The opportunity to play an off-the-rails elf isn’t the only reason Clarke took the gig, one suspects. Last Christmas draws together a team of Hollywood heavyweights including the American director Paul Feig, whose comedies – Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy – demonstrate an ability to create extreme characters whose stories play out in the real world.
“London feels like the home of Christmas and I’ve always wanted to do a movie in London about London,” says Feig, a self-confessed Anglophile. “I jumped at it. We rushed the schedule so we could shoot the first three weeks in London using all the Christmas lights and decorations.”
Its tone it’s more like Sense and Sensibility than Love Actually.
Another key member of the Last Christmas team is the Oscar-winner actor Emma Thompson. She co-wrote the script, co-produced and plays Petra, Kate’s irascible Yugoslavian mother. Add two of the stars of Crazy Rich Asians to the mix – Henry Golding as Tom, Kate’s love interest and Michelle Yeoh as Santa, her bauble-besotted boss – and the project’s potential to do big business at the Christmas box office is evident.
The movie’s other great selling point – depending on your musical taste – is the soundtrack.
Songs by the late, great George Michael punctuate the story. It’s not a songbook musical – Clarke and the cast don’t bust out karaoke versions of Careless Whisper and Faith – but the Wham! singer’s biggest hits are the backdrop to a vision of London that while not exactly gritty, is a lot less rose-tinted than the average Richard Curtis movie.
“We’re not Mamma Mia!” laughs Feig, a sartorial man who directs all his movies wearing a suit, tie and brogues. “If you like George Michael it [the film] will be a great movie for you and if you aren’t as up on his stuff, you’ll walk out a fan.”
Thompson was first pitched the idea of writing a script based on the 1984 Wham! hit Last Christmas in 2012. She wasn’t interested at first – “Last Christmas is not my favourite song,” she admits – but producer David Livingstone refused to give up. Returning several years later with a draft screenplay by the English performance artist Bryony Kimmings, he persuaded Thompson and her actor husband Greg Wise, to develop the idea further.
“I worked on it with Greg for two more years,” says Thompson. “I met George [Michael] and he was really interested in the idea. I liked him so much. And then he died.”
The singer’s death in December 2016 at the age of 53, might have sidelined the project; instead, it galvanised the main players. In 2018, Thompson and Livingstone met up with Dave Austin, the guitarist and songwriter known for his work with Michael. He said he had at least one unreleased track by the star that could be included in the film.
Thompson sent a script to Paul Feig who responded immediately. “We have to do this,” he wrote. “I’m dropping everything else.”
“Ideas are funny things,” says Thompson, still marvelling at the speed at which things came together. “Sometimes they are evanescent. This idea just didn’t go away because it was a good idea. We all feel very passionate about it.”
What sort of movie is Last Christmas? Not a conventional rom-com, says Thompson. “It has the elements of a classic rom-com, but there is more dramatic content than usual. We’ll go from shooting an extremely dramatic, not funny scene to something very funny, to something very sad. It’s a real mixture. In its tone it’s more like Sense and Sensibility than Love Actually.”
It may also be the first Brexit rom-com. Kate’s Yugoslavian heritage gives the screenwriters an opportunity to take a couple of potshots at the darker forces unleashed by Britain’s decision to leave the EU.
“We set the film in 2016 which was important,” explains Feig. “It felt like the best way to comment on the wonderful diversity in London and put it up against this very intolerant thing that’s been going on with Brexit and Trump. We don’t wallow in it because we’re not a political movie by any means, but it’s the backdrop.”
Ultimately, Last Christmas is the perfect vehicle for Clarke to redefine herself in the wake of Game of Thrones. As Feig says, “the world will finally get to see how funny she is.”
He’s right. Kate’s misadventures as she struggles to find herself and Mr Right are by turns hilarious and deeply poignant. Thompson makes the point that if the film had been made while Michael was still alive, Clarke would not have been unavailable due to her GOT commitments. “The fact is she is essential,” she says. “It [the role of Kate] hits her right in the centre – she’s just extraordinary.”
Last Christmas is in cinemas November 7.