As if I’m not already a sucker for a good holiday film, just add an exceptional cast to the formula, some comedy & a bit of drama; and we, my friends, have a perfectly tasty piece of pie.
David E. Talbert, playwright, writer, director, & filmmaker had that just in mind when he conceived his version of another great American holiday story, comedy-drama, Almost Christmas.
Following their father, Walter’s (played by Danny Glover) wishes, the family returns home for the holidays after losing their beloved matriarch. But they have more than the sweet potato pie recipe to reconcile. And it will take the whole five days leading up to Christmas dinner, some heavy booze, and an in-law with more than a wondering eye before they get it right.
With a stellar cast lineup: Danny Glover, Mo’Nique, Gabrielle Union, Kimberly Elise, J.B. Smoove, Keri Hilson, Romany Malco and more, Talbert covered all the basic elements required for a great holiday comedic classic.
Talbert told us all about it during our phone conversation the other day. How he and producer Will Packer brought the exceptional cast together, what the components of a good comedy situation holiday movie are, the importance of writing down the recipe, talks of a sequel, and more.
What inspired this story? What was the feeling that you were going for in the film?
DT: I was just really trying to get a family story that revolved around the dad, which is something that we haven’t seen. It’s usually a ‘Big Mama’ matriarch because you know, women hold the family together much better, I believe than we can. So I thought it would be an interesting way to see the way this guy holds it together, this dad. So that was kind of the inspiration of it.
Are you a big holiday movie person?
DT: I am, I am. It is movies like Soul Food or This Christmas, even A Christmas Story that I grew up watching; and loved so much. I wanted to create a classic of my own.
You know, the cast consisted of so many favorites. Can you expand on putting such a exceptional cast together?
DT: Well, Packer’s rolodex, you know, he can reach anybody in Hollywood with all the movies that he’s done. So this was just an opportunity. He said to me, “Man, I’m going to give you the best cast you’ve ever worked with, the best crew you’ve ever worked with.” And he did that.
What did you feel was the essence needed in each of the characters, even for someone like an Aunt May (played by Mo’Nique)?
DT: Well, you needed someone who was bigger than life, with a huge personality, and who better than Mo’Nique. And she really took this role, that was a smaller role, and by the time she had finished with it, you know, it had escalated to what it is now. So it’s really a testament to her.
Does it make your job easier or harder as the writer/director getting to work with such great talent like her (Mo’Nique), Danny Glover, Gabrielle Union, etc etc?
DT: I think it elevates my game to be able to work with the kind of talent, that I’m able to with this. When you have people like Danny Glover, and Gabrielle Union, and Mo’Nique who have been doing this as long as they’ve been doing this, at the level that they have been doing it, they have forgotten more about movie-making than you will ever learn. So all you have to do is really just tap into it.
When creating your list for the cast, were there any actors in particular that you thought ‘hey, I really want to work with this person or that person on this project’?
DT: I think it would be Gab Union, Mo’Nique, and Danny Glover. You know, Mo’Nique and I have known each other forever. Her husband and I lived across the hall from eachother in the dorm during college; we went to the same college together. Danny Glover, I’ve been a fan of his forever. Gabrielle, I’ve been watching her in films forever. And those were the first three that we casted; once they signed on, we knew that we were on the road to doing something special.
And even like Omar Epps, newcomer Jessie T Usher, and everyone else.
DT: I love all of them. Jessie and I are both from the same area in Maryland; and Omar Epps is just like an OG. A young man, but he’s a OG because he’s been doing this for so long. People that have been in iconic films, and that made it even more special.
Yeah it really did and congratulations on that.
Oh, and I saw that you all were just on Family Feud the other day. That seemed like a lot of fun, how was that?
DT: Ah man, that was great. I mean, Family Feud, I grew up watching that show. It was just great to be on there with Steve and then with this crazy cast. What we discovered is that, we were all a family really; a dysfunctional kind of movie-family, but we were pretty much family, we were all competitive, we all wanted to win, and we wanted the other team to lose.
Yeah, I totally got the family vibe all the way while watching you guys.
Speaking of family, what does family mean to you?
DT: Family to me is really my wife and my son, and our extended family of people that love us. I didn’t grow up in a big family; I grew up in a loving family, not a big family so it’s not as much of a fanfare that happens in this movie that I grew up with; but its something that I’ve always imagined, ‘what would a holiday feel like if it was this kind of drama’.
Can you talk about the comedy and drama elements of creating the story?
DT: Well you know, comedy is nothing but drama that’s in a comedic situation. So for instance, what makes the dinner scene so funny is because it was a train-wreck. No one is trying to be funny in that scene. There is a train-wreck happening; there are potential life and death implications; and it is a worst-case scenario for this guy. And so, you are sitting watching a train-wreck, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. So, that’s how I approach comedy, I approach it as drama in a comedic situation.
As a writer/director/creator preparing to write a new script, what is the objective with the storytelling?
DT: My first thing is to feel something, myself. You know, people always ask me, “well, how do you write for this audience?” But you know, I write for me. I write what touches me first. So before I write, it’s what do I feel about the story. This particular movie, I felt that my great grandmother made the best sweet potato pie ever; and when she passed away, no one has been able to make in the family like her because no one wrote the recipe down. So that was the thing for me, it was kind of living vicariously through Danny Glover’s character like, ‘wow, how would I feel if I was able to taste that pie exactly the way she made it’. So it’s emotional for me every time we get to that scene.
Did you always know that you would be this writer/director at this level today, or at all?
DT: No, no. I thought I was going to be a preacher, radio announcer, you know, Tony Award Winning playwright, all of that. Filmmaking was never in my plans, but everything that I have learned growing up in a holiness church, being on the radio and writing plays, I use as a filmmaker now. And those are kind of the ingredients that I use to bake my cake.
So, I know it’s really fresh off of Almost Christmas, not even, because it hasn’t been released yet, but what can we expect coming up next?
DT: Well I’m doing another theater piece next year, and Packer and I are working on a sequel to this one. So those are some of the things that are coming up next.
A sequel? Hmmm, I’ll be looking forward to that.
I had a really good laugh pretty much the entire time while watching; there was a great selection of cast members and well thought out as far as just knowing what you were looking for.
DT: Well, we wanted it to feel like they were really a family; that when people watched it, they weren’t watching actors playing sister or brother, father, aunty, they were watching people being that. Packer was very integral with the casting, and we are both just through the moon with how it turned out.
Great job, awesome job.
The award winning playwright crossed over into the filmmaking realms in 2008 with First Sunday, featuring Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan and Katt Williams; followed by Baggage Claim in 2013. All so hilariously funny, and now with Almost Christmas, Talbert most definitely maintains his knack for fusing comedy in the midst of a table full of drama.
You guys have to go see it. Almost Christmas, released in theaters this Friday, Nov 11.