The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a Lifetime original movie gets made: ‘The Gabby Douglas Story’

“The Gabby Douglas Story” aired last February on Lifetime after an 18-month process. (Lifetime)
Placeholder while article actions load

Ever wonder how long a Lifetime original movie takes to get from idea to TV? And if it’s really weird for people to see actors play them on screen in the story of their life? We were curious, especially while reporting on our extremely comprehensive timeline for the definitive history of Lifetime movies. Here’s what the producers and people behind “The Gabby Douglas Story,” which aired last year, told us about their exhausting – but ultimately thrilling – journey to the small screen.

(From guilty pleasure to Emmy Awards: The delightfully weird history of Lifetime movies)

Aug. 2, 2012: At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, 16-year-old Gabrielle Douglas becomes the first African American gymnast in Olympic history to be named the Individual All-Around Champion gold medalist. Her team (known as “The Fierce Five”) also wins the gold medal and becomes an international sensation.

Aug. 3, 2012: Douglas lands on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. Hollywood film producer Zev Braun goes into his office and shows his producing partner Philip Krupp the article. He has four words: “This is a movie.”

“I actually just saw her performance the night before and was taken by it like the rest of the country,” Krupp says. At the time, he had also seen the NBC vignette about how Douglas’s mother, Natalie Hawkins, made the terrifying decision to send her daughter across the country at age 14 to train with a top gymnastics coach. “It was really a very touching, poignant story and struggles and then just this incredible journey that they had to get to the Olympics. Both Zev and I had a sense that it was a terrific story.”

Almost immediately after: Krupp and Braun reach out to a contact at Lifetime, longtime executive and vice president of original movies Arturo Interian. “Arturo kind of quickly saw that value of this story, and told us that they were indeed interested but obviously they wanted to have the life rights,” Krupp says.

Once Lifetime is interested in making a movie about Douglas’s life story, Krupp and Braun contact Sony Pictures Television to potentially partner up. Sony’s also excited – now that the business deals are in place, time to talk to Douglas to see if it can actually happen.

“I just cold-called her agent in New York. The Olympics were still going on so they were obviously preoccupied with everything,” Krupp recalls. “I had actually seen an article in the Los Angeles Times sports section where her manager mentioned they were already talking about endorsement deals.”

Two weeks later: Krupp and Braun receive a call back from Douglas’s team that she has been inundated with various offers. But they’re impressed by the producing duo’s credentials and want to hear more about this movie.

When the idea was first brought to Hawkins, Douglas’s mother, she remembers being reluctant to say yes – even though she’s a big fan of Lifetime movie marathons.

“At first it was that hesitation,” Hawkins says. “But after speaking with them at length and finding out exactly what they wanted to do with our story, we decided that if it could, you know, inspire others, or give others any sort of comfort as they’re going through hard times and reaching for their dreams … if it could do what we expected it to do, then we would be on board with it.”

As for Gabby? “She’s very, very modest so at first, she was like, ‘I don’t know…’” Hawkins remembers. “But I told her, ‘Just think about all the little girls who look up to you and if they could have a movie they could watch.’”

With that, things are set things in motion. Krupp and Braun officially sell the idea to Lifetime, but they still have to work through the deal to get Douglas’s life rights, since it’s not going to be an “unauthorized” movie. “We wanted the family to support and help and promote it,” Krupp said.

End of 2012/Spring 2013: As the holidays pass, the movie continues in development. There’s a change in Douglas’s management (she leaves her agent for high-powered CAA in spring 2013) but the deal for the life rights comes together, and they hire a writer. The script, which generally takes about eight weeks, goes through multiple drafts and two writers.

Summer 2013: Pre-production and casting starts on “The Gabby Douglas Story.” Sydney Mikayla is cast as young Gabby, while Imani Hakim portrays her as a tween and young adult. Regina King is playing Natalie. (The real Gabby also agrees to make a cameo.) Gregg Champion signs on to direct. Meanwhile, the producers continue to check in with Hawkins and family about casting decisions.

“When they told me looking at Regina King to play me, and Imani to play Gabrielle, I was like, ‘Oh yes, this is good, this is very good,’” Hawkins says. After King is officially cast, she and Hawkins speak several times about the character on the phone.

By now, the movie is set to film in Canada. Added twist: The producers want all of the Olympic details to be 100 percent authentic, which requires a lot of cooperation from the Olympic Committee. Producer David Rosemont works to make sure that all the equipment is authentic. While it’s challenging bringing all of that from the United States into Canada, it’s worth it. “When Gabby Douglas came to the set and saw things she was actually used to working on, she appreciated that sort of attention to detail that we were not trying to cut corners,” Rosemont remembers.

Sept.  13, 2013: Lifetime officially announces the network has greenlit the movie.

End of September 2013: Filming takes place over four weeks in Winnipeg. Hawkins, on set with Douglas for about the last two weeks of filming, describes it as a surreal, out of body experience watching someone act out her life on camera.

“It was very strange. Every time they said my name I was like, cringing. My kids felt the same, everybody all the way down to Gabrielle, they all felt the same,” Hawkins laughs. “They were like, ‘This is really awkward.’”

But their presence helps – they frequently gave input, as Douglas would offer gymnastics tips. Hawkins’s two oldest daughters had cameos in the film as well. “It was a pretty beautiful experience,” Hawkins says

Late fall 2013: Post-production starts. Although editing has been happening from Day 1, the editor goes back to Los Angeles at the Sony lot to put everything together. With a February 2014 premiere date, the process has to go much more quickly than usual and everyone works over the holidays to put the finishing touches on the final product.

December 2013: Sony holds a screening for the family with the director’s cut – nerve-wracking, but it goes well. “It was just great to sit back and watch them laugh and you could tell they’re moved,” Krupp recalls. “I’m pretty sure a Kleenex or two were being passed around.”

January 2014: The sound mix and all of the last-minute elements come together in time for the premiere date.

Feb. 1, 2014: “The Gabby Douglas Story” airs on a Saturday night on Lifetime to 3.8 million viewers, a solid number for the network. Hawkins, who watched the premiere with Douglas at a hotel in New York (she had a special correspondent gig at the Super Bowl the next day), loved the final cut as well.

“I cried! So I was like, okay, this must be good if I’m crying,” Hawkins says. They’re also touched by all the positive comments from viewers online. “When we saw all the Twitter feedback and saw it was trending on Twitter…we thought, the movie has done exactly what we dreamed it would do, that it would inspire people.”

And yes, they have watched the movie multiple times since the debut – mostly thanks to Hawkins’s father.

“Whenever we’re at my dad’s house, he’s like “Let’s watch the movie!” she laughs. “He DVRs it and watches it over and over again, so he’s very, very, very happy with how everything came out as well.”