'Happiest Season': Director Clea DuVall Talks The Popularity Of Aubrey Plaza's Riley, & Ideas For A Potential Sequel

Spoiler warning: This interview reveals plot points of “Happiest Season.

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Hulu’s “Happiest Season” is a bonafide hit – breaking premiere records, scoring the most-watched status during its opening weekend, attracting more new subscribers than any previous movie title on the platform, and trended on Twitter. (As Mary Steenburgen’s character Tipper says, “It’s going viral!”) The film’s genre mix of big, bright holiday family fare and lesbian rom-com turned out to be a winning combination. Still, despite the presence of Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as central couple Abby and Harper, viewers and critics seem most smitten with the supporting characters.

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Aubrey Plaza’s character Riley is a breakout. Even co-writer/director Clea DuVall cites a Riley scene as one of her favorites in the film. “It’s in the Oxwood bar, and they’re singing,” DuVall told The Playlist this past week. Riley’s taken Abby to a gay bar, a safe space to relax and be themselves after Abby’s suffered through a few days of being shoved back in the closet to appease Harper’s conservative family. Drag queen entertainers sing holiday tunes, Riley volunteers Abby to join in, leading to helping her out. “Riley’s sort of singing along, and I just love it.”

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Moments like this made the Internet fall in love with Riley and ship Abby and Riley together. “Stewart and Plaza have such good chemistry!” a Buzzfeed writer argued. “Plus,, dating the ex-girlfriend of your ex-girlfriend is a lesbian classic.” The two didn’t do anything overtly sexual, but viewers couldn’t ignore their palpable sexual energy. Even Plaza hoped fans might “riot in the streets” about the injustice of these two characters not hooking up. (“Riley Hive: We ride at dawn,” one writer responded.)

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The strong audience desire for this better match-ups is due to Plaza’s determination to beef up Riley’s role. “Aubrey is phenomenal,” DuVall said. “I think she’s brilliant, and she brought so much to the character.”  Originally, Riley served a smaller purpose in the script and disappeared after a certain point. Plaza asked DuVall about that. “Aubrey was like, ‘What happened?’” the director said. “‘You need another moment. You need something else.’” Plaza then suggested a few “really good” ideas, DuVall said, including giving Riley and Harper a moment together after the disastrous Christmas party. DuVall then realized that Riley needed a coda, and gave her a shot in an end-credits Instagram sequence to demonstrate that while she did not end up with Abby, “she is now a part of their family.” (Look closely to see the director cameo as Riley’s new romance. Said DuVall, “I’m not going to say that’s not one of my favorite shots!”)

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Including Riley was important, DuVall said. “It’s really something that I don’t see a lot of in movies and TV, the friendship between two lesbian women,” she said. “If you see two lesbian women in a movie, it’s because they’re going to end up together, because there are no other people around, you know? This is a nod to chosen family. When you find another person that you can connect with, it’s like a lifeline. It’s about the comfort that comes with that.”

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But despite all the reasons Abby should ditch Harper (who mistreated both girlfriends), DuVall never considered having Abby,, and Harper split up. “I always wanted Abby and Harper to get a happy ending,” DuVall said.  “It’s a difficult story. It’s a real story. And to go through something and hit bottom, and come out the other side of it — knowing that you need to do better, that you need to be a better partner, you need to embrace who you are — you still deserve to be loved.”

Should there be a “Happiest Season” sequel (perhaps centering on Riley’s romances), DuVall isn’t sure if she’d repeat her cameo. “I’d be happy to step in,” she said. “But I don’t like acting and directing at the same time. So truthfully? I probably wouldn’t be in it. I’d much rather create a part for another actor.” (Fan suggestions for Riley pairings so far include Anna Kendrick and Dakota Johnson.)

Of course, a “Happiest Season” sequel could go in a whole other direction, focusing on oft-ignored middle sister Jane (played by co-writer Mary Holland), who ends up with a successful career as a fantasy author. “Oh my god, Jane is the best,” DuVall said. Even though DuVall’s taste veers more towards science fiction than fantasy, she loved coming up with Jane’s fictional universe. “When I was a little kid, I would just sit in my room and write stories,” DuVall said. “Sometimes it wasn’t even about the storylines, but just creating worlds of different realities where the rules were different; if even just one thing was different, it changes their whole society. It was just so fun to fantasize like, ‘What if this world existed?’”

And who’s to say a “Happiest Season” sequel would have to stick to the rom-com or holiday movie genres? It might even extend to depicting an adaptation of Jane’s book, “Shadow Dreamers and the Second Sister,” and exploring the epic fantasy characters Glank and Plort and races like the Thorfians, the Flanks, the Quazzles, the Vergs, and the Zengles. “That’s not a bad idea,” DuVall considered. “I’ve even thought maybe I should write that book. Even when we were making the movie, we were talking about continuing this world because there are so many great characters you could feature. There’s definitely more story here.”

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