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Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist Boss Hopes Christmas Movie Gives Fans Closure While Leaving the Door Open for More

Austin Winsberg teases the chaos of Zoey and Max both having powers

Scott Huver

You could just as easily call it Zoey's Extraordinary Comeback. NBC's cancellation of the fan-beloved but seemingly ratings-challenged series Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist was an unexpected twist, especially considering that the second season ended on a cliffhanger, when Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy) discovered her beau Max (Skylar Astin) had developed the same power to see and hear the hidden emotional music playing in other people's hearts and minds.

Viewers – many of whom had fallen for the show on platforms other than its conventional broadcast venue – were crestfallen, as were the cast and crew, none more so than series creator Austin Winsberg, who based many of the show's moving storylines on his own deeply personal experiences with his father, who experienced progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare neurological disorder.

But in a rousing example of giving devoted viewers of underrated, destined-to-be-classic series what they want more of right now rather than waiting years, Roku rescued the show in the form of the holiday movie Zoey's Extraordinary Christmas, allowing the creative team to deliver the concluding chapter in glittery holiday wrapping and a bow – and maybe, just maybe, leave an open door for more.

Winsberg joined TV Guidefor a preview of just how extraordinary the show's journey from cancellation to Christmas miracle proved to be, and how Zoey's playlist may yet be filled with future Heart Songs.

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Tell me a little bit about continuing your journey with Zoey, because I'm sure it's been a roller coaster of emotions for you the last several months, wondering what was going to happen, getting a surprising and disappointing answer, then other possibilities floated…
Austin Winsberg: I think a journey is a good way to describe it. It was complicated. First of all, we were kind of blindsided. No one told us at NBC to not do a Season 2 cliffhanger, that they weren't happy with the show creatively or anything. I think there were challenges because the show wasn't fully owned by NBC. It's a co-production between Lionsgate and NBC studios, and a new president in a new regime took over at NBC. Our fan base and our numbers were kind of dispersed over a lot of different platforms, and we never had a lead-in and we got moved around the schedule a bunch. So I think it was maybe a little bit of a lack of clarity about exactly how many people were watching the show and what those numbers meant. But when it got canceled, it was devastating. It was like such a gut punch.

And I think so many of us on the creative team and the executives were so emotionally invested in the show in a deep way that none of us really knew how to process it. And then Lionsgate, to their credit, just became really proactive in trying to get the show out into the marketplace. And all of the amazing fan support was huge. The Save Zoey's Playlist campaign that was trending on Twitter and winning all the Save Our Show polls, I think it just helps with momentum for the show.  And then Roku stepped up as our heroes and just said, "Let's do more." I think it was something that everybody could kind of wrap their head around to do a Christmas movie. And then where it goes from here, I think is still a question mark.

Once you did get that opportunity with Roku, tell me about formulating the story you wanted to tell. Because it was a good chance to get a little closure, but also to keep the door open to future storytelling. Give me a sense of how this all started to percolate, and where you ended up with it.
Winsberg: First of all, it was a great relief. I mean, we were all so sad. I really went through a version of mourning when the show was canceled. I kind of just couldn't wrap my head around it. And then when we were saved, it was exciting...I think the idea with the movie was, how can we do something that feels close-ended in some ways, and that also new viewers who've never seen the show before could come in and watch without having seen the show, but also give a degree of closure to the audience and the fans, especially because we ended the season with certain question marks and cliffhangers, and then also still leave the door open for the potential of more?

So there were a lot of story challenges in there. And for me, first and foremost, I was excited about doing a holiday movie because we never knew exactly when we were going to be on the schedule at NBC, and having the ability to tell stories where we could use holiday songs and Christmas songs felt like a good opportunity to open up some new doors for the show. I really approached the movie like a movie, and not like just two episodes, but with a full three-act movie structure. And I really wanted it to feel like it could stand alone in some ways, and be like a holiday movie that people could come back and watch year after year.

Just from a story perspective, the idea of the family's first holidays without Mitch really resonated with me emotionally. My father's birthday was Christmas day. The holiday was pretty much focused on my father in a lot of ways. And then once he was gone, really feeling the loss of that, especially on the first holiday, felt like something emotionally true that we could tap into, and also felt like something that a lot of people could relate to right now with all of the loss that's been happening because of Covid and the pandemic.

The dual opportunity of being able to use holiday songs in a Zoey-like way, and also to be able to tell something that felt emotionally true with the first holiday without a loved one always being a challenging time, felt like it could be right for stories. And then on top of that, being able to continue the stories of Max and the powers and Mo and Perry, and certain stuff with the Maggie storyline that we were setting up at the end of Season 2 was nice, to be able to continue that and do some of the plan of what I had for Season 3 in the movie.

Skylar Astin and Jane Levy, Zoey's Extraordinary Christmas

Skylar Astin and Jane Levy, Zoey's Extraordinary Christmas

Roku Channel/Lionsgate

Of those plot lines, I think the fans are most biting their nails about Zoey and Max. What was fun about digging into that and figuring out where you wanted to take them, now that you did have this opportunity to resolve that lingering cliffhanger?
Winsberg: I really love romantic comedy, and I always thought the idea of what would it be like to be in a relationship with somebody where both of you know exactly what's going on in the other person's head was ripe for comedy and conflict. And so to be able to do that in the movie, to really see Zoey and Max in a relationship and see the challenges that Max having the powers on top of Zoe having the powers brings to that relationship, felt like an interesting new dynamic to explore.

And just selfishly, on the show, Jane Levy is so good at her song and dance, and I always have such joy whenever she performs. But one of the challenges built into the conceit was that Zoey gets to see the numbers, but not really do them herself. We always had to kind of jump through hoops to figure out ways to get Jane to sing and dance on the show. And this was also kind of a natural extension way to put Jane in numbers herself and not just have her watch numbers.

You got to really go to town on the musical numbers, as you always do. Given that you had the Christmas hook, tell me about figuring out which of a zillion Christmas songs you wanted to play with, and still use some established pop songs.
Winsberg: My first thought was "Could we tell the entire story just with holiday songs?" And I went and I listened to a lot of holiday music and a lot of Christmas music. And the challenge, just from a Zoey perspective, with those songs is, these are supposed to be people's Heart Songs, or their "I want…" songs, or expressing their inner feelings.

There's a lot of Christmas songs that don't quite lend themselves to that kind of storytelling – "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer," "Jingle Bells," or certain songs that don't intrinsically scream Heart Songs. So trying to find the holiday songs that also spoke in a heart-like way, using the vocabulary of the show, was challenging, but also fun and exciting. I did feel like just for overall audience appeal to not only do holiday songs, but to also do some pop songs in there as well, kind of made sense, and to kind of spread the wealth. But it was great – we had so much fun listening to a lot of holiday songs and making sure that Christmas feels, and the holidays feel, very represented in the movie.

Which one particular music sequence that you think the fans are really going to respond to?
Winsberg: There's a few, but one just off the top of my head is: We get to explore kind of like a musical mashup or medley when both Max and Zoey are experiencing very different Heart Songs from the other person at the same time.

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As you've always done, you let the fantastical stuff happen in the musical numbers, but the stories themselves are very grounded. Everybody's storylines all felt very organically placed in the holiday season, Tell me about figuring out what everybody was going to do and where you were going to be able to knit their different storylines together.
Winsberg: First of all, let me just say that Roku green-lit the movie off of a four-line pitch from me [on] July 22. We started shooting less than two months later and we will have a completed holiday movie from start to finish, from scratch-to-completed-movie, in four months. And this is a musical movie with 12 musical numbers in it. So the pace in which we did everything was pretty extraordinary...But, in terms of the fun of it all and weaving it all together, I definitely think I was able to bring in some of my own feelings and satirical things about the holidays. We are bombarded every year with Christmas cards and Christmas letters now from other families and our kitchen just gets filled with this competition over whose family has the best Christmas card. And that definitely felt like a storyline that I wanted to weave into the movie.

I thought it could be fun with a holiday kids pageant and Mo's role in that felt like a funny opportunity for a story. And obviously, all of the drama that goes on at Christmas dinner, I find it interesting: everybody always has these memories of these amazing holidays in their minds and everybody loves the holiday time. But then, in reality, I think that a lot of family dinners can be fraught and ripe with conflict. And so exploring the dichotomy between the joy of the holiday and the expectations of the holidays versus some of the realities, what those actually look like, felt like a fun opportunity for comedy and drama.

Tell me a little bit about the behind-the-scenes aspect: I imagine you all were probably apart when you got the bad news from NBC, and then you get to come back on set in the summer to do a Christmas movie. What kind of emotions were happening when you were all back on set together?
Winsberg: Well, every actor's contract had expired before Roku stepped in, so, first of all, just sort of figuring out how to make it all work was a challenge in and of itself. And then certain actors had already gotten other jobs, so scheduling alone turns into this crazy puzzle nightmare. Then once we actually worked it all out and got everybody up there, I think that everybody just felt a lot of gratitude and a lot of excitement to be able to revisit this again. I think when you're in the thick of it, especially last year, it was so challenging because it was during the pandemic. We each had to do a 14-day quarantine twice to be in Canada. Nobody could go back and forth home, so everybody was really living there and didn't get to see their friends and family. It was really challenging, and once we felt that loss, to be able to come back again, I think everybody was just really excited and grateful.

And Richard Shepard, who directed the pilot, came back to do the movie, and it was a really positive, fun experience. I think everybody just wanted to do a good job. I really feel like every single person really brought it.

Zoey's Extraordinary Christmas

Zoey's Extraordinary Christmas

Roku Channel/Lionsgate

Was the goodbye on wrap day a little more poignant than a usual season-ender?
Winsberg: For sure. I mean, there were tears. I think Jane had posted some stuff on Instagram where she was saying, "That's a wrap," and had a hard time getting through it. Michael Thomas Grant sang one of his songs alone in the SPRK Point set. I think we were all feeling emotions in our own way. For me, it was complicated because I had mourned the show in June when we got canceled, and so coming back again, I think I viewed it more with gratitude and more as an opportunity rather than being a loss of it. I was appreciative that we got to do it at all. 

The show has always been driven so much by your beautiful connection with your father, and the movie is no different. What has this experience done in terms of the way you've used this storytelling to process how you feel about your dad and your relationship?
Winsberg: These are good questions – I feel like I'm on Barbara Walters! Well, I think there was something therapeutic for me, being able to go back and revisit it and tell a lot of the stories of what happened during that time. I think it's been rewarding to see the massive outpouring of other people who have loved ones who either have PSP, which is where my dad died from, or people who know people with similar diseases, or even people who've just lost parents or loved ones over the last few years reaching out to me. I don't think I ever anticipated or expected that level of fan interaction, or that people would respond. My dad's disease was a very rare neurological disease. And I kind of learned in the process that the more specific you are, the more universal it becomes, in certain ways.

And just the way that everyone found their own meaning in it was surprising to me. I think the show in general, I don't know how much this has to do with me and my dad, but so much of the show is about understanding other people and realizing things that might be going on underneath the surface, and trying to be authentic to other people's points of view and feelings. I think the show has certainly heightened my empathy and the way that I approach the world and the way that I look at others. I think I try to approach things with more kindness and understanding now than judgment than maybe I had in the past. So I feel like a lot of the messages of the show have kind of started to percolate and come true in my own life. As far as getting a certain kind of closure with my dad, I don't know if I'll ever quite feel that sense of closure, but I do feel a sense of pride in the work. And again, not to use that word, but gratitude that we got to tell the story.

As you should. What's kind of percolating in the back of your brain when you think about doing some more of these?
Winsberg: Well, I'm trying not to let my brain go too far in that direction, just in case it doesn't happen, but I certainly can wrap my head around the idea of doing more Zoey movies. I think that we had a good time doing it. And I think doing a musical every eight days, the challenge of that is so monumental and it really took over my entire life for the last three years. The idea of being able to come back and revisit these characters on another holiday – on Valentine's Day, on Halloween, or on vacation, or in different life moments or something like that – I could definitely see more Zoey's movies like that.

That being said, if Roku wanted to produce more episodes of the show, I mean, I do think we have certainly left the door open at the end enough for more stories and more ways that we can continue to follow this journey.

Zoey's Extraordinary Christmas streams on the Roku Channel beginning Dec. 1.