some fun stuff, and I hope everybody will enjoy it.”
“I would love to watch this with a big group of readers and Hallmark fans, but in this day and age that doesn’t happen. So we’re doing the next best thing. I’m hoping that this will all do well enough that we will convince Hallmark to make this into a series [of movies].”
Photos courtesy of Barbara Hinske and Allister Foster for Hallmark Media; video courtesy of Hallmark Media.
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