SF cable car operator makes cameo in movie filmed downtown

It was a puzzling sight for a September afternoon stifled by a historic heat wave in downtown San Francisco.

A red-and-green-painted cable car adorned in tinsel, poinsettias and Christmas lights rumbled down the Powell-Hyde line on Washington Street. Once the unmistakable clang-clang of the bell rang out and captured the attention of nearby tourists, cable car operator Val Lupiz couldn’t wait to see their reactions. 

“It was a mixture of surprise and delight,” Lupiz told SFGATE by phone from the cable car barn in Nob Hill. “People would cock their heads sideways or do a double take.”

More confusing yet were the passengers on board, dressed in thick sweaters, overcoats and scarves for the 90-degree weather that day. Then, bystanders saw the cameras and realized what was going on. 

Earlier this month, a film crew descended upon the city to shoot a few scenes for an upcoming Hallmark holiday movie that is slated for release in December, a spokesperson for Hallmark told SFGATE. 

Though the film was largely shot in Vancouver — a frequent stand-in for San Francisco — other scenes filmed throughout the City by the Bay were in Chinatown, the Financial District, and near Piers 7 and 15, according to Manijeh Fata, the executive director of the San Francisco Film Commission. And in one of them, Lupiz is expected to have a starring role.

The gripman, who has been working for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency for the past 23 years, said that his job is a physically demanding one that also involves a wide array of unusual tasks — from navigating the Victorian-era technology of the cable cars to festooning them with elaborate decorations for the holidays, which he has done every year for well over a decade. But he never would have guessed what his supervisor, Fred Butler, was going to say when he approached him about this particular gig just over a month ago. 

“He was grinning from ear to ear, trying not to laugh,” Lupiz remembered. 

Butler told him a Hallmark movie was about to begin filming downtown, and they needed a cable car operator who could drive two of the main characters around during a pivotal scene in the film. Lupiz was up for it, but he didn’t get what was so funny.

It was the working title of the movie: “My Big Fat Chinese Christmas,” apparently a riff on the 2002 comedy “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”  

“I said, ‘Are you serious? You’re kidding, right?’” Lupiz said. “I guess I wasn’t the only one — apparently when [Butler] was talking to the producer, they had the same reaction: ‘I swear this is the title.’… But I thought it was funny as hell. It sticks in your head, that’s for sure.” 

Hallmark apparently scrapped the idea; a spokesperson told SFGATE earlier this week that the title was “officially locked” as “A Big Fat Family Christmas” and would star Shannon Chan-Kent (“Woke”), Shannon Kook (“The Conjuring”), Tia Carrere (“Wayne’s World”) and Jack Wagner (“The Bold and the Beautiful”).

Lupiz has been told many times that he’s “a bit of a hopeless romantic.” He met his wife on one of the cable cars, and admitted he’s watched his fair share of Hallmark movies over the years.

“My wife is addicted to them. My daughter is addicted to them. I’m going to be honest, I get dragged into watching quite a few of them,” he said. “Next thing you know, I’m 10-15 minutes in and paying attention to the plot. They can be well-written and they’re very romantic! I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff.” 

So he decided to accept the gig, even offering to decorate the cable cars for the movie himself. Before filming began, the crew gave him a general rundown of the plot and the characters.

“From my understanding, the lead in the movie is a Chinese American TV reporter, and she’s trying to reconcile her traditional Chinese upbringing with the Western notion of Christmas,” Lupiz said. “So she and the male lead are riding on my cable car, and she has a bag full of small red envelopes — a Lunar New Year custom. The bag is sitting on the floor of the car, and these two are behaving like typical tourists, leaning out and screaming.”

Then comes Lupiz’s shining moment. In character, he yells at them to knock it off, and though they compose themselves for a couple of seconds, it’s not long until they start acting up again, causing the bag of letters to fall from the car, unbeknownst to them.

“Then I have to say, ‘That’s it! You hooligans are off at the next stop,’” Lupiz said, cracking himself up. “It’s not every day you get to be the bad guy in a Hallmark Christmas movie.”

Hallmark told SFGATE the official synopsis for “A Big Fat Family Christmas” was not yet available, but a logline for the film was teased on Thursday as the Hallmark Channel’s “Countdown to Christmas” lineup was unveiled: “Liv is a photojournalist eager to make it on her own. To get a dream assignment — shooting the Chang family’s annual holiday party for a cover story — she doesn’t reveal that they are in fact, her family. When she finds herself growing close to Henry, the coworker covering the story with her, she wants to confide in him but doesn’t want to jeopardize her big break.”

Cable car operator Val Lupiz is slated to appear in a Hallmark movie that was filming in downtown San Francisco this month.

Jeremy Menzies Photographer | San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency

All told, filming took about five to six hours as they shot the same scene over and over again, Lupiz said. He said that he missed his cue a couple of times because he had to focus on his actual job: maneuvering the cable car. At one point, a driver cut him off in the intersection, and during another take, when the bag of letters fell off the car as it rounded the corner, a concerned bystander dashed over to retrieve it and give it back to the passengers — only to discover they were actors. 

Lupiz also didn’t expect how many people would try to get on the cable car while they were shooting the scene. “They were so confused!” he said. “But then they would wave at us and take pictures. It was fun.” 

A cable car decorated for the movie. 

A cable car decorated for the movie. 

Val Lupiz

Lupiz grew up in the city and remembers the first time he saw one of the cable cars rolling past him as he wandered along Powell Street.

“I was instantly fascinated by them,” he said. “I made friends with the guys running them, and years later, I decided this is what I wanted to do with my life. … They’re important to the fabric of San Francisco in so many different ways. They’re the symbol of the city.”

Asked whether he’d take the opportunity to appear as a cable car gripman in another movie, Lupiz showed no hesitation.

“Are you kidding?” he said. “In a heartbeat.”

The film is scheduled to air on the Hallmark Channel on Friday, Dec. 2.

Cable car operator Val Lupiz is expected to appear in a Hallmark movie that was filming in downtown San Francisco this month.

Cable car operator Val Lupiz is expected to appear in a Hallmark movie that was filming in downtown San Francisco this month.

Jeremy Menzies Photographer | San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency

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