Jeremiah Chechik was the special guest of the evening at Arclight Studios in Hollywood which did a screening of his directorial debut, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” The third and most beloved in the “Vacation” franchise, it has long since become a holiday classic. After the movie was over, Jeremiah came up quickly 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 he wrote for the National Lampoon called “Christmas ’59.” Jeremiah tipped his hand to John’s wonderful writing and went on to say that it was originally written as a stand alone movie. However, Warner Brothers read it and immediately wanted to integrate it into the “Vacation” series.
When asked how he got the job to direct, Jeremiah explained that he was directing “high profile” commercials back when it was unusual to go from doing that to feature films. His work got him discovered by Steven Spielberg who soon after gave him an office at Amblin. This brought more awareness to his visual style, and Chevy Chase and John Hughes soon became adamant that he direct the latest Clark Griswold disaster.
With this being his first film, Jeremiah said he was determined not to back down on actors who wanted to exert power over him. While you may think he and Chevy Chase didn’t get along, Jeremiah said they had a great working relationship on set. This came after he admitted not being a big fan of Chevy’s comedy as he found it “very broad.” Jeremiah described Chevy as having a very strong point of view, a very clear intention of what the movie is about, and that they worked together to find things that worked.
Jeremiah did however say that he and Beverly D’Angelo had many arguments (some of them “very heated”) on set. Still, he said that is now all “water under the bridge.”
“Christmas Vacation’s” budget was $27 million, and the shooting schedule lasted 60 days. Much of it was shot in Breckinridge, Colorado while other scenes were shot in the following summer at Warner Brothers in California. Jeremiah was happy to say that John Hughes had his back throughout the production. When the movie went through previews, the studio heads pressured him about cutting the scene where the cat gets electrocuted. Jeremiah claimed he resisted the pressure and kept it in because he thought it was funny (it was), he was more of a dog person anyway, and the test audiences loved it.
Jeremiah admitted that “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 Jeremiah, especially the one with Chevy in the attic where we watch viewing home movies of Christmas from his past, tears filling his eyes. This is how Jeremiah described the way comedy should be done.
“Funny beats funny. 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 in the scene as well. The filmmakers had “storyboarded the hell out of it” and were eager to start filming it. But Jeremiah said that when he arrived on set that day, he said that he was confronted with the “grim faces” of trainers and line producers. After shuffling around for a bit, they told him that the squirrel had died. The squirrel trainer went on to say that they don’t live for very long anyway, as if that could have 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 that, Jeremiah said that he learned how to roll with things and to use improvisation. About every scene in “Christmas Vacation” has a certain amount of improvisation in it, he pointed out.
As for the most difficult scene to shoot, it was the dinner table where the whole family begins their Christmas Eve celebration. Jeremiah did not hesitate in telling everyone that having 9, 10, or 11 actors in a scene is a really bad idea. The blocking was very complicated, and it became such a nightmare for him as it took days and days for to get it right.
Here is some other “Christmas Vacation” trivia Jeremiah left us with:
-In the scene with the two granddads snoring in front of the television, the actors 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 John Hughes.
It was really nice of Jeremiah to come out and talk with us about “Christmas Vacation,” a movie he succeeded in making 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 that he just wanted to let it go and “let it live.” It certainly has had a long life since 1989, and in response to one audience member who said that his family watches it every year, Jeremiah replied:
“I like your family!”