This year, ABC Family’s Melissa & Joey’s Halloween episode (Tonight, 8/7C) is doing a bit of a time warp and getting all Sabrina The Teenage Witch – right down to guest starring Beth Broderick, who played Sabrina’s Aunt Zelda on the show.
Late last week, Melissa Joan Hart, who directed the special, sat down to talk with a group of fans and bloggers about the episode.
What initially inspired you to direct an episode of Melissa & Joey?
Melissa Joan Hart: I’ve been directing since I was about 20-years-old from my days on Sabrina the Teenage Witch. I guess I was always very bossy on set [laughs] and I was just always wanting to learn new things. From my days on Clarissa, I was constantly following the directors and shadowing them and talking to the crew and figuring out how the cameras worked and trying to play with the lighting boards. I was always very curious about all the stuff going on behind the scenes.
I was fascinated by it all and when it came down to Sabrina, we had such a difficult time finding directors that could handle the style of show that hadn’t really been done before, because it was technically a three camera show but it probably should have had only one camera. We didn’t have a live audience, but we did shoot three days a week and we rehearsed twice a week, so it was sort of a hybrid show as one of the first hybrid, technically, single-camera sitcoms.
It was really complicated to film with all the magic and talking animals. We had a permanent green screen. It was very complex and we constantly had directors coming in and out that were confused and asking us, “Wait, how do I do this?” So instead of us answering those questions all the time, we took it amongst ourselves to direct including myself, Beth Broderick, our UPM. We had a lot of people behind the scenes on our show that started to step up and direct a few episodes.
I remember, I directed the 100th episode of Sabrina and a few Halloween episodes of Sabrina — that was something I always liked. When I was done with Sabrina, I decided to make my own short film and show a little bit about my storytelling technique. I did a short film called Mute and I worked at a bunch of other shows including a few Disney channel shows. Then with Melissa & Joey, I’ve been able to direct a few for the last few seasons.
It’s a lot of work to be in front of the camera and behind the camera, but I enjoy it. This one was especially special to me, the Halloween episode of Melissa & Joey airing on October 22. Not only because it was the Halloween episode, but also because it’s a Sabrina reunion of sorts. People have been asking me for a long time to do a Sabrina reunion so, with this episode, we’re able to give the fans a little bit of what they want to see. We had fun with animals and magic and playing with the different premise of our show and flashing back to my past.
Can you tease any of the Sabrina jokes or references we might see?
Melissa: You’ll see some recognizable faces! You’ll see some cat action happening [laughs] It was very reminiscent of my days on Sabrina and the fact that I was directing it was special because it brought me right back to those days when I used to direct the show. Actually, I would say it’s more Sabrina than it is Melissa & Joey!
Did you get to choose to direct this episode?
Melissa: This is the one they asked me to direct because of the special tie to Sabrina. My mother is the executive producer of Melissa & Joey and she was the executive producer of Sabrina, as well. She was the one who really said I should direct this episode. I think it was always the works for me to direct this episode.
What are the main differences between directing and filming Melissa & Joey and Sabrina the Teenage Witch?
Melissa: Sabrina was so incredibly complex because it was basically a single-camera sitcom. It was like shooting a small movie every week. We did about 20 to 30 scenes a week. We did things you do in a movie, lots of special effects, a permanent green scene, that sort of thing.
It was very complicated. Melissa & Joey is a totally different beast. This is my first live show, so it’s the first time I’ve ever worked in front of a live audience. So that’s just a whole other set of matters that I hadn’t really done before, so I’ve directed probably four or five episodes. I’ve done a bunch of Melissa & Joey episodes and it’s tough because Thursday night we do our live episode in front of 200 people and you have to make sure it runs smoothly and it’s very apparent.
They’re two very different shows — so to put the two together and do this Halloween episode was exciting and fun and challenging because we had to do both things at the same time. A lot of costumes in front of 200 people in a live audience. It was interesting to combine my two worlds together, but it was a lot of fun.
What was it like working with Beth Broderick (Aunt Zelda) again?
Melissa: Actually, she guest starred on Melissa & Joey last year, so it was a perfect tie-in for her to come back and yet still reveal that she has this witchy past with me. It was a lot of fun and we had a blast on set. Now we’re 10 years older and we wrapped Sabrina about 12 years ago — so it was really nice to catch up, now that I’m a true adult and to work together again was really lovely. Now I’ve just got to get Caroline Rhea on the show!
Did you get to channel your Sabrina the Teenage Witch in this episode?
Melissa: Yes! It was a little confusing for me to be like, “What character am I again?” — I had to play Mel who has magical powers. So it was a little confusing, but it was fun! We had a total blast. It just took me back a good decade or more to just be able to play that character again.
Like your character Mel, do you enjoy a nice glass of wine as much as she does?
Melissa: No, I’ve never really been much of a drinker [laughs]. I just don’t enjoy the taste — I do enjoy a mojito or a pina colada here and there. There is definitely a time and place for everything. I am not the kind of person to want a glass of wine at the end of the day – that’s never really been my thing, but I love playing that as the character of Mel. I love the lush side of her. I totally relate to it because I have a lot of friends like that, but I don’t myself do that [laughs]
How does this episode differ from “A Fright in the Attic?” from Season 1 in which they reference Sabrina?
Melissa: We sort of touched on the history of Sabrina with that episode and we got to do some fun, spooky stuff. It was a little bit more of silly comedy.
With this episode, we’re really giving a nod to Sabrina and my past and combining the two shows so completely. It’s very different. It really is a standalone episode as opposed to the other one I feel like you can play that along with the body of Melissa & Joey and it fits into almost any context. Granted it’s Halloween but, in this case, this one is so specific and really stands alone.
What special Halloween plans do you have with your kids for this year?
Melissa: Well, we’re arguing about their costumes right now [laughs] I really like to do a uniform costume for the family, have some of kind of theme, but my oldest one is starting to fight me on that. I’m trying desperately to make him watch Return of the Jedi because my six-year-old wants to be a storm trooper and I’m really pushing for that one. My baby, Tucker, has an Obi One Kenobi costume, but he also has an Olaf costume, so we’re tossing around. Am I going to be Elsa? Am I going to be Princess Leia? My oldest wants to be Flash, so right now we’re just working through that.
We are moving into a new house so we’re just trying to get the new place together! We’re hoping that sometime soon we’ll have a house that we can put some pumpkins on the porch, and some Halloween lights up, and really have a fun Halloween. But either way, we’ll definitely go trick-or-treating and we’ll carve our pumpkins at some point and we’ll do the Halloween parade and Halloween parties happening at the school, we definitely won’t miss those!
What’s the biggest difference between a regular episode and this Halloween episode, specifically in regards to filming in front of a live studio audience?
Melissa: This episode was more difficult to film because of the special effects. It just takes a while, and it’s slow going, and it’s not an instant gratification. We pre-shoot on Wednesdays, we gather all the pieces that won’t run smoothly in front of an audience. Then, during the show night, we can blow through the show quickly, smoothly, and anything that needed to be edited together for the audience is done and they can watch it on a monitor.
In this case we had so many scenes that we couldn’t pre-shoot all of them, so we had to do some of it in front of the audience, which breaks it up which is cool for the audience because they get to see how the behind the scenes work. Maybe with new eyes looking at it for the first time, I would hope that they were fascinated by how the process works!
We try to do it smooth and quick to help them, so they don’t get bored, but it is a lot of pressure to have 200 people sitting there watching you! If things start to mess up, it’s very apparent so that’s something I’m still getting used to after five years on the show.
If your two characters, Sabrina and Mel, were to have a conversation – what do you think they would talk about?
Melissa: I don’t know that they’d have anything in common [laughs]. Mel likes to be very flashy and can be a little obnoxious. She’s very selfish and she’s very flashy. Sabrina was very reserved, very humble. She likes to be the wallflower and that is not what Mel likes.
Who’s the funniest person on set?
Melissa: Oh, that’s me, of course [laughs]! Joey and I argue over it — but actually Nick is quite hilarious, we can’t stop giggling with him. We’ve had Chris Rich on the show—who plays my dad – and he’s hilarious. Last night we shot our Christmas episode, which is really spectacular. Our Christmas episode is so much fun and it’s an old 1880s throwback. It’s Mel and Joe in the 1880s and Chris Rich was there for the episode and it was just fantastic. We had a blast!
He’s the man that we love having around and we keep bringing him back because he’s so stinking funny and he just keeps coming up with stuff on the set and we have a great time with him. I would say out of the four main cast members, it’s probably Nick who’s the silly, goofy one. Taylor and I have also become super close. She’s a little doll, she’s a fantastic actress. She is such a mature, wonderful young woman. She’s grown up on the show and so beautifully and I’m so proud of her.
We just have an absolute blast on the set and we’re like a second family to each other.
Is there a difference in your attitude when you’re acting versus directing?
Melissa: I’m a little more focused when I’m directing. When I’m acting we have a lot more time to joke around, but there’s another person doing that job. When I’m trying to act and direct, it takes a lot of focus and everybody’s really helpful to me; the whole crew. It’s not easy to do both and I can’t do it too much during the year because it’s just exhausting. Directing is very mental and the acting is very physical so it’s a combination.
Does this Halloween episode bridge the first part of the season to the second part of the season?
Melissa: It is technically the fourth season, it’s a one-off episode, so we’ll do this Halloween episode airing on October 22 and then the Christmas episode will air on December 10. Then we’ll have a proper season premiere for the fourth season in January when we’ll have 20 new episodes. That includes Christmas, Halloween, and then 20 others. It’s been a really wonderful season so far. We’ve only done a few, but the writers just continue to impress me. Between this Christmas episode and this Halloween episode, which were so special, they were able to bring so much life to them, but then there’s also the everyday episodes about life as a married couple, about honeymooners, about when do we have a baby, that kind of thing. It’s been really exciting and fun and they keep bringing new life to this show and these characters. They just keep reinventing it in such a brilliant, smart way. I’m so proud to be on the show. I love this show.
What’s it like working with Joey Lawrence?
Melissa: We’ve known each other since we were kids and would always run into each other, but the first time we ever worked together was on My Fake Fiancé and we hit it off so well. It’s all about the timing, we have very similar past experiences in the business and our previous shows. We find each other very responsible and professional and have a lot in common.
I think that just added to the chemistry and made us want to continue to work together. That’s where my mom, and myself, and Joe – along with ABC Family — decided this should be a series and went out and sought out some great writers. Between the five of us, we’ve have been able to really make this show grow and help develop these characters as a team.
It’s been such a great journey and so much fun. He’s just such a pro. He always knows his lines. He knows his blocking. He knows how to hit a joke. He knows timing. We had this really easy rapport and with characters being able to have that love and hate relationship that they have. It’s the perfect combination for the two of us to play in these characters.
Can you give us any teasers for next season?
Melissa: Mel and Joe got married in the last season finale and Mel ended up in the hospital with a broken foot. Joe had just found out he had a daughter, so they didn’t really have the dream wedding that they were trying to have. They had some surprises come up, but they made the best out of it. The same sort of storyline is going to continue on through Season 4 with the honeymoon. It’s going to be a never-ending saga of “when will we get a proper honeymoon.” The writers brought up the “when will we have a baby” storyline right away. The baby and the honeymoon will be discussed a lot in the fourth season.
How is balancing your family life with your work life?
Melissa: It’s great! It is really hectic right now. I’ve just got a lot going on. I directed a TV movie this summer for Lifetime, a big Christmas movie called The Santa Con. I believe that airs December 13 or 15 – which is right after the Christmas special of Melissa & Joey which airs December 10. That was a huge undertaking this summer to direct a film. I was acting alongside Barry Watson, Scott Grimes, Alimi Ballard, Melissa Sagemiller, John Ratzenberger and Wendy Williams – it was so fun.
But it’s just a lot of work to direct a movie – weeks and weeks of preparation, casting, location scouting and then afterward you have the post, the editing, the music. We’re still working on music and special effects. Then to get it locked and now have to put on a screening, so that’s been a huge undertaking. Then coming back to the show and we’re doubling up some episodes and doing these big special, one-off episodes. I’ve also been shooting a very exciting commercial campaign that I can’t tell you about right now, but will someday soon! So it’s been just a whirlwind of stuff.
I launched a clothing line this summer called King of Harts and it’s available right now. There’s a limited edition thermal line up on our website and the spring line, we’ve been hitting all the markets. We’re going to ENK at Java Center in New York this weekend and last weekend we were in LA Market. I’ve been touring factories and sourcing it all; making it all in the US. I’m doing that all on my own. I’m not bringing in any big companies right now.
I’m just really doing all the leg work myself, so it’s just been a huge undertaking and then with three kids and a house under construction, it’s just been very hectic, but I’m really enjoying it! I’m the kind of person that really likes to stay busy.
How would you say the cast has changed from that first day on set to now?
Melissa: Well, Nick has grown about a foot-and-a-half. Nick and Taylor have just really come alive as actors. They’ve come out of their shells and are willing to play into a lot of the scenes they might have been shy to do when they were younger. They love the comedy of it. They love to be big and bold and silly. That’s so fascinating to watch.
That’s a hard thing to do and I really think that they’ve grown and become amazing, talented comedy actors and amazing, young adults. We’ve all become such a family. Our crew has been pretty much the same since the beginning. We’ve shifted a few people around but, really, we’ve been able to hold onto the same crew and do these live shows that are such a blast.
We are so blessed to be able to bring a smile to someone’s day that might really need it. We say that before every show, actually. We say a little group prayer before every show just saying that we know we’re blessed to have our television family, and our home families, and that we know that we’re blessed to be working, especially in this industry and in this time, and that we really know how lucky we are to be able to make entertaining a career. Together, we just count our blessings and love to just make people laugh!
What can we expect from this season in comparison to others?
Melissa: We bring in a few new storylines. We have now a great little actress, Jada Facer, who plays Dani, Joe’s daughter. Then we have Kevin Fonteyne coming back as Joe’s nephew, who we saw in the Jersey episodes last year and the wedding episodes. He comes back and is fighting for Lennox. He’s in love with Lennox and she’s torn between him and Zander, played by Sterling Knight.
We have a fun storyline going on there all the time between Sterling and Kevin and Taylor, a nice love triangle that’s really fun to play around with. They’re all so talented. Then Chris Rich came back for the Christmas episode and he’ll be back for a few more. We’ll have Faith Prince back again and we had Tamera Mowry back again. We’ve been having some fun bringing back some old guest stars that we love and adore. Trevor Donovan came back for the Christmas episode. There’s a big 1880s style duel that goes on, between him and Joey, for my hand.
It’s been really fun and we had such a blast being able to bring back cast members that we’ve loved and adored through the years. That adds to not only the comedy, because we’re bringing back some of the stronger performers, but also people that really gelled and characters that really resonated with the audience.
Are there any Halloween traditions or things you love and/or watch every year for the holiday?
Melissa: For Halloween, I usually like to go to one of these Fright Night things, like Halloween Horror Night at Universal Studios. I usually leave the kids behind but, this year, I was thinking of taking them or going on the haunted hayride or doing something along those lines. As far as Halloween goes, we usually go trick-or-treating with my mom or some friends.
Luckily, this year, it’s not on a school night, so we don’t have to go to bed early, but I think this year we may do a little candy swap. At school, they do the candy swap where you give the candy and you get something else. I think we may do that this year because we don’t need any candy in our house. These kids are hyper enough [laughs]. Otherwise, we don’t have that many Halloween traditions really. I just try to make sure we carve our pumpkins. We give ourselves a good afternoon to go pumpkin picking and carve the pumpkins, which we’ll do this weekend.
Then picking out the costumes. We talk about it for months and months and months, but the kids always change their minds the second they see something else that’s new and exciting. I’m trying not to buy the costumes too soon. I’m trying to wait until just before so that I can make sure I know exactly what they want to be. Last year we had to buy three rounds of costumes because we started shopping for them in September [laughs].
Photos by Eric McCandless/Courtesy of ABC Family