The cast of "Christmas vs. The Walters,"  which was mostly...

The cast of "Christmas vs. The Walters,"  which was mostly filmed on Long Island.  Credit: Safier Entertainment & Sparkd Films

‘Twas the holiday season of 2020, and thanks to the pandemic, not many film crews were stirring. But one independent production arrived on Long Island to shoot "Christmas vs. The Walters," a suburban-themed family comedy that bows in theaters Friday (and will be available on demand later this month).

"We could have gone to Connecticut, we could have gone to Jersey," said Melville-based director Peter A. D’Amato. "But I felt like, ‘No, this is my home. I want to do it here.’"

Featuring Shawnee Smith (FX’s "Anger Management") as a pregnant wife, Dean Winters (NBC's "30 Rock," HBO’s "Divorce") as her workaholic husband and Bruce Dern as a cantankerous grandfather, "Christmas vs The Walters" was shot almost entirely in Suffolk County. The movie is filled with local landmarks and familiar scenery, from the Stew Leonard’s in Farmingdale to a cul-de-sac in Greenlawn’s Harborfields Estates. Even interior scenes at a doctor’s office (with Chris Elliott as an eccentric OB-GYN) and a corporate boardroom (with Richard Thomas, of TV’s "The Waltons," as a hard-driving boss), were shot at LIU Post in Brookville and the Melville Marriott Long Island, respectively. In fact, the only scenes not filmed in Suffolk County were the ones featuring Dern, which were shot in Los Angeles.

D’Amato, 48, who was raised in Albertson and Roslyn, said he based the screenplay on his own family. It was nine years ago, he said, that he welcomed his fifth child, a daughter, right around the holidays. "I would just cringe every time this time of year would come around," D’Amato said. "With a lot of kids, those of us who have to work and raise a family, just the stress of life — and then you pile on Christmas and try to make it special."

Through a mutual friend in the film industry, D’Amato got to know Rob Simmons, a Connecticut native and 20-year Long Island resident who built a career in the medical staffing field before launching the film production company JARS Media Group with co-founder James Abbott. Simmons and D’Amato discussed the script for "Walters," meeting occasionally at Tim’s Shipwreck Diner in Northport, and eventually brought in Ante Novakovic, a Queens-based filmmaker, to cowrite and coproduce. The 18-day shoot began Nov. 30 and ended Dec. 20, according to D’Amato.

"There’s a lot of similarities" between film production and medical staffing, said Simmons, 41, who lives in Smithtown. "Hospitals would give me a list of personnel they need, mostly nurses, and we would source candidates. So when putting together a production, you need to hire all these department heads and then hire for each department."

One new wrinkle in this production: the pandemic. Simmons said filming required creating a new position, a COVID compliance officer, to make sure that cast and crew were being tested regularly and obeying safety protocols. The entire production — roughly 85 people — set up camp at the Melville Marriott to create a COVID-free "bubble" to minimize interaction with outsiders.

"They were really amazing," D’Amato says of the hotel staff. "I couldn’t have pulled it off if we didn’t have a hotel that was so supportive." The Marriott also wound up serving as a location: D’Amato says a restaurant scene was shot there.

For the film’s two leads, "Christmas vs The Walters" marked a welcome return to work after a COVID-induced dry spell. "We were in the middle of a pandemic and it had been a super tough year," said Smith. "And this sweet family Christmas movie came across my desk, so to speak, and I thought: ‘There couldn’t be a better time to do this.’"

Winters, who hadn’t worked at all during the pandemic before starting production on "Walters," said he jumped at the chance to play against his usual hard-edged type. "I float between the worlds of drama and comedy, but all the comedy that I do is kind of dark and nasty," he said, citing his work on "Divorce," "30 Rock" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." "I had not been offered a movie where I’m playing an altruistic father who doesn’t really have a bad bone in his body."

The downside of the production, both actors said: Rehearsing in masks, which made it hard to read each other’s reactions. The upside: Because the "bubble" forced cast and crew to remain at the Marriott each evening instead of commuting home, the hotel took on a convivial, almost familial atmosphere. "It became our hub, we met at the bar each night," Winters said. "We’d knock on each other’s door to see how you’re doing."

Smith said she and a few others even built an illicit bonfire outside the hotel to roast marshmallows. "When you’re working those kind of hours and you’re also staying in the same place, it helps everyone get through the sprint," she said. "And then you see that fun on the screen."

D’Amato said he wanted to acknowledge the various Long Island towns, businesses and institutions who allowed him to make his film here, so he scheduled the New York premiere of "Christmas vs The Walters" earlier this week at the AMC Shore 8 in Huntington. Smith and Winters were both slated to appear. Film crews don't often "give back to the community," D'Amato said. "A lot of times, it's like, 'We want to come to your town and shoot' — and then they disappear. So I think coming back to the town for the premiere was important."

D'Amato and Simmons continue to meet and discuss future projects that could be shot on Long Island. "We’re talking all the time about shooting another film here," D'Amato said. "I think it comes down to the community. If the community supports filmmaking, then it’s really great."

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