Considering how universally beloved George Michael’s classic single ‘Last Christmas’ is, it’s surprising it took this long to give it the rom-com(ish) treatment. But now the power duo of Bridesmaids director Paul Feig and British national treasure Emma Thompson (here on co-writing and co-starring duties) has taken the festive favourite and turned it into a London-set tale of heartbreak and healing, starring a post-Daenerys Emilia Clarke and a post-Crazy Rich Asians Henry Golding. For the arrival of the first trailer, Empire tore Feig away from his final mix on the movie in Soho to talk George Michael, the influence of Richard Curtis, and Emma Thompson’s top-notch email subject lines.
When did you come aboard Last Christmas? Did Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings come to you with the script already done?
Emma had started working on this about eight years ago. The idea was brought to her about doing something based loosely on the song 'Last Christmas', and so she worked a couple of years trying to figure out what the story would be. Then she got busy and handed it to Bryony who did a draft, and then Emma developed it for a few more years. A year and a half ago, I got an email from Emma – I'm friends with her because I was supposed to direct Late Night, and then scheduling fell apart for us, but Emma and I really hit it off and stayed in contact. One day out of the blue, this email showed up in my inbox with the subject line 'The Script What I Wrote'. She said, 'Hey, I just finished this script, and I think you might like it and we'd have a lot of fun doing it.' By the minute I closed the last page I was like, I have to do this movie.
Had she mentioned the idea to you at all before sending the script?
I had no idea it existed. I had no idea she was working on it. I knew nothing about it. And suddenly this thing shows up. I made a very unsuccessful Christmas movie back in 2006 called Unaccompanied Minors – it was called Grounded here in the UK – so I was like, I've done my time in the Christmas movie world. When I saw ‘Last Christmas’ on the front page, I was like, oh no. But by the time I was finished with it I was like, this isn't a Christmas movie – it's a story of one woman's journey to heal herself and her family. It's fun and funny, but it's also very emotional. It's got everything.
We're calling it a rom-com-plus, or a dramatic romantic comedy.
Is it a full-on rom-com? If so, it's your first out-and-out rom-com, in a way.
I don't look at it as a rom-com. It's definitely got rom-com elements to it – we're calling it a rom-com-plus, or a dramatic romantic comedy. It is very funny. We just did a test screening in L.A. and the jokes just brought the house down, which was really great, but there's just a lot more to it. It's really got some emotional themes in it about family and about immigrants and about homelessness, and people trying to repair their lives and going through catastrophic illnesses. There's a lot in there, we've just tried to do it not heavy-handed. I'm really happy with the tone that we hit – it takes you on quite an emotional journey of both laughter and tears.
What can you tell us about Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding's characters?
Emilia's character, Kate, her family emigrated from Eastern Europe when she was young. She wanted to be a singer and got to London, and complications happened to her and things didn't go the way she thought they would. It landed her in a very odd place of her life. She's working in a year-round Christmas store in Covent Garden where she's made to wear an elf costume by her boss, played by Michelle Yeoh. It's one of these overloaded Christmas stores where you walk in and it's just an assault on the senses. But then she meets Henry Golding's character, Tom, who's this bike courier who shows up in her life and pursues her. It's through their friendship and the relationship that comes out of it that they both heal each other. It's quite lovely. But her family's a mess, that's something that has to be repaired in her life. We hit a lot of different themes in a very organic way.
When you think about a London-set romantic-comedy-drama, it’s impossible not to think of Love Actually – which Emma Thompson was, as ever, incredible in. Was Richard Curtis an influence on Last Christmas?
My god, if I could make a movie as good as Love Actually I'd be very happy. I feel like we did. I actually know Richard really well and love his work. We want this to be its own beast, but I always feel like Richard and I are really similar filmmakers – we really like comedy, we really like emotion, and we like to try and mix those things together. And that's what this script arrived with, when Emma sent it to me. I want this to be one of those movies that's not frivolous, that means something to you, but that's also fun to watch every year – something that becomes a perennial, that every year you're like, ‘Oh good, that's on again I love that movie!’ And it becomes part of your holiday season, in a very sweet way.
Let's talk about George Michael – is this a musical? How are you using his songs?
George Michael's music is integral to the movie. The songs are hard-wired in –the movie's based loosely off the song 'Last Christmas'. It's not a musical, it’s not Mamma Mia!, but there are moments within the movie where the characters do interact with George's music. That music is really important to Emilia's character, the lyrics mean a lot to her. It weaves in and out, sometimes just being the soundtrack to her life, and other times being something that she is directly interacting with or performing.
There's been a few films this year that have used music by popular artists that haven't been out-and-out musicals, like Yesterday and Blinded By The Light.
I came to this kind of a George Michael novice. I knew Wham! obviously, and I knew his hits – 'Freedom! 90' has always been one of my favourite songs of all time. But I didn't know the full catalogue, because in the US, even though he was really well known, when that Sony thing happened [the singer took the record label to court in 1992, over the lack of control he felt over his work – a case which he lost] I feel like Sony stopped pushing his music as hard. A lot of people in the US don't have a deeper knowledge of his tracks. I got to discover his music once I came on board, doing a deep dive into all his albums, and then going like 'Oh my god, this music is so amazing, what an amazing artist.' There's a depth there, his voice is unbelievable, his songwriting and lyrics are so emotional. That's when I was like, this should really be the soundtrack of the movie. Emma already wanted to have songs in there, and then I was like, let's really go further with it – it's really integral to this character and who she is, and she talks about how it is. To me it gives it a real unity, and much more emotion.
Did you get the Wham Rap in there? That must be a harder one to squeeze in.
Oh, I know the Wham Rap very well! I'm very sad to say that's the one song that didn't get in. But let's say the sequel will be called 'Wham Rap'.
Last Christmas arrives in UK cinemas on 15 November.