Jeremiah Chechik has a broad directing CV. From his debut on National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, through to the delightful Benny & Joon, the troublesome The Avengers and his subsequent television work, he's told us in some depth about the highs and lows of his career. [Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a longer interview.]
Simon Brew: I have to say from the off, I think Benny & Joon is such a lovely movie. I think the chemistry between Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson is really good. It surprises me when you see how calm it is on screen just how troubled it seemed to be behind the scenes setting it all up.
Jeremiah Chechik: Well, you know, it’s funny. You’re saying that, but it wasn’t terribly problematic. I mean, it may have appeared, from the outside, problematic. I know the difference. Because I have had difficult movies to do. That was not difficult.
The development of the screenplay, which I was very, very involved in at MGM, Alan Ladd [Jr] was running the company and—talk about an artist’s friend—he really let me work with the writer, and we focused so carefully on the nuance.
When it came to cast, I wanted to get Johnny and I just met with Johnny and he just loved it and said, “Yeah, yeah. Let’s do it.”
And Mary Stuart Masterson, I liked her just because of her kind of soulful quality, but the part that ended up with Aidan was going to be—believe it or not—Woody Harrelson. Woody and I had met and he loved it also, was going to do it and I thought, “That’s great.”
Now, him making the movie was not the trigger. We had gotten the budget. We were working with all actors of some note, and at the last minute Woody got that Demi Moore movie—
That’s right, and wanted to do that and bowed out. This happens all the time. Who could blame him—work on a small little tiny movie with Johnny Depp, who wasn’t the star he is today? Or work with the legends at the time. So, I didn’t blame him. He went off and did it and I guess the media made a bigger mess of it. And I just thought, “We’ll get Aidan Quinn.” So, we just went to Aidan, he said yes and that was it.
So, it wasn’t really that much drama. It was maybe a few days of ‘We lost Woody. Let’s get somebody else.’ And Aidan was just so fantastic. Within one day, who remembered Woody Harrelson’s approach to the part? It just wasn’t part of it. And I think time certainly supported that.
Were you a Buster Keaton fan before you got to the film?
Yeah. I was a big fan of Buster Keaton, more so than Chaplin, even. It turns out, coincidentally, so is Johnny, and so we spent an awful lot of time—
There’s a movie theater here in LA called The Silent Movie Theatre, whose owner has sadly passed away.I think he got murdered like ten years ago, or something like that—but he and his family had—they may still—one of the largest collections of original print silents, and we got the studio to make a deal with them and Johnny and I would go there in afternoon and screen—on the big screen—all the classic silents, two-reelers.
Of course, we hired an organist. [Laughs] We spent [a long time] in that theatre. You know, it’s one thing to look at these old movies on the small screen. It’s quite another to see them in the tableau that were originally intended to show off how spectacular the physical comedy was.
That rekindled my absolute adoration for those guys. Where I appreciated them before, I jumped into appreciating them for the geniuses that they were: Lloyd, Chaplin, Keaton, and there’s more.
It was a fun, fun, beautiful movie to make. Every day of it was a joy—the crew and the cast stuck together like glue. After shooting we would all—we would not disappear to our hotels, but we would stay on stage and play music and then we’d order in food. And every weekend someone or other, crew member or cast member, would host a party at their place. It was just one of those things that bonded us, I think, for life.
And is it as good an experience as you’ve ever had making a film?
It was. Yeah, I could say that pretty quick.