EXmas Director Jonah Feingold on Creating Rom-Coms and Family Dynamics

EXmas is a delightful holiday rom-com featuring some classic but relatable tropes. While we may not find our ex at our holiday table, most of us have longed for a holiday like the Stroops share.

It features charismatic stars, including Robbie Amell as Grham and Leighton Meester as Ali. Michael Hitchcock and Kathryn Greenwood were hilarious and Graham’s holiday-obsessed parents.

Jonah Feingold loves directing com-coms, and he’s had great success with his two prior films, Dating in New York and At Midnight. We were excited to speak with him about how he directed Amazon Freevee’s EXmas.

Feingold spoke with us during a recent virtual press day about which holiday films inspired him, how he selected the cast, and how essential the family dynamics were to this film.

Check it out below.

Hi Jonah. I’ve heard you love rom-coms. How did you get involved in EXmas? Did you have much input with the script, or were you coming on board merely as a director?

I do love rom-coms. I was sent the project not that long ago, in April or May, just as a director. I really responded to the logline, which was about the idea that two exes end up in the same household together over the holidays.

It reminded me of a Howard Hawks premise, like a “Bringing Up Baby” vibe with two people who despise each other and are forced to live under the same roof. When I read the script by a great writer named Dan Steele, I was immediately interested in working with it.

Did you tweak it anyway or use any favorite holiday films as inspiration?

I didn’t work on the script because there was a writer’s strike, so we couldn’t touch the script. Tonally and visually, I injected some of my favorite inspiration into the movie’s direction.

I included anything from It’s a Wonderful Life, which I love, to Nancy Meyers’s brilliant movie The Holiday, to the optimistic, warm, magical tone that a film like Home Alone gives off.

Yes. Some scenes look like a winter wonderland. How did you decide which traditions to highlight?

The direction I gave everyone for the movie was that for the Stroup family household, Christmas threw up everywhere. You have the toys, sweaters, and trinkets, and that’s really due to Jeannie, played by Kathryn Greenwood.

She loves Christmas, as Dennis, played by Michael Hitchcock, says on the phone, she started decorating for Christmas before Halloween.

It wasn’t much of a decision regarding what type of traditions I wanted to honor, so much as how much Christmas we could show you in one frame because the mom was so obsessed with it.

She was. It’s so fun.

It was a fun time. We were lucky that the parents and siblings and Robbie and Leighton all got along well. We just became a family. We had dinner every night. We spent so much time together in that great house, typically in one location.

It just became this nutty Christmas family in the middle of the summer that we were filming.

Oh, that sounds lovely. And speaking of that, how did you pick the cast? They are so perfect together. They seem like a family.

They do the chemistry well. Robbie and Leighton are two stars in their own right. I was excited that Leighton could jump into the romantic comedy because it had just been a second or so since we’d seen Leighton do a comedy this big.

Robbie is on a wonderful show called Upload, also on Amazon. So, there’s a bit of a familiarity there. They seemed like a relatable couple. They aren’t millennials, and they’re not like 20-somethings. They’re more mature as a couple.

When it came to casting the family, I wanted to cast talented, wacky actors who were not afraid to be physical, have fun, and look silly.

Michael Hitchcock, one of the all-time great comedians and improv comedians from the Best in Show films and the Christopher Guest movies, was a no-brainer. He had worked recently with BuzzFeed producers as well.

Kathryn Greenwood has such an emotional sensibility and a sweet, motherly warmth, yet she is hilarious and can take a line of dialog and make it feel like it’s off the cuff.

Veronika Slowikowska and I had been friends on TikTok, and I thought she was so talented for many years. I eventually called her and asked if she wanted a role in this movie.

Steven Huy had auditioned, and I thought Steven’s audition was super earnest. It wasn’t until I met Steven that I learned he had also been adopted, like his character in the movie. Hearing him speak about that, I thought what he had inside of him as a human being was more than perfect for the role.

Yes, they were so wonderful. And I know romance is pivotal in rom-coms. Character motivations and family dynamics are also vital, and the Stroops seem essential to this holiday film and their interactions.

Completely. The family element is essential. Families have to love each other and get angry at each other. You do not have to be afraid to scream at each other. There’s never a quiet moment in this family. In many families, there is never just a calm moment.

At the end of the day, they all love each other, and they love Ali. Without giving away too many spoilers, they don’t want Ali to leave Graham since that’s the movie’s purpose.

The parents seem overinvolved in their kids’ lives. They seem to love being involved in their kids’ lives almost as much as they love the holidays.

And that’s a fun reality of going home for the holidays, too. You’re surrounded by family members whenever you go home for the holidays. It’s always, are you dating anybody? Are you seeing somebody? Oh, what’s your job? Why aren’t you doing this at your job? You should go to grad school.

It’s never enough; we can all relate to being single at the party. It was fun to tell Michael and Catherine they could make fun of their son. He’s goofy, so don’t be afraid to dump on him.

It was so funny to see the ultimate overinvolved family and how they love the girlfriend and accept her but rag on him. But it seems different than other holiday films. Was that your intent?

The intention was to make a holiday movie that felt more grounded to relatable things we go through with our family regarding our love life. There are some heightened moments, whether it’s a toilet flooding or a goat attack, and there are just some tropes of holiday cheesiness that you want to hit.

But at the end of the day, the more you stay with the characters, the more grounded, emotional, and natural it becomes as a film. It starts fantastical, goofy, and in line with a Christmas film you would watch and put on in the background.

I think the more time you spend with the characters, the idea was just to ground it in reality and ground it in an emotional truth of falling in and out of love with somebody and what it means when you love someone’s family just as much, if not more, than the person that you’re seeing.

That was our intention — to bring something slightly different and subvert the expectations of the genre.

Very true. And for the last question, I love the holiday music in this. What was that process like for you and your team?

I’ve worked with the same composer on all three of my films now, and his name is Grant Fonda. He and I met at film school, and he’s like my John Williams.

We’ve done Dating in New York and At Midnight together. Then we did this together. He has such an extraordinary sensibility for magic and theme.

After I got contacted about doing a Christmas movie for BuzzFeed and Amazon, I called my composer and told him that we have these two characters and need to start thinking about their themes. I always approach it based on what the character themes are.

We always work hard to deliver a score that has a personality and that is memorable. It’s tough these days to push that through the system. I’m thankful to Amazon for letting us do that as much as possible.

We also honored public domain Christmas music of every movie that is always used, which was fun to learn what you can use in your film without having to go over budget in terms of songs and stuff. But the score is a huge part of it. We wanted it to feel nostalgic, timeless, and magical, and we accomplished that.

EXmas streams on Amazon Freevee beginning Friday, November 17.

Laura Nowak is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on X.

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