"El Camino Christmas" is set during the holidays, but that's about close to a heartwarming Christmas movie as the Netflix film gets.
In fact, when Chris Wehner wrote the script 20 years ago, he titled it "Warm Beer."
He was attending Mesa State College at the time and interviewed several Vietnam War veterans for a paper he had to write for a class.
"I hung out with them, I drank beer with them," Wehner said.
He's a history buff, now with a masters degree in history, and finds veterans to be "incredible people," he said. "I've always been drawn to them."
So along with helping him to get his class assignment done, those veterans inspired him to write a movie script.
Over the next few years he reworked the script and renamed it "Full of Fear." In the late 1990s, he sent queries out to agents in Los Angeles and was signed by an agent who sent the script to studios. Everyone passed on it, and the agent disappeared, Wehner said.
Screenwriters are a dime a dozen in L.A., he said. "To get produced and to make it is incredibly hard."
But Wehner kept screen writing and authored a couple books. He continued living in Grand Junction and flew to L.A. when needed. Wehner and his wife raised a family and he became a teacher at Fruita Monument High School and then at Grand Junction High School teaching U.S. history and social studies. He also coached football at Grand Junction.
Somewhere along the line, Wehner's script was passed to producer and writer Ted Melfi, who directed "Hidden Figures" and directed and wrote "St. Vincent."
Melfi and Wehner began working on the script again. "My version is very, very dark," Wehner said.
Melfi suggested softening the story up, to set it in the fictional location of El Camino in southern Nevada and to add the word "Christmas" to the title, among other changes.
The script begins as a tale about a young man who goes to El Camino in search of his father, a Vietnam vet, who he has never met. However, the young man winds up barricaded in a liquor store with five other people in a stand off with police on Christmas Eve.
There are themes of mankind's fall and redemption, but "El Camino Christmas" is for adults, Wehner said. It is still a dark comedy and the characters come with plenty of baggage.
About 18 months ago, Netflix contacted Melfi and asked if he had anything they could look at. Melfi gave them "El Camino Christmas," Wehner said.
A contract was finalized in February and they were on set by May. "When they (Netflix) buy something, they — boom — go forward," Wehner said. "It's been a crazy journey."
The film, directed by David E. Talbert ("Almost Christmas"), was shot on a "movie ranch" outside L.A., said Wehner, who was able to be on set for a week.
Movie-making "looks glamorous," but it's 14- to 15-hour days and lots of set-up for "a little bit of a shot," he said.
Wehner met a number of members of the cast, which includes Tim Allen, Vincent D'Onofrio, Luke Grimes, Dax Shepard, Emilio Rivera, Jessica Alba and Kimberly Quinn (who is married to Melfi).
"There are 126 people who worked on this movie and they all had input," Wehner said.
"The writer's version never 100 percent comes on screen," he said. A film "is the ultimate collaboration, really."
But to see the lights and hear words he wrote being said was "surreal."
Wehner also went to the film's premiere in Hollywood on Dec. 6, and "to see it on the big screen with my family, it chokes you up a bit," he said.
"El Camino Christmas" was released by Netflix on Dec. 8. "It's the perfect venue," Wehner said. "This way it's going to be on Netflix forever."
The only downside is that Netflix plays a flat fee for a script and there aren't any residual funds that will come his way.
But Wehner said he has a number of scripts out to agents and production companies.
He moved to Denver so he could more easily be involved with film producers there, and he launched the company Warm Beer Productions (warmbeerproductions.com). "I'm going to give it one last shot here," he said.
"Whatever creatively that you do, don't give up ... I'm in my 40s and I finally got a movie made and I've been writing since my 20s," Wehner said. "Keep at your dreams. You never know when it will happen."