Interview: Mary Holland on the deliberate subversion of the queer rom-com ‘Happiest Season’
Holiday rom-coms: they’re not just for straight people anymore!
In Happiest Season, Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) play a lesbian couple visiting Harper’s family for Christmas, but there’s a catch (duh!). Not only is Harper’s family in the dark about her relationship with Abby, they don’t even know she’s gay. What a world.
Featuring an ensemble cast including Alison Brie, Dan Levy, Aubrey Plaza and Mary Steenburgen, the movie revels in cozy holiday movie tropes, while its leading couple breaks the norms of the genre’s heteronormative traditions. Their romance, however, isn’t played up for risk or shock value. Rather, it manages to exist in a space that most on-screen queer relationships can’t seem to find: normalcy.
“She’s one of the most important people in my life, and that happened over the course of writing this movie. It’s a special movie for so many reasons, and that’s one of them.” – Mary Holland
For writers Clea DuVall (who also directs) and Mary Holland (who also plays scene-stealing sister Jane), planting the love story in ordinary roots was crucial. The duo set out to make a Christmas movie with all the trimmings of a traditional rom-com — just one that happened to feature a same-sex couple at its core.
“It is a universally relatable story and it is told through this new perspective that we haven’t seen before. So yeah, I think there is a lot of added pressure. It’s the first of its kind, but by no means the last of its kind. This is just the beginning of seeing these stories represented in this genre and all genres.” – Mary Holland
Holland spoke with Daniel Trainor and Sam Stone about the writing process, the delicate handling of a queer love story, and how she’s been able to pick up creative momentum during quarantine.
The full video interview with Mary Holland can be found here.
Daniel Trainor: Hi, Mary! Thank you so much for taking some time to chat with us today, we’re thrilled.
Mary Holland: I’m excited to talk to you! Thanks for doing this.
DT: I have to ask, first of all, what does it feel like to co-write a movie and then also steal it with your performance?
MH: (laughs) Well, that really is so kind. It was such a joy to write that part because, very early on, I expressed to Clea [Duvall] that I wanted to play the middle sister. So, we really wrote her with me in mind. There are many details about Jane that are true of me. She’s very special to me. Every time I got to play her and interact with all of these other characters, it was just a blast. I had so much fun.
Sam Stone: I was so excited to see a movie centered about queer woman and the queer female experience, which we don’t get to see. How did you and Clea approach the nuance of that representation and the nuance of the coming out experience?
MH: Well, Clea has had this idea for a movie for a long time. We met working on “Veep” and she knew she wanted to write it with somebody. A comedy is always more fun to write with somebody. To make sure it’s funny, you know what I mean! She asked me to write it with her and, as such a fan of Clea’s, I was on board from the beginning. I was over the moon to work with her in any capacity, but the story was also so beautiful. We’re both big fans of holiday movies. It’s inspired by her experiences and, as somebody who has not had the experience of coming out, I really saw my role in the writing process of supporting telling the story. She also came into the writing process knowing she was going to direct it, so she really had that vision and the guidance the entire way through the process. Co-writing with her, I was very aware that this story is so significant and something very personal to her. It was something that I wanted to help tell in the best way I can.
DT: I would love to ask about the writing process itself. Everybody does it differently. Were you guys in the room together, were you sending pages back and forth, were you on the phone, what was the process like?
MH: We were together, beginning to end. We would get together almost every day and talk for hours and hours and hours. We never split up the work. We didn’t go away and I’d take some scenes and she’d take the others. We just combed through it. It took time! Clea, who has such clarity of voice, holds everything that she makes to the highest standard. She wants the story to be as fully fleshed out and thought-through as it possibly can be. We would just go through line-by-line, page-by-page, when we were in the phase of drafting it. What’s interesting is that, when Clea asked me to write this with her, we didn’t know each other. At all. We were practically strangers! So, another really special thing about this is that we were becoming friends. She’s one of the most important people in my life, and that happened over the course of writing this movie. It’s a special movie for so many reasons, and that’s one of them.
SS: How much of a discussion was there about this being a love story between two women? You don’t want to pigeonhole the movie, but I imagine there’s some added pressure to make sure the story is true and real to life.
MH: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s why choosing to make it a holiday rom-com was such a great choice. Those movies are really special to us. They are comforting, they become part of our holiday traditions. They’re very formative for us growing up. It’s also a genre that we know so well, because they are movies that are so special to us. There are tropes and rules that you play by within that genre. I heard Clea talk about this, which I think is so great, she said the most daring thing you can do in this groundbreaking movie about a queer couple is to make that it as “playing by the rules” inside that genre as it can be. It is a universally relatable story and it is told through this new perspective that we haven’t seen before. So yeah, I think there is a lot of added pressure. It’s the first of its kind, but by no means the last of its kind. This is just the beginning of seeing these stories represented in this genre and all genres.
You want to be honest about that experience, but still have the movie have the joyful, happy and celebratory ending. You want to be true to that experience and how hard that is and, in some cases, painful. But you want it to be celebrated and joyous.
DT: You mention that you’re a big holiday movie fan. In the process of writing this, were there any that you went back and watched as inspiration? Or did you try and close yourself off so you weren’t too influenced?
MH: Some of them I just know so well because I watch them every year. “Home Alone” is probably my favorite holiday movie. I watch it every year. That’s the one we talked about when we first started writing. “The Family Stone,” too. All these movies that explore the idea of coming back, or coming into a new home, for the holidays. We wanted to really capture the spirit of that genre and the nuanced element of the family dynamics. “Home Alone” is a big comedy, but all the scenes with the family together and the chaos of it, it feels so real. I think that’s why people love it so much. It’s so relatable. It was important for us to capture that same kind of nuance of a family relationship.
SS: How much of your family’s tradition did you bring to the movie? Is that family at all like your own?
MH: No! The only thing that I would say is similar is the sister dynamic. I’m very close with my older sister. I have an older sister and an older brother. My older sister and I are very close. Growing up, we were just at each other’s throat. Some of the worst fights I’ve ever been in, both physically and verbally have been with my sister. The deeply ancient, personal and raw feelings that a sibling can elicit in you, and the behavior that follows that. When you’re back in your childhood home, how you revert back to old patterns and behaviors and weird ways of handling stimuli. We definitely drew a lot from my personal experiences with my sister.
DT: This didn’t occur to me while watching the movie, but as we sit here through these “unprecedented times,” this is going to be a movie that people can watch who might not be able to go home for the holidays this year.
MH: Yeah! We’ll bring all the family drama you want!
DT: Exactly. To wrap things up and to deviate from the movie briefly, you are such a talented improviser and I’ve watched you countless times at UCB here in Los Angeles. I have to imagine these past number of months have been difficult for you, as somebody who is so used to performing and getting juice from a live audience. How are you sustaining yourself creatively?
MH: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much. Improvising and having the privilege and opportunity to perform weekly at this great theater that had such great audiences and where I met my community was such a huge part of my life. To have that suddenly, and I’m sure everybody is experiencing this on different levels, but to have that suddenly taken away was really tough at first! I was grateful to have had this experience of writing with Clea because if you had told me “Oh you can go right something during this time,” I would have been like “No, I can’t! You can’t just do that!”
DT: The initial idea of using this time to write a script was like, eyeroll, “wow, good for you!”
MH: (laughs) Yeah. Good for you, geez. But writing with Clea really did make me feel very empowered and I learned so much from her. So much about how to tell a good story and the level of attention-to-detail and care and thought that it requires to tell a good story. I learned a ton about that from writing with Clea. I did write a bunch during these last few months! I wrote a horror/comedy script with Betsy Sodaro and Maureen Bharoocha. Lauren Lapkus and I are working on a project together. It’s been nice to channel that improv energy into collaborating in that way.
DT: Mary, the movie is wonderful. Congratulations. You steal the show, and the fact that it’s a queer story just makes it even more special. It’s going to brighten up a lot of holiday seasons.
MH: I hope so. Thank you so much!
Happiest Season will be available to stream on Hulu beginning November 25th.