Another year, another Xmas movie, but for director John Whitsell, his Deck the Halls has many a unique quality as he explained to Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview.
Question: I guess the, the big question is why a Christmas movie and how reticent are you to take on a kind of sub genre that can easily be hit or miss?
Whitsell: Well I guess Christmas has always traditionally been a big thing in our family so I always felt very strong and fond feelings about Christmas first and foremost. I guess the second, as a kid growing up we would work our way through Christmas movies, Miracle on 34th Street, The Grinch was the favourite when we were little, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Christmas Carol, so we watched these movies kind of religiously over and over at Christmas time and there’s something kind of special about that feeling and it is an interesting time of the year when emotions are probably the highest and it just seemed like an interesting area to go into and something I wanted to give a crack to.
Question: Now when you do a Christmas comedy which is such a physical comedy, what do you look for in casting a film like this?
Whitsell: Well when I read it., it seemed Steve Finch was Ferris grown up in a weird way, it just kind of occurred to me that he he’s kind of lost some of that, he’s so obsessed with his life and tried to do everything right which Ferris has that ability that he kind of lost that kind of fun and I just thought that that kind of fastidiousness fit Matthew very well. I’ve also seen Matthew do several Broadway productions, in the Producers and certainly in the Odd Couple he’s anything but not physical and pretty kind of larger than life in those roles so I really thought he was the guy we haven’t seen in the movies for a while you know, utilised and I think is the best way for him so I was really kind of excited about, about finding him and bringing him back out.
Question: Was De Vito your first choice for this role?
Whitsell: Oh DeVito was I think the first guy we locked at. for me I thought that the buddy role, initially when I first read it, was gonna be easier to cast than the Steve role cause there’s more guys out there that can kind of be that bigger than life, kind of boorish, pushy, funny next door neighbour that makes you crazy. But, there’s Steve Martin and then you’re kind of in trouble for that next leading man in the kind of straight guy role which we put Matthew in. So I was initially focused more on that role because I thought that role was really the key role and then De Vito was interested and I thought that would be fantastic. I also think the fact that his stature helps because he’s still got something to prove and I thought that worked well that they complemented each other really well.
Question: When you make a film that is scheduled for a Christmas release you have to obviously shoot the film during a very non wintry time of year otherwise the timing wouldn’t be right.
Whitsell: Well yeah ideally if we were all smart here we would know what we were going to do for next Christmas. And we’d be going in January and shooting it and we’d be shooting it right now. But no, never does it seem to really kind of work out that way, so you’re always in the middle of somewhere making snow. ideally we were so tight because we only had a fourteen week post period from first day we started editing and to the end of shooting so the movie (inaudible – mumbling) so.
Question: But the conditions, the filming this must have been difficult because you were filming it in a very, apparently in a very heat infested Vancouver.
Whitsell: Yes, we, we hit Vancouver which we thought was gonna be rather cold in a very hot summer so we had a lot of days outside where the sun was pretty brutal and it was 90 degrees and we were trying to make everybody feel like they were having a good time in the cold. And they were playing cold so we ripped the lining out of the jackets, we would put them in an air-conditioned hat as much as we could, we would try to keep them cold, we put umbrellas over their heads right before they’d shoot and take them away and run in with them. And the other real difficult thing about shooting in Vancouver, or even in any summertime is that this movie, I’d say sixty five percent of the movie takes place at night and so the nights in Vancouver are rather short, as it doesn’t get dark till ten and gets light at four thirty. So all of a sudden you only have six hours of night and you have all this night work to do so it required us to build a tent over, which is really kind of a unique thing as well, it’s a really interesting thing I’d use it again cause it’s almost like a portable studio you can almost take it anywhere you want. But it was, we put, the tent was two hundred eight feet long, a hundred thirty feet wide and fifty five feet tall and it was a sprung suction, there was no totally supported like a skeleton inside so there were no poles, no beams in it which was a clear span for us which was a huge help so they put it put up and I shot twelve days in the tent during regular days but shot all the night close up and coverage in the tent. Then we took the tent down and then we re shot the wider stuff, other stuff that that wouldn’t, wouldn’t fit inside that.
Question: What do you think sets Deck the Halls apart from other Christmas movies?
Whitsell: Well I think that the big difference is obviously it’s a movie about lights primarily and a competition between two guys. So we’ve seen the competition between two guys and the families and then people get blown up over simple things and get over reactive with the holiday period but I think our plot was really that the families didn’t end up hating each other, it was just the two men that have the problem. And they kept trying to bring them back to reality and keep hoping that they were gonna get off their bend but it’s impossible for them and I thought the lights thing was something truly relatable that I don’t think that we’ve seen before, I think we all could relate to it, we all know neighbourhoods, or we’ve driven by those houses where it’s really overdone and really have a ton of lights and in one way they’re fun to go by and the other way if you’re the neighbour it’s truly annoying.
Question: Now the majority of directors don’t have what you would call household names, unless you’re lucky enough to evolve into a Spielberg but it’s amazing to me that you’ve been working as a director on television now for over thirty years. What did you learn as a television director that you bring into features and do you wish you were in that upper echelon or is it just that you’re happy being a regularly working film maker?
Whitsell: Well I would say first and foremost I think the most important thing for me is to be working. I enjoy the process, the making of, I always have been one of those guys, I think that’s one of the reasons that earlier on I gravitated to TV for the immediacy of TV that you have to make it, you have a certain amount of time, certainly in the soaps. We had to make two hundred and sixty episodes a year and you had to make an hour a day and even though it may not have been the greatest quality I learned a lot of things on how to put things together and how to be efficient and how to make it and then still try to do good quality. So that was always kind of in my blood to like the thing to work. I don’t like to sit and not do anything and wait and develop a project slowly over that time that’s not really the way I work. So that’s one of the reasons I’ve, done so much television is that it’s always there and it’s immediate, and you’ve gotta make a date but the hard part about the movie business is that basically you have to force the studios to make movies. There, things are geared up into why not to make a movie, not why to make a movie so that’s really what the hard part about being a feature director is, that you’re constantly trying to find a way to get movies made as opposed to in television that they’ve got to make it, they’ve got dates, there’s so many hours of program that they’ve gotta film. But whether a studio makes eighteen movies a year or twenty five movies a year isn’t really, they don’t have to, they’ve just got to try to keep the distribution system afloat. so it’s just a different animal in the work ethic not the work ethic the work process.
Question: Do critics bother you?
Whitsell: Well I, personally am not bothered by it because I don’t think that in comedy the critics really matter to be quite honest about it. I obviously think most times critics are wrong in comedy. I mean its east to say Borat is really funny and different because it is and it’s easy for the critics to like that. But you read, ninety percent of revues for comedy, unless it’s somebody you read the first Austin Powers review and they’re scathing but then after something becomes a hit and something becomes more interesting people start to warm to it, it becomes part of the culture then the critics seem to ease off it. But I think the critics approach comedy the same way they approach a drama and that it needs to have some sort of meaningful gut wrenching important process to it and the truth is it’s it needs to be approached much more like a popcorn movie. Comedy people go to comedy because they want to laugh and be touched and relate to their lives in a funny way and that’s what comedy is there for.
Question: Now are you involved in this movie Sex Talk?
Whitsell: Yeah well I’d like to do it, it’s a movie I’ve wanted to make for a couple years. I think it’s a really funny great idea and if I could ever find the right cast that makes New Line happy we’ll probably make it.
Question: So it’s definitely got New Line as the distributor?
Whitsell: Yeah it’s New Line and it’s the Todd sisters who are producing. And we’ve been trying to figure out a way to, to put it together a couple of times. I just think it’s a really unique idea and, and really funny and I’d like to get it made.
Question: Now how are you going with the Cats and Dogs sequel?
Whitsell: That has pretty much from my end of it, pretty much dead on that. We never really could get a script that we thought that everybody thought really worked and I think that it’s a very expensive movie to make and I think that Warner Bros really wants to feel like they’ve got the script first and so I haven’t really worked at that actively for a year, year and half.
Question: And so what are you working on at the moment?
Whitsell: Oh there’s a couple of movies, there’s some movies at Regency that they’re asking me to take a look at. There’s another movie at New Line called that I’m interested in doing. I’m just kind of like looking around to see what else is out there cause I haven’t really had any time since we just finished the movie so now it’s kind of time to start finding another job.