BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — There are several ways to know it is almost Christmas. Advertisements for shopping discounts increase. Local TV weather forecasters begin hinting they will track Santa’s sleigh.
One of the most obvious is that Melissa Joan Hart is starring in a new holiday movie. The queen of tugging holiday heartstrings can be seen this year starring in “Mistletoe in Montana.” The film is slated to be broadcast at 8 p.m. Dec. 17 on Lifetime.
The holiday magic unfolds at Paradise Ranch, a place where city slickers get to be cowboys and cowgirls. Merry (Melissa Joan Hart), who owns the ranch, has been unlucky in love. That’s about to change when a single father, Mark (Duane Henry), and his two kids book the ranch for Christmas week.
Of all the holiday movies Hart has made over the years, she found working on “Mistletoe in Montana” to be the most challenging because of all of the fires that were happening near their filming location. There was also the matter of being dressed to make the film have a winter look while filming in stifling heat. And, the cast and crew also had to deal with the COVID pandemic.
“This one, I will tell you, was really tricky. I mean, the location was difficult. We were trying to find an empty dude ranch in July,” Hart says. “And that wasn’t easy because these dude ranches are up and running only for the months of June, July, August.
“So we couldn’t find a place to shoot, so location was really difficult. Once we found the location, no Wi-Fi, no cell phone service. With the shortage of rental cars this year, no one had a rental car.”
Then, there were the bears.
“We’re in the middle of Montana, in like the mountains of Montana. Everyone was terrified the first few days of grizzly bears and then it became a real fear. Everyone carried their bear mace and we had the whole thing ready to go,” Hart says. “We just had so many challenges on this one. And as an executive producer, you hate to have that with your cast and your crew.
“This crew has worked with me on many, many movies. So it was a little heartbreaking to be really difficult to produce.”
One of the key motivations for Hart to keep pushing forward with the production came from the origin of the story. The script for “Mistletoe in Montana” is based on a true experience Hart’s cousin had at a dude ranch in Wyoming.
Hart and her mother, Paul Hart, were at her cousin’s wedding in 2020. While they were out riding horses, Hart told her mom the story of someone who works on a dude ranch falling for a guest would make a great movie.
Both agreed it was a project they would love to produce. The only question her mother had for her was whether she wanted to be the wrangler or the guest. Hart knew she wanted to be the wrangler because she wanted to learn “how to be a cowgirl.”
That meant a summer of lasso lessons plus time on horseback to get comfortable in the saddle. She also had to deal with learning archery and square dancing.
Of all the training, getting ready to take the dance floor was the toughest. Hart watched YouTube videos to learn square dancing but never felt in step. Help came in the form of a friend, actor Christine Lakin. With her assistance, Hart felt comfortable with the dance numbers.
Hart had no problem dealing with all of the preliminary work because “Mistletoe in Montana” means so much to her. Although Hart is best known for starring in “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” Hart’s holiday acting credits include “Holiday in Handcuffs,” “The Santa Con,” “A Very Nutty Christmas” and “Broadcasting Christmas.”
Her connection to “Mistletoe in Montana” ran deep because she was part of the project from coming up with the initial idea for the story to riding herd over the production until it reached the final filming.
Despite all of the challenges from COVID, excessive heat, wildfires and bears, Hart stresses how she could not be any happier with the way “Mistletoe in Montana” turned out.
“The fact that we made a beautiful movie out of this and it’s going to be seen by hopefully millions just is a wonderful reminder that these things have legs and they can be enjoyed by everybody hopefully around the holidays for years to come,” Hart says.