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‘Happiest Season’ Director Clea DuVall on the Film’s Historic Success, Sequel Hopes, and Aubrey Plaza: ‘She’s a Babe!’ (EXCLUSIVE)

happiest season
Hulu

Happiest Season,” from Sony’s Tri-Star Pictures and eOne, was always poised to make history, as the first holiday romantic comedy about a same-sex couple from a major Hollywood studio. Then the pandemic hit, leaving Sony with little choice other than to sell “Happiest Season” to Hulu. That seems to have turned out wonderfully: Variety has learned exclusively from Hulu that “Happiest Season” broke premiere records for the streamer. Over the long Thanksgiving weekend, the movie had the best viewership for any original film on the service in its opening weekend, and attracted more new subscribers than any other previous feature title.

Directed by Clea DuVall, and co-written by DuVall and Mary Holland (who also co-stars in the movie), “Happiest Season” is a coming out story, revolving around Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis). When Harper invites Abby home for Christmas, having somehow momentarily forgotten that she’s closeted to her family, she conscripts Abby into pretending they’re straight until after the holiday is over — after which she swears she’ll come out to her uptight parents, Ted and Tipper (Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen). At the family’s high-pressured Christmas events, hijinks ensue, and Harper hurts Abby’s feelings a bunch, threatening the relationship.

Of course, being the first of its kind, and serving the underrepresented LGBTQ audience, means that “Happiest Season” inspired an absolute tonnage of deeply felt opinions, which were manifested both in written takes and on social media — most of them were loving, though some wanted Abby to take a different path, and a few were downright Grinchy. But unless you live under a rock (in which case, is there room for one more?), your Thanksgiving social media feeds were full of thoughts — nay, strongly argued points — about “Happiest Season.” Naturally, according to Hulu, it was the company’s most-talked about original film ever on Twitter, and was overall the most-tweeted about movie during the holiday weekend, trending three times.

“Obviously, we all wanted a theatrical release for this, and Sony was such a great partner,” DuVall told Variety on Monday night. “But Hulu just took the ball and did such an incredible job, and were so passionate. It’s really heartening to me that so many people wanted to get this story out there.”

DuVall — a prolific actor, turned writer-director — also addressed the internet’s ardent love for Aubrey Plaza’s Riley, having compassion for Harper’s coming out journey, and the possibility of a sequel. (SPOILER ALERT about the entirety of the movie, obviously!)

What was your experience of the movie going up on Wednesday, and of its reception?

It was kind of remarkable. In all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never had anything come out and have so many people reaching out to me. It was really cool. And seeing on Twitter people talking about it was really exciting. To do something that so many people were noticing — I’m not really used to that. I’m really a fly-under-the-radar guy.

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Director Clea DuVall at the premiere of Hulu’s “Happiest Season” Michael Buckner/PMC

As I was watching the conversation unfold online over the weekend, one thing I was thinking is that “Happiest Season” doesn’t get to be just a movie, because it’s also a symbol — but I would think that makes it hard when it’s also a story that’s personal to you. Can you talk about of being the first in this kind of situation? Is that a burden?

I think it’s a privilege. And yes, I know being the first comes with a lot of expectations. But I also felt like it’s so long overdue for a movie like this to be made on this scale, you know? All I really was hoping for is that it would give studios or streamers the impression that movies like this have an audience, and that people want to see them. I just wanted to do a good enough job that I would get to make more on a larger scale. That LGBTQ stories would be — you know, that there would be more of them!

Getting into some of the things that people have been talking about — obviously, you wrote the movie so that Abby ends up with Harper, but there are so many people who want Abby to be with Riley! Do you —

Do they want Abby to be with Riley, or do they want to be with Riley? I mean, it also can be both.

I think it’s both? But they definitely want Abby to be with what Riley.

Yeah. I mean, listen: Aubrey is incredible. She’s incredible in general, and she was so fantastic in this film. I was so excited when she agreed to do it. And I was so excited when she was on set; I was so excited in the editing room. To be able to make a movie and put someone who I love and admire as much as I love and admire Aubrey into it — and then watch people fall in love with her — is so rewarding. I don’t blame them for loving her as much as they do.

And I think it’s also so cool to have a movie where people are having these conversations, and are having these debates. That people are engaged.

Can you talk about creating Riley in general? What did you want from her character?

I think there’s something so specific about when you are the only queer person in a situation, and another queer person shows up. It is such a relief. There’s a shorthand; there’s a comfort there — it’s just a very specific experience. So much of the time, I’m the only queer person on a set, you know? And then when there’s another queer person there, or queer woman specifically, I immediately am drawn to that person. And we are immediately drawn to each other, and a shorthand develops.

So the Riley character was that; I wanted to give Abby that. I wanted to give her a comfort there in a situation that was challenging. I am friends with so many queer women. And we have like a very special connection, a very special relationship. But that doesn’t mean that when I’m, like, hitting a rough patch in my romantic relationship that I’m gonna go run off with them. Even if it is Aubrey Plaza!

Maybe you haven’t seen, but there are entire posts about how clearly Abby should run off with Riley. Is that a surprise?

I think that has less to do with the movie and more to do with your philosophy on growth and forgiveness. Writing this movie from the perspective of a 43-year-old woman who has not always been my best self — it was a long, windy, messy road to get to the person I am now. I’m very proud of the person I am now, but I haven’t always been that person. It’s understanding that sometimes you have to go low so you can figure out your way back up. And I understand the impulse to just cut and run, and be like, to hell with this. But I also really believe that people can get better, people can grow, and people can change. They can recognize that maybe their behavior is not as good as they know it can be, and that they make a conscious effort to change it.

I also believe that being closeted is really painful. It’s not an easy place to be. And I think having compassion for someone in that situation is really important. The character of Harper is someone who I think feels a lot of shame about it — she feels bad. None of this is, like, easy for her, you know?

I’ve spent four years with Harper — I feel like I understand her, and I love her so much. And I think she’s worth it. I want what’s best for all the characters in the movie. And I think the message that you can mess up, and that you can do the work and get better is really important. And be kind to yourself, and have compassion. Because I think compassion is in short supply.

Yes. 

And it is really like such an important human characteristic, and one that I didn’t have for a long time. And one that as I got older, I sort of developed. It’s something I had to work on. And now I’m so compassionate that I cry at commercials all the time. I cry at, like, the Dodo video of the people who left their dog at the house when they moved. I just can’t get over why anyone would make that choice! I just cry and cry. And my partner looks at me, like, “What are you doing?”

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Clea DuVall and Mackenzie Davis Hulu

To that end, I saw a lot of hate toward Harper not only for getting Abby into this situation in the first place, but that her first reaction is to say, “I’m not gay!” after she’s outed by her sister Sloane (Alison Brie). Can you talk about how you and Mary wrote that scene?

It was really the moment of just the ultimate regression. As soon as they get to the house, she begins to regress little by little, and slip back into that old family dynamic. And by the time that happens, she is at peak fear. To be outed in that way is really intense. Sloane is also regressing. The moment that she does it, she realizes, “Oh my God, what did I just do?”

Harper has the reaction, and then is hit with the repercussions instantly. It’s her bottom, you know? She’s hitting bottom in that moment. All of the old behaviors, all of the family of origin stuff comes not just bubbling up to the surface, but like a geyser flying through. It’s a very painful moment that ultimately is the catalyst for her breaking free from that behavior, and making the choice that she never had the strength to make before. It’s extreme.

When you and I first talked, you said Harper’s struggle with going home and closeting herself made the character “the hardest part in the whole movie.” 

It’s humanizing this experience that I think not a lot of people have seen unless they have been through it. You’re meeting her on the worst four days of her life when she is not herself. It was challenging in writing her, but also even when we were working with wardrobe — because she’s not going to go home in her regular clothes, because her mom will pick those apart. She is trying to emulate the person her parents want her to be. Being able to get all the nuances and make it feel authentic, and make it feel grounded — it’s challenging.

She’s wearing a huge coat in the opening scene, but her wardrobe is more vintage, less fitted. It’s more of the real Harper. And then imagining her getting ready, packing her suitcase, and thinking, “What is my mom not going to give me a hard time about?” Tipper even buys Harper a dress that looks identical to a dress that Tipper wears in the movie. Her parents are constantly trying to subtly and not so subtly turn her into the person that they want her to be, so she’s looking at everything through that lens. I think that is a very real thing. Whether you’re queer or not, parents who are sort of curating their children at all times is really suffocating.

There are a fair number of gay men I know who found themselves surprisingly attracted to Aubrey Plaza’s performance as Riley — one of the fed me this question, in fact! Did you have a feeling that people would be drawn to her character in that way? I mean, this is a whole new thing for her.

Because she’s so magnetic?

Yeah.

I don’t think that you ever really think, like, everyone’s gonna fall in love with something. I didn’t think about that. I knew that people would love her in the movie. I knew she was amazing. And yeah, she’s a babe!

When I interviewed Kristen Stewart, she talked about how the couple needs to be under threat, but duh, it’s a romcom, of course they stay together. But was there any moment during the process of writing this story when Abby ends up alone? 

No. That’s very interesting, though. Like, hmm — I’m suddenly taking myself on a journey of that alternate ending.

I mean, that would be a weird romcom, I guess. 

I don’t think it’s that weird. It’s sort of like “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”

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“Happiest Season” Hulu

Would you want to do a sequel? All those Netflix holiday romcoms all get sequels — why not this one?  

I would love to do a sequel.

Do you have any ideas?

I mean, I have a couple of ideas. We all had such a great time making the movie that we were talking about it then. But it was also just like, who knew if anybody would care about the movie or not? So I definitely am more than open to it.

People are going to be happy about that, especially if there’s a Riley spinoff sequel! Clea, this is the first feature centered on lesbians that has gone viral like this. How does that feel?

I don’t really even understand what viral means. I actually make that joke a lot in our house. Like, I’ll get two text messages, and I’ll be like, “I’ve gone viral.” I’m really just so thrilled that people are watching the movie and are affected by it, and having conversations about it. There’s been so little visibility that for something like this to come out and be so visible and so seen and wanted to be seen by so many people — it’s very humbling. It’s really wild.

This interview has been edited and condensed. And Adam B. Vary — the gay man who is attracted to Riley — contributed to this report.