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Paul Feig Interview: Last Christmas

Paul Feig black and white

Director Paul Feig is back with Last Christmas, a delightfully kind-spirited romantic comedy about getting by during a particularly rough Christmas season. Set against a backdrop of music from the late George Michael, Last Christmas stars Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) as a young woman meandering her way through life, directionless and full of resentment towards her family, her friends, and herself. Henry Golding (A Simple Favor) plays Tom, a man who enters her life like a whirlwind, with his passion for living life to the fullest inspiring her to start doing the same.

Feig is best known for his dialogue-driven comedies like Bridesmaids and Spy, but he's recently started to branch out into more genre-focused fare, including A Simple Favor, a light-footed, French-tinged neo-noir starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. While that film explored "the darker side" of Feig's brain, Last Christmas is firmly rooted in his light side. It's a jolly romantic comedy that makes great use of its Christmas setting, a script that makes use of timely plot points about immigrants and Brexit, and standout performances from its charming young lead actors. The film also features a particularly mesmerizing turn from Michelle Yeoh as a middle-aged business owner whose tough exterior can't help but melt a little thanks to an unexpected holiday romance.

Related: Last Christmas Cast & Character Guide

At a New York City press day for Last Christmas, Screen Rant sat down with Paul Feig to discuss his work on the film, from casting Henry Golding to getting to utilize the gift of George Michael's legendary canon of music. He discusses his approach to developing three-dimensional female characters and his signature eye for discovering and nurturing A-list talent.

Last Christmas is out now in theaters nationwide.

Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding in Last Christmas
Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding in Last Christmas

Let's talk about Last Christmas. Henry and Emilia are completely adorable together. I love them. You talked about casting him in A Simple Favor and how the studio made you do chemistry tests with him even though you knew he was the guy.

Yes.

Was the situation different this time? Was he a shoo-in?

When I read it, I was like, this is the role for Henry. This is Henry. This is who he really is, this really positive character. But Crazy Rich Asians hadn't opened yet. I had such a good experience with him, that I kept putting him on the list with the other, bigger movie stars that the studio was thinking about. I was just trying to bide my time until Crazy Rich came out, because I was pretty sure it was going to go through the roof. My wife saw an early cut, and she went crazy for it. And so it was just this dance of like, "Okay, we're almost there." So then, when it opened that weekend, that Monday I was like, "Hey, remember Henry Golding?" "Oh, we love him! Please cast him!" So it took some fancy footwork to get him in there, but once they saw what he could do, they went crazy for him.

You have an eye for talent. We talked a little about it last time I interviewed you, but you really have an eye for seeing people and knowing they're going to be stars. I mean, you did it with the entire cast of Freaks and Geeks. So, what do you look for in a star? And do I have it?

I see you, I see you right there! (Laughs) It's charisma. It's an undefinable thing. All I can say is, I don't know it until I see it, but when I see it, I know it. It's just something that breaks through that makes you sit forward and go, "Wow, I really like this person." For an audience, that's really what a star is. We, in the audience, see them and go, "I like them, I'll follow them anywhere, on any adventure. I care about them." So you can't even intellectualize it, really. That's why I don't even really audition people for big roles anymore. I just like to sit with them, and go have a drink, have a meal with them, and hear them, see what they're all about. If they make me laugh, if I lean in, if I'm fascinated when they talk... From that, I go, okay, what's the best way to showcase that. That's why I always try to find the role for the person that I think reflects who they actually are the most. Case in point, Emilia Clarke.

How did you get Emilia?

Four years ago. I loved her on Game of Thrones, and she was getting great reviews on this Broadway show, and she was in L.A., so I asked, "Can I meet her? Can I have a meeting with her?" They said "sure." She comes over, and I'm expecting a very stoic, serious, proper person. But she comes in and she's funny. She's just goofy! Making her faces and all that stuff. She was so delightful, I was like, I want to see that, you, on the screen in something. I've seen you play, awesomely, Danerys, but I want YOU. But then you have to find the right piece of material. Then, when I read the script, and I see, oh God, this is what she could shine in. She could do all these levels! She could do things that frustrate the audience, but we're still going to stay with her because we're invested in her and we really respond to her, you know? We root for her! That's my favorite thing. When I can find that marriage of the right role with the right actor that's going to showcase themselves the best in it, then all bets are off. There's nobody else. Everybody else just blows out of my head.

Paul Feig in Wired

Something I really appreciated about Last Christmas is how it adds to your ouvre.

(Laughs) I like that!

You've build a reputation on these big actor-based improvisational comedies, and then applied it to different genres. But with A Simple Favor, you talked about how it was a very different direction for you. For Last Christmas, I feel like the new direction is playing the rom-com so sincerely straight. It's just so jolly, let's just love the idea of two people meeting each other!

It's a very good-natured movie. All my movies, I try to make sure they're good-natured, even they get dark.

Even if they have stories about banging your brother (as in A Simple Favor).

Exactly! You still root for her, somehow! You see she's trying desperately to get through her life and do the right thing, even though she's made some mistakes. My wife and I always laugh about... We advertised A Simple Favor as "from the darker side of Paul Feig." She would always go, "They should say this is from the lighter side of Paul Feig!" But it's definitely from the more optimistic side of Paul Feig, if I may speak of myself in the third person.

I'll allow it.

But it all came from the script. When Emma Thompson sent me the script, I didn't know what to expect. You know, she's so brilliant that you almost don't expect this uplifting movie from somebody like that! But then I saw, it's got all these heavier dramatic layers, and that's catnip for me. Even my craziest comedies all have what I like to think of as a dramatic undertone. These are stories with real stakes, about real people. I'm just working my way through the genres. That's all I'm doing. I get bored quick. If I've done something once, I want to do the opposite, and I'll just keep doing that.

George Michael Headshot

Creatively, I think the trinity of this movie is you, Emma, and George Michael.

Yeah.

Did he have any involvement in the film before he passed?

He was aware of it. Emma had actually spent half a day with him, talking about it. He read the treatment for it and loved it and wanted to be involved in the picking of the music. He was so supportive of the project. Beyond that, no. And then he passed. I just wish he was around to see it, because it would just be nice to let him see what a love letter we put to his brilliance.

This makes me seem very young and dumb, but I first learned about George Michael through the Jonny Lee Miller show, Eli Stone, which aired when I was in high school.

Oh yeah! Yeah!

He played a figment of Stone's imagination and his music was featured prominently. That was my big introduction.

I forgot about that!

That was the first time I ever saw him. And, you know, because of that show, I learned all about his music. But some of my favorite scenes in Last Christmas are the almost full-length music video sequences. There are only a few, but I wonder, were there more that you had to edit down to "kill your babies," as it were?

Yeah, you're always killing babies. Even in the ice rink scene, we had to chop it up a little bit, which is kind of like sacrilege for me. But I think we did a good job. We really agonized over how to do it where it didn't bump you and ruin the song. But yeah, when I can play as much as possible, I like to. That's why we have that brand new song that nobody's ever heard. I was like, I'm not going to play only 20 seconds of a song that nobody's ever heard before. So I thought, okay, the intro will be over the last two scenes, and then we'll play the whole thing over the end credits so people can really enjoy the brilliance of this guy and hear this new song. But yeah, there's definitely babies that get killed when you're making a movie, and scenes that I love that get cut out, and songs I really wanted to get in but there just wasn't room for them. Yeah, I could have packed this thing wall-to-wall... But I didn't want it to turn into a jukebox movie where we're just randomly just throwing sh** on there. You know, these songs are here because they illustrate a feeling, or they lyrically illustrate something. In general, the whole mood of a song is affecting the mood of a scene. That's what I want to make sure is working the best.

Last Christmas Main Cast

Not to put the cart before the horse, but do you think there might be a longer cut on home video, or deleted scenes?

We put all the deleted scenes on the home video. We put all those together already. Once I finish a movie, I'm not really a big fan of director's cuts, because I feel like the movie I put out is my director's cut! I'm lucky enough where I've never had a movie taken away from me. It's because I work with the studio. I'm very political and I do everything based off of test screenings. I'm not fighting to keep anything in that the audience didn't like, and I'm not going to take anything out that the audience did like, so by the time it's finished, I'm happy with it! There's scenes I wish I could keep in because I love them, but I also know that they were hurting the flow of the movie. There's a great scene with Michelle Yeoh where Emilia's character comes to ask her if she can get out of work early to go audition for Frozen at the ice rink. Michelle is so funny in it, it's so delightful. But it's just one of those things where you have to go, it's not necessary. Those things add up. If you have things just because you think they're great, the audience starts to get fatigued. You really have to be hard on things. But that's why I love DVDs and streaming and all the extras. It used to be, when you cut out a scene, it just went into the garbage can. But now it can be seen on the DVD.

Your movies do such a great job of reversing traditional gender dynamics, and Last Christmas follows that tradition. If it were a different director, it would be a different thing, like, "He's just trying to keep it together. Then a new girl shows up and turns his life upside down!" It's so funny because you don't change a whole lot by flipping the genders the way you do, having Henry be that person who enters someone else's life like a whirlwind.

Yeah. Again, credit to Emma for doing that right out of the gate. But then, for me, reading that the first time, I loved that she was such a poorly behaved leading lady, leading female character. You don't tend to get that, because of the misogyny of this business of storytelling. It's like, "Oh no, she has to be likable." But it's like, no, she doesn't have to be likable. You have to root for her and you have to see something in her you want her to get back. That's why, when we were writing it, we put in the scene of her singing in the church as a little girl. Because you go, oh look, she's a little angel with a beautiful voice and her whole life ahead of her. And then you meet her and things aren't going that well. So you're like, oh, I want her to be that person who had all that promise. You root for her. Once that's in there, you can have her misbehave. You can have her doing things the audience isn't necessarily happy that she's doing. But it's who she is! Look, Scrooge gets away with it, and we all root for Scrooge at the end of the day because we're happy to see that change. It's fun to do that reversal of what normally goes in movies.

I love that women in your movies are allowed to be flawed in ways that they just aren't in other movies.

It's crazy. It's this whole 15-year-old's version of what women are; they have to be either horrible or perfect. That's boring.

Michelle Yeoh and Emilia Clarke in Last Christmas

One scene in particular moved me, the scene on the bus (in which Emilia Clarke's character, stands up to some xenophobes). I've had that happen to me. I'm very light-skinned because my dad is Polish-Irish, but my mom is Honduran. I really like Emilia's character, who, like me is... I guess the PC word is something like "white presenting" or whatever, I have issues with that, but maybe it's just because I'm a curmudgeon.

No, it's all f***** up, all that stuff.

You can be who you are, and the way you look doesn't necessarily indicate anything, one way or another.

Yeah. Well, that's the thing, everybody is just judging everybody by their covers, and it's getting worse and worse these days, with the current situation we're in.

Oh, I haven't heard anything about that. (Laughs)

Really? Let me tell you about it! There's this guy... (Laughs)

It's so funny, my brother moved from New York to Ukraine a couple of years ago, for school, and he said one of the best parts of moving was getting away from the political situation in the States.

And it followed him there!

He is the whistleblower.

(Laughs)

More: Screen Rant's Last Christmas Review

Key Release Dates
  • Last Christmas (2019) release date: Nov 08, 2019
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