Four Christmases: Seth Gordon’s Holiday Movie

“This is a movie about the universal theme of the holidays: anxiety,” director Seth Gordon deadpans, observing that “holidays, home and family have a way of bringing us back to our roots and exposing our vulnerabilities like nothing else. Which, of course, is fertile ground for comedy.”


More specifically, he adds, “‘Four Christmases’ is about the ongoing struggle we all face, between who we are versus who we were raised to be and, ultimately, who we need to become. That’s why going home can be so difficult. The minute you walk in that door you’re confronted by images of who you used to be–or how your parents and siblings still see you–and maybe that’s not who you are anymore. It’s instant discomfort.”


The only thing worse than having to suffer such a humbling and embarrassing experience would be having to do it in the company of your significant other, that one person above all others in the world you want to think you’re cool. Or, at least, normal. Or, at the very least, not genetically compromised by that socially dysfunctional hive you call family.


“In ‘Four Christmases,’ Brad and Kate feel that discomfort to the extreme, because they’re seeing their histories for the first time through each other’s eyes,” says Jonathan Glickman, who, along with Roger Birnbaum and Gary Barber, produced the film. “For three years, they’ve been relating as sophisticated, attractive, confident people. In the course of this one day they see the worst of each other, everything they’ve been trying to hide and protect themselves from. It all comes out.”


“The truth is, no matter how much you think you know a person, you can always learn more by watching them interact with family and seeing their childhoods revealed. Parents and siblings really know how to push those buttons,” says Vince Vaughn, who stars as Brad.


Reese Witherspoon, who stars as Kate, acknowledges, “The truth is, people tend to evaluate their own relationships in comparison to that of their parents, and that can be a daunting prospect in many ways.”


That’s precisely why Brad and Kate have been deftly sidestepping the show-and-tell, notes Vaughn. “They really love each other and don’t want to ruin it. As the story progresses, you realize how they’ve been hurt by their childhoods and the demise of their parents’ marriages. They see the stresses and obligations of family life but none of its joy. So they reinvent themselves as independent adults and stay away to avoid making the mistakes their parents made and so have a happier life.”


It’s a plan that has been working fairly well, until their Christmas escape gets cancelled and they are suddenly forced to deal with everything…together…all at once.


“When Brad and Kate get caught at the airport and roped into a round of family visits, it results in some uncomfortable, long overdue and very funny moments, as they begin to discover some not-so-flattering aspects of each others’ pasts. The story then becomes not only about whether or not their relationship will survive long-term in the light of all this honesty, but whether it will survive the day,” says Peter Billingsley, one of the film’s executive producers. Billingsley also turns in a cameo as an airline ticket agent facing the couple’s frustration when their holiday plans implode.


Appropriately enough, production on “Four Christmases” began in early December, then took a break for the holidays, allowing cast and crew their own private celebrations with loved ones. Naturally, the themes of the movie followed them home. For most, it provided additional comic ammunition for their return to the set.


Gordon recalls, “During the hiatus, I was reminded why this story is so universal. It was tense at home: my sister was annoyed with me, there was this whole thing about who was picking up Grandma for dinner, and I thought, ‘This is what makes Christmas funny.’ So many details rang true from the movie and made me feel the way I did when I laughed out loud reading the script for the first time. This movie takes all those family dynamics everyone relates to, and just pushes them out a lot farther.”


“Everyone brought their neuroses to the table,” Glickman confirms. “Whether it was the director, the screenwriters, the actors–everyone has experienced some version of this. We can all relate, no matter how we feel about our individual families, and we all have stories. There are some of Vince’s own experiences in here, some of Reese’s–it’s a mix of everyone’s ideas.”


“As a documentarian,” he adds, “Seth commits to an essential structure but he’s willing to let things unfold and, for this kind of movie and this kind of cast, that’s exactly what we needed.”


Seth Gordon earned widespread acclaim, including a nomination from the Chicago Film Critics Association, for his 2007 documentary “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters,” which chronicled an intense rivalry between two men for a video game championship. Offering both humorous and poignant insights, it captured the attention of the “Four Christmases” producers as well as Vince Vaughn, who says, “My thought was, ‘this guy is really fresh and funny and thinks outside the box.'”


Supporting Vaughn and Witherspoon in their “Four Christmases” relay is an outstanding ensemble of acclaimed artists whose careers encompass, collectively, the stage, screen, television and music industry. Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek portray Brad’s long-divorced parents Howard and Paula, whose lives since their split have grown so far apart it’s hard to believe they still share the same language, while Mary Steenburgen and Jon Voight star as Kate’s equally incompatible parents, Marilyn and Creighton. Dwight Yoakam stars as Pastor Phil, Marilyn’s latest in a series of boyfriends for whom she transforms her life. Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw gang up on Brad as his big brothers Denver and Dallas, and Kristin Chenoweth, as Courtney, puts Kate in her place with a dose of sibling rivalry, sister-style.


Says Gordon, “These are some of the best actors of their generation–of any generation–and their commitment took everything to a higher level. I would have felt lucky to have worked with any one of them.”


Throughout production, collaboration most often took the form of improv, with Vaughn setting the pace for the ensemble cast as they explored the comic potential of key scenes and generated new punch lines.


“Vince is a force of nature,” Witherspoon attests. “You just let him do his thing and hope you can react around him. He’s extraordinarily good at being funny but it’s not all for laughs; he never loses sight of where the character is going and the level of emotion involved. I had a lot of fun bouncing ideas around with him and the other actors, watching the story grow and develop. Sometimes we’d feel that we really pinned down a scene and then someone would think of another angle and we’d go back and add more, kind of layering things on top of each other and seeing what works. It was great to see people so inspired and excited about a project.”


“Reese’s reactions and comebacks were easy to play off, because she comes into it with such an understanding of her character that she can be comfortable playing around in the moment,” says Vaughn. “Improv isn’t just saying whatever comes into your head when the cameras roll; you have to have a game plan. It’s about figuring out what serves the scene.”