By Maureen Lee Lenker
November 05, 2019 at 08:30 AM EST
11/08/19
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  • Movie

When Last Christmas hits theaters on Friday, it’ll be bursting with holiday cheer and George Michael tunes — but those were only a few of the inspirations for the film’s scribe, Emma Thompson.

The Oscar-winning screenwriter and actress tells EW what fueled the ideas behind the new romantic dramedy (co-written by Bryony Kimmings and directed by Paul Feig), about a young woman (Emilia Clarke) whose encounter with a handsome stranger (Henry Golding) changes her outlook on life. From a Christmas song she doesn’t particularly like to the current plight of refugees around the world, Thompson breaks down the wide range of elements feeding her latest script.

George Michael

“‘Last Christmas’ is not my favorite song,” Thompson admits of the Wham song that was the impetus for the film. “[But] George Michael himself [was] a complex and brilliant artist. His poetry, his lyrics are incredibly meaningful. I just thought of an idea to do with the lyric of ‘Last Christmas’ that inspired me, and then I thought, ‘Oh, actually, so much of George’s other music really works with this idea.’ ‘Heal the Pain’ is central to the ethos of the movie. Because ‘Heal the Pain’ is about the fact that if you can’t love yourself, you can’t love anyone. Creative things happen so weirdly and unexpectedly, so you can be led toward something by a piece of music you actually aren’t that fond of.”

Thompson met Michael several times while working on the script, and he’d given the project his blessing — but she never anticipated he’d pass away before they ever got it made. “The entire journey of making this movie has been a paean to this lost, great talent,” she says.

Jonathan Prime/Universal; Inset: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

A Christmas Carol

“The Dickensian Christmas Carol is a seminal part of my literary DNA,” Thompson says of the film’s central story of a person’s worldview shifting during the holidays. “I was built by books. I was built by writers like Dickens, like Austen, like Eliot. Christmas is very popular, particularly in 19th-century literature, in my country, and I’m profoundly influenced by that. The story of Christmas, which has been so deeply bastardized by commercialism and consumerism, and which is actually about good will to all persons, is written so deeply into me. [Christmas] really does have this very powerful effect upon people and how they feel about themselves and about the world. [It’s] therefore a very good moment to reflect upon your relationship with the world and to think about where you are instead of what you’re going to buy.”

Secret London

Though the film is an opportunity to showcase some of London’s most recognizable sights decked out for the holidays, it was also a chance for Thompson to highlight some of her hometown’s hidden gems. “It’s a love letter to London,” she says. Among the places showcased are a secret garden in Central London near Tottenham Court Road that her husband, Greg Wise (who also has a story by credit on the film), discovered by accident.

Thompson also took a secret London walking tour where she encountered a plaster wall carving of two mice and a piece of cheese on the wall that features on screen. “Part of the story is Tom [Golding] getting Kate [Clarke] to look around her and notice things,” she reflects. “We notice so little; we just keep looking at our phones. And we’ve stopped connecting to the outside world.”

Family illness

A core component of Kate’s story line is a past illness, which is still a source of trauma and identity struggle. Not to mention, it’s straining her relationship with her family. Thompson says she was most interested in investigating the impacts of chronic illness on an entire family. “We don’t examine these things because we have been brought up to ignore everything and carry on in the face of whatever it is, but because human beings are so infinitely subtle and complicated, it is worth telling stories about what happens to a family when one member of that family is mortally ill,” she says. “It often really unbalances families. Children become resentful of one another or they feel responsible or there’s survivor’s guilt.”

Contemporary social issues

Thompson is never one to shy away from making a political statement, and Last Christmas delves into several hot-button issues, including homelessness and the refugee crisis. The themes of homelessness arose naturally in the storytelling, but Thompson doubled down after realizing how much the issue meant to Michael. “This growth of homelessness in all our major cities, he found that very, very terrible,” she says. “It affected him a lot, and he was extremely active in trying to do something about that. When he started to talk about it [to me], I realized there was this subliminal, deep-under-the-earth connection of this idea to him and his music and what he felt passionately about. Art moves in mysterious ways.”

Kate and her family, including her mother, Petra (played by Thompson), are refugees from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. “I was fascinated by the story of a young woman who was unmoored by her upbringing and her family, where she was dealing with immigrant parents who had fled from war and who were stuck in lives they hadn’t chosen,” Thompson says. “That story is integral to every modern nation because there has been so much need to take refuge because of conflict and war. It’s absolutely universal. Certainly my culture and [the U.S.] are based on a terrific amount of refugees who have come and had to reinvent themselves and deal with not having what they had before.”

Last Christmas hits theaters Nov. 8.

For more on this fall’s most anticipated movies, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly at Barnes & Noble Friday and newsstands now, or buy it here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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