Armed with a "radical" idea for a rom-com and inspired co-writer Mary Holland, filmmaker IndieWire tells how she made the kind of film she's always wanted to see.
Complications, mishaps, and wild assumptions have long been the be-all and end-all of romantic comedy. What is romance without a sexy secret? What is a comedy without a major flaw? While the plot that drives Clea DuVall's "Happiest Season" holiday theme falls right into rom-com genre expectations, it also has a big twist: It's about a same-sex couple. How's that for a complication?
As the “happiest season” begins, longtime married couple Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) prepare to take a somewhat unexpected vacation with Harper's strained, affluent family in suburban Pennsylvania. It's the first time Abby has met the clan who are currently in a political campaign to clarify their already straightforward life. You can probably guess the problem here: Harper's family have no idea she's gay, and when Abby arrives, they mistake her for some clumsy buddy who the hell is coming along. Hijinks follow, as do some heartbreaking moments.
For DuVall, it was the kind of story she had lived in her own life but had never seen on the big screen. "I love Christmas movies, but I'd never seen my experience in a Christmas movie," DuVall said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “As a filmmaker, I want to make films that have a bigger social impact, that you can step into and really be entertained, that people who aren't that heavily represented in the film can feel they are in a genre that they are in felt invisible. ”
DuVall spent the early part of her career appearing on a variety of youth-oriented '90s projects, from The Faculty to Can & # 39; t Hardly Wait, and broke out with Jamie Babbit's 1999 queer classic, But I I am a cheerleader. "During the Aughts, she worked in both film and television, including shows like Carnivale and American Horror Story, as well as features like Zodiac and Argo."
In 2016, DuVall premiered her directorial debut "The Intervention" at Sundance, which was recorded by Paramount Home Media. DuVall was the writer, director, executive producer, and star of the hilarious feature film, who teamed up with some of DuVall's best friends (including cheerleading co-stars Melanie Lynskey and Natasha Lyonne) and a few new-found friends (like Vincent Piazza and) Cobie Smulders) and indie stalwarts (Jason Ritter, Alia Shawkat and Ben Schwartz) for a comedy that drew comparisons to "The Big Chill".
When asked whether the offers were received after “The Intervention”, DuVall laughed. “I mean without a break! I said, "Lose my number. It's too much, "she joked. Most of the time, she focused on her recurring roles on shows like" Broad City, "" The Handmaid's Tale, "and" Veep, "which somewhat happened to give her the kick-start she needed to make her next feature film: a writing partner.
"I came up with this idea and wrote a draft for it and then sat on my computer for a while," said DuVall. She needed a kick in the pants, and that came in the form of rising comedic star Mary Holland. The duo first met during a table read for the sixth season of the HBO series, and while their characters (DuVall as an intelligence agent who became the first daughter-in-law, Marjorie Palmiotti, Holland, as the mad heiress Shawnee dance) it did not. To interact on the show, the actresses hit it off right away. For DuVall the pairing was easy: Holland "really just makes me laugh."
“I remember she texted me one night asking if I would ever text and I screamed, 'No! … Well, yes, but I only write with other people. I've never written anything by myself, "said Holland with a laugh." And she said, "Well, I got the idea that I want to see if you'd like to write it with me." It's always more fun with one joking another person and doing comedy. "
DuVall, who wrote “The Intervention” alone, agreed. "Writing is such a lonely process, and when you write comedy and elements of it are wider than I'm used to, it's even more lonely," she said. "But I think together we were able to develop this joke that fits more into that tone."
Holland, identifying as heterosexual, respected the delicate personal nature of the film. "This was Clea's story and it was representative of her experience," said Holland. "I really found my role in this writing process in supporting and telling the story she wanted to tell in every possible way."
"It's not so much like my specific coming-out story itself," DuVall clarified. "I got to see my mom in dramatic ways on Christmas Day and spent most of my Christmas with other people's families. I definitely went home with people and was the 'friend' and I had people who came places with me and they were the "friend." It's really like a mosaic of all the different experiences, at least for me, of being a gay person. "
Another thing that helped: You're both big rom-com fans, so much the better at building a movie that fits the genre exactly, but also, as Holland puts it, can "disturb" the beats of something rigid style of storytelling. Romantic comedy fans will recognize many elements of the genre in Happiest Season, but DuVall and Holland's script often gives a twist to worn-out stories.
“It's a very straight genre and being able to have the same feelings and see a story that feels familiar, that you connect with, but that also has two women at its center, shouldn't it seem so radical , but it's nice of is, "said DuVall. “I really wanted the film to feel accessible to all viewers. It's exciting to me that there are people who go into this movie and think it's not for them and then they'll still have a character to connect with and feel differently seen. "
For reference, DuVall, Holland and the rest of the team stayed away from other Christmas movies for the most part – aside from Home Alone – and instead relied more on modern rom-coms to get the right flavor, including Groundhog Day, When Harry met Sally "and" Sleepless in Seattle. "Holland brought her affection for films like 'Pretty Woman' and 'Love Potion Number 9' to the script, genre classics that tell a story that both encompasses their tropes and gently propels them into something new.
“If we tell the story the way we did – in a vacation movie with comedic elements – I hope we can reach new people who may have never seen a movie for a queer person or couple who maybe have never seen it I've seen this relationship and they have their own judgment or their own reservations, ”said Holland. "I hope we can reach out to these people and make them watch this and invest in these characters and understand that this is love."
While DuVall is not in the film (eagle-eyed viewers will see her in a brisk end-credits montage, however, hinting at a funny character reveal), Holland appears as Davis' crazy (and scene-stealing) Sister jane. who also struggles to fit into her very tense family. "When we started thinking about the movie, the family and these characters, we revolved around the middle sister being a bit eccentric," said Holland. "And as soon as that was decided, I said: 'I want to play her!'"
The couple sold the script to Sony's TriStar arm in late 2017, though the project wasn't announced until 2018. By November of that year, DuVall was graduating from the next "Not-Mary" star: Kristen Stewart. "I'll be very transparent that the Abby character is very much based on me," said DuVall. "There are a lot of me in there and Kristen and I have been joking about it all along. She would say," I play you, how would you say it? "
The Abby part isn't easy, a role that requires the comedic timing and charm of the best rom-coms, as well as the ability to handle the tougher moments with real emotion. "I know it's not comfortable for me as an actor," said DuVall. "There's this side of the film that is very light and silly and then takes a hard left into very real territory because it's a film that is about something very, very real." Stewart was spot on.
Harper's casting took a little longer, but DuVall had long been a fan of Mackenzie Davis, whom she first approached after her turn on Ridley Scott's "The Martian." After that, DuVall couldn't stop seeing her in things from Sophia Takal's "Always Shine" to Jason Reitman's "Tully". "She's just that incredible talent and she really embodied so many of the qualities I was looking for in Harper," said DuVall. "When she got on board, it just felt like the real game."
Fortunately, she said, that sentiment was shared by Stewart too, so much the better to sell the couple as a loving couple. Their first meeting was a bit like a blind date, much like a rom-com.
"I felt like I was on a blind date that I had arranged, but then I sat at the table with them and kept thinking, 'What is going to happen? I hope they like each other, ”DuVall recalled. "I was so nervous. We were all nervous, but within 10 minutes of being there it just felt really good. There was almost a short cut and they got along really well and they really love each other and theirs Connection is so, so special. "
The rest of the cast is made up of people who DuVall viewed as "strong comedic actors" who could also move from comedy to the really in-depth aspects of the character, including Mary Steenburgen, Victor Garber, Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza. Dan Levy, Michelle Buteau and Burl Moseley. "It's such a puzzle to put it all together, find the right people and do it authentically. And you just hope that everyone gets along and that what you're feeling in the room comes on screen."
It's no surprise that DuVall takes the role of director seriously and not only brings her personal feelings and obsessions into her work, but also years of working in front of the camera. She knows the difference a happy set can make to the final product, and she intends to create such an environment for her stars.
"I wanted to hire great actors, but I also wanted to hire great people because the days are long and the work is hard and it was 19 degrees outside at times," DuVall said. "It's hard enough making a movie and you just want everyone to be there for the right reasons, and you want everyone not only to feel supported by me, but also to feel supported by each other."
Her work on "The Intervention" also helped turn her into a seedy, resourceful filmmaker who wanted to take the next step. "Not only did we not have a lot of money, but we also had no resources," DuVall said of the 2016 film. "I think we had two handles and four lights, but we could get it to work and make a movie that looked better than the resources we needed for that and we did it so quickly. Since I knew what could be achieved (with it), I only had the feeling: "Okay, if I can do this, I can do it too."
For the "happiest season," shot in Pittsburgh in early 2020, DuVall kept that DIY spirit alive, albeit with a few more resources. "There were so many days when I thought we'd never get through and we'd never make it and we did it," said DuVall. “I knew I could do it because we had an amazing crew. We had more than four lights! We had more than two handles! We had a studio behind us that really believed in the movie and really wanted to help us make it as great as possible. "
IndieWire first contacted DuVall during a "virtual" visit to the edit bay in July, when it looked like the film was about to be released. Almost four months later, that wasn't the case, and in early November, Sony decided to sell the film to Hulu for a streaming premiere. DuVall has nothing but praise for the studio and while rom-com isn't getting the theatrical release it dreamed of, it's happy where things ended up.
“I prepared myself mentally for a long time, just when we came across the time when I might have to encourage people to go to the movies at a time when I wouldn't go to the movies myself. Said DuVall. “I really wanted a big box office release for this film. It was very important to me that people could go to a movie theater and buy a ticket and sit down and get an overpriced soft drink to watch this movie. "
After all, that was what inspired DuVall to do "Happiest Season". But the desire to tell a hopeful, happy and funny story to a wide audience has not disappeared either. If anything, it seems more possible now than ever.
"But then 2020 happened and it was such a difficult year for so many people," said DuVall. “To be able to offer people a film that will hopefully give them the warmth and comfort of home security, it seems like the right time to do so. Hopefully people will feel happy in a year we all really need it. "
"Happiest Season" will air on Hulu on Wednesday, November 25th.