Jeremiah Chechik interview: Kubrick, Spielberg, Benny & Joon and working with John Hughes

In the first part of a two part interview, Jeremiah Chechik talks about National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, John Hughes, Stanley Kubrick and more...

Jeremiah Chechik has a broad directing CV. From his debut on National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, through to the delightful Benny & Joon, the troublesome The Avengers and his subsequent television work, he’s told us in some depth about the highs and lows of his career. And it all kicked off when he worked with John Hughes…

What a first job you had! Going through your credits, the first, job National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. You land a John Hughes movie. I couldn’t find out much of the story before that. So, I wonder if you could just fill us in a little bit?

Yeah. I started as a photographer, as a fashion photographer.

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That was for Vogue?

Yeah, and then I kind of grew bored and wanted to get back to doing more dramatic stuff, believe it or not, and I had studied theatre when I was in university and so I had a background in that.

I also had a background in music, and I had a background in design, and I thought, well, maybe filmmaking is the best kind of use for what I know. I chose to try and go into film.

Now, I didn’t know anything about how you would actually do it. So, I started showing my work to directors, who hooked me up with production companies, and I became a commercial director.

And so, I did them for quite a few years and, at some point, I had made these commercials that became quite iconic here in the US. They were very dark and sexy and sort of a little bit ahead of their time in terms of style. And what happened was they gained the notice of [Stanley] Kubrick, who had mentioned them as his favourite American filmmaking, ironically, in a New York Times article.

By the Monday following the Sunday, the phone rang off the hook. And it was Kathy Kennedy and Steven Spielberg and they invited me to come up and see them at Amblin. Oddly, I had just moved here from New York maybe three weeks earlier. I thought, like, wow, I should have done this earlier. [laughs]

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We had a terrific first meeting and I walked out of the offices with a deal at Amblin and Steven, Frank Marshall, Kathy as my producers to develop a film that took place in and around the Apollo Theater in New York City.

So, I was beside myself happy and I felt, wow, it’s pretty easy to break into the film business.

[Laughs]

We developed this film and, at a certain point – the film was to be distributed by Warner, so I did develop a very strong and cohesive relationship with a lot of the executives and with the people running the studio, because I’d been blessed by Spielberg.

So, we got to the point where I loved the script and we were going to make it as a very small movie, because it was about unknowns at the Apollo in New York. And Warner, Terry Semel, who I was close with over the course of my filmmaking career, said, “Why are we making such a little movie? Let’s make a big movie.”

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In which case, what he meant is a star vehicle, and I felt, well, stars and unknowns don’t go together, in terms of what you can do. And I didn’t think they would achieve that. So, I backed out of the project, which never did get made.

They eventually wanted to do it the way I wanted it, but the ship had sailed on the Apollo and it had become overly commercialised on TV.

But, what had happened was they, at Warners, thought, “We like this guy a lot.” And they started to send me scripts. And the script that really piqued my interest was [National Lampoon’s] Christmas Vacation. And the reason is I had never done any comedy – ever.

I hadn’t seen the first two, and so I wasn’t really influenced by anything other than the fact that it was a big – at the time – their big Christmas movie, and comedy. And I just felt if I could crack this maybe there’s a whole other world of filmmaking for me.

I was nervous about accepting it, because I didn’t know about Chevy and I wasn’t sure if it was too commercial. But I agreed to do it and I had just a fantastic time doing it.

I just sublimated to all those directors who did those great classic comedies: Sturges and Wilder and Hawks. Those guys really became my dead mentors, as it were.

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I decided that I would try and make a movie that would, believe it or not, that would have some lasting effect – never expecting it to do so. 

That’s how I got my first film!

So, it went Kubick, Spielberg, Warner Bros, Terry Semel, John Hughes – in a fairly compact space of time?

Yeah. [laughs]

It was kind of heady because it was going fast and I was doing a lot of commercials, so I was working a lot. But I did have the bug to do this. And John and I – I was one of those guys that got one with him, and was very shocked and saddened by his death this last  year. Such a surprise.

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Obviously, John Hughes did have a reputation in some quarters for being quite difficult to deal with. I’m curious how he treated you as a first time feature director.

That’s a terrific question because, yes, he didn’t suffer fools and he was really – Most people who knew him, really, at some point in their lives, had a major falling out with him. Over something. 

Tom Jacobson, who was my producer at the time, was running his company, or running the production end of his company, and had known him quite well and, in fact, did have a good relationship with him and he, basically, said, “Be yourself.” And I was.

I met John and I found… I don’t think he wanted Chris Columbus to do the movie. This is what I hear. But Chevy wanted me, Warners wanted me and so we said, “Okay, I’ll meet.” And somehow, he accepted me to be director. He liked my work and we got on.

At the beginning, when we started to shoot, as luck would have it, I loved working with him as a writer. That was very, very exciting at the time, and even in retrospect, when I think of all the things that I learned from him, in terms of structure, development, and comedy in general. I didn’t appreciate it as much then as I do now.

Because I just thought, “Well, that’s just how it happens.” But, you know, as you do more work and you work with more people, you realise what a specialised sensibility he had.

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He was starting to prepare – oh, god, I forget what movie – I think it was, like Uncle Buck or Home Alone – one of those movies that he would be shooting in Chicago and I would be shooting at Warners. And he came to the set on the first day. We didn’t have snow and it was very, kind of, tense and we didn’t know what we were going to do if it didn’t snow. We were hauling in snow to Colorado and then, of course, it started to snow and it never snowed so much in ten years as it did that week. So, we were fortunate.

And then the shoot started to get underway and he was just thrilled with the dailies and he just went back to Chicago to prep his movie. And I kept thinking, “Gee, John should come and hang with me. I really like him and we talk often.”

I would say, basically, “John, I wanna do this and that,” and he would go, “Well, that sounds great, Jeremiah.” And I would say, “Well, the studio may be giving me some push back on these things.” And he said, “Oh, just have them call me.” So then, the studio would give me a note, I’d go, “That’s great. Clear it with John.” Then, I’d call John and go, “They’re gonna call you.” [And he said] “I’m not taking their calls.” 

Then, over the course of the movie I really felt that I had tremendous control, both from him and the studio, up to the end of making the movie. Even in the cut, I remember screening the very first assembly for him. He flew in and he just looked at me and he said, “Wow. You have a really funny movie. This is really great. Finish it,” and went back to Chicago. [laughs]

He didn’t wanna touch what was happening. And I so appreciate him not saying that I was so brilliant or talented or anything, but a lot of it is just the way it falls off the truck. The chemistry was good, the script was good and I sublimated to my directorial ancestors and I did the best I could. I just thought, “Well, if I find it funny, maybe someone else will.”

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How do you direct a comedy talent like Chevy Chase? How much do you interject in his performance and how much do you stand back and let him do what he does?

Well, I think it depends on the scene. And I would say that that’s true of most anything, not Chevy or any actor, whether they’re famous or not, accomplished or not, or unknown or not. I think that it all has to do with the intention of the scene and making sure that everybody is moving in the same direction. Hence, the title ‘director’.

I think it’s up to you to provide a very clear direction and intention – overall, not how to get there so specifically, but where you want to end up. And I think that doing that you also have to create an atmosphere on set that allows everyone to really do their finest work.

Some directors like to keep a very tense set. They think that that promotes really hard work. I like to keep it light and fun and have the actors be able to just work a lot on their finest instincts. And if I feel the scene is sliding sideways for one reason or another, I will go and I’ll make a very, very strong case and even insist on trying to go in another direction. But that may happen frequently or infrequently, depending on what it is.

The final thing, with comedy, is you have to let things happen. Look for opportunities, the happy accidents, and build on them. And so you’re always looking for detail and you’re always for ways to squeeze the smallest detail of comedy out of something that isn’t even written particularly as funny.

It sounded like you had an amazing couple of years and you got your first picture moving very, very quickly. The film you did after that did take a few years to come along and was embroiled with all sorts of problems.

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I have to say from the off, I think Benny & Joon is such a lovely movie. I think the chemistry between Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson is really good. It surprises me when you see how calm it is on screen just how troubled it seemed to be behind the scenes setting it all up.

Well, you know, it’s funny. You’re saying that, but it wasn’t terribly problematic. I mean, it may have appeared, from the outside, problematic. I know the difference. Because I have had difficult movies to do. That was not difficult.

The development of the screenplay, which I was very, very involved in at MGM, Alan Ladd [Jr] was running the company and – talk about an artist’s friend – he really let me work with the writer, and we focused so carefully on the nuance.

When it came to cast, I wanted to get Johnny and I just met with Johnny and he just loved it and said, “Yeah, yeah. Let’s do it.”

And Mary Stuart Masterson, I liked her just because of her kind of soulful quality, but the part that ended up with Aidan was going to be – believe it or not – Woody Harrelson. Woody and I had met and he loved it also, was going to do it and I thought, “That’s great.”

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Now, him making the movie was not the trigger. We had gotten the budget. We were working with all actors of some note, and at the last minute Woody got that Demi Moore movie –

Indecent Proposal.

That’s right, and wanted to do that and bowed out. This happens all the time. Who could blame him – work on a small little tiny movie with Johnny Depp, who wasn’t the star he is today? Or work with the legends at the time. So, I didn’t blame him. He went off and did it and I guess the media made a bigger mess of it. And I just thought, “We’ll get Aidan Quinn.” So, we just went to Aidan, he said yes and that was it.

So, it wasn’t really that much drama. It was maybe a few days of ‘we lost Woody. Let’s get somebody else.’ And Aidan was just so fantastic. Within one day, who remembered Woody Harrelson’s approach to the part? It just wasn’t part of it. And I think time certainly supported that.

Were you a Buster Keaton fan before you got to the film?

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Yeah. I was a big fan of Buster Keaton, more so than Chaplin, even. It turns out, coincidentally, so is Johnny, and so we spent an awful lot of time –

There’s a movie theater here in LA called The Silent Movie Theatre, whose owner has sadly passed away. I think he got murdered like ten years ago, or something like that – but he and his family had – they may still – one of the largest collections of original print silents, and we got the studio to make a deal with them and Johnny and I would go there in afternoon and screen – on the big screen – all the classic silents, two-reelers.

Of course, we hired an organist. [laughs] We spent [a long time] in that theatre. You know, it’s one thing to look at these old movies on the small screen. It’s quite another to see them in the tableau that were originally intended to show off how spectacular the physical comedy was.

That rekindled my absolute adoration for those guys. Where I appreciated them before, I jumped into appreciating them for the geniuses that they were: Lloyd, Chaplin, Keaton, and there’s more.

It was a fun, fun, beautiful movie to make. Every day of it was a joy – the crew and the cast stuck together like glue. After shooting we would all – we would not disappear to our hotels, but we would stay on stage and play music and then we’d order in food. And every weekend someone or other, crew member or cast member, would host a party at their place. It was just one of those things that bonded us, I think, for life.

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And is it as good an experience as you’ve ever had making a film?

It was. Yeah, I could say that pretty quick.

Tomorrow: in part two of our interview, Jeremiah talks about working with Sharon Stone in Diabolique, and just what went wrong with the Warner Bros movie of The Avengers…

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