Posted on Friday, May 27th, 2016 by Blake Harris
In June 1987, in an interview for The New York Times, Stanley Kubrick spoke glowingly about a series of Michelob beer commercials.
“They’re just boy-girl, night-fun,” Kubrick praised, “leading up to pouring the beer, all in 30 seconds, beautifully edited and photographed. Economy of statement is not something that films are noted for.”
That piece published on a Sunday. The following day—after interested parties tracked down who was responsible for these spots—the phone of fashion photographer turned commercial director Jeremiah Chechik started rining off the hook.
Living up to that hype, Jeremiah Chechik’s first feature, Christmas Vacation, dazzled at the box office. Over the next decade, Chechik continued to rise up the ranks, establishing himself as a profitable director and, perhaps as importantly, a director known to work well with actors and the studios. Which is why, in the mid-‘90s, he was tapped by Warner Bros. to direct a $60 million summer action film based on a popular ‘60’s British TV show called The Avengers. With a stellar cast (Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman and Sean Connery) a legendary producer (Jerry Weintraub) and a top-tier British screenwriter (Don Macpherson), The Avengers seemed like a can’t miss film.
Unfortunately though, it missed the mark by a wide margin and drastically changed the trajectory of Jeremiah Chechik’s career. But what, at first, may have looked like a fall from grace wound up leading Chechik to terrific success in another medium. To find out what went wrong and then, ultimately, what went right, we spoke with the talented filmmaker and took a stroll down memory lane…
The Avengers Oral History
How Did This Get Made is a companion to the podcast How Did This Get Made with Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael which focuses on movies This regular feature is written by Blake J. Harris, who you might know as the writer of the book Console Wars, soon to be a motion picture produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. You can listen to The Avengers edition of the HDTGM podcast here.
Synopsis: When a villainous foe discovers a way to control the weather, a pair of posh British secret agents team up to save the world.
Tagline: When Evil Reigns, Only One Team Can Weather The Storm.
Part 1: Exploring the Nexus
Blake Harris: So before we really get started, I feel compelled to thank you for something you did years ago.
Jeremiah Chechik: Oh yeah?
Blake Harris: Yeah, Christmas Vacation—your first feature—was actually how I found out that Santa Claus isn’t real.
Jeremiah Chechik: [laughing]
Blake Harris: And while one could say that you’re responsible for robbing me of my innocence, I prefer to think of you as the guy responsible for ushering me into manhood. So thank you for that!
Jeremiah Chechik: Happy to help.
Blake Harris: So going back a few years—innocence still intact—I’d love to hear a bit about how you got into filmmaking. Was it something you were interested in as a kid?
Jeremiah Chechik: I grew up in Montreal, in Quebec. And filmmaking there, at that time, was really a purview of the national board: documentaries, experimental animation and art films. People who worked there were effectively working for a government agency. And you’d have to be in the inner sanctum to even get involved there. So I grew up in an environment where movie making was quite a foreign occupation. In other words, there was no path to entry.
Blake Harris: So without film as the focus, how did your creativity manifest?
Jeremiah Chechik: I studied theater at McGill University. Eventually I gave that up, but obviously some of that stayed with me in terms of experiencing the director/actor storytelling aspect of it. And as I evolved, creatively, I started painting and doing some stone lithography and just working in that medium. I was quite young, but I was getting grants and showing. Then I started to explore photography as a way to kind of visually root some of the more physical drawings that I was doing and became quite enamored with it. Eventually went on with some partners to develop some of the very first art holograms ever made. And we started to show in New York and became quite expert in that. But, you know, during that time I was meeting with other artists—Warhol, included—and started to explore, basically, the nexus of commercial art and fine art. And that eventually led me to fashion photography.
Blake Harris: Fashion photography?
Jeremiah Chechik: Yeah, and through a series of good fortune I started working for Italian Vogue. Spent years in Italy doing that and then eventually moved back to New York and started to do commercials. First in fashion, and then eventually circled back to performance. A little while after that, I caught the eye of some well-known directors and producers in Hollywood, and effectively they brought me out from New York and I started to develop and eventually make movies.
Blake Harris: And one of those “well-knowns” whose eye you caught was Stanley Kubrick, is that correct?
Jeremiah Chechik: Yeah. He had given an interview and pointed out some of the commercials that I was making. That’s really it.
Blake Harris: Amazing.
Jeremiah Chechik: You know, some of it is great fortune and some of it is creating your own opportunities. I’ve always just tried to make the most of the opportunities that were given to me. And try to lead as much of a creative life as I could.
Blake Harris: One of those early opportunities was Christmas Vacation. How did you become involved with that project?
Jeremiah Chechik: Well prior to that, I was developing a movie at Amblin, actually. It was a very small movie with Warners as the distributor. What happened with that project is a long story, but the upshot was that during the development process I formed some significant relationships with people at Warners. They took a shine to me and started to offer me projects. And even though I had not done any comedy, the script that really caught my eye, the one that I really loved, was John Hughes’ script for Christmas Vacation.
Blake Harris: Do you remember what it was about that script that caught your eye? Especially because—to your point—you didn’t really come from a comedy background.
Jeremiah Chechik: I mean, they sent me this script and asked me if I was interested. And my initial reaction was: Holy shit, this is really funny. Really, really, really, funny.
Blake Harris: The great John Hughes! What was your relationship like with him? Did the two of you interact much?
Jeremiah Chechik: Lots. He was a great mentor. And just, you know, a pretty remarkable personality. Amazing writer. A lot of fun. I got on great with him. And once he decided I was the guy, he just literally handed the reins over to me and left to make one of his films. After that, he was there really to just ensure that I never got into any issues with the studios. In other words: He protected my vision of the film.
Blake Harris: So basically after being noticed by Stanley Kubrick, you worked with Steven Spielberg and then John Hughes. What was it like for you, at such a young age, to be around such incredible talents? Did you ever find that intimidating?
Jeremiah Chechik: Oh, it was very exciting. And, you know, I had a lot of experience by then in terms of being on set (having been a commercial director) so the process was not foreign to me. Albeit, it was early on in my career and I was quite a novice then. But I did have a language to kind of speak to actors about performance. So yeah, it was exciting and there was a lot to learn, yet I always felt comfortable. I just tried to listen and learn as much as I could, never pretending that I had more experience than I actually had. And I loved every moment of it. We shot Christmas Vacation on the Warners lot, so I was very aware of, I guess, the connection to those who came before me. That was very, very exciting. And I all I did was try to make a movie that I thought was funny personally and just hoped that other people would respond that way.
Blake Harris: One of the next films you directed was Benny & Joon. How did that project come together?
Jeremiah Chechik: Benny & Joon was a script that we developed. The early script had very little relationship to the final movie—in terms of character and tone—but it had a similar structure and I was attracted to that structure. At that point in time, Alan Ladd Jr. was running MGM, so we were working with him. And he was really an executive who supported and was behind the director’s creative vision. So we just evolved this to the point where we really fell in love with its uniqueness and set out to cast it, which we did. And the studio was great, they basically said: Just make it for a budget and we won’t interfere. Nor did they.
Blake Harris: That lack of interfering perhaps makes for a good (albeit unfortunate) segue to The Avengers: a film that was notoriously interfered with in so many possible ways. We’ll get more into the specifics in a bit, but just generally speaking, what was that experience like for you?
Jeremiah Chechik: You know, Sometimes you’re on a runaway train and you just have to ride it. In my case, I felt more like Jon Voight on a runaway train.