By Stan Ashbee
Southern Alberta Newspapers
There’s Santa Claus, Scrooge, The Grinch, Frosty, Rudolph — and Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase) and Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid). The latter two have also become synonymous with the holidays, as a plethora of North Americans welcome Clark and his misfit family into their homes each and every December (or sometimes throughout the whole year like a Jelly of the Month Club).
But, the real genius behind this beloved film classic is director Jeremiah S. Chechik, with the assistance of legendary writer and producer John Hughes. For decades (since 1989), “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” has been a staple in many a family’s holiday festivities (or should we say craziness).
Chechik was born in Montreal and is the director and producer of such notable works of art, including “Benny & Joon” with Johnny Depp, “Diabolique” with Sharon Stone, “The Avengers” with Uma Thurman and Sean Connery and the television hit “Gossip Girl.”
Currently, during the pandemic, Chechik is working with a writing partner (who is also married to a Canadian) on a few projects at NBC, Universal and Lionsgate (to name a few).
At the moment though, the director noted there are no plans moving forward with any green light approvals, in terms of shooting safely in a COVID-19 world.
“This is a very fertile ground for development. We’re very active in development of several different kinds of projects. We have about 10 various projects at different stages.
So, we’re active. I’m not out there directing, but I’m not sure I want to be right now,” he somewhat joked. “Masks and gloves and all paranoid. It somehow robs the fun of it.”
Creatively, Chechik is also working on a couple of books featuring his art work — which can be viewed at chechik.com.
Chechik said his days are quite busy and he was in the process of working on a very retrospective show this year for the Museum of Photography in Argentina, which has been put on hold.
“For my work, I’m more focused on curatorial and books and whatnot, and less on galleries and pricing,” he said. “I do sell work. It’s really just getting the work out there in different ways. There’s a couple of publishers that have committed to books of mine, so I am working on those now.”
Right now, in 2020, the theatre-going and movie-viewing experience has changed dramatically. Streaming at-home has become a safe and somewhat favourite choice for many families across North America and abroad, as movies are premiering via streaming platforms instead of the traditional way — in theatres, which is causing quite a commotion in Hollywood.
“I embrace any way to get work out. I think the streamers are offering a spectacular amount of choice and diversity in storytelling and that’s a very big step forward. Because what was happening before, which was studios wanting to make four quadrant movies constantly, it does water down the edges and niche programming that allows very specific kind of stories to be told,” Chechik explained. “Meaning, very interesting stories to be told.” Rather than the generic-type film template.
According to Chechik, he has nothing against those types of movie, “I’ll be the first in line with popcorn.”
“I’m sure I’ll watch Wonder Woman on Christmas,” he joked. Which is slated for a Christmas Day release on streaming platforms and in theatres, according to reports.
“I’m very much a part of that dynamic. In fact, in 1996, I did start a company. One of the very first streaming companies and I sold the patents to Microsoft,” he said, adding he has been involved with the streaming world, “before streaming was streaming or even before it was called streaming.”
“My name is on one major patent. I do go back with that,” he joked.
As for the actual theatrical experience, Chechik said, “we crave it.”
“Certainly for comedy and horror and that kind of spectacle — it really is fun to see on a big screen with an audience. Am I crying crocodile tears for those whose movies hit a wall this year and ‘had to go to a’ smaller screen — no. Though, I would say, some companies have handled this movement better than others. I think companies like Disney embraced it in a way that was very smart.”
With what Warner Bros. and other companies have announced recently, with premiering new movies online, at-home and in theatres (at the same time) — it has been a shock to the system, he pointed out.
“Not that you expect the movie not to be released or it will be released on another platform — but to blindside the creators without any conversation about re-doing deals is something all the guilds, the agents and the creators really have objected to,” said Chechik. “They did it in a way that was kind of a blindside to many of us in the creative world. They didn’t expect the blow-back. They have an uphill climb, in terms of getting their program up.” HBO Max is one such streaming platform, which is not yet available in Canada.
“They do have a significant pool, in terms of their abilities to create great programming. If they stick to their guns, spend the money and do it right, I think they can reach a lot of people.”
Chechik said he’s not an executive. “All I do is try to invent things that didn’t exist yesterday. That’s what I do, I’m good at it, that’s my world. It seems to do me OK.”
Theatres are currently running classic movies, in lieu of a lot of new content from the major movie studios, including “Christmas Vacation” — with longevity that continues to last decades.
“Obviously, it’s gratifying. Certainly, when I made the movie, I had no expectations a broad comedy with Chevy was going to become known as a Christmas classic. Not that it’s shocking it did so, and I don’t attribute that to my work — but John Hughes wrote a great script. I know I made a lot of very conscientious choices to keep the movie, at the moment I was making it in 1989, not hip.”
Prior to being hired to direct “Christmas Vacation” Chechik was a commercial director and was doing a lot of work for brands like Coke and Budweiser — high profile ads considered very hip and cool featuring Whitney Houston and Genesis. “That kind of thing,” he said.
“So, the commercial style —which was kind of on the bleeding edge of doing fast cuts and long lens,” he said, adding the work had a hipper view and was very photographic, photogenic and visually-driven.
When he got tapped to film “Christmas Vacation” Chechik said he had to pull back his instincts because he knew if he made it hip and cool it would have not been as engaging. He noted he wanted the film to be more in the classic Americana vernacular.
“Which obviously I did. I guess I succeeded. That was my hope. Then you finish the movie and look at it with an audience once and then it belongs to the world,” he said.
Afterwards, Chechik said, he is just an observer of the human condition, as it relates to the movie becoming a part of the zeitgeist.
“It’s not like I see it that often. I mean it’s playing all the time on TV,” he joked. “But I’m not glued to my own work.”
But, Chechik said he did manage to see the movie for the first time in a long time in the theatre last year with his granddaughter, who was six, at the time. It was during a re-release to celebrate the film’s 30th anniversary.
“That was so fun. I just sat in the audience and enjoyed it like anybody else. I was able to see it without the kind of constraints of ownership and remembering every single ironic or horrible or wonderful thing that happened in every shot of the movie, which I do remember.”
“But my granddaughter, who loved it, was like ‘wow, you did that,’” he added.
“She was most impressed, I think, when some people in the audience actually recognized me and came up to me. She was like, ‘wow.’ That was gratifying. It was more for my love of my granddaughter,” said Chechik.