How 'Last Christmas' Turned George Michael's Music Into a Movie

Last Christmas
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Henry Golding and Emilia Clarke in Last Christmas. 

Last Christmas producer David Livingstone first came up with the idea for the Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding-starring movie inspired by the Wham! song of the same name when he was interested in making a holiday film in the tradition of It's a Wonderful Life but needed a hook.

"I thought, 'People seem to be so into brands and IP; to try to come up with something original was going to be tough,'" Livingstone told The Hollywood Reporter at Last Christmas' New York premiere last month. "I thought the biggest thing I can think of is [the song] 'Last Christmas.' That's the one thing that happens every Christmas, particularly in the U.K. [Michael's] our Stevie Wonder, really, where you just go, 'Oh my God, Christmas has arrived. It's 'Last Christmas.''"

Luckily Livingstone knew Michael through a chance encounter with the musician.

"Once upon a time I sent George Michael a script for Four Weddings and a Funeral, which he said no to," Livingstone told THR. "And I met him on a plane, and I said, 'Oh I sent you the script.' So I had a little bit of a dialogue — tiny, tiny, five-minute chat — with him."

And Livingstone knew Michael's publicist, which was what got his idea to the musician. Michael was interested but only if Emma Thompson wrote the script, Livingstone said.

When he approached Thompson, who ended up writing the Last Christmas script with Greg Wise and Bryony Kimmings, she was interested too. Then her busy schedule and Michael's tragic death on Christmas in 2016 put the project on hold. 

But a year and a half after Michael died, his manager called Livingstone and said he wanted to resurrect the project, around the same time Livingstone and Thompson happened to see each other at an awards ceremony.

"We were both backstage and I said, 'We should really do something, Emma. And she said, 'Let's do Last Christmas. Let's make it happen.' So we did. She wrote the beautiful script," Livingstone recalled, explaining that Thompson then sent the script to director Paul Feig.

And the Universal film, which features 15 of Michael's songs — three Wham! tracks and 12 by Michael as a solo artist, including the new release “This Is How (We Want You To Get High)” — marks "the last sanctioned project by George Michael," Livingstone said. "This is the last thing that he signed off on."

And Livingstone's particularly proud of having the new track, which he points out wasn't something that's been "in the offcuts bin. It wasn't lying about for ages."

"This is something he was going to put on a new album. So it wasn't like we dredged up an old song," Livingstone said. "The first time we heard it was in Emma's living room and we started dancing in the living room."

As for deciding how many George Michael songs to include and where to integrate them into the film, Feig said that was driven by his own "deep dive" into the late artist's work.

"I was a casual fan; I knew the hits; I didn't know the deep tracks," Feig said. "When I discovered songs like 'Heal the Pain,' which I hadn't heard before, suddenly I was like, 'This is the movie.' And I kept having that experience with these songs and then the movie almost started to want these songs, as weird as it sounds. We'd be in the editing room and [think] 'We need a song here.' And you look at the song and you think, 'Wait, this matches perfectly, tonally and with the lyrics and all.' So we went from maybe we were going to have five songs to having 15 songs."

While the movie is billed as a traditional boy-meets-girl romantic comedy, there's a twist towards the end.

Feig said when he first encountered that moment when he was reading the script, he was already interested in directing, but "this took that to another level."

"I like when movies surprise you and things are unexpected but in very emotional ways — something that affects you so deeply and connects you even more to the characters and makes their journey become even more clear," Feig said of his response.

And Livingstone also appreciated that the reveal took the film beyond the genre.

"It was important that we made something that stayed in people's minds beyond just a romantic comedy," Livingstone said.

And like everything with Last Christmas, it all comes back to Michael, he said: "It was important to George, and George was sort of the one that set the ball rolling a little bit in that direction that wasn't just boy meets girl, they have an argument, and they get together. We wanted to do something that was more of a take on where we are today as a society, and we had conversations about the beauty around us today, and sometimes people don't notice, so all of this fed into the script and, obviously, in the U.K. — who knew we'd still be talking about Brexit, so little elements fed in. None of them are in the front seat, but they're all passengers on this journey. It makes the film a fulfilling experience more than just an everyday romantic comedy."

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