Approximately 10 years ago, producer David Livingstone began the development of a romantic comedy based on George Michael’s song “Last Christmas and that originated with his obsession with Jimmy Stewart’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life.
“I love It’s a Wonderful Life, and I was trying to think of a brand that would give me an opportunity to create something that had that everlasting charm and was a Christmas comedy,” says Livingstone.
It dawned on the filmmaker that the biggest holiday brand he could think of was the Wham! song “Last Christmas.”
“It is played on repeat absolutely every year,” Livingstone says, “in every store—on every radio station—again and again. I thought it would be marvelous to turn that into a movie.”
Set in London during the 2017 holiday, Last Christmas features the music of George Michael and Wham!, including the bittersweet holiday classic of the film’s title.
It tells the story of Kate (Emilia Clarke), who harrumphs around London, a bundle of bad decisions accompanied by the jangle of bells on her shoes, another irritating consequence from her job as an elf in a year-round Christmas shop. Tom (Henry Golding) seems too good to be true when he walks into her life and starts to see through so many of Kate’s barriers. As London transforms into the most wonderful time of the year, nothing should work for these two. But sometimes, you gotta let the snow fall where it may, you gotta listen to your heart … and you gotta have faith.
Livingstone presented the premise to the legendary songwriter and performer Michael, who was interested in the project…on the proviso that multihyphenate Emma Thompson would become involved in its development and execution.
Fortunately, Livingstone’s long history with the writer/producer/actor during his time as an executive at Universal Pictures meant that he had an in with her team.
Livingstone reached out to the Oscar® winner and asked if she would be interested in penning the script based on the lyrics of Andrew Ridgeley and Michael’s smash.
“I’d worked with Emma before on Nanny McPhee and on Love Actually, so I sent her a note,” Livingstone says. “We had a meeting and Emma put together a few ideas, and off she went to meet with George. I was incredibly excited when I thought of them together: two British icons, both absolutely top of their game in terms of acting talent and musical talent. That meeting was a success and marked the start of the process.”
Thompson admits that when she reconnected with Livingstone, she wasn’t sure how big of a story his idea was.
“At first, I told him I’d think about it,” Thompson says. “I kept thinking about the song, how I’ve never written a proper romantic comedy, and how I could interpret this. I had an idea and I mentioned it to my old man, Greg Wise. I said, ‘Do you think this might work?’ He said, ‘I do, actually.’ We started talking about it a lot when we were out on walks in Scotland, where we live. This version started to shape up into something quite good, but it was very complicated. We were trying to tell the story backwards.”
Once Thompson and Wise put a treatment together, they felt that stars were aligning.
“David said, ‘There’s something here,’” Thompson says. “He called me again a few years ago and said we need to go back to this because it’s definitely a good story. We met again, and I said, ‘Why don’t you get someone to do a first draft for us because I can’t do it now. Why don’t we just put the flame underneath it in some way?’ So, we hired this wonderful performance artist called Bryony Kimmings.”
The creative team walked Kimmings through the logic of their premise, and off she went.
“We had a meeting and said, ‘This is the story, these are the characters, and this is the family dynamic,’” Thompson says.
“Bryony went away, and she did a blueprint draft that was full of such great images. She’s very imaginative, very visual, and she had wonderful ideas. That was the inception of what we’ve made now, which I then worked on with Greg for another two years.”
Early on, during Thompson’s conversations with Michael, they discussed what she was considering and where she hoped to go with his classic music as inspiration.
“I went and talked to George about it, and I had a wonderful afternoon with him; this was at least two years before he died,” Thompson says. “He was a very kind man who loved the idea of the story…and elements of it that were socially conscious because he was always very involved in that. I loved him, and I thought I’d love to work with him and be part of this.”
During the development of the screenplay, on Christmas Day 2016, Michael tragically died. Not only was the world devastated to lose such an epic voice, but the creative team developing Last Christmas also wondered if the premise was meant to ever come to fruition.
“George knew the outline for the story, but he never had the opportunity to read the script,” Livingstone says. “It felt like we had something that was quite magical, but we had nowhere to go with it—until one day Greg, Emma’s other half, bumped into David Austin, George’s friend and manager. David reignited the project. We set up a meeting with Emma, and he played us some new music from George that no one had ever heard. It was incredibly exciting; it gave us all impetus. We had a great script, and it was something that honored him.”
Thompson received this moment as a chance to tell the ideal Christmas tale, and she felt that they had a guardian angel looking out.
“When George died, and we had a lot of death in our family as well, we were all at our wits’ end,” Thompson says.
“We did another draft, and then one day in June 2018, David came over and said, ‘I’ve just heard from George’s manager and boyhood friend, Dave Austin, who would love to talk about this project because it was so important to George.’”
The filmmaker found Austin to be the passionate keeper of the artist’s legacy. “Dave came over and played us some wonderful new songs George wrote,” Thompson says, “and it was very exciting.”
Thompson felt that Michael’s revelatory music dovetailed perfectly into the latest version of what she and Wise were crafting for the story’s star-crossed lovers, Kate and Tom. So much of that revolved around the incarnation of a particular kind of curiosity.
“Tom’s catchphrase is ‘Just look up,’ because you’ll see something unexpected,” Thompson says. “Looking up is a very important part of this story, because it’s looking away from the stuff as well. Consumer capitalism surrounds us with this relentless ‘You have to buy this, otherwise you will not be happy.’ This all happens at a particular eye level—in the streets and the windows. You need to raise your eyes to disengage from it. You forget to say, ‘What? This is all crap!’
“Tom lives in an almost-alternative universe, because his mind is open,” Thompson continues. “I’m not saying he’s saintly; he’s not at all. He’s quite smug, actually, and a bit judgmental. Kate’s response to him, and quite right, too, is ‘I know you’re a marvelous person, and you see everything and you’re curious. It must be so great to be so perfect.’ Tom’s journey is quite a different one. I didn’t want to write a story where some perfect dude teaches a woman how to live, which is hilariously common. He’s interesting and peculiar in many ways, and he doesn’t have a phone, which is, in our world, just bizarre.”
Considering the wider implications, it was likewise crucial that Thompson weave in elements of the world’s increasingly suspicious landscape. “This story is about how to use your heart, how to live and how to love yourself,” Thompson says. “It’s also about how to take responsibility for yourself, which is not often achieved. Very few people achieve adulthood at the moment; we’re so intent upon being young all the time. The narcissism of our age is very clear.”
It was also key to the filmmaker that she eschew any oversimplification of the human condition, which is too often present in romantic comedies. “Everything I ever wanted to write about is in this story—how we behave, how we look after each other, how to love, and how to live in a modern world where it’s so hard for people not to get sidetracked,” Thompson says. “We absolutely have to stop this and look at what we’re doing…because we aren’t going to survive if we don’t.”
That also dictated the stranger-in-a-strange-land elements woven throughout. “Our protagonist’s refugee parents are immigrants,” she says. “Their response to the birth of Brexit and the birth of the presidency of Trump—and all of those things, which are in the background because it’s set very firmly in the year 2017. The world we’ve created is real, as well as being obviously heightened dramatically and romantically.”
Livingstone was pleased to see that an idea he’d hatched so long ago was finally starting to see the light, in an elevated way he never could have fathomed.
“This is a romantic comedy, but it’s not just that,” Livingstone says. “There’s more beneath the surface and behind the twinkly lights. Audiences will feel completely entranced, recognizing this is a bigger story than what it seems.”
Thompson Meets Feig
With Austin’s contribution to the final pieces of the development puzzle, Thompson and Livingstone were primed to consider ideal directors to helm their passion project. “I remember where I was sitting when I said to David Livingstone, ‘I’m going to send it to Paul Feig and [agent] Bryan Lourd to see what they think of it,’” Thompson says. “A couple of hours later, I got a phone call from them saying, ‘We have to make this movie this year.’ With me, Paul, George— all of us— attached, Bryan wrapped the script in a box with Christmas wrapping and tinsel and sent it to Donna Langley at Universal saying ‘Happy Christmas.’ Donna read it and said, ‘We like this very much indeed.’ A month later, we were in pre-production. It never happens like this .”
Sharing one of the many reasons why she wanted to work with a filmmaker whose signature style is to empower actresses with characters that don’t fit inside a box, Thompson says: “Paul is such a proper feminist, and not afraid to say it. He is such an activist in that sense, and I love how he works with women in all his films. Americans are good at epic, and we’re good at a particular kind of ironic tonality.”
Livingstone agrees with Thompson’s reflections on kismet, speaking as to why he feels the director of Bridesmaids and Spy was ideal for the job. “Paul is the comedy expert, and it was imperative we got a director like him,” Livingstone says. “He also loves London; it completely appeals to his sensibility, and so he wanted to make a love letter to London. If you look at London with eyes that aren’t those of a Londoner, you see everything anew. You appreciate the beauty in Albert Bridge; you notice how gorgeous everything is on Jermyn Street, Regent Street, Brixton and Brick Lane.”
What spoke to the director/producer was the premise of a talented young woman who has lost her way because of a medical condition that altered her entire family’s future. When the film begins, we soon learn that Kate has recently undergone a life-saving operation. “Since then, Kate has felt incomplete and we find her on a self-destructive path,” Feig says. “Everyone’s putting up with her and trying to get her going in the right direction, but her friends and family’s patience is worn thin. Then, into her life comes Tom, this oddball, handsome, nerdy guy who takes an interest in her.”
Discussing Kate’s love interest, and how he contributes to our protagonist’s journey, Feig offers that Tom is this creature from another era. “It’s like he has walked out of a 1930s musical,” Feig says. “He’s light on his feet. He’s got this joie de vivre and he sees the world through rose-tinted glasses. Tom is always telling Kate to look up. He’s the guy that sees things the rest of us miss because we are going through our lives looking at our phones. Tom teaches Kate to get out of her own head and to appreciate the world around her. He also works at the homeless shelter, and he takes her there to get her involved; that perspective starts to turn things around for her.”
Working with Thompson was a welcome educational experience for Feig. “Emma is the greatest partner you can ever have making a movie, especially a movie she wrote, because this is something she has been working on and developing for more than eight years,” Feig says. “Emma obviously has won Oscars® for both writing and acting; she is so respected by everybody she meets. When she has a thought or a note everyone listens, and you realize you are in the presence of a master. Emma knows what she wants, and she is so collaborative.”
Alongside his production partners, Feig aims to make Last Christmas a holiday classic. “A great Christmas movie should be about love, family, redemption and happiness,” Feig says. “Our film is so emotional in places, then really funny; it’s also charming and beautiful. Our DP, John Schwartzman, has shot this movie like you’ve never seen before—making London look so gorgeous. London is a city I just have such a love for and have my whole life. I wanted to show the city the way I see it and the way I appreciate it. All these elements go together to create this fully immersive, emotional experience that is what I think to be the ultimate Christmas tale.”
For the director, what adds to the magic of this world capital are the timeless sounds of George Michael. “The power of George’s music is breathtaking,” Feig says. “His songs are so well written and arranged that we can take them, rearrange and give them a secondary life. On top of that, we have an unreleased song that nobody has ever heard; this movie is just as much a love letter to George as it is to London. It is exciting for fans because they will get to re-experience his music in this new way. I’m also excited for people like myself who are aware of George but didn’t fully appreciate how amazingly talented he was.”
Regardless of his accomplishments, the filmmaker admits that he was the biggest fanboy on set. “I honestly had to pinch myself sometimes,” Feig says. “I had a fantastic script by Emma Thompson and Bryony, an amazing cast, music from the great George Michael, and we filmed in London!”
With parts in place, now joined by Feig’s then-production partner Jessie Henderson as the final producer, Livingstone believes this almost decade-long labor of love has been worth every minute. He commends his partner-in-crime for taking it to the goal. “Emma is somebody who cares about every aspect of the production,” Livingstone says. “She’ll be checking that all the background artists are happy, they’ve had enough to eat and they’re warm. She will, without any shadow of doubt, know every single person’s name; if she’s met them once she’ll go and see them again later. Emma never leaves anybody behind and that is the sign of a great producer, a great collaborator and creator.”
Thompson reflects that the mystical confluence affected the production in myriad ways. “We’ve had losses, and then we’ve had extraordinary gains,” Thompson says. “If we had made it when George was still alive, Emilia would not have been available. It’s as though I wrote it for her. It meets her right in the center of herself, her wonderful personality, her clown-like soul. She’s a wonderful artist, and this is the first time she’s been able to do something like this. Henry wouldn’t have started in his film career. Film’s funny like that: Nanny McPhee, nine years; Sense and Sensibility, 15 years from the moment where the producer decided to do it to the moment we brought it out. But, good ideas don’t come along that often and, God forgive me, this is a good idea.”