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Director Clea DuVall, Mackenzie Davis, Kristen Stewart. Photo by Lacey Terrell, courtesy Hulu/Behind the Scenes.

Clea DuVall: HAPPIEST SEASON

December 7th, 2020

The romantic comedy [rom-com] has been a comedy subgenre since the advent of film making. There are even entire networks devoted to an ongoing slate of films with the escapades of lovers to be united or reunited just in time for the happy ending. 
In 2020, actor and filmmaker Clea DuVall debuts the first commercial studio release same-sex rom-com, HAPPIEST SEASON, with Abby [Kristen Stewart] and Harper [Mackenzie Davis] as the loving couple caught up in ever widening shenanigans, as Harper is not yet out to her family and Abby must masquerade as her lonely roommate for the family Christmas gathering. Filmed entirely in the Pennsylvania winter, HAPPIEST SEASON wrapped just before all production was halted due to the pandemic.
 
Director DuVall talks with SETDECOR about her sophomore effort, the important look of the film and how her own history inspired this new holiday classic.
SDSA Executive Director Gene Cane joined SETDECOR Editor Karen Burg in the delightful conversation with Clea...and they all wish you a Happy Season!
 
SETDECOR/Gene Cane: We know of your work as an actor, often dramatic and gritty, what brought you to the idea of a RomCom?
 
Director Clea DuVall: I love RomComs. I love Christmas movies. I’m a huge fan of comedy, even though a lot of my work is more dramatic, I really appreciate comedy, and I’m not as serious as my work would suggest. So, it’s all very natural to work in that space, and tell a bright warm holiday story. 

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Abby and Harper’s domestic bliss is youthful and contemporary, as shown in the eclectic kitchen surroundings: metal café table and chairs, old timey standing butcher block, countertop storage of glass, metal and plastic containers. Neither stodgy, nor stuffy. Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis. Photo by Lacey Terrell, courtesy Hulu.


SETDECOR/Karen Burg: And it begins in Abby & Harper’s world, the Candy Cane Lane that Harper so wanted to share with Abby, a romantic holiday gesture. And then the next morning, a lovely shot in the bedroom with bed up against the window... the light coming in from outside, the half curtain, and everything in those muted, robin’s egg blue greens...
 
Clea: That space was actually bigger, the room continued on, but because we wanted to get a specific shot, that opening shot of when Harper wakes up the morning after Candy Cane Lane...
We built a wall so the bed could be in the position it was, right next to the window...

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Abby and Harper’s Home. The apartment they share is a small space, mentioned later by the family, so small the bed is pushed against the window, utilizing the windowsill as a nightstand. Photo by Lacey Terrell, courtesy Hulu.


In that shot, there’s a photograph of Abby with her parents. My brilliant Production Designer Theresa Guleserian created the photo. It was actually from a real picture of her and her husband, John, who is our genius DP on the movie, with a young Kristen photoshopped into it. And I just love that so much.
 
Karen: Abby had moved into Harper’s place. So, was it mostly still Harper’s things throughout, or do we have more bits tucked in for Abby, like the sweet photo you mentioned? This movie, you know, is going to become a Christmas classic, and people are going to watch it over and over and look for every detail. So, we’re just curious.

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Abby and Harper’s Home. Pale modern colors and textures are used early in the film in the spaces where Abby feels comfort. Soft throw pillows and a comfy throw show her nesting instinct. Photo by Lacey Terrell, courtesy Hulu.


Clea: There’s actually a lot in there from Abby. The way that I’ve always thought of the apartment is that Harper didn’t really make much of a home of it until Abby moved in, and then they started to make it more, so it had both of their influence.
 
Gene: We understand that for the Candy Cane Lane scene in the beginning, because you were starting after Christmas, the town actually kept their decorations up for you to shoot? 
 
Clea: Yes! We got very lucky that people helped us out with that, because we didn’t really have the budget to decorate the whole street ourselves. So, it was really generous of them.
 
Gene: That’s a lovely story. Just everybody helping out.
 
Clea: Yeah, I was really surprised.
And then, another serendipity was the coffee shop that Abby and John are in at the very beginning of the movie. We had gone to a bunch of coffee shops that didn’t quite feel right, and then we stopped to have lunch during our scout, and while we were sitting in that restaurant, I suddenly realized, “Obviously, this is the perfect place.” 

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City neighborhood café - Shows wintry décor. Snowy walls, seasonal decoration, tabletops and seating lend a contemporary flair... Kristen Stewart, Daniel Levy. Photo by Jojo Whilden, courtesy Hulu.


Karen: And the holiday decorations that Set Decorator Shanna Worsham and team placed in there were all shades of white. Ideal for this part of the film, because the colors really become alive when we come to the Caldwells.
 
Clea: Yes, the Abby/Harper world is a little more muted, and then once we transition into the Caldwell world, that’s when all of the colors get bolder and brighter. 
 
Gene: What was the reason for being in Pittsburg, rather than shooting in Los Angeles, or someplace more movie-centric? Is that where you’re from?
 
Clea: Well, originally it was supposed to take place in New York, and then we just couldn’t afford to shoot there. I’m actually from Los Angeles, but I just really wanted to feel winter. I wanted to feel the season. The sky looks different. The light looks different. I just think, how can you take Christmas that seriously when, I mean, it’s 80 degrees right now here in LA! And people are wearing coats!

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Caldwell House. Festooned with wreathes and garlands to drive the cold winter away, in truth, the crew had to bring in snow to give the full effect in the less-than-snowy Pennsylvania winter during filming. A Stonehenge-like grouping of small evergreens curiously marks the center of the circular drive. A crew member makes last inspections for the camera to roll in. And, of course, it snowed the next day! Photo by Lacey Terrell, courtesy Hulu.


Gene: Right. And also, interiors are different. A home like the Caldwells’ house in a Los Angeles suburb would be entirely different than suburban Pittsburg. There’s something, as a set decorator, when you do Chicago, you know that Chicago is very different than a home in New Orleans, or Iowa, or Texas. Interiors differ. 
 
Karen: Yes. And something we really appreciated was that even though you have this juxtapositioning of the big city to the smaller town, it wasn’t that trite version where the big city is ugly and dark and gritty, and the small town is perfection. It really was kind of a paean to both. 

Clea: Thank you. I really loved Pittsburg so much. I loved shooting there. And even though the original idea was that we would shoot Pittsburg for NY, once I started getting the location photos back, I was like, “Wow, Pittsburg is such a cool place, and we don’t see it very much, so why not embrace all of the gifts that Pittsburg has to offer? Let’s shoot Pittsburg for Pittsburg.” 
 
So, really, it’s definitely shot with a lot of love and appreciation for the city. And, you know, I didn’t want to communicate that Harper and Abby’s life is ,crazed, busy and wild in the city...it’s like they’re normal and they’re happy and their life is beautiful.
And it is actually beautiful, and it’s so grounded. 
 
And then you get into Ted and Tipper’s world, and that is more performative...
“Everything is great here. Everything is perfect.” 
Everything is very well manicured. Everything is taken care of, and “Everything is fine.”

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Caldwell House, exterior detail. All white lights and aligned wreathes show a structured and over-planned Holiday Spirit within the Caldwell Family. What seems to be a festive display is actually more a wall to keep the dysfunctional complacency in and some honest realities out. Note the historical home marker above the ornate door. Photo by Lacey Terrell, courtesy Hulu.


Gene: The Caldwell house. First of all, the entire interior being a build is pretty remarkable. It looks like a well lived-in house. And you have so much character in there that’s given to us with the set decoration, like the living room was more updated. Perhaps because it’s because that’s where they entertained people, as opposed to the rest of the house. The bedrooms upstairs were left as they had been for years, like the girls’ rooms. Or even the dining room off of the living room is much more standard, traditional...all polished wood and Chippendale-themed, whereas the living room is more updated. This tells us something about the parents and what is important to them.

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Caldwell living room: The most updated portion of the house for receiving guests, the color specific Christmas tree stands before the window for passersby to notice. It is a surprise to find the entire Caldwell house was built on a soundstage. Mary Steenburgen. Photo courtesy Hulu.


Clea: Yeah, Theresa and I talked a lot about imagining that Tipper definitely had areas of the house that she would be like, “I’m updating them.” Or “I need to update this.” But not doing everything, still wanting things to hold onto...the traditions of the family...and particularly by keeping the daughters’ rooms exactly as they were, sort of like suspending that in the tradition of their family, and the expectation of them as a way of keeping that alive within their house.
The living room, though, I imagine that probably Jane spilled juice on one of the couches at one point, and even though the stain came mostly out, it drove Tipper crazy for like 20 years, and she finally decided to redo the living room. 

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Merry and Bright, Christmas morn. In the aftermath of the disastrous Christmas Eve Party, the family joins together basking in togetherness and joy, enhanced by the white Christmas lights and practical lamps provided by Set Decorator Shanna Worsham and team. Pictured: Victor Garber, Mary Steenburgen, Burl Moseley, Alison Brie, Daniel Levy, Mary Holland, Mackenzie Davis, Kristen Stewart. Photo by Lacey Terrell, courtesy Hulu.


[For more photos, see galleries above and below!]
 
Karen: We loved the fact that up in the bedrooms, we get a real sense of each character, each person’s history through the sets. And layers of history. You know, it’s not all perfect little girls’ rooms, perfectly matched, they developed layers as the girls got older. And those were mixed in, as happens in real life. 
Was there anything specific that you wanted to make sure represented Harper? Or the other sisters?
 
Clea: The most significant thing was their trophies, that Sloane had a good number of trophies, and then Harper just had so many more. We were just wanting to feel the competition, even in their rooms, that they were always sort of rivals.
 
And a detail for Harper’s room is that putting up pictures of boys on the walls. Is this like a performative act?  Like, “Oh I’m supposed to do this, so I’m going to do it.” But they still live in Tipper’s house, and those would be on the inside of the closet door, because that’s what Tipper would allow. 
 
Gene: Yeah. And also, the Jane in-the-basement-bedroom, it’s less defined. Jane’s room looks like it became a drop-off point. There are things from like every period in there, like Jane, being Jane, just everything just sort of got dumped in there. 
 
Clea: Yeah, everything, yeah, absolutely. We were thinking that Jane also has trophies and plaques, but they’re for like “Parts of the Patient” or “Perfect Attendance” ...like trying to take ownership of whatever small achievements she had. 
 
After the girls were out of the house, Tipper has Sloane’s and Harper’s rooms kept as they were, but with Jane’s room, felt like, “We do need some extra storage space, and I need somewhere to put my crafts things. So, we’ll throw a couple of shelves down there and put everything down there.” That’s what she thought about the space as compared to the rest of the house.

Karen: That’s a big bed, and an Early American style, so that might have been the parents’ old bed that got moved down there. And Gene pointed out the clear princess phone next to the bed...

Gene: And the old-style alarm clock with the big red numbers that got tossed in there at some point.

Clea: Yeah. I mean I think that everything that Jane has was sort of, “Oh, we’re not using this anymore, let’s put it down there and give it to Jane.” And Jane is just always so happy to get whatever, you know?

Karen: Aww. Well, as much they are all quite characters, they’re not caricatures, and neither are their sets, although they might go a bit to extremes.

Gene: And even with Tipper’s Christmas decorations. You could have made her, the character, a little nuttier and more overdone, and it’s refreshing to see that line drawn. There’s just the right amount. It’s maybe a little overboard, but tastefully overboard.

Karen: And with that, I just have to throw in: the leopard wallpaper in the basement bathroom?

Clea: [Laughs.] The leopard wallpaper! We sort of imagined was the one thing Jane was allowed to pick out for herself.
[Everyone laughs!]

Karen: And then there are touches, like in the laundry area of that big space, the rolls of paper towels are arranged so they look like a cloud. And coming down the stairs to the basement, each little landing had a stuffed Santa that was probably an older one, so it got put down there. 
 
Clea: Yep! So many great details. Our whole art department was just like that. They were awesome. 
The ice-skating scene shows just what incredible work they did. 
We were shooting right in the middle of hockey season, so we couldn’t find an ice rink that didn’t have a game, or practice... 
Finally, there was one ice hockey rink that had “enough” time, but even then, we had very a limited window...a limited first day, and then on the second day, we had even less time! 
 
It looked nothing like it does in the movie. It very much looked like a sports complex. There were banners everywhere and the fluorescent lights were different colors, but they all had to be the same for the movie! So, the ice rink was very generous in taking down the banners and helping us out, and then Theresa and her team worked together to create that winter experience on the ice, building those little gingerbread-like houses, and doing the Christmas tree in the center of the rink, making it feel like a festive holiday...like the annual family skating tradition that felt very real and very beautiful. 
 
I was just so blown away by the work they did. And I wish that I had a “before and after” picture to share with you guys, because the work they did just absolutely blew my mind. AND...they had to also be able take it down in half-an-hour! I really want to give props to the art department.
 
Gene: Thank you, because, you know, when people see these sweeping, epic movies, they think there’s something magical about production design and set decoration and cinematography, but when you’re doing something contemporary, they often think you’re just going to a place off the street that was just that way. They don’t realize the art and craft that goes into it in a contemporary setting as well.
 
Clea: Oh yeah. I mean, even the jewelry store at the beginning of the movie, that place looked completely different. I feel like there were so many places where they just created something that wasn’t there or enhanced what was there. 
 
The stage in the Oxwood...There was no stage. They created it. 
We were looking for a setting for the Oxwood, which I named after my favorite gay bar in LA that is no longer there. I loved that place so much. I never went there and not had a good time. It was my favorite, and it’s sad for me that it’s gone. So, this was my little nod to that place and what it meant to me. We were scouting really wide to find a place that felt lived-in, that had character...you walked into the old Oxwood Inn and you could kind of feel the history in it, and I really wanted the Oxwood in the movie to feel that way, too. There’s a gay bar called Lucky’s, in Pittsburg, and that’s where we shot it.
 
Karen: And the set dec team gave it sort of a ‘40s/’50s feel with the Christmas decorations they used. Again, it wasn’t overstated, it was just the feeling that emanated. It was so welcoming and neighborhood-real.
 
Clea: Yeah, they’re awesome. 
 
Karen: And, BTW, you had Sony Tristar backing this film. I mean, that must have been huge for you.
 
Clea: Yeah! It was really exciting. I really wanted to be able to make a movie on this large scale, an LBGTQ story on this scale. And to have them behind me, it was really meaningful.
 
Karen: It would have been wonderful to have had it on the big screen, but at least we have this alternative, and it certainly shows well digitally.
 
Clea: Yeah, I really wish that we could have done that, but you know, I’m just so happy that people are able to watch the movie from the safety of their own homes. It’s a film that’s meant to bring people together, and I think that it being so accessible, and safely accessible, I’m thankful that people will get that experience. 
 
Karen: So, congratulations on what will be a Christmas classic!
 
Clea: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
 
Gene: And I really appreciate being able to talk to you about it, because I, like Karen, really believe this will be a Christmas classic for everybody, and that’s really wonderful.
 
 



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Abby and Harper’s Home. Art scholar Abby had moved into journalist Harper’s more staid apartment, adding much of her own vibrant personality, including the book storage and minimal, non-fussy Christmas decoration. Plants and toss pillows soften the square couch and metal tables. Photo courtesy Hulu.

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Jewelry Store: Abby chooses a ring to present Harper, BFF John looks on in surprise. The store is cool, but not frosty. Kristen Stewart, Daniel Levy. Photo by Jojo Whilden, courtesy Hulu.

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Caldwell House. The family greeting is properly adorned without being kitschy. A country Christmas. Photo by Lacey Terrell, courtesy Hulu.

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Caldwell living room, reverse. Mostly updated with matelassé couches and gold metal glass-topped end tables, white tufted shag rug, diamond patterned wallpaper and coordinated drapery. Tipper has saved some previous elements, Asian style coffee table and ginger jar lamps that perhaps give her feelings of past glory and control. Photo courtesy Hulu.