National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation director Jeremiah S. Chechik says rumours that he joined the 1989 festive classic after Home Alone director Chris Columbus quit are 'highly exaggerated'.
"I never had any inkling he was even being considered,” Chechik told Yahoo. “He was never the director of the movie. The final development of the script was between John [Hughes] and I.
"I think Chris — who would’ve been great for the movie by the way — was someone who was on Hughes’ radar, but I don’t think Chevy wanted him. There was some discussion about it but he wasn’t hired,” he adds, relaying his version of events.
“I read an article that said he’d walked off the movie but there were no locations, sets, cast, final script or budget. I don’t know where this story came from. That he was fully in control of this movie and then walked off for some reason, is a myth that only surfaced recently.”
He continues, adding: “He was probably one of many directors considered before a determination was made. I only know that Chevy did not want him — and I don’t know why because Chris is a spectacular director,” reasons Chechik. “It worked out really well because John gave him another movie in which he excelled.”
When it comes to festive telly, some movies are mandatory viewing. Those sacred features that have managed to transcend time and nestle their way into our collective pop-culture psyche, forming the very foundations of the warm, fuzzy feeling no December should be without.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is one such movie.
Written by filmmaker John Hughes, it’s a rare example of a franchise threequel out-performing its predecessor at the box office.
Having penned 1983’s original National Lampoon’s Vacation — a movie that saw Chevy Chase’s goofy-yet-good-intentioned dad Clark Griswold try and spectacularly fail to take his family on a road-trip to Wally World — Hughes took a backseat for its 1985 follow-up, European Vacation. However by 1989, he was back just in time for Christmas and with a belter up his sleeve.
Directed by newcomer Chechik, Hughes’ return found Clark about to celebrate a family Christmas that’d welcome his in-laws and an unexpected (read: unwanted) visit from wife Ellen’s (Beverley D’Angelo) redneck cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid). As he secretly holds out hope for a last-minute work bonus that’ll buy the pool his family has always wanted, things swiftly start to fall apart as the countdown to the big day creeps ever closer.
For audiences, watching Clark struggle with a squirrel-stowaway in his Christmas tree or an epic light display that falls spectacularly short at a key moment is a highlight of many folks’ Christmas. However for Chechik, making this future classic was a baptism by fire that marked his transition from a sleek commercial director to a bonafide, big-screen filmmaker.
“The reason I responded to Christmas Vacation was because I’d never done anything even remotely close to it. As a commercial director, I was known for fast cuts, long lenses and sexy scenes,” says Chechik, whose work up until that point had been music videos for bands like Van Halen and Hall and Oates.
“The script was just hilarious. It was so funny. I’d never done comedy but John Hughes was the writer and producer and I just thought it’d be great to work with him. I thought I could learn something, so I fully embraced it.”
In 2020, Chris Columbus claimed he was first asked to direct Christmas Vacation, before a clash with Chase — then at the height of his leading man fame — forced him to exit the project. But as Chechik explained, that’s not exactly how it happened. Columbus went on to direct Hughes' 1990 festive favourite Home Alone instead, and while Columbus and Macaulay Culkin were setting boobie traps, Chechik began crafting his own festive family story.
Selecting locations based on their amount of snowfall, production began in Colorado in early 1989 before moving to LA’s Warner Bros lot where a production team built the entire Griswold family house and the street it sat on. “It’s still there,” chuckles the director.
Meanwhile, Chechik’s collaboration with Hughes — a director who’d garnered a brisk, no-BS reputation when it came to studio higher-ups — bloomed into a strong creative partnership. “My relationship with John was great from beginning to end,” smiles Chechik.
“With John, we had a very experienced writer who knew more about comedy in one finger than I knew in my whole body, at that point. In terms of my trust in him and his comedic-dramatic sensibilities, I embraced them 100%. It was based on a short story he’d written so there was an original and universal concept. John really trusted where I was going and gave me spectacular freedom.”
That trust came in handy, especially whenever Chechik received a comment from a studio boss. “I’d phone John and say: ‘Listen, they want me to take out the cat being fried. I don’t want to do that’”, he says, recalling early criticism of one of the movie’s most infamous scenes.
Thankfully, he had a fool-proof workaround: “I’d tell the studio: ‘Sure, just call John and get it approved’ then I’d call John myself and say: ‘they’re going to call you’ - and he wouldn’t take the call,” he laughs. “In that way, we were conspiring - and when it came to the previews, of course that was one of the audience’s favourite scenes.”
As a first time film director, Chechik had a bumpy start with star Beverly D’Angelo (“We buried the hatchet long ago,” he assures us) but was on the same page as the notoriously cantankerous Chase. “We both agreed when we thought something was funny,” he smiles.
“Before I started the movie, I did a deep-dive into the works of Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks - all these giants that ruled the comedic landscape. What makes a classic, long-lasting comedy was something I really studied and wanted to understand.”
This research was put to great use in Christmas Vacations’ many set-piece moments - like the family’s annual sledding trip: “It was so cold,” remembers Chechik, recalling the scene where Clark’s greased-up sled sends him flying down a snowy hill at immense speed. “We were shooting nights, 11 or 12 thousand feet up in Breckenridge. It was cold temperatures with low oxygen and people were fainting. It was challenging,” he admits, “yet I couldn’t have wanted to be anywhere but there. The sledding scene was fun.”
Then there was the rogue squirrel inadvertently brought home in the Griswold family Christmas tree. “It’s not easy to train a squirrel but you can train them,” attests the director, detailing a scene involving the family dog and a loose rodent. “We trained the squirrel every day. When we’d break for lunch, trainers would come in with the dog and the squirrel and do their training on set so the dog wouldn’t catch the squirrel and the squirrel wasn’t afraid of the dog but knew to run away.” Then disaster struck. On the day of shooting, their principal actor sadly passed away. “We got a real, untrained squirrel and it was as chaotic as it looks to shoot. It was nuts.”
Although, perhaps the movie’s most iconic scene is Clark’s failed attempt to impress his family with an OTT light display that covered every inch of the family home in twinkling Christmas lights. “The display was really beautiful. Obviously, it took a while to set the lights,” chuckles Chechik. “We’d visit in the evening and the production team would turn them on and I’d shout ‘more! more!’ until it was right. It looked as good as it looks in the film, just a fabulous glow.”
However the scene had more to it than a simple visual gag. “I was really focused on distilling the emotive reaction of Clark in his disappointment and the comedic tragedy of the failure of the lights,” reveals Chechik. “I was looking for a little moment of pathos and a lot of my attention was on how to create that small dramatic moment within a broad comedy. When I had that in the can, I felt like I had the keys to the kingdom. If audiences could feel for the main character, no matter how clownish or absurd his behaviour, if they understood that he was doing all of this out of love for his family, I thought it could be something extraordinary.”
In fact, finding the heart in the comedy could be the reason why National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation continues to resonate more than three decades later. “It wanted a certain generic quality that wouldn’t age and a lot of decisions were made based on that, but you can never tell what’s going to be perennial,” admits Chechik.
“The universality of John’s script, Angelo Badalamenti did a very classic score… There's a lot that contributed. It’s a movie that the first generation liked as a comedy but one you can watch with your kids. Then they grew up watching it with their kids,” he smiles.
“It was my intention to do something that lasted.”
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is currently streaming on NOW with a Sky Cinema Membership.