Four Christmases: The shoot and Locations
Deck the Halls
Production began on December 4, 2007, when everyone was already in a holiday frame of mind.
Trained as an architect, Gordon spoke the same language as production designer Shepherd Frankel (“27 Dresses”) in setting parameters for the four family homes on Brad and Kate’s whirlwind tour. “Seth understands floor plans, models and the use of space. I loved working with him,” says Frankel, who holds a masters degree in architecture from UCLA. Details became more meaningful and layered as the characters developed, with Frankel using their finally fleshed-out histories to inform his designs. “We weren’t preparing four houses but four individual living environments.”
“Each household, like its owner, has its own distinctive vibe,” says Glickman.
Gordon explains, “We constructed an elaborate back-story and timelines for all the family members so we could make sense of when things fell apart–which kid would likely have gone to live with which parent, and so forth. In Brad’s case, for example, he obviously went to live with his more civilized mother at an early age and they become close, while his brothers bunked with Dad in the ‘bachelor cave.’ Paula started over, went to school, became a therapist and moved to Marin, and we imagined what her world would look like: stained glass and eclectic, international furnishings, hand-loomed rugs, piles of books, mementos from travel…a kind of a hippie academic aesthetic. You would never mistake her home for any of the others, or vice versa, and that’s thanks to Shepherd’s virtuosity. Our goal was a commitment to the absurd, but in a way that no one would question.”
In contrast, Paula’s ex, Brad’s father Howard, has happily settled into a state of unchallenged male-centric comfort in what Gordon describes as “a ranch-style tract home that has seen better days.”
“We get the feeling that his house hasn’t had the slightest upgrade since Paula moved out and since the two teenage boys pretty much wrecked the place,” says Frankel. “It has the classic cottage cheese ceiling, fluorescent lighting and 1970s-style accordion doors to the kitchen and, of course, the old-school turntable and TV.”
If the house has changed at all in the last 20-plus years, the designer suggests, “it’s only in Howard’s decorative embellishments that highlight his hobbies and those of his boys–specifically, hunting and fighting–complete with a taxidermy collection of squirrels, chipmunks and a skunk set into shadow boxes in the wall. Even his Christmas spread looks like the same old thing he busts out of the garage every year.”
Christmas decoration is also meaningful at the home of Kate’s mother, Marilyn–or, rather, the conspicuous lack thereof. It’s a clear indication to Kate that Marilyn has a new man, whose influence has prompted her to eschew her usual Santa and reindeer for something a tad more spiritual.
In keeping with Marilyn’s malleable personality, her home is characterized by what Frankel describes as “surfaces and veneers, reflecting no real sense of self.” At the same time, it reveals a dedication to symmetry and order, with wallpapers matched to upholstery patterns, suggesting the hand of a woman who is constantly striving toward some higher standard of domestic design as much as she strives for the perfect relationship.
Finally, it’s a set designed to embarrass Kate, with items from the past poised like tiny land mines to blow up in her face, including photos that chronicle some of the lowest points of her unpopular youth. Worst of all is the inflatable house of horrors she calls a jump-jump, in which Kate relives a painful memory from her childhood.
As an adjunct to Marilyn’s house, the party moves briefly to The United Church of Faith and Worship, Piedmont Branch, to showcase Pastor Phil in all his glory.
The church was an environment that morphed considerably from its earliest conception, as Frankel outlines. “Pastor Phil’s sermon was originally written as something with a dilapidated smoke machine on a bare stage, but once Dwight got involved, it turned into a real rock n’ roll event with projection screens and lighting cues and neon illuminating the nativity. We did keep the smoke, though, and made it a key visual element to the set.”
All but one of the interior sets were built on Ren-Mar Studios soundstages.
Pastor Phil’s devoted screen congregation filled pews at an existing church in Hawthorne, California. Exterior views of Paula’s zen-styled living space were captured outside a private home in Topanga Canyon, while the minimalist entrance to Marilyn’s house was finished on a studio soundstage. But the exterior shell and roof of Howard’s house had to be constructed, from scratch, on a bluff in the Shadow Hills area of Southern California’s San Fernando Valley.
“We were concerned about safety because it had to support the actors on the roof and had to be accessible for the crew to move around with their cameras and equipment,” notes Gordon. “Howard’s house was built from the ground up and had trap doors to allow access to the roof. We used scissor lifts to shoot from, as well as a huge Titan crane so we could fly around on all sides.” The illusion was so expertly crafted that, Frankel recalls, “Some of the cast and crew were shocked when they walked through the front door into nothing. They were asking, ‘where’s the rest of it’ That’s the best compliment I could get–for them to think it was an actual house.”
Production captured locations in and around San Francisco, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, the Embarcadero, Chinatown and the San Francisco International Airport. For the opening airport scene, they used an existing terminal, which they filled with 500 extras.
Shooting at the airport was pure serendipity, triggered one evening as the director was returning from a location scout in San Francisco. Gordon relates, “I went to the wrong terminal for my flight and ended up having to walk through a whole section that was closed for remodeling, to get to the gate. It was the perfect spot. All we had to do was put up our own signage.”
The fourth and final stop on Brad and Kate’s emotional rollercoaster ride is Kate’s father’s place, set in Lake Tahoe. Befitting the mood of her visit, Gordon envisioned the setting as the most traditional of the four, a home in a classic, almost nostalgic sense, from its formal entry to the spacious dining room, warm lighting and textured wall coverings.
Both interiors and exteriors of Creighton’s house were shot at the Boddy House at Descanso Gardens, a public garden and historic site in La Canada Flintridge, Southern California. Once the residence of Los Angeles Daily News owner and Descanso Gardens founder Manchester Boddy, the Hollywood Regency-style mansion was designed by “Architect to the Stars” James E. Dolena in 1938, and boasts a dramatic 180-degree view of the San Gabriel Mountains through a canopy of oak trees.
As the journey’s end point, “It also had to evoke the most traditional Christmas images,” says Frankel. “We dressed the greens and built a tree out of poinsettias and lights because it’s a nighttime scene and we wanted a beautifully romantic look. Inside, we built a large fireplace and hearth that serves as an iconic image of family gathering, and turned a study into a dining room by building wood paneling to hide bookshelves and adding sconces and wallpaper.”
Creighton’s house is not only the end of the journey logistically, but in the way that Kate and Brad have run the gamut of the day’s emotions and come to a new understanding of what they mean to each other.
“We knew the minute we decided to make ‘Four Christmases’ that there had to be an emotional heart to it. We expected it would be funny because of the premise and all the physical comedy, but we also knew it had a touching underlying theme of two people coming to terms with their pasts so that they might have a future together,” says Glickman.
“By the time they reach the second house on their odyssey,” Gordon reveals, “it should begin to sneak up on the audience that even though we’re putting them through these humiliating experiences for laughs, the real story is all the stuff they’ve been hiding from each other. The truth is going to come out and it might drive them into two different directions. But if they don’t deal with it and accept it, they’ll never get to know each other for who they really are.”
Likewise, they’ll never get to know and love their families for who they really are.
“The bottom line is, no one can drive you crazy like your family,” says Glickman. “Still, you’ll drive 100 miles in the snow, sit in airports for hours, just to be with them on the holidays. It’s the human condition. We cannot deny them.”
As Kate and Brad’s ordeal unfolds, Billingsley observes, “First you think they’re insane for not wanting to spend time with their families, then you go with them to all these homes and realize that they’re the only sane ones in the bunch. Finally, you realize that the families aren’t insane either. Everyone is just trying to find love and do the best they can.”
Says Witherspoon, “Family is so important. You have to accept them as they are because, honestly, they’re not going to change.”
“Ultimately, the story is about what the holiday season itself is largely about: being thankful for your family–the good, the bad and the ugly of it–and being appreciative for the love you have,” says Vaughn. “Of course,” he adds with a smile, “none of that has to get in the way of having a lot of fun.”
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