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Interviews

Yan-Kay Crystal Lowe and Ashley Williams Preview Shifting Gears 

Yan-Kay Crystal Lowe and Ashley Williams Preview Shifting Gears

[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]

In the fourth and final part of our interview series for Shifting Gears and the Hallmark Make Her Mark Women’s Directing Program, Yan-Kay Crystal Lowe and Ashley Williams continue their conversation about bringing the film to the screen. 

Lowe hand-picked her Signed, Sealed, Delivered bestie Kristin Booth to play the BFF of Kathrine Barrell’s character, Jess, and she says that was a no-brainer. “As if she had a choice. I was going to fly to Toronto, put her in my car and drive her there. I phoned her and said, ‘You’re going to be in my movie. We’re not doing anything less,” she laughs.

“I’m close with everyone, but Kristin is my sister fully. When we hang out together, even when we go to events together, [I say], ‘I’ll just come in your room and I’ll just sleep in your bed.’ She’ll say, ‘You have your own room.’ and I’ll tell her ‘I don’t wanna.’ She was there two days after my daughter was born in the hospital with me.”

“We’re tight. So she just sat behind me watching, because she’s directing as well now. And she would yell things like, ‘Drink your water, you’re not drinking enough water!’ and would get mad at me and then force me to eat nuts and be healthy. Kristin and I have no boundaries, so she can yell at me. But her work lights up a screen. I call them dangerous actors. They’re the ones that you’re always watching. The lights are on. They’re fully present. That’s what Kristin brings to every film. And having her was like butter. It was the best.”

Shifting Gears

Although Lowe had shadowed Jessica Harmon last spring on Dream Moms, the shift to directing her own project wasn’t immediate because of the tandem strikes last summer and fall. “Suddenly nobody was shooting anything, and that made it really challenging to employ people. Luckily the timing worked out [when the strikes ended] and Crystal was available to start,” Williams recalls.

“Filmmaking is absolutely impossible. I really don’t know how it ever happens. Crystal had a job in LA at the time, and said, ‘Let me see if I can get off work first,’ and then she said, ‘Okay, now I need someone to look after my two-year-old. And that’s so Crystal. She just jumps in. She has such drive and such grit. I just think she’s incredible. I’m so honored that she’s part of the program.”

Lowe was thrilled to dive into the script. “When I read the script, it was a Tyler Hynes movie. There was nobody else. It wasn’t written for him necessarily, but it was written for him. Of course it’s Tyler. And then Kat I hadn’t worked with before, but man, what a perfect choice. She’s so grounded and she can go toe to toe with Tyler and that is very important for me,” she says. 

“When Shifting Gears came about, it was an opportunity to make sure that it was a story that really resonated with the female audience. I personally just loved that it’s set in a uniquely male profession and to have Crystal come in and be directing this story about car mechanics just felt so Make Her Mark to me. Let’s have a woman telling a story about a traditionally male profession. It was kind of perfect that way,” adds Williams.

Lowe loved getting to show the dynamic of the romcom from the female gaze. “I want a female lead who can give as good as she gets and stands her ground in the space and is willing to play and have fun and challenge Tyler, because that’s what we never get to see,” she explains. 

Shifting Gears

“We want a guy who can challenge us and we can challenge them. Somebody that helps us grow, makes us stand a little taller, and supports us in that way. And I think that’s what their dynamic was. And what I really wanted to show that they don’t need each other, necessarily, but man, are they better off with each other. And one always enhances the other. And those two actors were really well cast for that.”

Lowe loved working with her cast. “My strength, especially because I teach acting as well, is my communication with my actors. We just speak a shorthand that’s super easy. We understand what we’re trying to say. We also understand how to move for time. We’ve all been in the Hallmark world and Cat’s been in the sci-fi world. It’s the same in terms of the speed of what you’re shooting,” she says.

“Everybody understood how to play ball. [From there, we were just] creatively discussing how to move this ball. I just needed to know how to shoot six people in the same frame and get their coverage. That stuff is home for me [because of Signed, Sealed, Delivered].”

Williams says that in addition to the formal mentors around Lowe, the cast were also extremely supportive and understood the director’s POV. “Kat’s also got a background in directing and Tyler also has directed. So we wanted to make sure that Crystal was set up for success with a really supportive cast who wanted to see her succeed, and we went with Muse Entertainment, the production services company, which has been so supportive of the program since the beginning,” she shares.

“And her incredible mentor and creative producer on set was Linda Lisa Hayter, who is a longtime Hallmark script supervisor and director. She came in and just so had Crystal’s back every day supporting her. I really think the more a crew can see a female director lead in a commanding way, the more it sets up future women to lead, as well. So just having that crew there in a circle around her, we wanted it to be a really positive experience for everybody involved. And it was.” 

Lowe worked hard on the aesthetic throughout the film. “I am currently crafting my voice as a director and by that I mean I want every time you watch one of my movies for you to say, ‘Oh that’s a Crystal movie, isn’t it?’ I want you to see it before you even know it’s mine. Everything you’re going to see, I thought about, and in detail. That’s how I direct. I think of every single piece as a story. I love color and I use it in all my storytelling,” she explains.

“And the roller rink shot and my Friday Night Lights shot on the bench are my voice and very clearly my aesthetic. We almost didn’t get the bench shot. I almost had to pull that plug on that. And I’m so glad we didn’t because it’s beautiful. I had three moves that day. Nobody should ever schedule three moves. But I said, ‘We can do that.’ Because I’m a crazy person.”

“But I’m also very persuasive and when I asked to do something and then it started to rain, I remember [producer] Mike [Barbuto] looking at me and saying, ‘We’re going to do this. You can do this.’ And then my props person came over and I asked what color umbrellas he had and he just happened to have a blue umbrella and a red umbrella.”

“And I thought, ‘Okay, this was meant to be, because that’s their colors in the film.’ And here they’re just having these perfect red and blue umbrellas. And there’s nothing more beautiful than dancing in the rain. And it just worked out.”

“[That said], nothing matters if the story isn’t there. People are drawn to understanding the story and why it affects them. And I think what I liked about this storyline is that I feel like we all have that one person that we wish we could have said something to or that you didn’t let walk out the door.”

“That unspoken stuff that we’re all afraid to say what we really feel in the moment. Or we shut off because we don’t wanna get hurt and walk away too soon. And I loved the idea of these two people getting the chance to try again, to have a moment where they can let go of the past and just meet each other as they are now. Because there’s so much growth when you walk away from somebody. You have to grow and they have to grow. And now if you can come back and find that together…” 

“He’s more extroverted, she was more introverted, and together, they brought each other up. Can they exist in their own worlds? Absolutely. They can be fine and whole as they are, but together they’re just so much brighter. And one pulls the other one up. She grounds him. And he pulls her up into her own. And that’s a really beautiful dance. That’s how I was viewing it.”

Lowe also worked with her cast to shape a couple of key moments. “In the roller rink, where she talks about her mom, originally it was written that she says, ‘My mom was a kind of glamorous and I was a tomboy,’ and I actually went to the producers and said, ‘I don’t want that because, first of all, it’s so stereotypical that any woman who works on a car happens to be a tomboy. We can also put makeup on and work on a car. We can do whatever we want. it doesn’t have to just be that,” she explains.

“So we actually discussed it and I said I would rather that her mom was an extrovert. And she’s an introvert, so for her to get on stage, it’s very uncomfortable for her. But her mom could easily walk into a room. What she doesn’t realize is that she has all the goods from her mom, too. It just comes out in a different way. And they were really open to it. It was great. So we actually changed it.”

“There was also another line we threw in there. Kat and I had chatted about it right before when she’s talking to Tyler he says, ‘I just couldn’t leave.’ And she says, ‘Well, you could have.’ I thought it was a good moment to say he could have stepped up and didn’t because he was afraid. And that’s his own stuff he’s got to work on. He could have and he still can now. And that was really fun for me to shoot.”

Eagle-eyed viewers may also recognize the car assigned to Jess. “The car that I chose for her is a 76 Thunderbird, which is an homage to Thelma and Louise because that was one of the most feminist movies of our time. And I’m obsessed. And when they brought me the cars, because we had to get multiple cars, at the beginning, there were three,” she says.

“My crew put on the license plates: Thelma, Louise, cliff. And I realized that was cliff for the cliff they drive off. It was the funniest, it was amazing. The car stuff was really fun because I have actually been around car shows all my life. I used to be a big car model. So I traveled with the indie races and my husband used to build cars for fun. I know that world and it’s a big community. You go to see the cars, but you really go to see all your friends. A gathering is really what it’s for.”

Williams laughs about the trio of Earpers, Hynies, and POstables fandoms who are hotly anticipating the premiere. “All of that was an accident. That was just us wanting to make a great movie. I think it’s fantastic because we really want to show the world that stories told by women are a hit. Barbie among them. That box office did a lot for women. She didn’t need that Oscar nomination,” she says.

“We want to show that there is power in groups of women making art together and we want the number to be high. I officially call to all our groupies to please show up for us, spread the word, send messages to friends. We want that. We want to trend on Twitter. We want great numbers. And the good news is, they’re going to love the movie.”

As Make Her Mark gets underway, Williams wants to keep the focus on directing movies. “Especially for a directorial debut, I really like the idea of having this little magical beginning, middle, and end story that is authentically your vision within the Hallmark genre. So you’re playing by the Hallmark playbook, but where can you come out with this little delicious story and tell us who you are as a storyteller, as opposed to in series you’re a little bit more conforming to exactly the template laid before you, which is an amazing skill to be a guest director in a series,” she says.

“I want to keep it to movies for right now, but who knows. Initially when I pitched the idea, I said, ‘Why stop at directors? Why don’t we make a DP program and a writing program and a gaffer program and a sound, and post-production program…”

Shifting Gears premieres Saturday, March 23rd, at 8 pm/7c on Hallmark Channel in the U.S., where you can also stream it live on various outlets. As of publishing, the film doesn’t have an airdate in Canada yet. ICYMI, I also chatted with Tyler Hynes about the film here. Here’s a sneak peek of the film and this week’s Facebook lives.

Photos courtesy of Albert Camicioli/Hallmark Media; videos courtesy of Hallmark Media.

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