THE MAKING OF "THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS"


When Jerry Vasilatos wrote "The Night Before Christmas" during the Christmas of '91 to "work out a few personal issues", he never expected he would actually have the opportunity to produce his 30-page screenplay as a 48-minute short feature. Having suffered from a near fatal accident in 1986 in which he lost his right leg, the winter of 1992 found Vasilatos inadvertently coming upon the financial resources needed to produce the Christmas time drama. "Some films cost an arm and a leg to produce... mine just cost a leg" he often jokes. In retrospect however, the out-of-court settlement afforded Vasilatos the opportunity to set out and meet the personal challenge of making a film after having spent so many years just "talking about it"; the ironic "good" coming out of a bad thing.


Pre-Production & Casting

Assembling a talented crew made up of friends from the local film community and underclassmen from his alma matter Columbia College, Vasilatos and his A.D.s began the task at hand by auditioning a series of actors and actresses, looking for the ideal performers to breathe life into the crucial roles of Nick and Kristine. "We found the perfect couple in Michael Kelley and Mary McCloud, both of whom ended up testing together by reading through the apartment scene" he says. "We had seen a lot of actors, many of whom gave us really good monologues. But there was a quality that we couldn't quite put our finger on that was missing. We had narrowed our choices down to one other actor for Nick, and two actresses for the part of Kristine. One of the crew members, Karrie Kelley, told me I should have her brother Mike read for it. I'd known Mike from many years ago and he'd read another script I wrote that he really liked. We always fantasized about being able to shoot it, but realistically it would have required a Hollywood budget to be done right. Well, Karrie pointed out to me that the role Mike really liked in that particular script I 'd written so many years ago wasn't that far a stretch from the character of Nick in "The Night Before Christmas", and being that both characters were drawn from a semi-autobiographical thread, she was right. I sent a script to Mike and a week later he came in during the proverbial "eleventh hour" and nailed the part, immediately making it his own."

"Casting was of tremendous importance in making this story work," Vasilatos continues. "Mike pulled a depth out of the character that was so wonderfully genuine it elevated the story beyond some of the this genre's usual conventions. As I'd written it, the script was a little heavy on the melodrama, but when Mike played it, he was able to walk the fine line and accentuate what was heartfelt. There was a lot of what I wanted Nick to be in Mike, and I think it's why his performance comes across as naturally as it does."

In the case of Kristine, Vasilatos had it in his mind's eye what she should be like. "Red hair, fair skin, resolute yet with an underlying vulnerability, and then into our auditions walked Mary McCloud. The monologue she prepared had to do with relationships, and it was really spooky because it was as if the character of Kristine had literally materialized right there before us. Both Mary and Mike had such good chemistry in their testing against each other that we knew we had our leads."


Actors Mary McCloud and Michael Kelley review the script with director Jerry Vasilatos before shooting the apartment scene.
In casting supporting roles, Vasilatos tried to select performers with a distinctive look, people with memorable faces. "Because we had such a variety of actors and actresses auditioning, we would be struck by how one looked or performed and re-wrote minor characters so that the performer could inject something of their own into it. One of the really nice things about "The Night Before Christmas" that I'm very proud of is that it's inhabited with the most charming of characters, some of whom are on screen less than a minute. Their impact on Nick is important however, because it's through his encounters with them that he is led to his realization at the film's end."


Production

With the cast set, Vasilatos secured the services of D.P.s John O'Shaughnessy and Jeff Gatesman and began laying down a schedule that would take advantage of the upcoming holiday season. "It was budgetarily impossible to 'create' our Christmas, especially since we were so dependent on exteriors that would reflect Chicago on Christmas Eve, so we had no choice but to wait." Working out the logistics and getting the snowfall that they needed for some key scenes, production took place for 26 days during November of 1992 through April of 1993. "When I wrote this script, I had a lot of pre-existing locations in mind, both interior and exterior" Vasilatos says. "I was amazed at how many people were willing to let us use certain buildings to bring the story to life." One such location was Six Corners, located at Belmont, Lincoln and Ashland. "The scene called for snow and Christmas decorations hanging between streetlight poles over the avenue. Since we had a late winter, most of our night time snow scenes had to be filmed in January and February. With the help of the Chicago Film Office, we made a phone call to the local chamber of commerce and they delayed removal of the decorations until we were able to get our shot. All in all, I'd say we got about ninety percent of the places I had originally envisioned."


Actors Michael Kelley and Mary McCloud grin and bear the frigid winter temperature while the crew of "The Night Before Christmas" prepare to shoot the final scene.
Two of Vasilatos' favorite locations were the Music Box Theater and St. Alphonsus Church. "The sheer scale of these places helped legitimize the story and Nick's Christmas Eve sojourn, especially with the amount of extras we had filling each scene." The responsibility of lining up extras fell to production managers Martin Shannon, Mary Mitchell and Rica Lindstrom, not an easy task when dealing with the financial constraints of a low-budget independent feature. "We placed announcements on the Chicago casting hotline and in all the local industry papers; amazingly, we got the numbers we needed, in some cases over a hundred people at a time. In particular Marty was the executive producer of a local theater troupe, and was able to interest many people who were eager to get film experience working as extras."


Vanessa Lizano and Christina Vasilatos stand by as director Jerry Vasilatos prepares to shoot the Music Box Theater scene.

Michael Kelley and Ramona Curtis rehearse the St. Alphonsus church sequence with Jerry Vasilatos.

Post-Production

With production and final pickups wrapped in April of '93, Vasilatos, who had written, directed and produced the project, was now left with the monumental task of wading through hours of footage and editing the final film. "I didn't mind editing the film, because we had storyboarded it from start to finish. I had the advantage of knowing how the final cut was going to look while we were shooting. I don't think I would have been comfortable giving it to someone else to edit. Despite my closeness to the material, I can remain a pretty objective audience even while at an editing table."

Vasilatos says by the time he was finished cutting the film, an entire summer had passed. "I was positive I could have the thing ready for Christmas of '93; I had no idea of the new hoops I was going to have to jump through regarding the post-production process of gaining music clearances, dealing with laboratory schedules, and finding a suitable composer to help add to the story's emotional core. I think I learned more about the logistics of film-making during this project than I ever learned from four years of school." By Thanksgiving of '93, Vasilatos had a pretty good idea it wasn't going to be ready for the upcoming holiday season. "I think tne of the only things that gave me my final shot of energy despite the disappointment associated with missing a Christmas deadline, was screening it for independent producer's rep David Sikich of Iltis Sikich Associates. At that point, I was hoping that he might offer some advice regarding what to do with it when it was done. As a filmmaker, true terror is showing something you've labored on for so long to someone who knows the business, hoping your efforts will be measured as worth something, especially considering the fact that it's your first project. Dave watched the scratchy work-print on an editing table with sound made horrible by its transmission through some really awful sounding speakers. When he broke the silence that followed that screening and said that he liked it and wanted to help market it upon its completion, I felt some vindication in my persistence to see the thing through from it's inception and not ever compromise the earliest visions of what I wanted it to be."

Vasilatos finished post-production on "The Night Before Christmas" and contracted John Tatgenhorst to write the score. From there the sound was mixed by Chuck Rapp of Zenith Audio Services, and final prints were struck for a Christmas of '94 targetrelease. Sikich was able to network Vasilatos with Shel Beugen of Video Media Distribution in Chicago, who lined up a deal with Lifetime Television for a Christmas '94 national cable broadcast premiere.


The Message of "The Night Before Christmas"

"I'm very proud of "The Night Before Christmas", because I think the story has something in it for everyone" Jerry says. "Nick is a guy who's down on a lot of things, and who's lost a lot of faith in a time when everyone's expectations seem to run so high. He's unhappy at his job because it's not what he went to school for, he's lonely from having just broken up with his girlfriend, he's avoiding going home because he feels his family is dysfunctional... these are things everyone goes through at one time or another during the holidays, but it's not just that. He sees things going on around him, people ignoring the homeless, workers being laid off, and most ironically, reads of a local church which has had its Christ Child statue stolen by some kids. Although his own life is in disorder, he sees others around him not in tune with what the holidays should be about, and this is what sparks his Christmas Eve journey and eventual rediscovery of what Christmas should be about. We're so busy feeling sorry for ourselves sometimes, that we don't recognize the positive that can come out of a seemingly bad situation, and that's the human spirit. In Nick's case, he has given to and received from others without even realizing it, and in finally realizing this while hearing Father Jacobse's sermon at the end he gains some of his faith back, some of his hope. I think the message of the film is that no matter how bleak we sometimes perceive things to be, we should never give up hope or faith, because in our hearts they're what give us the strength to forge ahead."
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