Interview: Four Christmases Director Seth Gordon
by Alex Billington
November 23, 2008
Hitting theaters this week is a delightful family comedy titled Four Christmases. I'm sure you've all heard about it (and seen the trailer a million times) so there's no need to talk about the film itself. It's directed by Seth Gordon, which keen fans will recognize as the director of the hit documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters from last year. Just about a week ago I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Seth for a short while. While I was interested in chatting with him about his transition to a big studio film like Four Christmases, I was also very interested in just talking about filmmaking in general and the differences in work between a documentary like The King of Kong and a film like this.
Four Christmases itself is a hilarious and heartwarming holiday movie. It's not my favorite comedy by any means, but I'm certain I wouldn't have enjoyed it half as much as I did it if weren't for Seth Gordon. While this may be his first feature film, he brings a certain finesse to the directing that actually made this script a lot better than it was. I'd say give it a shot if you're interested in seeing something truly funny. And if you want to know more about how he moved from a documentary to a feature, then read on!
So how exactly did you get from The King of Kong to this?
Seth Gordon: It was entirely Vince [Vaughn], Vince saw Kong, and then I think he had got a copy of it to Reese [Witherspoon] or something like that, and I just met with them and I just read the script, so I just had some instincts that I shared with them about what I would do to it or what didn't make sense, and I thought, you know, the script was very smart, it was a really good theme but it got kind of over-developed in the sense that it had too many set pieces and gags and stuff. Have you seen it?
Gordon: So there was too much that was all about, I don't know, just the physical comedy set pieces and not enough about the story and the basic and terrific idea of these two characters that don't know what the future for themselves is as a couple, being confronted with all of their families in one day. That's a really smart idea and it's really contemporary too because I don't know what you're like for the holidays, but my girlfriend's parents are divorced, my parents are together, they live in different places. And how do you satisfy everybody, all that stuff. Like it's -- I can't believe in a sense the movie hadn't been made yet.
I guess were you involved with the script because you were saying you felt like it needed some revisions?
Gordon: Well we all met and the script was good, but not great, and it had things that were broken, and we just worked really hard, the three of us, for a few months to get it to a place where we were excited to shoot it, and it wasn't easy. But what was wonderful was their attitude was so collaborative and so open, we would get together and I heard the two of them read the script probably a hundred times. So by the time we were on set, it's like we all are just on the same page because we've heard it so many times and because we worked on it and because we questioned scenes and whether they were working or not. There's no substitute for that, I mean it's just hard work that went in.
Were you always interested in doing fictional films as opposed to documentaries, or was King of Kong just sort of your "in" to get you into the Hollywood?
Gordon: It was not a strategic or planned move at all. The first time I ever had a camera I was living in Africa, and I hated college and I went to Africa to get away. I worked as a teacher in a village in the middle of nowhere, and I had a camera for the first time, and I didn't know what documentary was. I didn't have those distinctions. There were movies I liked, I loved Die Hard, but I hadn't been exposed to documentary per se, and then I started to understand the genre distinctions everyone makes and how that applies to the working methodology, but to me it was just a camera and a story, and how you cut it, and you just do your best to put it together. That was back then.
And then Kong -- I just sort of had a hankering for -- and a knowledge of the editing equipment that you had to have in order to put it together. Like when I finished college, Final Cut just came out and the whole world of that was all changing. And I was enough of a geek myself and I was enough of a -- from architecture, which was training, you had to know Photoshop and CAD, and Photoshop was so similar to Final Cut and After Effects -- it just became one set of skills. And then I just started cutting stuff together, and Kong was one of those, and people saw it and one thing lead to another, but it was by no means a strategy. This was certainly a leap, but I think for some it's sort of how to break in, and that wasn't where I was coming from.
Well it sounds like that at least your angle is to be a filmmaker in general rather than something specific?
Gordon: Yeah, and some are documentary and some are not, some are big budget studio things and some aren't. And I just try to respond to the material that makes sense for me, and I think that the film we finished, it's being sold out there kind of like a big broad comedy but its got some more thoughtful contemplative stuff going on, I think, and I'm really excited about -- that we did an unusual cut at this concept.
So from the script and from developing the script, you get out to set -- was there still a lot of improv and changes made or did you just let Vince and Reese "work their magic" on set?
Gordon: Well, because there was a lot of improv that went in to the writing process -- where if the scene wasn't working we kind of knew it and we'd try to figure it out and we would. We had to develop a very long character bio for everybody in the film, and then from that we were able to generate what some of the dialogue changes might be in the scene. But Vince has this reputation, like he shows up and just starts improving -- that's so misleading. We know exactly what the scene was going to be, but he's very talented and so able to get in the moment that he can find a different way to say something that feels real and fresh which is why people assume it's improv, but it's really not because we know what the scene's about. So it just becomes about intentions and another way of articulating it, but he didn't require -- he didn't have to say the exact same words in the exact same way for every -- it's fresher and realer than that. Which, I think because of a documentary background that I had where you have no idea what people were going to say, for me this feels really very controlled.
Talking about the cast again, obviously it sounds like Vince and Reese were attached to this before you even came on board, right?
Was that case for the rest of the cast or all the parents?
Gordon: No, but once the two of them were involved, everybody wants to work with them because they're so good. They're at the top of their game, the sort of sweet spot of each of their careers, so I think they're an exciting pair to play off of if you're an actor, which is what attracted this awesome cast -- it's like Titanic.
My personal favorite was Jon Voight just because at that moment in the film, he's the one that brings everything together in the end, and I just loved his sensibility.
Gordon: And that's all Reese and Vince, they wanted it -- so did I, too. We were trying to have this Rockwellian family Christmas at the last Christmas -- but at that Christmas are his ex-wife, the ex-wife's boyfriend, a very complicated family dynamic, but have it also feel comfortable and how Christmas should feel. And Voight was perfect for that because of just, thinking he's done about family in general and what he brings with -- I'm glad you like that, basically because I think it's a moment where the film stops trying to be funny and just allows some contemplation and allows a moment to take a breath and be real, and I feel like that's exactly what we were going for.
I'm curious about your background and moving into this, what the experience was like while you were working in terms of how much involvement the producers have, how much involvement everyone has in putting together a full feature film.
Gordon: I haven't ever been a part of a process where so many people cared about the outcome. Kong it was just three of us total making the movie, and none of the people who were in the movie had ever been in a movie before, does that make sense? And now we're working at kind of about the highest level you can with a lot of money that's invested, so the studio and everybody has an opinion, and it's all coming from a place of wanting the best for the final product as opposed to, I don't know, some other job justification-driven approach. It was hard to filter all those opinions and make decisions that were the best for the movie at times because so many people wanted to weigh in. But at the same time, the concept behind the script was so clear and what we were trying to accomplish was so clear, that it was possible to navigate those waters, but it was new for me. Why does everyone care so much, like leave us alone, you know, but that's okay.
I want ask since there were only three of you really working on King of Kong -- moving into this, did you bring your DP with you or other crew members?
Gordon: Oh, I shot it, so no.
Well, that's what I was going to say -- that you're starting out with no crew basically and you have to start from scratch, right, and find new people.
Gordon: Yeah. I mean, I shot Kong but Kong compared to real films is pretty ugly and that's just because we didn't have the resources or the time or even the wherewithall to make it look as beautiful as it needs to for this kind of film. But I'm such a self-starter in terms of -- and an auto-didect -- in terms of the editing and all the different aspects of the different departments, that I know when I am not good enough at them, and I know when someone else is. It definitely formed an ability to choose the people that were best for the movie, and that was good. I basically know enough to know when I'm out of my league in terms of the skills required to accomplish a certain thing.
Not to put you on the spot, but what are your five favorite films of all-time?
Gordon: I would say I love Die Hard, I love anything John Hughes because I'm from Evanston, so there's a sort of kinship to that stuff in terms of narrative. I really love some of the newer stuff, I love Babel. When it comes to documentaries, I love Hands on a Hard Body, American Movie -- I don't know if you know that one?
Yeah, I'm familiar with it.
Gordon: Really good. Hands on a Hard Body, you know what that is?
Gordon: You've got to see this -- this is in rural Texas, they have a Nissan hard body truck once a year at a Nissan dealership, and they have a competition that lasts as long as it needs to last, and the last person standing with their hand on the truck wins it. And so it brings people out of the woodwork, and such great characters, and this is just the documentary about one of the years, and it's really good.
That sounds cool. What is your favorite part of the filmmaking process?
Gordon: For sure, because that's where it all comes together as far as I'm concerned. And now I'd say editing into sound design because I never had the resources before to really put the movie together sound-wise and have the time you really need to do a good job doing that, but I realize just how much more you can bring it to life if you have those talented people helping out.
That is for sure. That's one of the things that annoys me about Sundance films -- when they don't have good sound design, it's kind of like it feels like there's nothing there, there's no atmosphere, there's nothing going on.
Gordon: And you're used to it either for a traditional theatrical experience, but that is the thing that is the most -- that's the least understood, I feel. Part of the process is what terrific sound design can do to bring life to the movie.
Thanks to Seth Gordon and everyone at Warner Brothers for putting together this interview! Four Christmases hits theaters this week and is a great film holiday film to go see.