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Interviews

Alison Sweeney Previews One Bad Apple: A Hannah Swensen Mystery 

Alison Sweeney Previews One Bad Apple: A Hannah Swensen Mystery

[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]

Friday night on Hallmark Mystery, Hannah Swensen Mysteries makes its rebranded network debut with One Bad Apple. The film follows Hannah as she takes on instructor duties teaching a cooking class at the local college when she’s pulled into a murder case that hits close to home.

While she’s struggling with the emotions of that and Mike’s departure from Lake Eden (due to Cameron Mathison’s network departure), she’s also asked to revisit the case from the last film, A Zest for Death. That introduces her and us to the local prosecutor, Chad Norton, played by franchise newcomer and series star, producer, and now writer, Alison Sweeney’s Wedding Veil co-star, Victor Webster. Last week, I chatted with Sweeney about the changes [spoilers ahead regarding Mike], her expanded role, and bringing back fan-favorite characters and director Shannon Kohli. 

Sweeney credits writer Joanne Fluke, who’s behind the 30+ series of Hannah Swensen novels, with providing such a rich well of source material. “I’m so grateful to have her series of fantastic novels to work from to get those good ideas. I think I combined two different novels for [this one]. In Apple Turnover Murder, Hannah goes and teaches a class at the local college and Professor Bradford Ramsey [who we met in A Zest for Death]  is a character from one of the books,” she explains.

“I just really liked that idea and I thought that was a perfect next movie to coincide with and dovetail with the changes to Mike’s character. And sending him off to the FBI just felt like the right way to give him a really important mission that you couldn’t say no to. Of course, if you loved and cared about Mike, you would have to support him on an adventure like that.”

One Bad Apple: A Hannah Swensen Mystery

“Those were all the elements that I think weighed in for me of developing that and then bringing Victor in in a way that was fair to the audience, but also giving them a little tease of what’s to come or what the potential is.”

Sweeney shares that the fans are always front of mind for her, and she understood that they would need to be eased into a Mike-free world. “I wanted the audience to know I’m with them. I don’t take them for granted and how they feel really matters to me. That was really literally the number one thing in my mind writing it,” she shares.

“I love these movies, I love mystery movies. I come from a soap opera background where the fans are the most important part of this whole project. And so what I try to really always start with is, ‘What would I want as a fan?’”

Chad existed in the books, but Sweeney expanded on him so she could tell a new story. “I did find in one of the books that Chad Norton is the prosecutor. I developed him a little bit more than he is in the book because Joanne certainly has plenty of male love interests for Hannah in the course of 30 novels. I take that from her origin story, but I didn’t want it to be a story that’s already been played out in the books in a way that the audience, the readers, would know where this is headed,” she says.

“There’s a main character in the books named Ross, and we debated it at length, whether or not it should be Ross. And there was just too much baggage with Ross, so I couldn’t. We were dealing with what we were going to do with the character of Mike and that was very difficult out of the gate.”

One Bad Apple: A Hannah Swensen Mystery

When Webster was suggested as a new cast member, Sweeney leapt at the opportunity to bring him in. “While Hallmark and I were trying to figure it out and my producing partner Craig Baumgarten and I were having these meetings, just brainstorming a lot of lengthy discussions about it, the opportunity to invite Victor to play in the movie approached and Hallmark brought it to us saying, ‘He’s available, what do you think?’ And I said, ‘Oh my God, yes. What do we have to do? Don’t let him talk to anyone else. Yes. We say yes,’” she laughs.

“And so then we had to pitch Victor our idea for his character. And the lucky thing is it all happened very organically. I was able to really sit with it. I had already been assigned and given the opportunity to write it, so I knew I was going to be the one doing it. Victor can do anything and he has got so many great talents and is also so charming but I really felt this was a role and a character that a, he would be really good at, and b, one could argue was missing in Hannah’s universe.”

“I really loved the idea of him being a little more skeptical of Hannah and her hijinks and just bringing a dose of reality to the whole process. And Hallmark really responded positively to it, and so did Victor. So I was able to write the script with Victor in mind from the beginning.”

Writing the script also gave Sweeney the latitude to bring Norman and Andrea back, and give Delores an exciting new arc. “The more cast we have, unfortunately, with time and space and money, you can’t have all of the characters in every movie, and you just don’t have time to tell those stories, anyway. But this was a perfect opportunity,” she points out.

One Bad Apple: A Hannah Swensen Mystery

“Immediately I said to Hallmark, ‘If we’re going to introduce Victor’s character, we need Norman back. And so my first go-to move was to approach Gabe [Hogan] and see what his availability was. And luckily he was interested, enthusiastic, and available. That was number one on my list. And also the character of Andrea. I just really wanted to bring her family back together and create all those characters and the dynamics that the audience knows and turns to Hannah for.”

“That was really important to me and fun. And Gabe is just such a great actor and so fun and funny to be around. And I can only tell you that there’s an eight-minute raw version of that scene between Hannah and Norman and Bradford [Oliver Rice] at The Cookie Jar, because the two of them were just out ad-libbing each other. At one point I was in tears laughing and the crew was just dying. We’re all laughing. It was so great.”

“When I sent the script to Barbara Niven, I said, ‘This is all you.’ She has created this character and brought it to life. She’s such a grateful, lovely person in real life and such a wonderful human. I told her, ‘It’s your talent. You’re funny and people want to write for you because you just bring it.”

The new arc also gives Niven the opportunity to lean into physical comedy. “We were all just brainstorming other funny things she could do. In the scene where she’s pulling the fingerprint off the door, there’s a two-minute version of that scene where she’s just hilarious,” she recalls.

“And with no dialogue, just her physical reactions, her facial expressions. The hat, the glasses, the whole thing of it. If I had directed this movie, we could just go on and on. She makes me laugh.”

Another part of Sweeney’s devotion to the fan base is paying attention to the things they want to see more of, and building those in. “I really work off of the fan reactions and the comments. I’m on X with everyone when the movies premiere and reading their reactions to what their favorite moments are,” she explains.

“And I have always noticed that some of the audience’s favorite moments are the dynamic reacting to Delores and the looks between the sisters. Those things that people really respond to. And so I wanted to make sure that yes, we’re telling a mystery, yes, we’re giving out plenty of clues. Yes, there’s lots of tension and peril that the characters are in, but also we’re supporting them as a family and getting to enjoy those moments together. And it’s such a joy to work with.”

One Bad Apple: A Hannah Swensen Mystery

The familiarity with the cast and their strengths also made for an interesting creative process. “I noticed in my writing process that I left a lot of gaps in my first version for other people, like, ‘Oh, I know Barbara will say something funny here and it’ll be the end of the scene.’ And the note from Hallmark was, ‘You didn’t end that scene,’” she shares.

“And in my head I thought [about] she would do it. I know on the day when we’re filming it, she’ll have six different clever answers, but they said, ‘You’ve got to pick one and give her something to choose from.’ So I wrote one thing and would always say to her, ‘I know you’re going to think of something else that’s funny and you should do that, too.'”

“You work with such a talented cast [for so long that] it’s just such a joy to feel that comfort and familiarity. When Lisa [Durupt] and I did that scene where she surprises me and we scare each other, that had actually recently happened with Megan, my daughter, that we caught each other off guard in the hallway and I screamed, and then she screamed and I screamed because she screamed. And my husband asked, ‘Who scared who?’ And said, ‘I think we scared each other. I don’t know. It all just  happened.'”

“That was the origin of that moment for us. And then Lisa just makes it so much funnier with her  ad lib. It’s actually very clever, and that was really funny, too. I love to take credit, but you can’t write moments like that. It’s just brilliant [and comes from] hiring really smart, clever people around you.”

The film also taps Matreya Scarwenner, who’s in fairly regular rotation on Hallmark and Lifetime and who I have really liked since Ties That Bind almost a decade ago, as Willa, one of Bradford and Hannah’s students. Sweeney loved working with her. “She’s sensational. What a great actress. She’s so good. I knew it from her audition, but, wow. She just brought it a hundred percent every day on set,” she says.

“She’s a joy to be around and a really lovely person, but also such a talented actress. That was such a win. The whole cast was great, but she really was sensational. That was really fun to welcome her to the cast.”

One Bad Apple: A Hannah Swensen Mystery

Sweeney also loved having Kohli return, and says she was integral to making the family scenes so special. “Shannon’s great. I love working with her and I love her. She brings that feminine voice to the direction that I think is really what helps the audience and delivers what the audience wants to see. That’s also part of where you get all those familiar family moments and she was able to really direct that sense of intimate family dynamics,” she explains.

“It’s not easy to direct a dinner table scene where the family’s all sitting there. That can be very still. It could go wrong very easily or be warm very easily. And she just had that natural gift. Part of it is her experience and her skillset and her very great resume and history, but also her instinct as a woman in a dynamic with a mom and with sisters. We know how that feels and she knows how to help the audience feel they’re at the table with us.”

One Bad Apple: A Hannah Swensen Mystery, airs Friday, April 5th, and 9 pm/8c on Hallmark Mystery (following a marathon of the first four Hannah Swensen films beginning at 3 pm/2c). Look for Sweeney on Twitter/X during the premiere and join the conversation with #HannahSwensen.

Click here for my previous chat with Alison Sweeney earlier this year and my conversation with Victor Webster. Here’s a sneak peek of the film and today’s Facebook live with Sweeney, Webster, and Barbara Niven.

Photos courtesy of Bettina Strauss for Hallmark Media; videos courtesy of Hallmark Media.

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