[Editor’s note: The following article contains slight spoilers for “Happiest Season.” This article was originally published on Monday, November 23, 2020.]
Complications, misadventures, and wild assumptions have long been the bread and butter of the romantic comedy. What’s romance without a sexy secret? What’s comedy without a big blunder? So while the plot that drives Clea DuVall’s holiday-themed sophomore feature “Happiest Season” falls neatly into the genre expectations of the rom-com, it also comes with a big twist: it’s about a same-sex couple. How’s that for a complication?
As “Happiest Season” opens, long-term couple Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are preparing to, somewhat unexpectedly, spend the holiday with Harper’s uptight, affluent family in suburban Pennsylvania. It’s Abby first time meeting the clan, which is currently in the throes of a political campaign poised to make their already straight-laced take on life even more, well, straight. You can probably guess the problem here: Harper’s family has no idea she’s gay, and when Abby arrives, they mistake her for an awkward pal tagging along for the hell of it. Hijinks ensue, as do so some heartbreaking moments.
For DuVall, it was the kind of story she’d lived in her own life, but had never seen on the big screen. “I love Christmas movies, but I had never seen my experience represented in a Christmas film,” DuVall said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “As a filmmaker, I want to make movies that have a greater social impact, where you can go in and be really entertained, but where people who are not represented as much in film can feel seen in a genre where they have felt invisible.”
DuVall spent the early part of her career appearing in a variety of ’90s-tastic teen-centric projects, from “The Faculty” to “Can’t Hardly Wait,” breaking out with her turn in Jamie Babbit’s 1999 queer classic “But I’m a Cheerleader.” Through the aughts, she worked steadily in both film and TV, including shows like “Carnivale” and “American Horror Story” and features like “Zodiac” and “Argo.”
In 2016, DuVall premiered her directorial debut, “The Intervention,” at Sundance, where it was snapped up by Paramount Home Media. DuVall served as writer, director, executive producer, and star of the funny feature, which joined some of DuVall’s real-life best pals (including “Cheerleader” co-stars Melanie Lynskey and Natasha Lyonne) with some newfound 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.”
Asked if the offers started pouring in after “The Intervention,” and DuVall laughed. “I mean, nonstop! I was like, ‘Lose my number. It’s too much,'” she joked. Mostly, she focused on her recurring roles on shows like “Broad City,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and “Veep” which, somewhat serendipitously, gifted her the nudge she needed to make her next feature: a writing partner.
“I had this idea and I wrote an outline for it, and then kind of sat on my computer for a while,” DuVall said. She needed a kick in the pants, and it came in the form of rising comedic star Mary Holland. The duo first met during a table read for the HBO series’ sixth season, and while their characters (DuVall as Secret-Service-agent-turned-First-Daughter-in-Law Marjorie Palmiotti, Holland as wacky heiress Shawnee Tanz) didn’t interact on the show, the actresses hit it off immediately. For DuVall, the pairing was simple: Holland “really just makes me laugh so much.”
“I remember one night she texted me and asked if I ever write and I screamed, ‘No! … Well, I do, but I only write with other people. I’ve never written anything on my own,'” Holland said with a laugh. “And she was like, ‘Well, I have this idea that I want to see if you want to write it with me.’ It’s always more fun to joke around and punch up comedy with another person.”
DuVall, who wrote “The Intervention” alone, agreed. “Writing is such a lonely process, and when you’re writing comedy and elements of it are more broad than what I’m used to, it’s even lonelier,” she said. “But I think together, we were able to sort of develop this banter that fit more into that tone.”
Holland, who identifies as straight, was respectful of the delicate personal nature of the film. “This was Clea’s story to tell, this was representative of her experiences,” Holland said. “I really found my role in this writing process as being there to support and help tell the story she wanted to tell in whatever way I could.”
“It’s not so much like my specific coming out story, per se,” DuVall clarified. “I did come out to my mom in a very dramatic way on Christmas Day and I’ve spent the majority of my Christmases with other people’s families. I’ve definitely gone home with people and been the ‘friend’ and I’ve had people come places with me and they were the ‘friend.’ It’s really like a mosaic of all the different experiences of, at least for me, being a gay person.”
Another thing that helped: they’re both big rom-com fans, all the better to build a film that fits neatly into the genre but is also able to, as Holland puts it, “disrupt the beats” of what tends to be a rigid style of storytelling. Fans of romantic comedies will recognize many elements of the genre in “Happiest Season,” but DuVall and Holland’s script often adds a twist to well-worn bits of story.
“It’s a very heterosexual genre and to be able to have all the same feelings and see a story that feels familiar, that you connect with, but that also has two women at the center, it shouldn’t seem that radical, but it kind of is,” DuVall said. “I really wanted the movie to feel accessible to all audiences. It’s exciting to me that there are people who might be going into this movie thinking that it might not be for them, and then they will still have a character that they connect with, and that they will feel seen in a different way.”
For reference points, DuVall, Holland, and the rest of team mostly stayed away from other Christmas movies — save for “Home Alone” — instead leaning 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 inform a story that both embraces their tropes and gently pushes them into something new.
“In telling the story the way we did — in a holiday movie, with comedic elements — I hope that we’re able to reach new people who maybe have never seen a movie for a queer person or a queer couple, who maybe have never seen this relationship and who have their own judgment or reservations,” Holland said. “I hope we’re able to reach those people and have them watch this and be invested in these characters and understand that this is love.”
While DuVall doesn’t appear in the film (eagle-eyed viewers will, however, see her in a zippy end credits montage that hints at a funny character reveal), Holland appears as Davis’ wacky (and scene-stealing) sister Jane, who is also struggling to fit into her very uptight family. “When we first started brainstorming about the movie and the family and those characters, we started circling around having the middle sister be a bit eccentric,” Holland said. “And as soon as that was decided, I was like, ‘I want to play her!'”
The pair sold the script to Sony’s TriStar arm at the end of 2017, though the project wasn’t announced until 2018. By November of that year, DuVall locked in the next “non-Mary” star: Kristen Stewart. “I’ll be very transparent that the Abby character is very much based on me,” DuVall said. “There’s a lot of me in there, and Kristen and I would joke all the time about it. She’d be like, ‘I’m playing you, how would you say it?'”
The part of Abby is not an easy one, a role that requires the comedic timing and charm indicative of the best rom-coms, plus an ability to shoulder the tougher moments with real emotion. “I know that for me as an actor, that is not comfortable,” DuVall said. “There is this side of the movie that is very light and silly and then it takes a hard left into very real territory, because it is a movie that’s about something very, very real.” Stewart fit the bill.
Casting Harper took a bit longer, but DuVall had long been a fan of Mackenzie Davis, who first appealed to her after her turn in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian.” After that, DuVall couldn’t stop seeing her in things, from pal Sophia Takal’s “Always Shine” to Jason Reitman’s “Tully.” “She is just this incredible talent and really embodied so many of the qualities I was looking for in Harper,” DuVall said. “When she came on board, it just really felt like the right match.”
Fortunately, she said, that feeling was shared by Stewart too, all the better to sell the pair as a loving couple. Their first meeting was, much like something you’d find in a rom-com, a bit like a blind date.
“I felt like I was on a blind date that I had set up, but then I was sitting at the table with them and I kept thinking, ‘What’s going to happen? I hope they like each other,'” DuVall remembered. “I was so nervous. We were all nervous, but within 10 minutes of being there, it just felt totally comfortable. There was almost an instant shorthand and they really got along and they really love each other and their connection is so, so special.”
The rest of the cast is kitted out with people DuVall saw as “strong comedic actors, who also were able to switch from the comedy into the real grounded aspects of the character,” including Mary Steenburgen, Victor Garber, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, Michelle Buteau, and Burl Moseley. “It’s such a puzzle, putting it all together, and finding the right people, and making it feel authentic. And you just hope that everybody gets along and that what you feel in the room comes onscreen.”
Some of DuVall’s casting choices eventually informed key changes to the script. Emmy winner Levy is predictably hilarious as Abby’s best friend John, but DuVall didn’t want Levy’s character “to be like a stereotypical gay best friend role.” She and Holland eventually found a way to turn a relatively short scene involving Abby talking to John about missing her family during Christmas into a major emotional turning point not just for the BFFs, but for the entire audience.
Late in the film, Harper’s sexuality is unmasked — without her consent — to her entire family, the kind of big revelation scene that has populated many a rom-com, but “Happiest Season” gives it a painful twist. Harper doesn’t use the moment to finally come out, but to pull herself deeper into the closet. It’s heartbreaking for Abby, and the kind of disruption to genre expectations that makes the film so special.
“We all have our baggage, we all have our main triggers and our fight or flight responses, and I think Harper is someone who was like operating in this certain way for a long time,” DuVall said. “It’s this devastating moment where your instincts kick in and you realize that you have not come as far as you thought you have, because you haven’t really confronted yourself. It’s a very humbling moment and something that I think we can all relate to, no matter what it is we’re overcoming. You don’t overcome it on the first try.”
As Abby flees from the scene, it’s John who catches up with her. Instead of tossing off some sassy witticisms, Levy’s character instead offers an emotional and introspective assessment of the situation, one that leans heavily on some necessary empathy.
“I wrote this speech about coming out, because I was thinking about how we can have compassion for Harper in that moment,” DuVall said. “She does do something that is pretty bad and I can see why an audience would be upset with her, but it’s also about wanting to have compassion for people who are going through that. Coming out is so different for everybody. For some people, it’s super easy and I think that’s great for them, but for a lot of people, it’s really not.”
In an movie very close to her heart, it’s that scene between Stewart and Levy that might prove the most resonant, and it accomplishes that by subverting so much of what we expect from rom-com grammar.
“I know that I have done a lot of things on my road to self-acceptance and to coming out that I’m not proud of and had to go back to people and make apologies and I’ve had people come back and make apologies to me based on their behavior,” DuVall said. “We all have to be really gentle with each other, and his speech was my way of showing compassion to everyone who might be on either side of that situation.”
It’s no surprise that DuVall takes the role of director seriously, bringing to her work not just her personal sensibilities and obsessions, but years and years of working in front of the camera. She knows the difference a happy set can make on the final product, and she’s intent on building that sort of 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 sometimes,” DuVall said. “It’s hard enough to make a movie, and you just want everyone to be there for the right reasons, and you want everybody to not only feel supported by me, but feel supported by each other.”
Her work on “The Intervention” helped, too, turning her into a scrappy, resourceful filmmaker eager to take the next step. “Not only did we not have a lot of money, but we didn’t have any resources,” DuVall said of the 2016 film. “I think we had two grips and we had four lights, but we were able to make it work and make a movie that looked better than the resources we had to make it, and we did it so fast. Knowing what could be accomplished [with that], it just gave me the sense of, ‘Okay, if I can do that, I can do this.'”
For “Happiest Season,” which shot on location in Pittsburgh in early 2020, DuVall kept that DIY spirit going, albeit with a few more resources. “There were so many days I thought we were never going to get through and that we were never going to make it, and we did,” DuVall said. “I knew I could do it because we had an incredible crew. We had more than four lights! We had more than two grips! We had a studio behind us that really believed in the movie and really wanted to help us make it as great as we possibly could.”
IndieWire first checked in with DuVall during a “virtual” visit to the edit bay in July, when it still seemed that the film was going to hit theaters. Nearly four months later, that was no longer the case, and in early November, Sony opted to sell the film to Hulu for a streaming premiere. DuVall has nothing but praise for the studio, and while the rom-com isn’t getting the theatrical release she dreamed of, she’s happy where things have ended up.
“I was mentally preparing myself for it for a long time, just as we were coming up against the time where I was potentially having to encourage people to go to movie theaters in a time where I myself wouldn’t go to a movie theater,” DuVall said. “I absolutely wanted a big theatrical release for this movie. It felt very significant to me for people to be able to go to a movie theater and buy a ticket and sit in a seat and get an overpriced soft drink to watch this movie.”
That was, after all, what had inspired DuVall to make “Happiest Season.” But so did a desire to tell a hopeful, happy, funny story to a wide audience, and that hasn’t gone away. If anything, it seems more possible than ever now.
“But then 2020 happened and it has been such a difficult year for so many people,” DuVall said. “To be able to provide for people a movie that will hopefully give them all the warmth and comfort from the safety of their homes, it feels like the right time for it. Hopefully it will make people feel happy in a year where I think we all really need it.”
“Happiest Season” is now streaming on Hulu.