1 of 4 | Robbie Amell and Leighton Meester's "EXmas" premieres Friday. Photo courtesy of Amazon Freevee
NEW YORK, Nov. 16 (UPI) -- At Midnight and Dating & New York director Jonah Feingold says his latest romantic comedy, EXmas, is intended to show how heartwarming, yet stressful, the holidays can be.
"For a lot of people, the holidays are a very special time of year, but they are also a very difficult time of year," Feingold told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.
As someone from a small family, the director said he always wished he had more kin with whom to share the festive winter season.
"There is this idealized version of Christmas in Norman Rockwell paintings of big families and that exists for a lot of people and, within that, there is also drama," he said.
"There are relatives who don't get along and there are new partners being introduced into the group. On the other side, there are people who don't have a large family and are susceptible to seeing what we think of as the holidays and the commercial idea of Christmas.
"What is really great is that we have fun, feel-good movies that help us have some holiday cheer."
Holiday movies allow people to escape reality for a brief time and perhaps learn to connect with relatives with whom they don't have much in common, Feingold said.
"It is a really wonderful, magical time of the year because we have to distract ourselves from the cold," he joked.
Premiering Friday on Amazon Freevee, EXmas stars Upload alum Robbie Amell and Gossip Girl actress Leighton Meester as Graham and Ali, a former couple who end up spending a torturous Christmas together at Graham's parents' house.
Ali accepts the family's invitation because everyone thinks Graham will be working and won't be there, and then she shows up unexpectedly.
Aside from the holiday theme, the movie also taps into how many people have no closure with their former partner's family when a split occurs.
"If you dated someone and you liked their family and you broke up, you definitely considered texting their mom and say, 'Happy Birthday!' But that would send off the wrong message and we can't do that. That's crazy," Feingold laughed.
Hart of Dixie and Faking It scribe Dan Steele wrote the screenplay for the film, which co-stars Michael Hitchcock, Kathryn Greenwood, Veronika Slowikowska and Steven Huy.
"This is an amazing family of actors. Everyone brings their A game," Feingold said
"When we signed them on it was a very fun pitch: 'Come to Canada. It's summertime and we're going to make a Christmas movie, but I promise you it will be a Christmas movie that lives on its own and says something new about the genre,'" he added.
"It will be like Home Alone with your exes."
Meester was up for anything, regardless of how silly or outrageous she had to pretend to be.
"As soon as you call, 'Action!' she just goes for it," Feingold said. "She goes as far as she can with it and she is so funny and amazing. What a delight to work with an actor who does that and trusts the crew and the vision of the film."
Hitchcock and Greenwood are Second City improv comedy troupe veterans who always were riffing with each other on set.
"It was like the funniest comedy I've ever seen in real life," Feingold said, adding he did his best to balance the film's funny and emotional elements.
"It's such a delicate and hard thing to do," he noted. "When the heart of it comes first, and the comedy comes from the hilarity within the tragedy, it all connects and it was able to work seamlessly."
The biggest challenge Feingold faced, he said, was filming so many actors together inside of a house.
"People don't realize that when you make a movie with an eight-person family that that is eight actors and eight points of coverage. We are using two cameras on most of these scenes, but I was like, 'Why is this taking so long?'" he said.
"My other film, At Midnight, had two romantic interests and that was pretty much the majority of the scenes. The film before that? Dating & New York? Same deal. You would have people come in and out."
He eventually figured out the key to creating the "real family element" of EXmas was capturing the "overlapping dialogue" of relatives carrying on competing conversations in the same space.
"I looked at The Graduate and I looked at The Philadelphia Story, which sound like absurd references for this movie," Feingold said. "But these are the films ... that juggled large groups and felt the most organic and got the most out of their actors."