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Arts & Life

Filmmaker On New Rom-Com 'Happiest Season'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now that Thanksgiving is in the books, the holiday season is officially on. And what better way to get in the mood than to settle in with your quarantine crew and watch a holiday movie or romantic comedy? Want both? Well, we have a new one for you. It is called "Happiest Season," and it stars Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as Abby and Harper, a couple heading back home for Christmas.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAPPIEST SEASON")

MACKENZIE DAVIS: (As Harper) I want to wake up with you on Christmas morning. And if that doesn't convince you to love Christmas, I'll never bring it up again.

KRISTEN STEWART: (As Abby) Deal.

MARTIN: The only problem is that Harper hasn't told her family that she is gay. And as you might imagine, high jinks ensue. But as you might also expect, that secret tests the strength of their relationship. With its all-star cast and rollout, "Happiest Season" is being celebrated as the first studio-backed queer Christmas rom-com. And joining us now to tell us more is the director and co-writer of "Happiest Season," Clea DuVall.

Clea DuVall, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

CLEA DUVALL: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so happy to be here.

MARTIN: You know, I should mention, in addition to your directing work, people also will have seen you in films such as "She's All That," "Girl, Interrupted" and "But I'm A Cheerleader" and in television in "Veep" and "American Horror Stories" - so an eclectic array of projects there. So I do want to ask - I mean, I'll just tell you this - I am a sucker for a holiday movie.

DUVALL: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So I was wondering if you loved them too. Or was this just sort of an opportunity that came along, and you thought, eh, why not?

DUVALL: Oh, no. I am such a huge fan of Christmas movies. They are and have been a huge part of the holiday tradition for me since I was a little kid. So it was - you know, the idea for this movie was born out of just being such a fan of the genre but never seeing my experience represented within it and feeling like, you know, "Happiest Season" was a great opportunity for me to tell a universal story from a different perspective.

MARTIN: And to that end, though, you know, a lot of rom-coms are, like, two strangers meet, and they are destined, but they don't know they are. But when you meet Abby and Harper, they're already in love. And I was just wondering why you decided to show this - why was that kind of the premise?

DUVALL: I mean, I think maybe because, you know, I'm 43, and I am now married, and I think my perspective on love has really shifted as I've gotten older, now that I've - you know, I'm in a relationship that I consider very successful. And, you know, we did a lot of work to get here. It wasn't just, like, a plug and play.

So having, you know, kind of a couple who knows they are in love, knows they want to be together and, you know, faces an obstacle that they need to get through - I don't know - there was just something about that that felt like a very kind of adult, realistic love story.

MARTIN: The premise is that the test of this relationship, the obstacle that they have to overcome, is, how will they be perceived by Harper's family, who believes that she's straight. At least, that's what they think the obstacle is. And I'm just - I'm not - I'm just going to leave it at that.

DUVALL: (Laughter).

MARTIN: And I wondered if any of the younger folks on your team or any questioned the premise of that because, depending on how they grew up or where they grew up, may not really understand that people are still dealing with this.

DUVALL: Yeah.

MARTIN: And I just wondered if anybody kind of questioned the premise that, you know, who in this day and age would not have told their parents or wouldn't have revealed themselves? And I just - I wondered if that was something that came up in the course of putting this together.

DUVALL: It absolutely did. It was definitely a part of the conversations we were having. And, you know, I think in some ways, I understand why people are saying - like, why some people feel that it is more old-school, or we're past that. But the truth is, like, there are still so many people struggling with this very thing, you know? Or if they're not currently struggling with it, they have in the past.

You know, I think it is a movie that is dealing with something that I think is very relatable to whether you have already gone through this experience or you are in the midst of it or you haven't yet gone through it. I think it speaks to all of those - you know, all aspects of that journey, including people who might not have an insight to what that journey entails.

MARTIN: Well, I do - I will say this - that I love how the film opens up these kinds of questions, but in a very gentle, loving and fun way. And I just want to play a clip about that. I mean, this is Abby. Her character is played by Kristen Stewart, as we said. She's thinking about asking Harper to marry her, and she's talking to her friend John about it, who's played by the hilarious Dan Levy.

And what I love it is that, you know, of course, he's the gay best friend character, but he's a gay best friend to a person who's also gay, you know? So they're best friends.

DUVALL: Yeah.

MARTIN: So it's...

DUVALL: Yeah, exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So there it is. But he's - but they're also asking, like, each other some hard questions that friends really, you know, might ask each other, but in a loving way. And here's this clip. I just want to play it, and we'll talk a little bit more.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAPPIEST SEASON")

DAN LEVY: (As John) Abby, you and Harper have a perfect relationship. Why do you want to ruin that by engaging in one of the most archaic institutions in the history of the human race?

STEWART: (As Abby) Because I want to marry her.

LEVY: (As John) OK, you say that, but what you're actually doing is tricking the woman you claim to love by trapping her in a box of heteronormativity and trying to make her your property. She is not a rice cooker or a cake plate. She's a human being.

STEWART: (As Abby) It's not about owning her. It's about building a life with her. She is my person, and I really want everyone to know that.

LEVY: (As John) I suppose that's one way of looking at it.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Well, yeah. It is.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I just think that does so many things in one place. And I - well, I'll just put it this way. Both you and Kristen Stewart are considered by many to be sort of queer icons for your roles, for your work, for the body of work that you've put together. And, you know, that can be an enjoyable way to be seen, but it can also feel like a heaviness. And I was wondering, when you were putting this together, like, what elements of that were important to you?

DUVALL: It was very important to me that this movie felt authentic, that it feel honest, that it didn't - you know, that it wasn't trying to be something that it wasn't or hiding behind anything. And that's what I love about Kristen so much as a performer, is she is so open, and she is so - you know, there is nothing on her face that you don't see, you know?

And being on this journey with her in particular was really important to me because she is - you know, she is a queer person, and she understands elements of this experience that I think are very - you know, they're intangible. You can't write a description of it. It's just, like, something that is, or it isn't. And I just knew that Kristen would be able to be the heart of this film in a way that it really needed.

MARTIN: Well, I do want to say it is a joyful experience to watch. And as we said, you know, lots of high jinks and, you know, awkwardness and some really unpleasant human behavior. I mean, let's just say...

DUVALL: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, it's...

DUVALL: Yeah.

MARTIN: There's people in there who are not so great, who behave in ways which people, you know, wish - we wish people wouldn't. But they do. And it's - but it's very real. It's kind of very human.

DUVALL: Yeah.

MARTIN: Does it feel like a watershed moment to you? I was just - I think people think of Hollywood as being very, you know, tolerant and having been so for a long time. And yet you still hear stories about, you know, people not being able to be really open about, you know, who they are in their personal lives for fear that it will affect how they are able to function professionally.

So the fact that this is a film that's backed by a studio, the fact that it's getting the kind of studio rollout that - obviously, because we're living in a particular time, it won't get the theatrical release that I think - I'm sure you would have liked. But it is getting the support of the studio. Does this feel like a watershed moment?

DUVALL: I'm hopeful that it is, you know? I think - as an actor, I spent a long time being closeted. And having gone through that experience and then starting to live my life as an out person and as out in my life and out in my career, you know, it really - it was such a journey. And now being able to make this film as an out person and casting queer actors for a mainstream audience, you know, really is significant.

And I really - I am hopeful that it will only lead to more films like it that can have the support and the resources to tell so many more stories - because this is just one, you know? It is - it's one, I hope, in the series of many, many, many. Because that's what's so incredible about our community, is that - the diversity and how many stories are out there and how many stories need to be told. And I can't wait to watch them.

MARTIN: That was Clea DuVall. She co-wrote and directed "Happiest Season," which is now available on Hulu.

Clea DuVall, Thank you so much for talking to us and wishing you the happiest of seasons as well.

DUVALL: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANDY CANE LANE")

SIA: (Singing) Take a trip down Candy Cane Lane with me. It's the cutest thing I'll swear you'll ever see. It's the best, so get dressed and impressed, you and the colors of the rainbow. Take a trip down Candy Cane Lane with me. It's... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.