‘Almost Christmas’ [UB All-Access] – In Theaters Friday

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A new comedy from writer/director David E. Talbert (Baggage Claim, First Sunday) and producer Will Packer (Think Like a Man and Ride Along franchises, This Christmas), Almost Christmas tells the festive story of beloved patriarch Walter Meyers (Danny Glover of The Color Purple, Lethal Weapon series), who asks his family for one gift this holiday season––to get along.

If they can honor that wish and spend five days under the same roof without killing one another, it will be a Christmas miracle.
The all-star cast is led by a talented ensemble, including those who play Walter’s children—Kimberly Elise (For Colored Girls) as Cheryl, his eldest daughter; Romany Malco (Think Like a Man franchise) as Christian, his eldest son; Gabrielle Union (Being Mary Jane) as youngest daughter Rachel; and Jessie T. Usher (Independence Day: Resurgence) as youngest son Evan.

They are joined by Academy Award® winner Mo’Nique (Precious) as Aunt May, Walter’s no-nonsense sister-in-law; Omar Epps (House, M.D.) as Malachi, Rachel’s teenage heartbreak; JB Smoove (Top Five) as Lonnie, Cheryl’s philandering husband; Nicole Ari Parker (Murder in the First) as Sonya, Christian’s much-too-patient wife; John Michael Higgins (Pitch Perfect series) as Alan, Christian’s wily campaign manager; Keri Hilson (Riddick) as Jasmine, Lonnie’s most-recent crush; and DC Young Fly (Hollywood Hearts) as Eric, Evan’s best friend…and the guy with his eye on May.

Talbert and Packer’s accomplished behind-the-scenes team includes director of photography Larry Blanford (Think Like a Man, Ride Along), production designer Wynn Thomas (Grudge Match, Inside Man), editor Troy Takaki (Hitch, Sweet Home Alabama) and composer John Paesano (The Maze Runner, Maze Runner: Scorch Trials).

Executive produced by Talbert––along with Lyn Sisson-Talbert (Baggage Claim), Preston Holmes (Birth of a Nation), Jems Lopez (The Perfect Guy), Union (With This Ring) and Jeff Morrone (Being Mary Jane)––Almost Christmas was shot in Atlanta.

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Five Days Together:
Almost Christmas Begins

If you don’t know one of the characters in this movie, you are one of the characters in this movie.”

Will Packer

In the past decade, writer/director David E. Talbert has created beloved comedy films including First Sunday and Baggage Claim, but the 24-time NAACP Theatre Award nominee and Best Playwright winner admits that his first love has long been holiday movies. “I’m just a huge fan of them…all the big, broad, emotional ones,” Talbert explains. “I love the season and what it represents, so I thought, ‘What would it be like if I did my own holiday film?’”

As he brainstormed, Talbert reflected that most films in this genre revolve around the matriarch. So for his next theatrical release, he wanted to make a film where the patriarch is the glue keeping everyone together. “Being a new father myself, I thought it would be interesting to see the patriarch holding the family together,” reflects the filmmaker.

Talbert crafted a screenplay about a retired automotive engineer in Birmingham, Alabama, who lost the love of his life and mother of his four grown children the year before. Now that the holiday season has arrived again, his troupe must deal with all of the emotions of celebrating with one another…while still mourning the loss of the pillar of their family. As Talbert does best, the raucous humor that is a coping mechanism accompanying unthinkable loss—as well as the strength to pull together—became the throughline of his script.

He sent his story to blockbuster producer Will Packer, known for his efforts in such worldwide franchises as Think Like a Man and Ride Along. But it was the producer’s positive experience on the 2007 feature This Christmas that made him consider another offering in this genre. Unbeknown to Talbert, Packer had been thinking about making a new holiday film.

Packer recalls: “I’ve known Dave for a long time, but we hadn’t worked together professionally. We did talk over the years about the kind of movies that we like, and I told him that if he had a project he believed I’d be interested in that I would read it and give him thoughts.”

It was during the development of what would become Almost Christmas that Talbert took his friend up on his offer. “Dave sent me the script for what was then A Meyers Thanksgiving,” recalls Packer. “I laughed out loud as I read it, and I enjoyed the warmth and heart of the characters. I called him and said, ‘I love this. There’s only one thing we have to change. It’s got to be Christmas. ‘”

Talbert agreed with the note and steps to make the film began. Still, Packer knew they needed another partner to solidify the project. He reached out to actress and producer Gabrielle Union, with whom he had worked on the films in the Think Like a Man franchise, with the idea. She reveals: “Will sent me the script and asked me what I thought, so I gave him my notes.”

But Packer had a broader role in mind for his longtime collaborator and after much discussion, Union joined the project. “I saw the light,” she laughs. “I saw myself as Rachel, and I signed on. As well, Will was gracious enough to allow me to be an executive producer.”

Talbert and Packer leaned on Union in her new role, one she’s honed as one of the creators and the star of BET’s enormously successful series Being Mary Jane. “As one of the EPs as well as talent, you become the bridge between everything that happens at basecamp,” Union states. “That’s hair, makeup, wardrobe, transportation. You become the link between your cast and all of those departments. Being the link between the two sides is what I do best.”

Fellow executive producer Lyn Sisson-Talbert played an integral role in the aesthetics of the film she guided with her husband. She explains a bit of their process: “David and I go over what the house looks like, how we see this family, how we see each character and what their background is. Then I help him develop what that look and feel is, as well as the visual effects.”

Although Almost Christmas is based in Birmingham, the filmmakers decided that the Georgia capital would be the ideal location to shoot the movie. Packer, who resides in Atlanta, offers: “It’s a great backdrop for a film like this because you’ve got a small town feel in certain areas, and you’ve got a metropolitan feel in other areas. That, and this city embraces film. Whenever I have a project, Atlanta is always one of the first markets that I consider.”

Meyers Family and Friends:
Casting the Comedy

There’s so much with family, shenanigans and the drama that comes along with family, this story invites a lot of comedy. You can probably hear me through the outtakes laughing and falling out of my director’s chair.”

David E. Talbert

As the filmmakers envisioned their all-star dream cast, they would approach longtime friends and new ones to populate the world that Talbert had imagined. Packer shares how the cast began to come together, saying: “When Dave and I started talking about this movie, we discussed casting from the beginning. I knew we had a great script, a timely movie and a story that will appeal to a broad range of audiences because the characters are so relatable.”

It would be Talbert’s fellow executive producer who was one of the first performers cast in Almost Christmas. “Gabrielle was the first person on board,” states Packer. “She has been in a few Will Packer Productions, but this is the first time that we’re working together and she’s an executive producer. She’s been such an asset to this film because, as an actress, she has an eye for great material. Very early on she was somebody who said, ‘I love the way that this family feels elevated. This is something that other actors are going to respond to.’ With her sensibility it helped pave the way for other actors to get involved because one of their peers was having a guiding hand in the project.”

Naturally, early in development the filmmakers thought about who would be the best person to play the family patriarch, Walter Meyers—father to Cheryl, Rachel, Christian and Evan. “Walter Meyers is such a warm presence,” shares Talbert. “He reminds me a lot of my uncle, my mother’s baby brother, who didn’t lead with an iron fist, but you always knew that he was in control. It was important to find someone who could bring that to life.”

Packer recalls the discussions vividly: “The first name we said was ‘Danny Glover.’ He was always the perfect prototype. It was always, ‘Walter needs to be somebody like Danny.’ So when we actually were able to get Danny, it was huge. He’s a legend and comes in with such gravitas.”

Describing his character, who is a father of four, in Almost Christmas, Glover says: “Walter Meyers is a successful man who began with a small business, repairing cars, ultimately building into a group of several shops. I would refer to him not as a mechanic but as an automotive engineer. He is well-to-do and had a long, beautiful marriage to Grace.” [Grace is played as a young woman by Rachel Kylian and in her later years as A. Sabrena Farmer].

Walter has to navigate through what each family member brings to the table—figuratively and (later in the film) literally. Glover describes the Meyers family tree as one with many interesting branches: “Cheryl is my oldest, and I have a special connection to her because she was Daddy’s girl. Christian, the one who has the most direction in his life, is the politician running for Congress. Then there’s Rachel, who’s trying to find herself. Like in many families, there’s the one person who is always searching for something. Plus, she is a third child and feels as if she has to live up to the expectations of the other two.

“The last one, Evan, is the youngest,” Glover continues. “While the others had grown up so close to their mother, he’s the one who is in most need of her.” Months after the beloved Grace dies, Walter calls the entire family together to have their first Christmas without her. Not known to other members of the family, Walter is struggling with his decision to sell the house, making this the last Christmas at the home where they have all shared so much.

It was important to the filmmakers that the film be just as broad and loud as it was filled with love. That is absolutely punctuated by its all-star cast. The character of Aunt May, Walter’s sister-in-law, had to have all of that––and then some. She is the aunt who everybody loves, sassy but classy, the one you can’t wait to see. Talbert had the perfect person in mind for the role. It was someone with whom he had a special connection: Academy Award® winner Mo’Nique.

“David and my husband, Sidney, were college dorm mates at Morgan State University. David was an amazing playwright, just putting together these little plays, which got bigger and bigger,” Mo’Nique reveals. “One night this brother was in Baltimore doing a major play, and Sidney and I were roommates at the time. I said, ‘Sid, can you babysit Shalon for a couple hours? I’m going to go down and meet David.’ I think I met him for about five minutes. Now let’s fast-forward 20 years later, here comes a telephone call to my husband, who Dave calls ‘Genie.’ He says, ‘Genie, I need your lady, man. I got this movie…’”

In our story, Aunt May is a background singer who has traveled the world for decades and is coming home to check on her sister’s family during the holidays—especially the Meyers daughters. This proved to be a character with whom Mo’Nique could very much relate. “Aunt May and Mo’Nique are really close,” the actress says. “They’re both entertainers, straight shooters and honest to a fault.”

Kimberly Elise plays the oldest of the Meyers daughters, Cheryl. “Kimberly is somebody who I’ve been wanting to work with for a while. I’ve been a fan of her and her work for a long time,” the producer says. “I love that she always has a grounded and dramatic edge to her. She’s also a gorgeous woman, has a great relatability factor and audiences enjoy that in her work.”

Elise, an award-winning actress who first riveted audiences with Jonathan Demme’s Beloved and has stunned in comedy and drama alike in the years that followed, offers a description of Cheryl Meyers, DDS, as a true alpha female. “Cheryl covers her intensity with a lightness and a smile until her buttons are pushed,” Elise says. No more is this evident than in her growing frustration in her own marriage. “Her husband, Lonnie, is a philandering, retired professional athlete and brings out the worst in her.”

For the role of Lonnie, Talbert turned to comedian and actor JB Smoove. He knew his longtime friend was perfect for the role, saying: “I write it, but when you put it in the hands of JB Smoove, it just soars. JB threw in some ad libs that just had us in stitches throughout the movie.”

Smoove shares a bit about his character’s backstory: “Lonnie’s a guy who’s still trying to find himself. You ever meet somebody who has success in one area of life, and then after his or her successful run they just hit a brick wall? Lonnie was once a big basketball star overseas, but time has passed and he doesn’t have a career, just odd jobs. His wife has become way more successful than him, and things start to go astray. The family does not respect him because they know she’s more successful than he is.”

Cheryl’s younger sister, Rachel, a recent divorcée with a daughter, is played by Union. “Rachel and Cheryl’s relationship is pretty contentious,” reveals Union. “They clearly have not gotten along throughout their lives. There can be a bit of jealousy, a bit of unrequited sister love, when you love someone a little too much…or when looking up to them goes south. That’s the root of the uneven love Cheryl and Rachel’s share as siblings.”

But sibling rivalry isn’t the only issue with Rachel. This is her first holiday home since she’s been divorced and her daughter, Niya (Nad J Bailey), wants her to loosen up. Rachel runs into childhood friend Malachi while home for the holidays, and begins to wonder if he’s the one who got away.

To embody that role, the filmmakers reached out to Omar Epps, who has a terrific onscreen history with Union. “Gabrielle, Omar and Love & Basketball fans will know that putting those two together is a bit of a wink and nostalgia moment,” Packer says. “They’re a perfect pairing because they’re two people who get it and immediately know how to bring it and turn it on. They also have a natural chemistry and magnetism that works really well because you want Rachel to win. You want her to get her guy, and Omar is that perfect guy.”

Union agrees with Packer when it comes to her co-star. “He’s that guy you dreamed about in high school, the one who you wonder what happened to him,” she says. “Apparently he might have been thinking the same thing about Rachel…”

The oldest son in the Meyers family is Christian, played by Romany Malco, another staple in the Packer troupe and who has made his mark in many films and on the inimitable Showtime series Weeds. Christian is running for Congress, and his campaign is pulling him in numerous directions.

His patient, loving wife Sonya, played by Nicole Ari Parker, wishes he would spend more time with her and their two children Cameron and Dee (played by newcomers Alkoya Brunson and Marley Taylor) during the holidays. Of his character, Malco sums: “We’re playing this cat-and-mouse tug of war so you see this couple that really wants to get back to each other.”

The final member of Christian’s family is his campaign manager, Alan Brooks. Brought along for the holiday, Brooks puts a wrench into the planned family time and insists on traveling with the couple for the holiday. If the Meyers’ campaign doesn’t lose momentum, then Christian has a real shot at getting into office.

Packer reveals how John Michael Higgins, the stalwart of Christopher Guest films and a beloved member of Universal’s Pitch Perfect family came on the project: “When we brought up the Brooks character, the executives at Universal immediately asked if John Michael was available. I thought it was such a brilliant idea, and I wish I could take credit for it now that I know him. He is so awesome and so cool to work with—comic relief all day—and he brings such unexpected life to every character,” says Packer.

Malco explains that he, too, has been a longtime fan of Higgins’ work. “I didn’t get started in acting until later in life, so I’ve grown up watching John,” the performer says. “We’re the two square guys in the movie, and he and Nicole had me seriously in pain. I was laughing so hard because they were taking very real scenarios and improving so that you didn’t know if it was truth or not. It’s my favorite kind of comedy.”

The youngest child in the Meyers’ household is Evan, a college football star who is recovering from a shoulder injury as he comes home for Christmas. Jessie T. Usher, who starred in 2016’s Independence Day: Resurgence, paints a picture of the character he plays. “He is the ‘accident child’ and about 20 years younger than his closest sibling. His parents are a little older so he’s having to deal with the death of his mother in a different way. He feels like he was not around her enough, having her pass away during his early twenties.” In fact, Evan’s hidden grief leads to a potentially deadly secret.

The filmmakers knew that Usher was the best man for the role that would delve into a darker place. “I had been familiar with Jessie from his work on Survivor’s Remorse, and he is somebody who has IT,” lauds Packer. “He has a magnetism, charm and charisma, and I said when I had a role that was right for him, I was going to call him. Jessie brings Evan to life. He is somebody who, without a doubt, is going to be one of the biggest stars of his generation.”

It is Evan’s former teammate and best friend, Eric, who strives to keep Evan’s spirits high while he is home. Usher introduces us to the character: “Eric is the guy who Evan gets to be crazy with. There’s a great dynamic that you see in contrast to how Evan is when he’s with his family, versus when he gets out with his best friend.

For the role, newcomer DC Young Fly would join the cast as the hilarious Eric, who has dreams that are bigger than the town of Birmingham. “He’s next-level comedy,” lauds Usher. “DC is a natural comedy genius.”

DC Young Fly explains the relationship between the two friends, saying: “Eric is rough around the edges, and Evan is the straight-and-narrow guy. Whatever Evan doesn’t do, you can count on Eric to do.”

Packer had his eye on the young performer and wanted to give him his feature-film debut. “I see something in DC Young Fly that is not unlike some of the great comedians who are out there today; he has a depth beyond his years and beyond his experience,” notes the producer. “All great comedians are able to perform and take joy and energy from pain, and DC is somebody whose comedy comes from his authentic experiences and his realness.”

This character is reflective of the way that Talbert and Packer work with one another. “Eric wasn’t necessarily someone who was written as comic relief, but once I brought DC Young Fly in and put him on Dave’s radar, he started to craft that character around him,” says Packer. “DC is up next. I’m telling you now, he is somebody who we are going to be talking about and laughing with. I haven’t seen that kind of manic, yet organic, energy since Chris Tucker.”

Christmas Dinner:
Design and Locations

Family and food were the inspiration for the film’s writer/director, and that led to many of Almost Christmas’ most powerful moments, all of which were shot in the greater Atlanta region. “My great-grandmother’s favorite dish was her sweet potato pie. I can taste it like it was yesterday,” reflects Talbert. “I remember when she passed away, and my mother said she was going to make her mother’s pie. Nobody was eating it. I think it was my uncle who said, ‘This doesn’t taste like mama’s pie!’”

That sense memory would help create the narrative for his new film. “I’ve been wanting to taste my great-grandmother’s sweet potato pie for 15 some years now and no one can make it,” continues Talbert. “That was the foundation of this story—losing someone and then wanting to reconnect with them through the sensation of taste.”

As the Talberts have crisscrossed the globe with their many plays and productions, coming to shoot in Atlanta would mean crafting sets that were vibrant and astonishingly real. Explains executive producer Lyn Sisson-Talbert: “David and I come to Atlanta annually with our plays, and so we are very familiar with the warmth and family of the city, as well as the history and community here. For Almost Christmas to be set here has been a perfect marriage. Atlanta has been up-and-coming the last 10 years or so with more and more films shot here, so it’s wonderful to be part of that.”

Her fellow executive producer, James Lopez, who was involved in the development of the script and oversaw the production with Packer, applauds the crew pool in Atlanta. “The crews are top-notch,” he says. “The level and the amount of production that goes on down here ensures that they get that hands-on experience and hundreds of hours of production work.”

Production designer Wynn Thomas, writer/director Talbert and the production’s location manager, Andrew Ullman, actually chose two homes for the composite of the interiors and exteriors of the Meyers’ family home. They decorated the houses with the texture, color and beauty that Grace would have given the sanctuary that she and Walter built together. Down to the wallpaper, fixtures and the fabrics on the couches, attention was paid to every little detail.

Talbert and Packer understand that in every powerful ensemble comedy, you need a scene in which everything falls apart. That scene happens around food and at the dinner table in Almost Christmas. Packer describes it: “At Christmas dinner, where we have our full cast and everybody sitting around the table, from Danny at the head to Aunt May at the other end––this scene is hilarious.

“We shot it over the course of several days,” explains the producer. “We had so much fun shooting this scene because a lot of comedy is not just about the jokes but the reactions. When you shoot a scene like that and you have that many actors around a table, you have to get a lot of reaction shots. Our performers had so much fun playing off their fellow actors in the scene. What would happen is that everybody would end up trying to one-up each other with their reactions. It was amazing.”

Glover concurs with the filmmakers: “Over food, things can fall apart or things can come together, or they both can happen at the same time.

Production wrapped, the team took a moment to reflect on the experience that was Almost Christmas. For the man who created it all, his film boils down to the gift of laughter through tears. Concludes Talbert: “There’s so much with family, shenanigans and the drama that comes along with family, this story invites a lot of comedy. You can probably hear me through the outtakes laughing and falling out of my director’s chair. Everyone on this film caught on to that spirit, and the fact is we’ve made a very hopeful movie. This is a love story of a man who loved a woman for 40 years, and the memories of her are magical memories because they had a great life.”

“It’s a heartwarming story in the vein of the traditional holiday movies that everyone loves, wraps Packer. “The reason that people gravitate toward them every year is because it reminds you of the best and the worst things about family and the holidays. Once you get together with family around the holidays you remember why you only want to see them once a year. You remember why you don’t see them so much during the other 11 months…”

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“Almost Christmas” – In Theaters Friday


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