Filmmaker Lauren Swickard is a #WomenInFilm Powerhouse
January 19, 2021
I happily stumbled upon an actress recently who was not only the lead in one of Netflix’s top Christmas movies last year, but wrote the screenplay and produced it as well. As if writing a screenplay isn’t a feat in itself! At the age of twenty-seven, Lauren Swickard was the star, the screenwriter, and it turns out, she also produced A California Christmas along with ESX Entertainment’s Ali Afshar, Daniel Aspromonte, and husband Josh Swickard, to bring us one of the sweetest gems of the holiday season. Shot entirely during a pandemic (with strict rules in place) the movie that debuted as a Netflix Original on December 14th was the brainchild of a true #womeninfilm powerhouse, Lauren Swickard.
Have I got you interested? I bet.
Let’s back up a bit so I can tell you first what kind of kid turns into this kind of adult. Growing up in North Carolina, Lauren was a ballerina. Watch Tiny Pretty Things on Netflix and you have Ms. Swickard’s teen years, complete with the NYC ballet school, dorms, dance training, and a work ethic that stops for no one. From ballet, she moved to working movie sets, including Safe Haven and The Hunger Games where, as a sixteen-year-old, she had to get signed parental permission to have the job wrangling extras. The bug to be on set was planted early in this one.
Swickard graduated from wrangling on the periphery to getting closer to the camera in subsequent jobs until she was in front of it. While pursuing a college journalism degree, her big acting break seemed imminent when she was cast in a pilot. Although the TV show wasn’t picked up, that was enough for Swickard to pack her bags and move west to Tinsel Town. There, she got an agent thanks to the pilot, started getting roles in TV movies, and somewhere along the way realized she could write scripts, as well. Final Draft became her fun go-to when not acting. Less than a decade later, Lauren Swickard has a hit movie on Netflix that was written and filmed during a pandemic, because she is the type of person to open that door wide when opportunity knocks and let that sucker in!
In March 2020, Lauren was holed up in her Studio City house with her rescue dogs and handsome actor husband, Josh Swickard (General Hospital), when she watched Hollywood shut down. A pandemic was swiftly moving into the country and California was ordered to shelter in place. So as writers do, Lauren wrote. She already had a few scripts in her portfolio, and within weeks, she had a rough draft of a Christmas movie now as well. As she waited out the shelter in place rule, Lauren had an epiphany. Why not get ready to film as soon as it was safe and not miss that window to get a Christmas movie on the end of the year slate? She and Josh could star as the romantic leads without worrying about vapor droplets and germy kisses.
Calls were made, people committed, and the production applied to SAG AFTRA for permission and protocol to film. A California Christmas was the second movie out of the gate post the initial COVID shut-down. The production secured brilliant cinematographer Brad Rushing, director Shaun Piccinino who’d worked with the Swickards on the movie Roped, and through Zoom auditions and actor friends willing to get back on set, the movie was cast and ready for the first day of principal photography by June. They had permits, equipment, locations, wardrobe and rewrites to accommodate safe distancing.
The cast and crew moved into a hotel in Petaluma, CA., hunkered down on one floor, took daily COVID tests, kept distances and shot the movie at a nearby dairy farm. Crew wore masks and followed strict guidelines. Makeup was applied once in the morning. Each actor had their own kit for DIY afternoon touch-ups. Meals weren’t eaten together from a Craft Services table, and on set crew was kept to a minimum. As a producer, Lauren watched the set from an office far removed. There was one brief scare when a periphery person tested positive and everyone was pulled to wait out a two-week quarantine until negative tests were issued at the 14-day mark.
But before they even began filming, ESX had interest from Warner Bros., and before the film wrapped, Netflix was interested. They barely had the movie in the can when the movie inked up as a Netflix Original destined for the Christmas line-up. Everything fell into place so beautifully, like divine intervention (or the perfect Christmas movie plot) — unless you consider that a savvy writer cleverly generated interest in her script with producer friends during a pandemic and made it happen against all odds.
That’s Lauren Swickard, for you.
With the movie in post, most of us would put our feet up, pat ourselves on the back, and wait for the success that was to come — but not Lauren. Remember that dairy farm where they filmed? Watching the workings of the farm, Lauren was inspired by the migrant workers working through the pandemic to bring us produce, milk and yes, wine. Meeting these good people led her to writing the series pilot for Casa Grande, a one-hour drama highlighting the different lifestyles of migrant workers and wealthy farmers. As she wrote, her producers on California Christmas, Afshar and Aspromonte, became interested and signed on to produce, along with Ava Rettke. They’d barely wrapped the Christmas movie and they were in preproduction for Casa Grande. Just when we were wondering if it was safe to come out of our houses, Casa Grande had a five episode show ready to pitch. Although the project hasn’t closed a distribution deal yet, it’s looking good for showrunner Lauren Swickard and her small team of writers, crew and actors.
Casa Grande pulls back the veil to reveal the disparity between hard-working migrant workers in Northern California and those who live in the big house enjoying their lives of privilege. Think Upstairs Downstairs in Northern California farming country that calls attention to workers from south of the border who come to America to do the worst of jobs, toil at back-breaking work for long hours each day, all with the hope of achieving the American dream for their families. Lauren brought in screenwriters Michael Cruz and her writing mentor, Alex Ranarivelo, to fill out her writing room, as well as securing Argentinian director Gabriela Tagliavini to add authenticity to the Latinx feel.
Is anyone else feeling like an underachiever?
What’s next for Swickard, submarine commander? Space exploration? Probably not, because she’s still got the bug to be on set, both in front of the camera and behind it with headphones, watching a monitor as the film rolls. Speaking with Lauren on Zoom, she said she’ll continue to act and write scripts, but doesn’t write roles with herself in mind; she's only behind the camera in Casa Grande. The exception to that is the sequel to A California Christmas, which is being written as I type this and will feature the cute couple we fell for on that dairy farm last Christmas.
With the original movie holding the #1 spot for over a week, I’m willing to bet we get to see the sequel air in eleven months. Lauren is optimistic too, but then, I’d like to know when this woman isn’t optimistic. She’s a fireball of optimism with a can-do attitude that’s enviable. Being a producer fits her skill set beautifully, and being the showrunner of a smash hit TV show will also fit in nicely to this woman’s resume.
When I asked Lauren at the end of a long Zoom call with lots of laughs, what would she'd most like people to know about her, she expressed her passion for Casa Grande and bringing attention to the migrant workers who strive for the American dream, and asked that when it gets picked up for us to check out the show, wherever it ends up. Actress, Screenwriter, Producer, Showrunner, Humanitarian… Lauren Swickard is truly a #WomanInFilm Powerhouse.
Written by: Kim HornsbyKim Hornsby is a USA Today Bestselling Author as well as an award-winning screenwriter with feature scripts sold, optioned, and in development. Where she once juggled teaching scuba on Maui with singing professionally, she now juggles writing supernatural suspense with Christmas romances and one seems to balance the other nicely. Kim writes overlooking a treelined lake in the Seattle area with a busy house of teens, husband, and foot-warming muses in the form of large rescue dogs. Kim's scripts are being considered at Netflix, the CW, and Amazon Studios with representation by JD DeWitt at 5x5 Productions.