The director talks about his talented cast, skating trickery and all those lights

Deck the Halls was released on DVD this Tuesday, just in time for the holiday season. The film stars Matthew Broderick, Danny DeVito, Kristen Davis and Kristen Chenoweth. I had a chance to speak with director John Whitesell over the phone about this unique Christmas movie.

I see it's taken awhile for this to come to DVD. It seems to be a trend for holiday movies, like Elf, to be released in the same season. Is that a standard practice for holiday movies?

John Whitesell: Yeah. Part of the thing is that the DVD window is anywhere from four months to six months after a release. I think it didn't make much sense for them, strategically, to drop a Christmas DVD in April. It's holding it for almost a year, but I think it makes more sense.

So what first attracted you to this project?

John Whitesell: Oh, I've always had a real love for Christmas movies. I've been around several neighborhoods and I've seen the extent that some people go with their lights. It's kind of fascinating because I've never been that guy that wants to go out and spend 16 hours like 5 days in a row putting lights up. Some of these guys end up with a million lights on their house, with all the bulbs in their yard. I was just fascinated with the idea, what drives people to do that, and how it affects the holiday season. So that part of the impudence for me to get into it.

I live in Minnesota and Christmas lights are kind of a big deal around here. They always have big displays and they put them in the local papers, but I've never seen anything like Buddy's house in this movie.

John Whitesell: Well, we figured for the movie we had to go some place bigger than anything anyone's ever seen. That's why we basically turned his house into a scoreboard, with the LED lights. We can play video on it and do anything. I think that's actually gonna become a trend in decorating. You can buy them in panels, 4x4 panels and 8x8 panels.

Oh, so you just stack the panels next to each other?

John Whitesell: Yeah. And then you just hook them together and the computer runs the whole thing. I mean we ran that whole program, all of that, off a little laptop. We actually hired a guy who was a rock and roll lighting designer. And basically... it wasn't programmed to the music. He ran it to the music.

Oh really?

John Whitesell: Yeah, because it's so hard to get it exactly right and we wanted the flexibility to change things. And once you write a program you're stuck with it and it takes forever to fix it. So he had run lights for a bunch of rock and roll shows so he says, 'I can do it. I know the timing.' He ran it himself off a computer and a board. It was pretty amazing.

We don't really see Matthew Broderick or Danny DeVito in a family movie like this. Was it a bit of an adjustment for them playing characters like Steve Finch and Buddy Hall?

John Whitesell: Yeah, I think so. Matthew is more of that guy, naturally, from some of the stuff he's done, but he's also done a lot of edgy, quirky stuff too. Matthew is kind of that everyman guy. He brings that peculiar aspect that I thought was really great for Steve. Danny... Danny is incredibly funny. He's one of those loveable bad guys, you know. I grew up watching him on Taxi and Louie De Palma was the meanest guy on the show, but you liked Louie. And that's what Danny has, even when he's doing things that annoy you or piss you off, you still like him.

I loved the whole speed-skating through town scene. Did they have any skating experience?

John Whitesell: I'll tell you the secret. Danny, on that sequence, never put on a pair of skates.

Laughs

John Whitesell: He's actually never in skates. He's got very bad ankles, and we were really afraid that we'd hurt him. Matthew, on the other hand, about three or four weeks before we started in New York, we brought down a guy from Lake Placid that's part of the speed-skating trainers Olympic team. He spent four weeks with Matthew, giving him form, and Matthew actually skated, almost all of his stuff is him. It's very funny, the blending of it together, that Matthew did mostly all of his and it looks pretty good, and is actually pretty proficient... and Danny never put a skate on.

Laughs

John Whitesell: We built a harness, a sled that we could pull behind the camera, that was kind of like a NordicTrack. We built the thing on the bottom so his feet could move so you'd get the sense that he was actually skating. We didn't just want to pull him around. It'd look like a Spike Lee movie.

Laughs

John Whitesell: So by putting the NordicTrack thing on the bottom, he could move his feet back and forth so it looked like he was actually skating. And we did get a good double for him.

The magic of movies.

John Whitesell: Isn't that amazing? Yeah. That looked like he was skating. You would not know that he was not on skates. When he first got there I said, 'You wanna do some practice?' He says, 'No.' (Laughs). I say 'Why not?' He says 'My ankles are the worst ankles, and they'll go under. I just can't do it.' So I say O.K, well I guess that's our next challenge.

Kristen Chenoweth is quite a talent. This role is a bit of a departure from her previous roles. How was she to work with?

John Whitesell: She was fantastic. I've seen her on Broadway several times and when I thought of the role, when I was casting, we actually never offered it to anybody else. Once we cast Danny, I thought she was perfect for Danny. She is Danny's wife. She is this role. I hadn't met her before so I called her and sent her the script, we met and I put her right in the movie. I just think she is one of those really unique talents. She has a real ability not to be inhibited. She's got all this brassiness in this little body, and she can sing and she's just a delight to be around. She brings that kind of spirit and I figured that opposite Danny was a great combination. The other factor that they weren't the same height I thought was fantastic. I just think that was so great.

I read that there was a kissing scene between Kristen Davis and Matthew Broderick that was cut because it wasn't PG enough. Was it just a little bit too out of place for this movie?

John Whitesell: I don't know if it wasn't PG enough. I think there was more innuendo in the scene, as opposed to the actual kissing as a problem. There was a little more innuendo that was in the conversation that we really felt that was necessary for a family movie.

It wasn't even the kissing part, it was just kind of...

John Whitesell: No, it wasn't the kissing part. It wasn't like sloppy open-mouth kissing or anything. It was more what they were saying and we were more concerned about the innuendo than the physicality of it. It was a little awkward for both of them, being friends and knowing each other for so long from Sex and the City. Of course, Sarah (Jessica Parker, Broderick's wife) wasn't an issue, but they had a really nice relationship because they knew each other and there was a comfort there. I don't think we were looking for a real sexual kind of heat from them. They were kind of our married couple that had been married for awhile. I think it was also long at that point, if I remember right. We were needing to move the movie along right there and we didn't think it was helping us.

Do you have anything on the horizon that you can tell us about?

John Whitesell: Well, the strike has certainly thrown (Laughs) a wrench into the two movies that I thought were going to happen. Now I don't know what's going to happen. It's going to be very interesting. I think everybody kind of thought that things would kind of proceed, but the truth is that without the writers it's very difficult. Unless you have a script that's 100% ready to go, it's hard. With comedy I think maybe if you have a great script to begin with, and you have really funny actors who can improvise and fix stuff, you feel like you're in better shape. The stuff that I had, people still want to tweak it. Studios are much more concerned about having it right before they send you off to do it. I've always had at least some writer that I could call. (Laughs) 'I'm having trouble with this scene. What do you think?' You can solve a lot of things on the set, to keep the writer involved. I've always enjoyed having the writer actually on the set. I've always thought it was more of a creative force. For me, that's put two things that we were going with on indefinite hold.

Finally, how many Christmas lights are going on your house this year?

John Whitesell: My house? (Laughs) I don't put any lights up. I told you I'm not that guy. There's a wreath on the front door, and a candle in the window. We were never the lighting people. We're more like the Finches.

You can find Deck the Halls on the DVD shelves now.