Interviews Movies

“Last Christmas” Interview With Director Paul Feig

Welcome to Shuffle Online’s post-movie Q&A with “Last Christmas” director, Paul Feig. “Last Christmas” released on November 8, 2019, and centers on a young woman named Kate (Emilia Clarke) whose life takes an unexpected turn after meeting a charming young man named Tom (Henry Golding). We’ve decided to screen the film as a fun way to kick off the holidays and are delighted that Feig was able to sit down and chat with us. To celebrate, he’s also created a special themed drink for the occasion (appropriately coined “Last Christmas”), which you can find the full recipe for below.

Let’s kick it off by just walking us through how it all started. What attracted you to the script? What were those first steps like?

Paul: Well, it goes back a little bit, because Emma Thompson and I were supposed to do the movie “Late Night” together. I was a fan but I had never met her, so when I came aboard that she was like, “Come out to London, I’d love to talk and go through the characters.” So we went, and then she said, “Bring hiking boots.” 

And so we got together and took this four-hour walk through Hampstead Heath, around where she lives, and ended up in a pub for lunch and had the greatest time. We became almost like best friends from this one meeting. So, when the scheduling didn’t work out to be able to do “Late Night,” we were both wanting to work together on something and so we’ve always said, “We’ll figure something out.”

So then, a year and a half later, after I had done the movie “A Simple Favor,” I was trying to figure out what my next movie was.

Which I also loved!

Paul: Thank you so much! And I got this email out of the blue from [Emma] saying, “I wrote this script and I’m only sending it to you. I think if you want to do it we’d have a lot of fun and drink a lot of gin.” I was like, “That sounds fun!” But, you know, you get sent scripts all the time, and so I was thinking, “I hope I like it.” I opened it up and it said “Last Christmas,” which I’d already done a Christmas movie back in 2006 called “Unaccompanied Minors,” so I was thinking, “I’ll never do another Christmas movie again.”

But I read this script and just fell in love with it. I loved the characters, I loved the character of Kate, I thought she was such an interesting character. And it felt like something for Emilia that could work, which we can talk about later. By the time I got to the ending, I was just in tears and so affected by it. I called my wife and told her to read it right away and she came out, two hours later, in tears too and said, “You have to do this movie.” And that was it! I jumped on board and we got it set up at Universal, who wanted to make it, and the rest is history, as they say.

Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding in Last Christmas

I love it. So how did Emilia fall into place, and same with Henry? Were they always the first choices for these roles?

Paul: Yeah, I had a meeting with Emilia four or five years ago now — she was in the middle of “Game of Thrones” and had just come off of doing a play on Broadway that she got a lot of great notices for, so she was in town. And when you’re a director a lot of times they’ll call and say, “Hey, do you want to take a general meeting with someone?” which means you just sit with them in an office and talk. And I said, “Oh my gosh, yes!” 

I kind of expected her to be very serious like she is on the show, on “Game of Thrones,” and she comes in and is just this effervescent, hilarious person. And I, after an hour of talking to her, thought, “I have to get her into a comedy.” I want the world to see her be funny. So, when this came around, we set it up and then what happens with studios is, a lot of times they’ll give you a list of stars that they’ve been wanting to work with or who would trigger a green light for the movie, so there’s 10 people there and one was Emilia. I thought, “This is it! This is the movie I can do with Emilia!” For me, it just wiped any other idea I had out of my mind. We sent the script to Emilia and she loved it. I had lunch with her to go through it and she was in. So it was really exciting.

And then for Henry, we had done “A Simple Favor” together and we just became such good friends on that movie; he’s the most delightful guy I’ve ever met. And I felt bad that he had to play this guy caught between these two other characters in “A Simple Favor,” and he had a lot to do, but again, he’s such a funny guy that I wanted to be able to show that side of his personality. But, when I wanted to cast him, “Crazy Rich Asians” hadn’t come out yet. So they had heard of him, but he wasn’t a movie star at that point.

Then that movie just skyrocketed!

Paul: Yeah! So we were just biding our time wondering, “Maybe this person, or this person would work,” but I was always plotting in my head that I wanted Henry in this movie. So we waited and the opening weekend it just went through the roof. Then I said [to Universal], “Remember that Henry guy?” and they said, “Yes!” And so he got in,  and I got everyone that I wanted.

That’s so awesome, and with Emilia, it’s so interesting, because I remember earlier in 2019 when her New Yorker piece came out about the aneurysms she had. I think while watching “Last Christmas” I kept wondering about how it seems like such a personal role for her, like she’s able to really connect with that character. And I think, for me, it felt like such a great performance because of that. She was able to channel this event that happened to her that was so massive.

Paul: It was a complete kismet kind of thing. I didn’t know anything about this [at the time]; she hadn’t gone public with any of it at all. So when I met with her she said, “I really relate to this script,” then she told me about what she had gone through and I thought, “Wow.” It just affected me and made me feel like this is meant to be. So then, when we were doing this, she wrote that piece and it was so great. Actually, I think it was after, but knowing that she went through that made it a deeper experience for all of us.

Yeah, it’s really powerful. I’m so curious to know, do you have any scenes in the movie that were some of your favorites to film? Or, in the end, that you loved to watch? Or both? You could do both. 

Paul: Exactly, it’s so hard to pick your favorite baby. 

Yeah, right?

Paul: I mean, honestly, shooting in London was always a dream of mine. I’ve been looking for years to figure out how to just shoot a movie in London. Not even where I could show off London. And so, when I read it, I thought, “This is the one where I can do my love letter to London.” There’s certain locations that were really hard to get, like on Regent Street when they’re waiting for the bus after their first date, that is the main drag of London. But they decorated it with all of those lights and I thought, “I want to show off decorated, Christmastime London.” 

So, first of all, we had to rush to get into production. We had three weeks before Christmas happened so we could capture all of those lights. But then, even shooting out there, we couldn’t bring in lights. We couldn’t bring in much equipment. We had to shoot in the middle of the night, so it was freezing cold, poor Emilia in her little skirt with her tights, it does not work against a whistling, sub-thermal wind. So I get very happy when I watch that. 

I loved doing the ice skating scene [as well]. That was really fun and is very fun to watch all of us doing that because I was on skates, my DP was on skates, the camera people were all on skates. And I’m not a good skater, but I’m skating behind the camera trying to keep up because they’re going around [Henry and Emilia]. But it was just so romantic and to be able to use that George Michael song “Praying for Time” which, when I first read the script, I knew this song has to be here. Everyone thought, “Oh you’re going to put in a romantic song?” and I said, “No, it’s got to be this one.” That song is so weighted with other meaning, and I like that there’s kind of a dark element to it. Once you know what happens in the movie, you kind of go, “Oh gosh, they really were praying for time. Both of them.” 

It’s funny, whenever I make a movie I watch it a million times before the premiere — with an audience is my favorite thing — then immediately after watching it at the premiere my brain turns off and I go, “Now I’m never going to watch this movie again.” So I’ve avoided it, but just the other night, since it’s been a year and I was thinking, “Maybe I’ll just check in on it,” and I had so much fun watching it again. It brought up such warm memories of everybody. You know, that cast is the nicest group of people I’ve ever worked with. I mean, from top to bottom, everybody was so nice and Emma, the legend, and being on set with her everyday, it was just wonderful.

Even Michelle [Yeoh], she’s great and was great in “Crazy Rich Asians”, too. Both she and Henry are amazing to watch.

Paul: It’s crazy because, again, Michelle is somebody I’ve been wanting to work with for 20- plus years because I’m a huge Hong Kong movie fan. I’ve seen every movie she’s ever made, but in my mind, she didn’t exist. She’s this mythical creature. And when we were doing “A Simple Favor” we were in Toronto, and Henry had already done “Crazy Rich [Asians],” but Michelle was there shooting “Star Trek.” So he called me up one night and said, “Hey do you want to have dinner with Michelle Yeoh?” and I said, “What?!” I was terrified […] but I met her and she was so warm and funny. The minute I met her, she was making jokes and it didn’t even compute for me that they had just done “Crazy Rich [Asians]” together or that it’d be a reunion on screen, but she brought it. And again, to get a chance to have Michelle Yeoh do comedy, which she doesn’t ever do, was just *chef’s kiss*!

So, to kind of segue from when you were talking before about the ice skating scene and the music, how did you guys go about choosing the songs for the movie? Because there are so many, and I love how it opens with that choir singing “Heal the Pain.” I mean, what a way to set the tone for the movie, right? So I was just curious how you chose everything.

Paul: It was very organic, because the original script that Emma sent me had references to George, definitely, and George had actually been aware of the project before he passed and wanted to do the music for it. But there were only placeholders for a couple of songs in there, other than the fact that it was called “Last Christmas,” based on the song. You know, because of doing the movie, I started to do a deeper dive into all of his music. I was a fan, but like a casual fan of the hits, and so I wasn’t aware of the deep tracks — which aren’t really deep tracks unless you’re not as familiar as I was. It’s once I started going through all that when I thought, “Wait, this has to be the soundtrack for the movie. We really have to do this.” And that opening scene wasn’t in the original script, but we all decided we wanted to have a moment of seeing who Kate was, you know? 

I like doing that. We had that in “Bridesmaids,” too — where you meet a character who’s down on their luck, but at some point you go, “Oh, this is who they were, I want them to get back to being that person.” So it gives you a rooting interest in a character who can sometimes be a little more challenging or a little more ill-behaved. And so, we added that scene and it was just like, “You should think it’s a hymn, but it’s actually a George Michael song,” and I fell so head-over-heels in love with the song “Heal the Pain” that, to me, the movie is called “Last Christmas” but it should really be called “Heal the Pain.” Obviously, I use the song over and over in the film in different ways — but the lyrics, the music, everything about it is perfect. 

So that was a big moment of, “We have to do more of this,” and then I scripted in a lot of songs,  like using “Praying for Time” at the ice skating rink, so they were hard-wired in there. But then, as we were finishing up the movie, we thought, “You know what? Instead of putting a score here, this George Michael song is perfect for this,” and “This George Michael song says this message better.” It just felt right. It kept growing and growing and growing to where there’s… I forget how many songs there are, it’s a lot. But it’s great because it’s nice to give that tribute to George, who was such an enormous talent and I had the luck of getting to dive so deep into his life and work through the movie. It’s so sad that he’s gone, but so nice that we could at least, in our own way, pay tribute to him. 

It’s so cool that he was able to see the script and be able to be a little part of it when it was still being put together.

Paul: Yeah, the homeless element was something he wanted in there when he had talked to Emma, because he did a lot of work with homeless charities. He had said that it’d be great if that could be something in the story, so she found a way to put that in. It really does feel like he’s in there.

That’s amazing. Is Emma Thompson a big George Michael fan? Is that where it stemmed from?

Paul: Yeah, she knew him and was friends with him, but the origin was really our other producer, David, had called her up years and years ago and had pitched the idea of taking the song “Last Christmas” and turning it into a movie. He also happened to know George, so it was this thing that just came together.

Do you have a favorite George Michael or Wham! song?

Paul: “Heal the Pain” is definitely my favorite George song, but “Everything She Wants” is definitely my favorite Wham! song. That is a song you put on and nobody doesn’t like it. Everybody goes, “Oh man, I love this song!” Especially if you forget about it, you just think, “I forgot about this song, it’s so awesome!”

I love it! Well, since this is kicking off our holiday season movie-watching binge, I want to end this on a fun question note. What’re your top three Christmas movies that you love to watch every year? Your go-tos?

Paul: I mean, number one, my favorite movie of all time is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I really base my whole career on making any kind of movie that is anything like that, and that’s what I like about [“Last Christmas”], is that it had elements of that in it to me. So I definitely love that. I love “Bad Santa,” just because it’s funny and wrong in a great way, and then “Elf.” It’s so damn entertaining. That’s a movie I look at and go, “I wish I had made that movie!”

“Elf” is one we watch every year, too. My mom and I absolutely love it, and “Christmas in Connecticut”! There’s so many great ones. This is just a great time of year to watch movies.

Paul: Oh, totally! And Christmas movies are fun. It’s funny, now that I’ve made two Christmas movies, believe it or not, you always go, “Oh my god, am I going to hate Christmas by the end of this process?” and you don’t. You weirdly get used to it. I mean, you spend a year, while everyone else is on vacation in summer, in an editing room doing Christmas music and looking at Christmas imagery, but it’s kind of fantastic.

Emma put out a book of essays about Christmas, and I wrote one for her that was just about how that spirit should be in you every day of the year because it’s such a wonderful thing. Why does it have to be one time of year where we all have that connection with everybody? So it’s fun doing it and, hey, if another great Christmas idea comes along, sure, why not go for the three-peat.

I was just going to ask, would you do a third?

Paul: It would take a lot. The good thing about Christmas movies is you know, in general, they at least get watched once a year. Although my first one, “Unaccompanied Minors”, I don’t think gets watched that much, but oh well.

But you’ve got “Last Christmas”!

Paul: You know what, done!

Perfect! So, what is this drink that you have to share with us?

Paul: Yes! I invented a drink, a cocktail called the “Last Christmas”! Actually it’s called “Last Christmas,” I don’t want to call it the “Last Christmas” because that sounds like you’re not around next year. It’s a gin-based drink — I have my own gin called Artingstalls Gin that I created, and it’s coming out all over the place now. But that’s not why I’m showing you this drink — it’s delicious! So here’s what it is, basically: First of all, you take some ice and put it into a shaker. Then, you use 1 ounce of gin. If you want you could use vodka, but boo. Then, you take 1 ounce of créme de cacao, which is a delicious chocolatey liquor. Then, the last ingredient — it’s an easy drink since there’s only three ingredients — is ½ ounce créme de menthe. 

Now, this is a green créme de menthe; I make it with a clear créme de menthe, but I couldn’t find any in North Carolina where I’m at. But it looks a little more festive because it’s a green drink. Just put a ½ ounce in because it’s very minty and you don’t want to overpower the chocolate in the créme de cacao. There you go, that all goes in, all you do then is shake it up. The one other thing you need is a chilled martini glass and you pour it in.

Oh my gosh, that’s perfect for “Last Christmas”!

Paul: Isn’t it? I know, it matches Kate’s elf costume. 

And it’s perfect for a movie night! I mean, there you go.

Paul: C’mon everybody! But here’s what you’ve gotta have, though. You have to put in a candy cane.

I love that.

Paul: There you go, it’s “Last Christmas!”

When will your gin be available? Is that coming soon?

Paul: It’s out now, it’s just getting deeper into the country, but if you go to it’ll tell you where you can get it. You can mail order it from places or it’ll tell you which stores it’s at.

Fantastic. Thank you so much for talking with us tonight, Paul! This is the best.
Paul: My pleasure! And everybody, I hope you enjoyed it, watch it again, pour yourself a drink, and very, very Merry Christmas to everybody. Happy holidays and I love you all for watching the movie and enjoying it and liking it, so thank you.

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