Have you ever wondered who writes those Lifetime and Hallmark movies we love-to-hate and hate-to-love? … No? Me either. But, if I had to take a stab at whose pen is behind those films I’d probably picture a childless older woman outfitted in a cardigan and a strand of pearls, sitting alone at her desk with a cup of tea in one hand and an inky fresh ballpoint in the other.
This might be Angela Landsbury’s fault.
Someone who was definitely not on my radar, though? Andrea Canning, 47, a longtime correspondent and crime investigator for Dateline, a mother of six, and, apparently, a master in the art of time management. Despite having no experience writing screenplays, Canning somehow managed to crank out 14 films for Hallmark and Lifetime in just four short years. On behalf of writers everywhere, I feel it’s important to note that writing is not as easy as Jessica Fletcher made it seem, and Canning’s prolific output is enough to make me, at least, feel like throwing in the towel.
“I've worked a long time to get to this point,” Canning tells me over the phone last month, perhaps intuiting how intimidating her writing career might seem to me, a self-proclaimed baby writer. She adds, though, that writing movies is also “a lot harder than they look. I always felt like, as a viewer, they seemed simple. [But] the hardest part was starting something from scratch.”
“I had never written a word of a screenplay, and so I really had to learn, from the ground up, how to do this,” she explains. “And thankfully I had a mentor who helped me, and a producer that kind of guided me.”
With thrillers like Homekilling Queen, Model Kidnapping, and A Daughter’s Revenge under her belt, the natural next question is how much of Canning’s work on Dateline informs her writing. She assures me, that it’s not so much individual stories, but the job itself that gives her a leg up on say, someone who hasn’t gone undercover while pregnant as a woman who may want to sell her baby on the black market.
“One thing I had going for me with the thrillers is just, I've seen so much,” she explains. “I've seen so much crime. So many clues. So many interesting stories … I don't write about my Datelines, but I certainly have picked up enough cool information along the way to be able to incorporate little things here and there into my movies, that I've learned from detectives or from murder cases.”
There is the additional advantage of her status as both a wife to a fighter pilot and a mom that has factored into her work. The forthcoming U.S.S. Christmas, for example, is loosely based on her experience taking a tiger cruise with her family during the holidays. And Christmas She Wrote, also due out this season, is about a goal-oriented newspaper columnist and reporter. In the words of Nora Ephron, everything really is copy.
During our call, Canning speaks with her professional voice — that is to say, she speaks with clarity and without inflection — and pauses to correct herself when discussing a past case, throwing “allegedly” in front of the word “scammed.” Prior to Dateline, Canning worked as an ABC correspondent, and she wears her years in the news business on what I like to imagine are perfectly pressed sleeves. She's hardly the hardened New Yorker such a resume may lead you to expect, however.
She's originally from Canada and moved to L.A. in the late ‘90s. Her Hollywood experience is the stuff of every young L.A.-transplant’s dream: She babysat for David Hasselhoff’s children and was briefly Ryan Seacrest’s roommate when he was just a radio DJ. A decade later, she had another taste of Hollywood when a remix of her interview with Charlie Sheen went viral.
Maybe it’s not so surprising, after all, that Canning found her way to the movie business, and carved a place for herself in the niche, made-for-TV world of sensational murders (Lifetime) and fairytale romance (Hallmark). Though “outlandish plot” practically a requirement for these genres, as is “ruggedly handsome man” and “career woman who doesn’t have time for love,” at the heart of Canning’s scripts is always a strong female lead. “The heroine is always a woman,” she says. “I really like that a lot, because we all should be strong, as women. And so when you can translate that onto the small screen, it's really nice.”
Between her workload for Dateline, including travel, and the process of conceptualizing, pitching, writing, and editing screenplays, Canning’s metaphorical plate is more than full. And that’s before you factor her five young daughters and toddler son into the picture.
Andrea, though, has mastered the one skill that I could never seem to get a handle on in college: multitasking in front of the TV.
“I'll be in the living room, the TV will be on, the kids will be screaming, they're running around, and I'm typing a script,” she says, as though it was so easy. “And that goes for Dateline too. That's not just writing movies, that's both jobs. And you know, it's funny, when I was a little kid my mom used to get really mad at me because I would do my homework in front of the television. Well, now I'm writing scripts with TV on, kids screaming, phone ringing. And maybe that just prepared me.”
Her work on Dateline, and even writing scripts for TV, is undoubtedly stressful, especially with some of the heavier content she covers. Though, like most things, she’s found a way to manage. “I would say for sure coming home to my children is a big mental stress reliever,” she says. “Even though kids are stressful in their own way. But they certainly bring out the joy, and after a heavy shoot, coming home and seeing their faces kind of wipes away anything dark that I had seen all day.”
Andrea Canning will report for Dateline this Thursday at 10 p.m. ET and Friday at 9 p.m. ET.
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