Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
“It’s more important what someone isn’t saying, but showing.”
It’s this very valuable lesson that playwright-turned-filmmaker David E. Talbert (FIRST SUNDAY, BAGGAGE CLAIM) learned while crafting his latest film, ALMOST CHRISTMAS.
The heartfelt holiday-themed comedy tells of a father, Walter Meyers (Danny Glover), who’s attempting to bring his kids closer together in the days leading up to their first Christmas without their mother. Joining in the festivities are Walter’s sassy sister-in-law May (Mo’Nique), his perpetually squabbling daughters Cheryl (Kimberly Elise) and Rachel (Gabrielle Union), and his sons, Congressman-in-the-making Christian (Romany Malco) and star athlete Evan (Jessie T. Usher). As you can imagine, hijinks, hilarity and – more importantly – healing ensues.
At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, I sat down with the filmmaker to discuss everything from the cast’s chemistry, to the food that stunk up the set, to finding the value in letting scenes have breathing room.
So directing a Christmas film – is this a genre you always wanted to cross off your list or did it just sorta happen?
I think it just sorta happened. It was the holidays. I was a new dad. I wanted to do something about family and something that showed a patriarch – a father – trying to hold the family together and there came the movie.
I thought it was such a welcomed change of pace to hit the ground running with the beautiful time passage montage.
That’s UP. That’s what inspired me. When I went to see UP and the first five minutes, it just made me realize that, wow, this isn’t what I expected. This movie is so much more. I wanted to do something at the beginning that no one would see coming and would just kind of settle in and make you say, ‘Okay. This is going to be interesting.’
I’m wondering if there’s a magic trick to balancing humor and heart, because I think you do that brilliantly in this.
That’s in a lot of my plays over the past twenty-five years – it’s kind of a mix of heart and comedy and drama. This is this first movie I was able to put all those ingredients into the pot and have the support of the studio, who said to me when I went to sell them the script, they read the first five pages which didn’t have any dialogue in it. The president of studio said, ‘We knew it was a movie we wanted to make.’ They supported me – that’s why it was able to become what it became.
I loved that pie scene where it alternates between the emotions and then it’s ‘Oh God. Here come the tears.’
When I shot this scene, there was supposed to be five minutes more to the movie. Mo’Nique and Danny’s performance, you don’t wanna take your eyes off of either one of them.
I sat at the monitor and I was just crying. My wife was next to me and I turned to her and said, ‘This is the end of the movie. I don’t want to hear another word after this.’ We adjusted it. The performances of Danny and Mo’Nique are breathtaking. It’s like when do you see a movie where no one is movie, there’s no action, it’s just two people sitting at a table talking and you don’t want to take your eyes off of them.
Your whole cast is incredible. Tell me about casting actors who are so superbly skilled at comedy, but their also really great at turning into the more dramatic facets of this.
That’s what I like – comedians are really dramatic actors. I like people that are based in drama because that’s what comedy is. Comedy is only drama that’s put in a comedic situation. Kimberly Elise grounded that scene [at the Christmas dinner table]. She said, ‘How do you want me to play this?’ I said, ‘Sis. Kill ‘em with kindness. Don’t let anyone know because it will be much harder for him. He’ll be stewing more if you just kill him with kindness.’ She said, ‘I got it!’ It was masterful performance.
Is the key to a good take when your crew and you start laughing? That’s when you know that you have that take in the can.
It is. Coming from theater, you are trained to…if the audience is laughing, it’s funny. If they’re not laughing, it’s not funny. It’s not that deep. It’s not esoteric. When I’m on the set, I apply the same thing. If I’m laughing, it’s funny. If I’m not laughing, it’s not funny. I ruined several of the takes because I’m laughing through them and then the cast members, they start laughing. And the crew, they start laughing and we’ve got to do another take.
The set seems like it was filled with warmth and joy. One of the scenes it felt like it was dripping off of was the scene in the kitchen when they all started dancing. I loved it.
Because they weren’t acting. That was the key. What happened in this movie somewhere along the way is that the actors stopped being actors and started being family members – members of the Meyers family. So they genuinely liked hanging out with each other. They genuinely liked being in that house that was designed by Wynn Thomas so wonderfully. It felt like you were at your grandmother’s house and everybody acted accordingly. You see the genuine joy and genuine laughter on their faces that’s why people respond to it the way they do.
Was there a lot of rehearsal time where they could bond before shooting to become that family?
Coming from the theater, I and my cinematographer [Larry Blanford], blocked out that whole dinner scene because I knew so much was going to be happening I wasn’t going to have time to block it out with the actors. So I blocked it out, brought the actors in and rehearsed it just so they knew the blocking so then that was second nature now and they could just focus on their performance. Then they could just be comfortable in creating.
You filmed in Atlanta. Was it in summer or winter?
It was in the winter and it was cold.
So you had that authentic cold…
Oh yeah. I was layered up. I bought rain boots. It was raining a lot. It was freezing out there. When we shot that scene where the head blows off Santa Claus, we shot that around 5 o’clock in the morning and it was probably about 15 degrees out. Fortunately, that was the first take – the head blew off and landed exactly where we needed it to land on the first take.
Did you ever make mix tapes for your wife or girlfriends?
I made mix tapes for girlfriends and they were all slow jam tapes and you always talked in between ‘em. They were ridiculous. That’s what you did. If you grew up in the eighties, you made cassette tapes.
Do you remember any of the songs you put on there? Were there standard songs?
No. But I remember one, we broke up, but I remember vividly, I put Luther’s “A House Is Not A Home” and Aretha Franklin’s “’Til You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).” It was one of those beg to get her back, but it didn’t work. It was a great mix tape though.
Aunt May’s looks are very distinct. Did you collaborate on this?
My wife. It was her idea to put her in the different wigs. I thought, ‘Why would she be in different wigs?’ My wife said, ‘Because she has different eras and people that she sings with.’ I was like, ‘Okay.’ My wife got with Mo’Nique’s hairstylist Robin and they came up with these ideas and Mo’Nique loved it. It just helped her character take off.
She is hysterical in this movie.
She’s a force of nature. She’s the real deal. I think people don’t realize how great of an actress she is. How many people can swing that far dramatically and that far comedically and that far emotionally? She’s in rare air.
How authentic was that cuisine she put out on the table? Did anyone try to eat it?
No and it stunk up the whole set because those are real sardines. It was real catfish. It was gross to look at and imagine tasting it! All that stuff with the little boy tasting it, I improved that. Alkoya [Brunson] is so great at improv. He took it and ran with it.
That leads me into asking about how much room was there for improv? Were you precious about them following the dialogue or just letting them riff?
As a playwright, dialogue is everything. But as a filmmaker, pictures and moments are about everything. I wasn’t precious about the words unless they were story points. Gabrielle chimed in a lot. Mo’Nique certainly chimed in a lot. All the cast members. If they had an idea, and were feeling something, whether it was scripted or not, I said, ‘One take scripted and another, I’ll let you go with yours.’ Usually the take they wanted was better and that’s what we went with.
What is it that you learned about yourself making this movie versus any other project you’ve done?
The biggest thing was what I call “negative space” – allowing a movie to breathe. That is not about what someone is saying, it’s more important what they’re not saying. That’s what I discovered about this film. The movie breathes. When Danny Glover is making that pie and smiling and you hear Etta James, he’s not saying a word, but he’s saying so much. It’s more important what someone isn’t saying, but showing – than just saying, as a playwright, ‘Talk more!’ And as a filmmaker, ‘Show more!’ That’s why there’s such great moments in the movie. When Danny sits on the bed at the very beginning…
Forget it – I was crying right then and there! I was like, ‘Oh sh*t!’
‘Why did they do this to me?! Nobody told me!’ But yes, and when we shot it I said, ‘Let’s pull back slowly and let him be in there.’ It’s chills right there. This is the first film that I feel like I’m a filmmaker now. The other ones I was a theater director making movies, but I feel like this is the first one where I feel like a filmmaker.
Do you have Christmas movies that you always wind up coming back to?
The top one is probably A CHRISTMAS STORY. That movie cannot come on – I don’t care what part it is in the movie – I just hope I catch where he sticks his tongue on the pole. What was special for me on this movie is the special effects guy who did that, was our special effects guy who blew the head off Santa Claus.
Yes! I said, ‘Man! You are of legend to me! This is a special piece of magic for the film.’ He was the guy from A CHRISTMAS STORY and he was ours.
What’s next for you?
I am writing the sequel to this with Universal, developing a television series and going back to the stage next year.
I’m excited to see what’s next for… Is it the same family?
More shenanigans. Same family.
They feel like a real family. They don’t feel like a movie family. So I think people are going to want to go on the ride with them some more.
ALMOST CHRISTMAS opens on November 11.
Header Photo: Gabrielle Union and David E. Talbert on the set of ALMOST CHRISTMAS. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.