No one imagines that a Christmas rom-com can be renegade. And yet “Happiest Season,” about a couple played by Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis, manages to be at once deeply, warmingly conventional and surprisingly radical, simply by focusing on a pair of women.
“I just wanted it to feel very, very relatable — but then also completely new,” said Clea DuVall, the director and co-writer with Mary Holland, who also stars as a loopy sister.
DuVall, who is an actress too (“Veep”), has said her own role in the seminal 2000 comedy “But I’m a Cheerleader,” in which she played a gay teenager sent to conversion camp, helped her out of the closet. She came out to her own mother on Christmas Day and modeled Stewart’s character, Abby, after herself. The production included other L.G.B.T.Q. stars, with Daniel Levy as Abby’s scene-stealing bestie and a soundtrack, courtesy of the producer Justin Tranter, performed by queer artists.
They shot in the cold in Pittsburgh — DuVall adamantly wanted that winter light — wrapping just two weeks before Covid-19 upended life.
In a recent video interview, DuVall, Stewart, Davis and Holland — beaming in from different locations, with Stewart’s dogs occasionally barking in the background — spoke about missing each other and somehow not yet getting the hang of Zoom interviews. (“Yesterday I had it on Gallery View, but then I just was looking at my own face the whole time,” Davis admitted.)
“Happiest Season,” which premieres on Hulu on Thanksgiving, was the last big project for all of them — a time capsule and a holiday rolled into one. “Christmas movies are so specific and they become a part of our lives in a way that other movies don’t,” DuVall said. “None of us had any idea just how much we would all need that comfort when the movie came out.”
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Kristen and Mackenzie, your characters at the beginning have such a sweet relationship and real chemistry. Did you build their back story to create that intimacy?
STEWART Right before we started shooting, you and I maybe had a couple of conversations. Do we meet in college? Are you older?
DAVIS We talked so much about our own current or past relationship experiences, what we like, things that felt really specific to our own lives. That’s for me more relevant than the checklist of, OK, we met then, what were our friend groups like when they merged? That stuff is important to a degree but it doesn’t show up in the same way as, like —
STEWART How do you catch a person’s eye.
STEWART I always felt as long as we felt solid going in, we could be like an aspirational, really self-assured couple in a way that strips any kind of discomfort or internalized homophobia that is undeniably applied to same-sex couples in commercial projects. Like, did we seem like lesbians? Or were we just two women in love, and then we do a Christmas movie?
Tell me more about characterizing queer characters onscreen vs. what has historically been represented.
STEWART I’ve had a lot of experience with confusing people and having it be misconstrued as my confusion. It’s like, I’m sorry, you need to catch up. Sometimes I didn’t wear heels when I was younger [and that was commented on]. Wardrobe choices — it became more and more evident that optics really matter, because they’ve been violently used against me.
You know, the word “lesbian” has a negative connotation to me that I have now tried to strip because I grew up being like oh, I’m not a lesbian. Because I hadn’t dated girls yet. But, like, that was violent. In retrospect — just because I have so much of pretty much every other type of privilege — that doesn’t mean that I have to not acknowledge that sucked and felt physical.
So it was important for me in this movie to acknowledge it and be like hey, I’m going to nicely invite you towards me, rather than feel like I’m feeding into an alienation that I have been sucked into my whole life.
DuVALL I think people don’t even realize how rampant homophobia is and how casual it is. And that it does really have a lasting impact.
I so appreciated making this movie with Kristen, because I felt she could understand it in a way that not a lot of people can. I was very lucky early in my career to be in “But I’m a Cheerleader” and play a character that felt like me for the first time, and also seeing that for the first time [onscreen] — it was so major. Creating Abby was really wanting to bring that kind of specificity back into movies.
Mary, you and Clea were co-stars on “Veep.” How did you go from that to writing a Christmas rom-com together?
HOLLAND Our characters on “Veep” never had scenes together, so we never got to be together on set. But I would go to the cast table reads and right away, we sort of locked in with each other and had this chemistry. She told me about this idea, and I was a thousand percent on board. Clea really took a shot in the dark with me. We were pretty much strangers when she asked me to write with her.
Did you have a list of Christmas movie must-haves, like that image of a door with a giant wreath on it opening, which seems like a staple of all holiday movies?
STEWART I’ve seen the movie like three times now — [jokingly] because I’m obsessed with myself. But when the door opens, I feel like the movie gets up and starts to run. And you’re like oh, my God, wait, I’m supposed to run with you? I love it.
DuVALL In the writing we didn’t really watch stuff — we built the world on our own. But once I got into working with our production designer, Theresa Guleserian, and our [director of photography], John Guleserian, that’s when we started creating those iconic images and [making] them feel like Christmas without just putting up a bunch of tinsel and lights.
The soundtrack is also totally Christmas-y. But why no Mariah?
DuVALL Because Mariah’s Christmas song is very expensive.
Kristen and Mackenzie, how do you balance being funny with the movie’s big emotional arcs?
DAVIS Clea would tell us this all the time — don’t try and make it something that it’s not. Don’t shy away from the big romance and don’t shy away from the slapstick and the big emotional moments, because all those things together are part of this genre. So even though your instinct as an actor might be to make it a little quieter, all of those things actually thrive if you invest the most into each of those elements.
STEWART Going back and forth from the comedy to being emotional or hurt was, like, traumatic for me. I would be mad at Mackenzie in the morning.
Dan Levy has a memorable scene talking about the coming out process. How did that develop?
DuVALL His speech was actually almost an afterthought. I was needing to create sides for auditions to see if this actor can do drama.
And then when I got into it I was like oh, this is maybe the most important part of the movie. And it was something that I hadn’t ever really articulated for myself. Because I came out and I think I just brushed it off. Then when I thought about it and that came out — he delivered that so beautifully, I would watch it in the tent and just cry.
STEWART Also Dan, I was so nervous. He’s so funny. I didn’t know him before. I was like, dude, is he going to think I’m like a dumb loser? Are we going to like each other? Because I’ve had experiences with comedians that at first you go, oh, this is going to be really fun, and then you’re like actually, I kind of just feel dumber around this person. And also there is a sort of one-uppy thing some really funny people have.
Dan is the most warm and welcoming and truly observational and neurotic funny person, without ever taking anyone down or being weird and negative. I was like oh, man, it’s going to be so easy to love this guy.
This movie made me realize that there’s a certain amount of tension and release that can be good, but really you do your best work when you’re supported and feel seen. Rather than fighting to feel that — which I have also loved doing, but I’m growing out of. I don’t have the energy for it.
Also, it feels so good to watch a movie where the jokes are so familiar to me and my friends, with relationships between two girls. It feels amazing to take the piss out of stuff that hurts, because that means you can release it.