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Directing Dr. Quinn

COM prof’s summer project: work with a Golden Globe–winning actress

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Paul Schneider (left), a COM associate professor of film and television, directed Jane Seymour in the Hallmark Channel movie Dear Prudence. Below: Jane Seymour and Ryan Cartwright. Photos courtesy of Paul Schneider

Paul Schneider was hoping for sunny skies on his vacation, but not so he could lounge at the beach. Scenes from the original movie he directed — shot on the edge of a cliff overlooking a vast canyon — specifically called for a sunny day. But when the rain arrived, he did what folks in the film industry do best: he improvised. An enormous tarp and powerful lights masked the dreary conditions.

“On the sidelines, you could see the crew shaking water off of the trees," Schneider says, "but through the lens, it looked perfectly sunny.”

An associate professor of film and television at the College of Communication, Schneider spends September through April in the classroom. But like his students, he’s gone as soon as finals are over — usually somewhere on location. Since 1983, he has directed nearly 40 television movies, as well as the offbeat 1986 studio film Willy/Milly, and several episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 and Baywatch. Over the span of his career, he’s worked with actors whose names range from household words to unknown, including Ricki Lake in the 1989 romantic comedy Babycakes and Patty Duke in the 1998 drama When He Didn’t Come Home.

Although the schedule can be hectic, Schneider says the most important thing he can do as a film instructor is continue to direct professionally. “It allows me to integrate the current state of the industry with what I teach,” he says. “So my students aren’t just getting theory — they’re learning about the art and craft as it’s actually practiced.”

This summer’s project was the Hallmark Channel’s original movie Dear Prudence. Starring actors Jane Seymour and Ryan Cartwright, the film is a lighthearted murder mystery in the vein of Angela Lansbury’s Murder, She Wrote. The story centers on Seymour’s character, Prudence McCoy, an overworked Martha Stewart–type who hosts a popular TV show. When Prudence visits a Wyoming resort for a much-needed vacation, she stumbles upon a murder mystery. Using her keen eye for detail, she spots clues that even the forensic experts miss, and, with the help of her devoted young assistant, Nigel Forsythe III (Cartwright), nabs the killer.

Best known for her role as pioneer Michaela Quinn on the television series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, two-time Golden Globe–winning actress Seymour is “a mountain of energy and a joy to work with,” Schneider says. “She’s been in the business long enough to be really comfortable with herself. She has a lovely sense of humor, and she was pretty much game for anything.”

One scene in particular was memorable. “There’s a scene where Prudence and Nigel are discovered by a maid while they’re sneaking around a hotel, and Prudence kisses Nigel so the maid won’t suspect that they’re snooping,” Schneider says. “Ryan is about half Jane’s age, and we had to do about seven takes because he was so embarrassed. It was the only time that I had trouble not laughing.”

Schneider and his crew shot the movie in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies in Alberta, Canada — a location that has been used in numerous studio films, including Brokeback Mountain and Legends of the Fall. The most challenging aspect of the production, aside from the occasional nasty weather, was “establishing a sense of place, rather than just a series of scenes,” Schneider says. “Television movie directors have limited budgets and shooting time, but we still want our movies to look and feel like studio films.”

Despite the challenges of making a made-for-TV movie, Schneider says he’d choose it over a TV series any day. “Movies are more creative and challenging, because you’re starting from scratch and you have more input into the script,” he says. “Television series are generally controlled by the writers and producers, and because your characters and plotlines have already been established, there’s less freedom to experiment.”

The movie premiered on August 23 to positive reviews and decent ratings. In fact, there’s even speculation about a sequel.

Dear Prudence will air again on the Hallmark Channel on Wednesday, September 17, and Saturday, September 27, at 9 p.m.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

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