Movie ice sculpture

At left, Cache Valley chef and ice sculptor John Simpson gets started on a block of ice on the set of the movie “The Christmas Edition.” He was playing the “body double” for actor Rob Mays, shown at center with co-star Carly Hughes. At right is the completed piece.

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Leave it to Hollywood to film a winter scene on a 95-degree day — complete with a character creating an ice sculpture.

And if your actor playing the part can’t really carve a block of ice, of course you’ll need an actual ice sculptor to serve as a stand-in.

The ice sculptor in this case was well-known Cache Valley chef John Simpson, whose practiced chainsaw technique is now featured in “The Christmas Edition,” one of this year’s holiday offerings on the Lifetime channel starring Carly Hughes, Rob Mays and Marie Osmond.

“I had to look like Rob Mays, but he’s much better-looking than me. They just filmed my hands and arms doing the sculpture, not my face, and then they filmed him faking it,” said Simpson on Monday fresh off the TV debut of the movie, which by contract he could not speak about publicly until now.

“The Christmas Edition” tells the story of an up-and-coming journalist (Carly Hughes) who by circumstance winds up running and reviving a small-town newspaper in Alaska. In the process, she falls in love with the son of the paper’s former owner, played by Mays.

Her nemesis is the character played by Marie Osmond, an ex-boss and media mogul who tries to buy the paper out from under her.

Much of the movie was shot in August in the Northern Utah town of Huntsville, but it was made to look like Alaska in December. Simpson said the disparity was something the film crew and director Peter Sullivan worked around through a variety of movie tricks, including spraying foam on the ground to look like snow.

“It was like 90 degrees, 100 degrees. All these people were in coats and they were sweating,” Simpson recalled. “Peter would stand up and turn around and look at the cast and say, ‘OK everybody, remember, it’s cold out here,’ then put his arms around himself and go ‘burrrrr.’”

But you can’t talk a block of ice into thinking it’s cold outside on a sweltering day, and that’s what Simpson said “nearly gave me a heart attack” as scenes before his scheduled appearance dragged on while the temperature rose.

As part of his contract with the production company, Simpson had to deliver three versions of an ice sculpture to the movie set — first an untouched block of ice, then a half-done sculpture and finally a complete work. Although ice designs have become a signature part Simpson’s Cache Valley catering business, he has never needed a refrigerated truck or trailer to transport his creations to local wedding venues and other events, and he figured he could do without one in this case as well if all went according to schedule.

Using dry ice, heavy plastic bags and extra layers of plastic foam (mined with permission from the dumpsters at Hooker Appliance), the chef and his helpers arrived in Huntsville at the appointed time of 8 a.m., thinking Simpson would do his bit and be done by 10 a.m. But take after take of other scenes in the movie came and went without his call to the set, and the cast and crew were getting ready for a lunch break. The ice would soon be starting to melt, and making matters worse was the fact that the last of the three ice blocks scheduled to make an appearance would be the completed sculpture, which the filming project could ill afford to be compromised by the heat.

“I grabbed Dan, the assistant director, and said, ‘Hey, Where are you guys going? When am I up?’” Simpson said. “Well, Peter got an earshot of this and walked over. He said the sculpture scene would probably start around 2:30 and asked if there was a concern. … I said ‘Oh yeah, starting about three hours ago!’”

The crew went ahead with the lunch break, but at Simpson’s urging, the director reversed the filming sequence so the scene using the completed ice sculpture would be shot first to stay ahead of the melting process.

The sculpture portrayed a snowman that matched a blown-glass Christmas ornament also made by the characters in the movie. Used for this piece of artistry was Ogden glassblower Mike Hurst, who Simpson got to know well in the two months before filming while both men were making regular trips to Salt Lake City for COVID-19 tests — a precaution taken by the film studio.

Simpson and Hurst were selected for parts in the film due not only to their expertise but their proximity to the project. But although Simpson has some notoriety as a result of appearances on the Food Channel and an armful of culinary awards, the initial phone call from Sullivan took him by complete surprise.

“Out of the blue I got this call from this man that said he was Peter Sullivan, a Hallmark Lifetime director from L.A. Truthfully, I thought someone was playing a joke on me. If it was a director from Utah contacting me, that would be one thing, but from L.A.?” he said.

For his efforts, Simpson wasn’t paid much beyond costs incurred, but he’ll look back on the opportunity fondly, and he has a piece of the movie to remember the experience by — an autographed bomber’s jacket like one worn in the movie by Rob Mays.

“When we were down there filming, I had to look like Rob Mays, and when the uniform lady came up to me she handed me this jacket with the heavy smell of fresh leather. It was brand-new, a beautiful bomber’s jacket,” Simpson said. “She explained to me we can’t share jackets so they had to get two, so I asked if they could sell it to me, and she said sure. I got that thing signed at the end by the director, Peter Sullivan, plus Carly Hughes and Rob Mays, which is really cool.”

Missing from the autographs is that of Marie Osmond, who was not part of that day’s filming.

Simpson is a Cache Valley native who grew up in the restaurant business (his parents owned the former Blacksmith Fork Restaurant in Hyrum and operated a lunch truck that serviced area factories for 22 years). He learned the art of ice sculpture while working Sunday brunches in a San Francisco hotel. The sculptures would adorn the buffet table, and Simpson started out simply by helping a master chef sharpen his tools.

“Slowly he started showing me how to sculpt. He’d let me do one, then he’d come out and fix it, and I just went from there and never stopped,” Simpson said.

While catering local weddings, one of his ice specialties has become the Logan Temple.

“I can do the temple with my eyes closed in like 30 minutes,” he said. “That’s how many times I’ve done it because it’s the choice of so many local brides.”

Charlie McCollum is the managing editor of The Herald Journal. He can be reached at cmccollum@hjnews.com or 435-792-7220.

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