In 'Four Christmases,' Seth Gordon explores a season's gratings

In 'Four Christmases,' Seth Gordon explores a season's gratings
WITH THE A-LIST: Gordon went from “The King of Kong” to directing Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times)
To some, it might seem a bit of a stretch for the director of an odd and obscure documentary about the '80s arcade game Donkey Kong to become the man in charge of the big-budget holiday-season comedy " Four Christmases," starring Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon. Even the movie's 32-year-old filmmaker, Seth Gordon, describes it as an "unprecedented, staggering, irrational leap."

Gordon's unlikely ascent began in August 2007 when a copy of his previous (and first) film, "The King of Kong," ended up in Vaughn's possession, just before the film was released that month. The actor was so impressed by the tale of two aging über-geeks who compete for the best score at the arcade game that he showed it to Witherspoon, with whom he was attached to make "Four Christmases." The film, about a couple forced to spend Christmas visiting the families of their four divorced parents, had been lying dormant for a few years, since it stalled at Sony because of a crowded holiday comedy season slate. New Line had picked up the project and was actively looking for a director.

Witherspoon dug the documentary as well, and the actors invited Gordon to fly from New York City to meet with them to discuss his take on "Four Christmases." When Gordon met with the movie stars, he said, he had had hardly any time to think about what an outrageous opportunity he was being granted. On the plane, he read the script and told them he wanted to make sure that the film didn't "fit snugly into the typical holiday-season genre." He also made several suggestions about the characters and the plot -- such as not making the couple married -- that impressed Vaughn and Witherspoon.

"He is a real cinephile," Witherspoon says about Gordon. "He has studied his film theory. He didn't fall off a turnip truck and say, 'Hey, y'all. I'm here.' "

Growing up in Evanston, Ill., outside of Chicago, Gordon loved the movies of local hero John Hughes ("Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club"), but his real passion was action -- he memorized Bruce Willis' "Die Hard" in its entirety. He also was a video-game fan, recalling having been happily stuck at the local arcade in New Hampshire during family vacations because "I'm so pale that I burn, so my parents didn't want to put me on the beach."

Gordon attended Yale, where he studied architecture and was not liking it very much, so he spent six months in Kenya, helping develop the infrastructure for a village near the Ugandan border. He had packed his video camera, and when Gordon assisted in the construction of a school (using his rudimentary architectural skills), he also decided to film the process. Later, as his stay in Kenya became more complicated -- Gordon won grant money to help fund the school, causing an imbalance of need and greed -- he filmed the messy fallout. When he returned to Yale, he found the Avid editing machines and taught himself the basics of filmmaking to complete the documentary.

After Yale, Gordon found work, shooting for Barbara Kopple's and Cecilia Peck's documentary "Shut Up & Sing," about the Dixie Chicks, and working on " New York Doll," about a member of the 1970s band the New York Dolls. Finally ready to step out on his own, Gordon returned to his childhood love of video games for his directorial debut, "King of Kong," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival's less prestigious cousin, Slamdance.

"I made that movie with a camera I could have bought at Best Buy and edited it at home on Final Cut Pro," says Gordon, marveling at how far he's come since those austere times.

He says the marketing budget alone for "Four Christmases" is about 300 times the entire budget of "King of Kong." And instead of filming two video-game wonks, he's working with A-list actors. "It's one of these moments when I know it's make or break for my future opportunities," he says.

Gordon calls Vaughn "the funniest person I have ever met." The actor's gift for improvisation was reportedly at odds with Witherspoon's more regimented method of acting (her production company is named Type A Films, after all), but Gordon claims, "It would seem incompatible, but it wasn't." He says his lead actress "knew her stuff so well" that she could roll with Vaughn.

The movie is populated with other seasoned actors -- including Sissy Spacek, Robert Duvall, Jon Favreau and Kristin Chenoweth -- whom Gordon says he gave room to play. There wasn't a "who's the boss?" vibe on set, he says, because "Vince set a tone that made it comfortable."

Gordon, whose parents are still married and who lives with his girlfriend in West L.A., declines to divulge whether the life experiences of his lead actors were tapped for this comedy about family and troubled relationships (both Vaughn and Witherspoon have been through high-profile breakups in recent years). "I think that's outside of the boundaries of what I should talk about," Gordon demurs.

So he might not be so green after all. Still, the young director says he cannot quite articulate how "crazy" it feels being confronted by the three giant "Four Christmases" billboards he sees when he drives down La Cienega Boulevard. And it's OK that his name isn't featured on those billboards, like those of Vaughn and Witherspoon. "That's fine. I have a healthy amount of humility," he says. "I do not feel like I belong up there."

Roston is a freelance writer.