The holiday movie, which dropped at midnight Wednesday on Roku, picks up weeks after the events of the season 2 finale of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, when Zoey's beau, Max (Skylar Astin), suddenly discovered he also had the power to hear people's innermost heartsongs. But this being set during Christmastime and all, Zoey (Jane Levy) spent most of her time frantically preparing to recreate the Clarke family traditions for their first yuletide season without their beloved patriarch, Mitch (Peter Gallagher). Though things don't initially go as planned, the universe has a funny way of working itself out. As Zoey scrambled to make the family's first Mitch-less Christmas memorable, she learns that maybe, just maybe, creating new traditions and embracing new beginnings is just as OK.
As for Max's sudden ability to hear Zoey and others' heartsongs, that eventually faded away when he came to the realization -- appropriately at the end of the movie -- that perhaps he was given the power so he could understand and empathize with Zoey's hardships and neuroses. And, more importantly, so they could be on the same level of understanding as they progress in their romantic relationship. While Zoey seemed more willing to accept her fate with her powers, she also came to the conclusion that one of the reasons she may have received the ability was to maintain an open line of communication with her late father and be forced to be present in the world, instead of behind a computer screen. While there was no major cliffhanger, the movie left the door slightly ajar should Roku (or another platform) decide to move forward with another film or greenlight additional episodes.
But, as Zoey's creator Austin Winsberg -- who wrote the script in mere weeks -- tells ET, figuring out the most important beats to focus on while balancing a more close-ended story to service the film format had its challenges. Not to mention some of the logistical and scheduling restrictions that forced Winsberg's hand. (Cast member John Clarence Stewart, for instance, was only available for four days due to commitments to Starz's P-Valley. His musical number ended up getting cut because there was no time to rehearse it.)
"There were definitely a lot of challenges and goals to achieve with the movie. First was how can we tell a holiday film that feels like a standalone movie, that if people hadn't watched the show before, could come in cold and watch it as its own experience, without having to know everything that came before it? That was No. 1. Then No. 2, how can I go from what I'm used to with breaking stories with the six-act episodic structure to breaking it more like a movie with a three-act structure?" Winsberg said. "Then it was, how can we also continue with some of the cliffhangers and some of the loose ends from season 2 and have them carry over into the movie and then make it feel like it's got enough of a complete ending, that if we did end with the movie, people could feel like we've told enough of a complete story. But still have a little bit of a dot, dot, dot, open door at the end, in case there was a desire for more. There were definitely a lot hurdles we had to jump through and needles to thread, in order to achieve all of those things and to make it feel like hitting all the marks of what the show hopefully does, which is being comedic and emotional and musical and authentic and real."
Astin recalled feeling "grateful" to play Max at least once more. "I love every moment. I don't even think there was many more drafts after the first one," he shared. "But the fact that we had this format of this movie, it just kind of all worked. And I think Austin actually really enjoyed that format. Now that he's done it, I know that he knows what to do with these characters in writing of more films."
The actor reacted to the climactic moment at the end of Zoey's Extraordinary Christmas when Max begins to lose his ability to hear heartsongs after navigating most of the movie with this newfound ability.
"Something that Max has wanted throughout the entire series has been the affection of Zoey, but also to understand this power imbalance and to level it off. He's always been frustrated with it and even taken it out on Zoey at times. Through having this power and truly understanding it -- not just knowing of it, but inhabiting it and living through it -- he can truly be that support system for Zoey that he's always claimed to be and even had some more realizations that someone even as loving and giving as Max needed to not fully understand what she was going through, not just with the power, but with her grief," Astin explained. "Because it's one thing when the songs are easy, but when you're being hit with such intense emotions from other people and especially emotions that you might have caused that can really mess someone up."
"And I think that the universe gave Max that power for that reason without him even realizing it," he continued. "It's a really powerful storytelling device. The fact that I got to inhabit that concept and see it from a different lens was really fun to do as an actor, but also powerful to receive as a character. We probably would've played with it a lot more if we just went straight into a season 3, but the fact that we were able to bring this, I won't say to a close... I think that this actually leveled off Max and Zoey, not him having the power, but him understanding it."
Added Winsberg: "That was always part of my season 3 architecture and design. I really love romantic comedies and a lot of what I was going to try to get mileage out of in season 3 was: What is it like to date somebody when you both know exactly what's going on in the other person's head? I thought there was just a lot of opportunity for romantic comedy and relationship issues to come into that. I had a lot of fun story ideas of the ways that we could play with the powers with Max and also give Jane an opportunity to sing and dance more. I always knew that what I wanted to build to, which was the reason why he got those powers was for empathy."
"Because I think there's such a responsibility and weight that comes along with that, and I think Zoey was trying her best, both seasons, to navigate life and the powers at the same time," he said. "There were moments along the way where Max was maybe not as understanding as he could have been of everything that she was going through. I felt like in order for their relationship to really solidify, he needed to walk a mile in her shoes and understand what that was like. I think it's not until he actually witnesses 'Wish You Were Here' that he understands the power and the weight and the gravity of the powers. That's ultimately what gives him a deeper sense of empathy and understanding of what she's going through, which can only help in any relationship, when you're trying to look at things from the other person's perspective."
Winsberg also zeroed in on how far Zoey has come as she gradually embraces her literal superpower.
"The powers not only gave her a way to communicate with her dad while he was still alive and trapped in his body, but has continued to create a dialogue between them even after death. Certainly keeping that father connection alive was a big part of the powers. But the other thing that she says in the movie, and this is part of the whole Zoey arc that's been there from the beginning is so much of the time Zoey was a computer coder who spent so much of her time staring down at a screen and looking at the world in zeros and ones, and everything being very black and white. The powers have helped teach her emotional intelligence and compassion, not judging a book by its cover and learning to see the world more in shades of gray."
"That's been part of her evolution and journey, that the powers were giving her a gift of understanding and also telling her to look up sometimes and stop hiding behind your computer and stop hiding behind your desk," he added. "That's a message that's important to me, that I'm constantly trying to remember. That's one of the things that the powers give Zoey, is just need to look up and be a part of the world. Hopefully, that's what the takeaway is from getting the powers and that if the show or movies were to continue, that she would continue to evolve her emotional understanding because of them."
So what about the future of Zoey's? While Astin has his own personal hopes of where he would like to see Max go if there was more in the Zoey's universe (a deeper dive into Max's family, for one), Winsberg acknowledged the decision isn't up to him and how this movie performs (and received) will dictate whether or not there is more to come.
"Roku has been a really amazing and supportive partner and I really feel so grateful that not only did they take this on, but they've really embraced it. I just love all the promotion and marketing and social stuff they've been doing for the show. I couldn't ask for more in terms of Roku as a partner," he praised. "As far as more, I think it's dependent on how well the movie does and what the appetite is for it. I don't know what the powers that be are going to say about more. I could certainly wrap my head around more episodes. And now that we've done the movie, I can also wrap my head around more movies. I have several more movie ideas in my brain now of places I think we can go with it."
"At this moment, it's not up to me. It's up to the fans and the demand, how we do, but I really mourned the show when NBC canceled it. And then I feel like we got this amazing reprieve when Roku commissioned the movie and I'm grateful for what we have," Winsberg said. "If this is the end, I will be sad but accepting. If we have the possibility of doing more too, I would jump at the chance."
Zoey's Extraordinary Christmas is available now on Roku. For more, watch below.