I Visited the “Happiest Season” Set to Chat With Kristen Stewart and Clea DuVall About Their Holigay Rom-Com

In February, I found myself sitting in a folding chair in a country club just outside of Pittsburgh, directly across from Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis. They were dressed for Christmas. The country club was dressed for Christmas. I was wearing headphones plugged into a little microphone pack that allowed me to hear everything Clea DuVall and the actors said when the cameras started rolling. Two days earlier, the Happiest Season PR team had emailed me out of the blue and asked if I’d like to visit the set of the upcoming queer holiday romantic comedy before they wrapped. I thought, “Finally, someone has seen my artistic masterpieces promoting this film!” (They had not.)

And so I put my two nicest shirts in a suitcase and hopped on a plane and next thing I knew, Clea DuVall herself was shaking my hand and thanking me for dropping by. Her handshake was just the right amount of firm, and her hands were slightly calloused, like a carpenter’s. I made a note to tell you that specifically. “Like a carpenter’s.”

I actually made a lot of notes, but it turns out I don’t need them: The thing about being sandwiched in a corner with Kristen Stewart is you don’t really forget it.

Mackenzie Davis, Clea DuVall, and Kristen Stewart on the set of Happiest Season

LACEY TERRELL/Sony Pictures

The story of Happiest Season is the story of Clea DuVall: Harper, played by Mackenzie Davis, is in a loving, committed, healthy, happy longterm relationship with her girlfriend, Abby, played by Kristen Stewart — but Harper hasn’t yet come out to her parents, which Abby doesn’t know. Harper doesn’t reveal this small snafoozle to Abby until they’re in the car on the way to spend Christmas with Harper’s family. Clea wanted to write the movie because she’d lived it, and she wanted it to be a Christmas rom-com because where are the queer Christmas rom-coms, and also because she wanted it to be timeless in the way only holiday films ever really are. So she called up comedic writer and actress Mary Holland, who plays Harper’s sister Jane in the film, and they wrote it and pitched it to Marty Bowen and Isaac Klausner, who’d produced the gay rom-com Love, Simon to great acclaim, and they snapped it right up.

Kristen Stewart signed on because Clea’s story, Harper’s story, is her story too. A young gay woman perfectly content with who she is, in a loving relationship, just not yet ready to talk about it to other people who might not be as supportive as she needs them to be. Only in the case of Kristen Stewart, I suppose, Harper’s loving parents, played by Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber, were the seventy gazillion readers of the gossip blogs that hire the paparazzi that dog her every step. Kristen Stewart said she didn’t just want to play Abby, but that she’d have been jealous if anyone else got to play her. She said, with genuine excitement, “A movie like this has never existed!”

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These are the other things I don’t need notes to recall: Kristen Stewart listened with her whole face, to whoever was talking, and talked with her whole body, and the experience was like being ensconced in some kind of supernatural energy-exchange. I had to shake my head like a cartoon character with bumblebees in my ears to clear my brain when the handler came to take her and Mackenzie Davis back to filming. She was generous with her laughter, and her eyes brightened expectantly when it was clear you were going to make a joke, like she wanted you to say something funny for her and for you too. She was relaxed, on that set where Clea DuVall was in charge and the script was queer and she was playing a lesbian and Mackenzie Davis smiled like twinkle lights and Aubrey Plaza was so effortlessly hilarious. And she was happy. Really happy. That’s what she told the little clump of reporters gathered around her, but she didn’t even really need to say it. She was radiating it.

Mackenzie Davis, Clea DuVall, and Kristen Stewart on the set of Happiest Season

LACEY TERRELL/Sony Pictures

That was true of every single person I spoke with, actually. Victor Garber was delighted by how calm and generous and collaborative everything was on Clea DuVall’s set. Mary Steenburgen, who believes this film will be an all-time Christmas classic, was thrilled to realize that every gay person for the rest of forever will be watching her at least twice a year at the holidays, now — once with Elf and once with Happiest Season. (She was also delighted by Dan Levy, just in general, and said she was considering adopting him, since her own son keeps posting photos of Andie MacDowell on his social media and pretending he thinks it’s his mom.) Mary Holland said the set felt like actual Christmas. Costume designer Kathleen Felix-Hager side-eyed me when I asked her if it was hard to find enough distinct flannels to fit multiple lesbian characters in the same Christmas movie, but then relaxed and laughed when I told her I’m a lesbian and it was a joke (but also my wife and I do actually have this problem with both flannels and beanies, so it’s not really a joke).

When Kristen Stewart said that a movie like Happiest Season doesn’t exist yet, her eyes, which had been giving equal attention to everyone with a recorder out, landed on me and Sam Manzella, a writer for NewNowNext, and stayed there. We were certainly the gayest-looking people in that tiny gaggle of journalists, and we were the ones writing for gay publications. I smiled and I nodded that Kristen Stewart was correct, and Sam smiled and nodded too, and Kristen Stewart half-smiled back at us — you know the smile I’m talking about — and continued what she was saying, moving her steady gaze over our little group.

The funny thing about Kristen Stewart saying a movie like Happiest Season doesn’t yet exist is that of course a movie like Happiest Season doesn’t exist yet, because without Kristen Stewart it couldn’t exist. Her presence is the thing that makes it the thing it is. Kristen Stewart, the Charlie’s Angel. Kristen Stewart, the star of the 3.3 billion dollar Twilight series. Kristen Stewart, stated enemy of Donald Trump who went onto Saturday Night Live and said, “I’m like so gay, dude” to the President of the United States. Kristen Stewart, who has her own Awards and Nominations page on Wikipedia, who is the muse of countless directors and designers, who cannot take a single step in Los Angeles without being assailed by paparazzi, who has been profiled repeatedly by every newspaper and magazine, and whose every public word becomes an SEO clickbait headline (yes, even here). She has one of the most — if not the most — famous gay millennial faces on the planet earth.

In the totality of the lesbian film canon, there are very few movies with actresses as famous or lauded as Kristen Stewart. And there are even fewer movies with out actresses as famous as Kristen Stewart that are also written and directed by queer women. And gay Christmas rom-coms, with warm and well-worn plots that feel like your favorite flannel pajamas? That’s never happened because most gay movies are made by straight people who cannot imagine our stories as anything other than miserable. (And actors who sign on for well-made tragedy for Oscar’s sake.) Toss in Tegan and Sara headlining the soundtrack, and you can drill down all the way and this thing is nothing but gay.

Mackenzie Davis, Clea DuVall, and Kristen Stewart on the set of Happiest Season

LACEY TERRELL/Sony Pictures

And while Clea DuVall was quick to point out — and Kristen Stewart was quick to echo — that this story is her story, and that she’s so proud that it’s breaking down one door, she knows there are still so many more queer movies that need to be made by other queer writers and directors and actors who haven’t yet seen themselves on-screen.

Five years ago, Happiest Season would have been the apex of queer cinema — and now it’s a celebratory pause along a continuum. It’s all I want this Christmas! But I also want Janelle Monáe’s gay rom-com following that classic enemies to lovers Pride and Prejudice plot. I want Janet Mock’s New York City gay career woman comedy. Give me Indya Moore as a Disney Princess. Give me Sara Ramirez as an action star. And where’s Alice Wu’s blockbuster money, and where’s the studios wooing Desiree Akhvahn, and who’s adapting N.K. Jemisin’s three-time Hugo-winning fantasy series for the big screen?

Clea DuVall really seemed to understand that her new film both stands alone, and is also part of a much larger and essential cultural conversation.

I laughed a lot on the set of Happiest Season, because that kind of joy is contagious, because the script is very funny, because Kristen Stewart knocked a painting off a wall between scenes at one point and tried to play it cool but of course there’s a person on set whose entire job is to make sure nothing in-frame changes between takes so he had to come fix it. I also laughed because when I started watching lesbian movies, I did it in hiding, and they were all terrible and tragic. And because when I started writing about gay TV and film, I couldn’t get a single actress who played a gay character to talk to me because they didn’t want to do interviews with a gay publication and get pigeonholed or typecast (and they definitely didn’t want anyone to think they were gay). And here I was on the set of Clea Duval’s latest film, surrounded by wreaths and fir trees and golden fairy lights, and Kristen Stewart was holding my gaze, and she was saying, “I fucking belong in this movie.”

For all the hand-wringing that journalists who profile Kristen Stewart do about whether or not she even wants to be talking to them, and what it means that she ordered this to eat or drink, and was wearing that, and glanced at her phone, or stared out the window pensively for more than five seconds, or the way she tilted her head, or the tenor of her voice, or whatever perpetual judgment that she’s not walking around smiling every second of her life like a circus clown, the vibe I got from her on that rainy, foggy, bitingly cold day in Pittsburgh was that there was nowhere else she’d rather be.

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior writer who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 1062 articles for us.

58 Comments

  1. “Her handshake was just the right amount of firm, and her hands were slightly calloused, like a carpenter’s. I made a note to tell you that specifically. “Like a carpenter’s.””

    Wow Heather I did not realize you had branched out into writing straight out erotica for autostraddle dot com

  2. Everything I’ve seen/read about this film so far radiates a genuine vibe, so I’m not surprised to find that confirmed in this piece. It’s a shame some can’t get past leaving snarky commentary about “white lesbians…again”, while completely missing that this is truly a unique – and necessary – film. I’m STOKED for this one.

      • Totally, I agree it’s valid. But at times it’s only used in a reactionary way – dismissively- without taking into account any of the nuances of the project. But I guess that is the nature of internet comments. I do love this review as well and glad Heather addressed the issue here.

        • It’s not the nature of Internet comments in this case. It’s the nature of living in a country where whiteness is considered the default.

          Comments about the lack of racial representation in mainstream lesbian movies are completely valid. Dismissing those comments as reactionary or snarky is both insensitive and insulting.

          I’m glad Heather addressed the issue here as well.

    • I’m SO excited for this, but the “white lesbians…again” did slip into the back of my mind. Fortunately, the soundtrack is slightly more diverse, and I was so so thrilled to see that it was full of queers and trans folk and not completely whitewashed.
      It’s a BLESSING to see a queer film, written, directed, and starring queer folks. And the soundtrack produced by and compiled full of queer artists. It warms my heart with holiday cheer.
      But this is Clea’s story.
      I just hope that someone will allow a POC or trans writer or director to share their story on such a large platform as well…

      So, yeah, agreed, the snarky comments are missing everything unique about this.

    • I think this is a really white comment, to be honest. I am looking forward to this film, because I love Xmas films and a mainstream gay Xmas film is going to be awesome (since like Heather, as a teen I watched tragic queer films in secret). But when I watched the trailer, I was dismayed at how white the cast was, with the exception of Aubrey Plaza. I have a 20 year love for Clea, can’t wait for the film, but I also wish that the first mainstream queer holiday film wasn’t once again centering whiteness.

      It makes me feel , again, that with few exceptions, Hollywood thinks that my blackness and my queerness can’t coexist, when they are inextricably connected. It is necessary for black and brown people to see ourselves in fluffy, adorable holiday films that don’t subscribe to really boring heteronormative ideas of holiday fun/romance/family too. Why do we keep having to give way to white people to create the template of queerness in the media when 1. they don’t reflect our experiences/histories/cultures and 2. a lot of white queer communities don’t accept us?

      So yeah, sorry that needed QTIPOC critiques annoy you, but I think that it’s a bigger problem that you think that our calls for representation aren’t as important as this film, when that representation will help make a better, realistic (and more festive) space for *all* queer people.

  3. “I also laughed because when I started watching lesbian movies, I did it in hiding, and they were all terrible and tragic. And because when I started writing about gay TV and film, I couldn’t get a single actress who played a gay character to talk to me because they didn’t want to do interviews with a gay publication and get pigeonholed or typecast (and they definitely didn’t want anyone to think they were gay).”

    I love this article and ma ready for the joy in this film to serve as the salve for 2020. Thank you!

    • As a gay carpenter who lives with her wife down the street from where they shot a good chunk of this film (and used to live round the corner from where they shot another good chunk) –

      I feel both a) jazzed to watch it for gayness and remembering the pre-covid Pittsburgh vibes and b) proud of my rough rough hands

  4. I cannot wait for this movie. I cannot even believe it is a thing. it’s like someone looked into my brain and made it. I can already see myself realizing that the reason why I thought I hated Christmas movies was because they were all sooo incredibly heterosexual (and not bc they’re cheesy and romantic). I have already realized that what I needed were cheesy as fuck romantic lesbian Christmas movies!! we are allowed to fall for those stories, too!

  5. I was so excited to read this article that I didn’t check to see who wrote it first. A few paragraphs in and I’m like, damn this person is a fantastic writer! I scroll up to see Heather’s name and it all makes sense.

    A movie about queer characters directed by a queer woman. We need more of this. And selfishly I’m just so excited to see Kristen Stewart kissing a woman on screen?

    This is one of the few rom-coms I won’t have to force my wife to hate-watch. She must really love me to put up with my love of Kristen Stewart :P

  6. So grateful Heather has been able to write so many articles this week and so especially grateful for this one.

    To all publicists: please send autostraddle staff to things (when safe) because then I will pay 10X more attention to your client and pay money for their things

  7. White lesbians…again

    So much focus on this film, when a WOC holiday film came out this month on Netflix. Not even a mention of “A New York Christmas Wedding” anywhere on this website even though it’s already out.

    This website is for white women.

  8. What a brilliant article. I hate christmas time in general as Im not a fan of religion, greed and fake cheer but as a Lesbian I can’t wait to watch a film where the lesbian main characters get a HEA.

  9. Great article Heather, smiled the whole way through. I’m hoping that this gets released to an Australian streaming services as tragicaly Hulu isn’t available here.

    Also yes a million times over to a N. K. Jemisin adaption.

  10. The way this article is written is exactly what I wanted from it- sure, I want some information. But what I really want to know what it’s like to fawn over famous lesbians in person. Thank you for this!

  11. I’m disappointed. I love everyone that is involved in this movie, but it seems to be overwhelmingly white, just like The Intervention. In the review for The Intervention, Kayla made a point of it, so I don’t see why all this years later and after all that’s happened in AS, all the coverage here seems to be glossing over that fact. Even making a lot of concessions and benefit of the doubt, this seems a little backwards.

    I still think there’s place to be happy about this movie… like, just watching two women in a relationship in something as mundane as a christmas movie just melts my heart. But it’s not impervious to criticism.

  12. Heather, this is fantastic! Thank you for the work you do and for brining many fans a smile. I cannot imagine landing on a set of a Clea Duvall production and meeting her, Davis, and Stewart. I am so thankful that people coming out now, at any age, can see themselves reflected in film. If you’ve already released the holiday hits and included this next one my apologies. “Let It Snow” from 2019 is a sweet romcom with lesbian characters. It is based on the YA novel of the same name by Maureen Johnson, John Green, and Lauren Myracle. Green and Myracle have had their work challenged multiple times and it’s so good that they continue to write in spite of challenges. I would love to see that film and their work highlighted.

  13. “The thing about being sandwiched in a corner with Kristen Stewart is you don’t really forget it.”

    I think I’d say much the same re being sandwiched in a corner w/ you, Heather. :-)

  14. regardless of other important commentary re: race and romcoms, I can’t get over the whole ‘this has never been done before’ when Lez Bomb exists?? which is a *terrible* movie, but is absolutely a holiday movie w/ what seems to be the exact same storyline?

    • The difference between Lez Bomb and Happiest Season, from an industry standpoint, is sort of the same thing as the difference between your really talented friends making a web series and uploading it to YouTube and a Netflix series. Lez Bomb was a small indie movie that mostly did the gay festival circuit and was acquired and distributed by a very small company. Happiest Season is a major Hollywood studio film. I doubt anyone outside — and most people inside — the gay women’s community have ever heard or Lez Bomb. Lez Bomb is also a Thanksgiving movie and Happiest Season was made to be a major Christmas movie with wide mainstream theater release (pre-pandemic). I hear you on plot similarities for sure, but it’s really a grapes to watermelon comparison in terms of the types of films they are.

  15. “She was generous with her laughter, and her eyes brightened expectantly when it was clear you were going to make a joke, like she wanted you to say something funny for her and for you too.”
    I’ve never been much of a Kristen Stewart fan, but this is extremely endearing. I am endeared now. Fine.

    Also I now feel bad for thinking that this movie seems to have an implausibly ridiculous plot, since apparently it’s based on Clea Duvall’s actual life? I have questions. But I guess I’ll have to watch the movie to find out the answers.

    As for the Broken Earth trilogy, this is one of my top three all-time biggest movie adaptation wishes, somebody please please pleeeease make this happen!!

  16. “Five years ago, Happiest Season would have been the apex of queer cinema — and now it’s a celebratory pause along a continuum.”

    Yes to this and everything that follows in that paragraph. My gut reaction to this movie was “It looks sweet, but it looks so white.”

    But we should have the room to tell our own stories! A Janelle Monáe pride and prejudice style movie would be *chef’s kiss.*

  17. I absolutely adore this film! It is definitely one I will be adding to my annual Christmas movies playlist! And I feel it is one of the few LGBT films or movies that contain queer characters that I can watch with family without any awkwardness. (Watching Black Swan with my parents was one of the biggest mistakes of my life).

    On the #TooWhite front, I’ve got to say it didn’t bother me at all. This is Clea Duvall’s story. Clea Duvall is white.

    She shouldn’t be the one to tell a WOC’s coming out story or portray WOC’s experiences. This is the world she grew up in and knows. To portray anything else would be inauthentic and could essentially come off worst if she got it wrong.

    Speaking of portrayals and representation, I am a West Indian, first-generation immigrant, lesbian. Some of ya’ll probably don’t even know what I mean by West Indian. That’s how much I’m not represented in any media! And I was still able to see my family in the characters, and relate to the characters and situation in this film. My gf and I went through it only a few years ago.

    Hiding your gay identity because you don’t know how family is going to take it is one of the universal gay experiences. It’s not easy for anyone in any culture, from any background.

    That being said, when Desiree Akhvahn (a fellow Brown girl Brooklynite!) decides to direct a queer holiday lesbian rom-com, I will be first in line. But for now, I will cherish this one!

    It may be the first mainstream Hollywood Holiday Lesbian rom-com, but it won’t be the last!

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