Jeremiah S. Chechik Looks Back at Making ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’

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Jeremiah S. Chechik was the special guest at Arclight Studios in Hollywood a few years ago when they hosted a screening of his directorial debut, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” The third and most beloved in the “Vacation” franchise has long since become a holiday classic, and it is the Christmas film many families watch during the holiday season instead of “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” After the movie was over and the end credits were all done, Chechik came up quickly to the front of the audience before anyone could introduce him and said, ”I haven’t seen it since the day it opened!”

The screenplay was written by the late John Hughes and was inspired by an article Hughes wrote for the National Lampoon called “Christmas ’59.” Chechik tipped his hand to Hughes’ wonderful writing and went on to say it was originally written as a stand-alone movie. Warner Brothers, however, read it and immediately wanted to integrate it into the “Vacation” franchise.

When asked how he got the job to direct, Chechik explained he was directing what he called “high profile” commercials back in a time when it was unusual to go from doing commercials to directing feature films. His work eventually got him discovered by Steven Spielberg who ended up giving him an office at Amblin Entertainment. This brought a lot of awareness to his visual style, and both Chase and Hughes soon became adamant he be the next one to direct the next “Vacation” movie.

With this being his first film, Chechik said he was determined not to back down on actors who wanted to exert their power over him. While it’s tempting to think he and Chase didn’t get along as Chase’s reputation for being hard to work will never disappear, Chechik said they actually had a great working relationship on set. This came after he admitted to not being a big fan of Chase’s comedy as he described it as being “very broad.” Chechik described Chase as having a very strong point of view, a very clear intention of what the movie is about, and they worked together to find things which worked.

Chechik, however, did say he and Beverly D’Angelo had many arguments, some of which he described as being “very heated,” on set. Still, he said all the bad blood between them is now water under the bridge.

“Christmas Vacation’s” budget was $27 million, and its shooting schedule lasted for 60 days. Much of the movie was shot in Breckinridge, Colorado while other scenes were shot the following summer at Warner Brothers in Burbank, California. Chechik was happy to say Hughes had his back throughout the whole production. When the movie went through previews, the studio heads pressured him to cut the scene where the cat got electrocuted. Chechik claimed he resisted the pressure and kept it in because he thought it was funny (and it was) and that he was more of a dog person anyway. The test audiences also loved the scene, and the studio heads didn’t bother keeping the moment out of the movie’s trailer.

Chechik said “Christmas Vacation” worked so well because we truly cared about Clark Griswold and what he went through. The mood of certain scenes was very important to him, especially the one with Chase in the attic where he watched home movies of past Christmases with tears filling his eyes. Looking at this made Chechik point out the way comedy should be done in movies:

“Funny beats funny,” he said. “If everyone thought the set pieces were funny but they didn’t care about the main character, then the movie won’t work.”

With the squirrel scene, he said a trained squirrel was brought onto the set and there was also a trainer there for the dog featured in it as well. Chechik said the filmmakers “storyboarded the hell out of it” and were eager to start filming it, but when he arrived on set that day he was confronted with the grim faces of the trainers and line producers. After shuffling around for a bit, they informed him the squirrel had died. The squirrel trainer went on to say they don’t live for very long anyway as if that could have possibly softened the blow.

So, they went out and got another squirrel for the scene which they ended up drawing out onto the set with food. From this, Jeremiah said he learned how to roll with things and to use improvisation. About every scene in “Christmas Vacation” had a certain amount of improvisation in it, he pointed out.

As for the most difficult scene to shoot, Chechik said it was the dinner table scene where the whole family begins their Christmas Eve celebration. He did not hesitate in telling everyone having 9 to 11 actors in a scene is a really bad idea. The blocking proved to be very complicated, and it became such a nightmare for him as it took days and days for him to get the scene right.

Here are some other “Christmas Vacation” trivia Chechik let us know about:

  • In the scene with the two granddads snoring in front of the television, the actors playing those roles really were fast asleep.
  • Mae Questal, who played Aunt Bethany, was the voice of Betty Boop.
  • Chevy’s angry rant on his boss was done exactly as it was written by Hughes.

It was really nice of Chechik to come out and talk with us about “Christmas Vacation,” a movie he succeeded in making a timeless classic and, as he put it, “very postcardy.” When asked why he hasn’t seen the film since it first came out, he said he just wanted to let it go and let it live. It certainly has had a long life since 1989, and the series continued on with “Vegas Vacation” and “Vacation” which starred Ed Helms and Christina Applegate. In response to one audience member who said his family watches it every year, Chechik replied, “I like your family!”

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