In our very first Inside the Movies special, we speak to Production Designer ,Stephen Marsh, who was a key figure in the legendary Christmas film National Lampoons Christmas Vacation.
When it was released in cinemas around America in December 1989, National Lampoons Christmas Vacation was competing with Back to the Future Part II for Box Office sales.
It debuted at number two for the first couple of weeks, but by the time weekend number three arrived, the Christmas comedy had hit top spot.
An initial budget of $25million was more than recouped with US Box Office sales of more than $70million, and the movie continues to sell on DVD, Blu-Ray and in digital format around the world today.
Its success should not have been surprising. With a top-notch cast and an incredibly talented team of writers and crew, the movie had star value. The early reviews were mostly positive and IMDb still rates the movie at 7.5/10.
Chevy Chase, Beverly d’Angelo and Randy Quaid all put in top performances with some brilliant acting, but it is the many Christmassy scenes in the movie that stick in peoples mind. From the snowy trek for the Griswold family Christmas tree to the dazzling lights adorning the family home; visually the movie is brilliant.
Anything visual in films is the responsibility of the Production Designer (PD). According to many, the PD has one of the most important roles to play in the making of a motion picture. He or she is “the person responsible for the overall look of a filmed event,” (Wiki).
On Christmas Vacation, this role belonged to Stephen Marsh who went on to perform the same role on a whole host of movies, including the 1993 hit-comedy, Cool Runnings.
The movie took around eight months to make, and as Stephen explains, it didn’t start quite as smoothly as you may imagine.
“We started by building an ice rink on Stage 6 at Warner Brothers in Burbank.” Says Stephen.
“Then the production found out they had hired a bunch of actors who could not ice skate so they asked me to strike the set and try to ‘absorb’ the cost. I was designing the Griswold house and decided to build it at the Warners ‘Ranch Facility’ a separate back lot out in the San Fernando Valley.“
The Griswold house still stands today, or at least the exterior shell of the building does. Located at Warner Bros’ Burbank studios in LA, visitors can book ahead to do a VIP tour of the lot. Depending on the route your tour bus takes on any given day, you may get to see the house in its flesh. Even touch it.
It’s the house exterior that throws up the first little-known fact about the movie. Next door to the Griswold’s home on a Burbank lot is the house from the Lethal Weapon movies in which Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and his family live.
Stephen said: “We had to disguise it (Lethal Weapon house) in our movie because it played as the neighbour’s house (Todd & Margo).”
While the external shots could be done outside on the lot, all of the filming for inside the house would take place elsewhere on the sprawling Burbank property.
“The interiors would be built and shot on stage at Warners Studio.
“The writer, John Hughes, and our producers fixed the ice skating problem by writing a sequence involving sledding instead, and we found that Breckenridge Colorado had the most snow, so off we went.
“It snowed very hard for days adding about two feet to the already copious amount on the ground and the high altitude meant that we were constantly exhausted. But of course we got our work done.”