By Maria Sciullo
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
The day brought snow, postponing the start of schools in Pittsburgh and mucking with the morning commute. But at 31st Street Studios, it was beginning to look a lot like Clea DuVall’s Christmas.
On Day 14 of a six-week “Happiest Season” shoot around the Pittsburgh area, crews were out scrambling to film the snowy landscapes that had eluded them in a previously dry winter. Inside the cavernous studio, a mockup of the grand foyer, dining room, living room and a bedroom overflowed with pine boughs, bows and twinkling white lights.
It was a Hallmark setting, except…
“Don’t worry about the gas smell,” a publicist said, breezily, “It’s just the [fake] fireplace.”
DuVall, the writer/director of the feature film, “Happiest Season,” said she grew up addicted to watching those holiday movies where attractive couples kiss under the mistletoe. The kind where families reunite in huge Victorians tastefully decorated for the holidays. There’s hot chocolate, ice skating, perhaps a misunderstanding or two for comedic effect.
Yet until now, that picture was incomplete: “I had never seen myself represented in them,” DuVall said.
“Happiest Season” is her reply. Starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis and produced by Sony TriStar, it is the first same-sex romantic comedy from a major studio. Originally scheduled for theatrical release, it debuts on streaming service Hulu Nov. 25.
“It was not a hard sell at all — surprising how not hard it was to get,” said director DuVall, who co-wrote the script with fellow “Veep” alum Mary Holland, who’s a scene-stealer in the film.
In “Happiest Season,” Abby (Stewart) has plans to propose to her girlfriend, Harper (Davis) at the big party Harper’s conservative family celebrates each Christmas. Then she discovers Harper has yet to come out to them. The family assumes they are just good friends — and isn’t that a familiar scene?
“It’s always sort of weird, re-establishing the dynamics of family, and this one is full of it,” said Stewart between pre-Covid setups.
She added that emotions were running high to shoot “Happiest Season,” and that the same-sex secret was just part of it. It is a big deal, but in a perfect world, it should not be.
In the bigger picture: “I think people are going to get a real kick out of that all-too-familiar memory of going home for the holidays and kind of regressing back into when you were living in your parents’ home,” Davis said.
Producer Isaac Klausner also produced Netflix’s sweet, diverse coming-of-age story, “Love, Simon.” Inclusivity set amid traditional genres such as the holiday movie, he said, is “looking at how to update those genres. “
“It’s thinking about ‘what is a modern take on that? What is a relationship, what is a dynamic we haven’t quite seen, and how do you bring it into today?’”
‘It’s weird to say it’s ‘different’ because it is so in line with what has come before, but Clea has such a clear point of view,” Davis said.
The cast includes other well-known actors: Victor Garber (“Titanic”), Alison Brie (“Glow”), Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”) and this year’s Emmy Awards golden boy for “Schitt’s Creek,” Daniel Levy.
On this frigid Friday, Stewart, Davis and Steenburgen, who plays Davis’ mother, were running through a scene in the guest bedroom.
“They hate me,” said Stewart, casually dressed in a navy V-neck sweater.
“They don’t…” began Davis, wearing a cream-colored silk shirt.
Steenburgen swept unexpectedly into the room, and the two younger women jumped. DuVall had them do it again several times, with different camera angles.
After one of the takes, Stewart began laughing when someone in the crew called, “You’re drunk with power, Mary.”
Later, the three women took a break to talk about filming in Pittsburgh.
Stewart, 30, was a teenager when she was here for director Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland,” which was primarily shot at Kennywood Park in 2008.
“I’m bummed that it [the park] is closed for the season; I really wanted to just go and look around,” she said. “I was, I think, 17 when I was here last so it was ages ago, but I’m staying in the same place I did in the Strip [District].”
Davis had dropped by the Mattress Factory (“the Kusama was so cool”) and of course, the Warhol. The Heinz History Center, she joked “was less about condiments than I would have thought.”
Steenburgen had never filmed in Pittsburgh before but at the exact time of the set visit, her husband, actor Ted Danson, was guest lecturing at his alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University.
“I was here with him when they very kindly gave him an honorary doctorate degree last spring, and I was blown away by the beauty of Pittsburgh, and I still am.”
Klausner was a producer for “The Fault in our Stars,” which shot around Western Pennsylvania six years earlier. It went so well, he was eager to return.
As he sat at the head of a dining room table that looked like something out of a Pottery Barn holiday catalog, he explained why Pittsburgh ended up being not only the location for the shoot, but the setting for “Happiest Season.”
“I was trying to figure out how to get back to Pittsburgh. Clea had never been here; it was a suggestion we made.”
Klausner noted DuVall was so impressed on a scouting trip, she proceeded to rewrite the script with Harper as a journalist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and using recognizable locations such as Skelton Jewelers and Vandal Coffee Shop in Lawrenceville, Ross Park Mall, Chartiers Country Club, the Carnegie Library of Homestead, as well as Nonni’s Corner Trattoria and the Guthrie Theatre, both in Grove City.
Originally the movie was set in New York. But DuVall was so taken with “such a beautiful and cool place that I haven’t seen pictured a lot [on screens]. We decided to embrace it rather than pretend it was something else.”
As towering shelves filled with faux frosted wreaths and trees were moved around behind her, DuVall took a brief time out to discuss particulars. Getting Stewart and Davis to sign on early in the project helped attract other “strong comedy people,” she said.
With a comedy acting pedigree including “Veep,” but also dramas such as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” DuVall agreed that choosing comedy to write and direct her first major studio film was a bigger challenge.
“It’s so much harder to make them laugh than to make them cry,” she said.
In “Happiest Season,” there’s a holiday serving of both.
The Happiest Season debuts Nov. 25 on Hulu.