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Photo by Connor Raborn

ON SET -- Wayne Douglas Morgan acts in John Schneider's new film, "Christmas Cars," which will be released online by December, while Schneider directs the scene.

by Connor Raborn reporter@hammondstar.com

The sun was high as it approached noon in Holden, but John Schneider and his crew pushed through the early summer heat to hang Christmas lights.

Even as the porch-turned-film-set became more festive, makeup artist Megan Hebert dabbed sweat off actor Wayne Douglas Morgan's face.

The film crew worked movie magic to turn May into December as they shot scenes around John Schneider Studios for Schneider's latest project, "Christmas Cars." The movie will be released online on the studio's website in time for the Christmas season, Schneider said between directing scenes.

The movie will be made in the tradition of heartfelt holiday movies, but with a twist - Schneider is adapting some of his own recent challenges into a "Dukes of Hazzard"-style romp.

"'Christmas Cars' is an entertaining look at what goes through my mind when TV Land takes 'Dukes of Hazzard' off TV or when someone associates 'Dukes' with being politically incorrect or with being racist," Schneider said.

TV Land pulled reruns of "Dukes" from its schedule in summer 2015, seemingly in response to the depiction of the Confederate flag on the roof of the series' 1969 Dodge Charger, named the General Lee.

In "Christmas Cars," Schneider plays an actor who starred in a show much like "Dukes," complete with a Confederate flag-emblazoned vehicle. As the show celebrates its 40th anniversary, Schneider's character, the car, and the show come under fire for the depiction.

The movie is Schneider's response to the controversies about his own show.

"I believe 'Dukes' is one of the most entertaining and long-lasting family entertainments of all time, and it does not deserve to be caught in that mess," he said. "I think taking it out on 'Dukes of Hazzard' is nonsense, not that the whole issue is nonsense."

Also making it into the movie is Schneider's recent obstacle with the studios' property, which was seized and sold at auction in January. Schneider, still using the property by arrangement, is working to buy back the land through distribution of his productions and through special events, like music-car-stunt fest Bo's Extravaganza in April.

Schneider's "Christmas Cars" character finds himself having to save his own studio, something he decides to do by selling small die-cast models of his show's car. Playing the role of the toys are model General Lee cars, some from Schneider's collection, some sent in by fans.

Schneider has reached out to fans online to receive the models, and in return, he is autographing the miniature General Lees before sending them back. An early chase scene that has Schneider jumping the full-size car will feature footage obtained from Schneider's actual jump at Bo's Extravaganza.

Besides stunts, the movie will feature comedy, several references to the shows and movies with which Schneider grew up, and a star-studded cast. Country singer Johnny Lee will play a "Dukes"-esque balladeer, and local personalities featured in the flick will include Whitney Vann, Wild Bill Wood, and Scott Innes, who has previously voiced Scooby-Doo.

A group of high school students in "Christmas Cars" play a role similar to the teen sleuths from the Scooby-Doo cartoons. Among them is Lorelei Linklater, star of the Oscar-nominated "Boyhood" and daughter of producer/director Richard Linklater.

"It's an unusually late day. They're running ahead of schedule," Lorelei Linklater said late last month while relaxing around John Schneider Studios, waiting on her 3 p.m. call time. She attributes the production staying ahead of schedule to Schneider's directing.

"He is very efficient - exceptionally efficient - but whilst also being very, very chill about everything. An enormous amount of stress is lifted," she said.

"Christmas Cars" marks a few significant firsts for Linklater. It's her first time in a Christmas movie, her first time working with Schneider and her first time in Louisiana.

"It's so, so beautiful. It's been hot. That's the one drawback, but I'm from Texas so I'm used to it," Linklater said.

Her co-star, Mindy Robinson, who plays the lead opposite Schneider, was enjoying the heat and enjoying expanding her repertoire. She said she is used to her movies having bikini-filled wardrobes and scripts with raunchy jokes, but she has relished the homey feel of this movie and the on-set atmosphere which she described as being in a play with friends.

"As an actor I like to challenge myself. I hadn't done a Christmas movie," Robinson said.

However, this is her third movie with Schneider, whose efficiency Robinson also praised and attributed to his experience in television.

She said "Christmas Cars" is country-themed, a nice change from big-city holiday depictions.

"Why's it always gotta be New York City? Let's show the country. Let's show Louisiana," she said. "This I like better. In Los Angeles, everyone thinks about themselves, very vain. I actually do most of my movies outside of Los Angeles now."

Linklater said her favorite experience so far on set has been getting to be around the cars and the General Lee replicas, as she is familiar with the car from her and her parents having watched "Dukes." Playing a high school student has been a unique part of the role for Linklater, who is 24.

"I've had to get in that headspace of being in high school," Linklater said. "People playing high schoolers are usually in their 20s. It's a common thing that happens in movies. It makes me feel younger."

Schneider has had ample experience with Christmas films, having been in "Christmas Comes to Willow Creek," Lifetime's "Poinsettias for Christmas," and Hallmark's "Mary Christmas."

"I love Christmas movies. I always have," Schneider said. "I don't like them to be too overly cheesy, and this one's not," he said of "Christmas Cars."

His hope for the movie is that when it goes live on his website later this year that it will prompt a new batch of viewers to watch the other movies he has produced in Holden.

"This movie might be the one that makes us turn that corner," he said.