Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Kate Erbland hits the road with family and baggage in tow as she listens to the talent-filled commentary track for National Lampoon’s Vacation.
Come on. You know the words. It’s that time of year when the weather is starting to heat up, families are planning their yearly excursions to the greater parts of the world, and the highways of this great nation of ours are going to be filled with Family Trucksters. What better time than to visit the original cross-country, family quest for fun? That’s right. We’re talking about National Lampoon’s Vacation.
Not only was I shocked to find there was a commentary track on this 20th Anniversary Special Edition, but it contains director Harold Ramis, producer Matty Simmons, and most of the Griswold clan, Cousin Eddie included. Sadly Beverly D’Angelo didn’t make this trip, but our hearts and prayers are with her. As for the rest of the tribe, they give us more than our fair share of Vacation trivia, insight into the filming, and overall good times that are had by all. As Clark W. Griswold once told his son, Rusty, getting there is half the fun, so let’s get there already, shall we?
Praise Marty Moose.
Commentators: Harold Ramis (director), Chevy Chase (actor), Matty Simmons (producer), Dana Barron (actor), Anthony Michael Hall (actor), Randy Quaid (actor),
- The opening stills and vintage postcards shown over the opening credits were culled together by John Margolies, an architectural photographer who Ramis calls “one of the principal documentarians of American, roadside architecture.” So the guy really knows his stuff. Ramis knew Margolies, and decided his collection of postcards and photographs would make appropriate imagery for the opening of the film. Some of the “postcards” aren’t even postcards but still photographs done up to look as such.
- Five Family Trucksters were built to show the different stages of the car throughout the movie. Ramis notes later in the commentary he believes one or two were still intact at the end of production. The vehicles used after huge jump at the halfway mark had to be beaten up to match the damage done to the car in the jump.
- During the scene where Clark and Ellen are washing dishes, Chevy Chase points out that he never actually washes the dishes. D’Angelo’s Ellen wipes the food off the plate, hand the plate to Clark, Clark dries the plate, and puts the plate in the cabinet. Chase notes that no one ever notices that. Matty Simmons mentions people do notice that joke, to which Chase has a hard time believing him. I don’t know about you, but I always caught that gag. How about you?
- Simmons also remembers when Hall was cast as Rusty. The only note the producer gave was the boy “had to keep his braces.”
- Chase was getting frustrated in the scene where the family is leaving for their trip. As Ramis remembers it, it was extremely hot that day, and they had gone through a numerous amount of takes. Chase had a suitcase in his hands between takes, was looking for a place to toss it, and couldn’t find a free spot with so much camera equipment around. He ended up throwing the suitcase at Ramis, who, having seen Chase’s frustration growing, caught it. “And then I got really righteous and yelled at Chevy in front of everybody,” says Ramis. See, that’s what Dan Harmon should have done.
- Clark and Ellen singing during the trip wasn’t part of the original screenplay. Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo ended up singing to pass the time, and they decided to add it into their characters.
- Neither was it written for Rusty to have his feet propped up by Clark’s head. Hall put his feet up on the seat while he was relaxing during filming.
- Chase couldn’t see the woman at the gas station standing behind him. When he rips the back license plate off, it come very close to hitting her in the head. The look of shock and concern on Chase’s face was genuine.
- “This is probably the most politically incorrect sequence I’ve ever shot,” says Ramis during the St. Louis scene where the family finds itself in a bad part of town. Ramis feels the scene “dehumanizes everyone involved.” He isn’t even sure he’d include the scene in Vacation if he were to make the film today.
- The bed in the early hotel scene didn’t actually vibrate. The effect was done with crewmen laying under the bed and shaking it by hand. Chevy Chase’s shaky voice was pulled off by the actor himself, of which he gives a little sample on the commentary. Yeah, it’s pretty accurate.
- Barron mentions a practical joke she remembers staged by the the prop guy – she calls him Ziggy, but there’s no one of that name in the credits or on the IMDB page. Evidently “Imaginary Ziggy” tossed a dummy body down from the second floor of the hotel when the barman pretends to shoot Clark with a shotgun. Chevy Chase is completely confounded by this, not remembering the joke at all. “I thought that was in Three Amigos,” says Chase. Poor Dana Barron. She’s the only one who sees Imaginary Ziggy.
- That is “30 Rock’s” Jane Krakowski as Cousin Vicki, Cousin Eddie’s teenage daughter. This isn’t exactly knowledge only obtained through the commentary, but it’s certainly something I had never noticed until Harold Ramis pointed it out to me.
- The clicking sound Cousin Eddie makes with his tongue was something Randy Quaid came up with for the character. According to Ramis, Quaid marked every spot in the script where he wanted Cousin Eddie to make the noise, something he had picked up from someone he knew growing up. Some of us knew Randy Quaid had problems all the way back in ‘83.
- “I like that he’s working the muscles in his right hand,” says Chase about the Cousin Dale character. Now that, Chevy Chase, is a joke I didn’t catch until now. Kind of along those same lines, at the end of production, Chase gave Hall a signed photo that said, “Michael, no mas, no mas. If you’re going blind, you’re doing it right.” “It’s funny,” says Chase, “I said that earlier today, too.”
- According to Simmons, when they first went to hire Imogene Coca as Aunt Edna, the actress wasn’t sure she could play that mean of a role. Simmons convinced her by telling her she was a great actress who could play as mean as she wanted to play. There were times in the car where she would turn to Barron or Hall and ask them if she was being too mean.
- As Ramis explains, Vacation was only his second film, and he didn’t have much experience with getting shots and capturing product placement, both directly and accidentally. In the scene where the family is eating lunch and Clark notices The Girl in the Ferrari – actual character name and played by Christie Brinkley – Ramis points out the giant True Value truck sitting behind her, essentially a large billboard taking up a third of the screen.
- Chase notes the scene with Clark and Ellen in the tent was different in the original screenplay. Originally, it was Brian Doyle-Murray dressing up as a bear who would sneak into people’s tents to give them “wildlife fun.” All of this was cut down to it just being the dog biting Clark in the leg due to time constraints.
- Chase and James Keach completely improvised the scene where they’re talking about the dog, which had just been killed from Clark tying him to the rear bumper. Ramis mentions he and Keach went on to produce Armed and Dangerous starring John Candy and Eugene Levy, but he probably should have kept that part quiet. Armed and Dangerous is not a good movie. At all.
- Dick Ziker served as both second unit director and stunt coordinator on Vacation. Most of the car stunts in the film were performed by him. As Ramis remembers it, someone one set bet Ziker he couldn’t jump the Family Truckster more than 50 feet. In fact, a number of bets were placed on set based on how far Ziker could jump the car. He overshot every guess.
- Before making Vacation, Ramis watched Quest for Fire, the 1981 film about Paleolithic cavemen directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Ramis admired Annaud’s usage of broad, sweeping shots using telephoto lenses. The Vacation used this technique while shooting Clark’s quest through the desert in search of a gas station.
- Originally there was to be a moment in the desert scene where a Clark comes across a camel, but the camel they got for the film had been raised in Southern California, nowhere near a desert locale. As soon as they got the camel on set, the animal began freaking out at the sand it was walking on, and the scene was cut altogether. Thank God for pre-CG days. If Vacation were filmed today, they would have just had Andy Serkis play the camel.
- Apparently John Diehl, who plays the assistant mechanic, is a very method actor. Hall and Chase remember the actor rolling around in oil before they filmed his scenes.
- No one on the commentary – basically no one in the film even – knew how Cousin Normie was related to the clan. “We never really did a family tree on Cousin Eddie,” says Simmons. They finally work out that Ellen and Catherine, Eddie’s wife who was played by Miriam Flynn, were cousins. Simmons jokes they wouldn’t have Eddie and Ellen be directly related.
- “Another director said that shooting is the only time you’re making the film worse,” says Ramis, who goes on to explain that, when you’re writing, you’re constantly fine tuning it and making it the best screenplay you can, and, when you’re editing, you’re putting all the footage you’ve shot together to make a coherent and entertaining film. He notes that actually shooting the film reveals the script to not be as funny as you though it was, things don’t go as planned – see the item about the camel above – and it never, ever comes out the way you had hoped. “Every shooting day is a big challenge, but we were feeling like we were accomplishing something good every day.”
- Ramis notes that any time there is cussing in Vacation, they had also shot another take of the same moment minus the foul language to get footage to include for when the film aired on TV. Clark’s speech when he’s fed up with his family – aside from being my personal favorite moment in the movie – was shot three different ways with Chase handling the cussing differently each time. According to Ramis, nothing worked quite as well as Chase going full-board and letting the F-bombs fly.
- “You were playing a lot of tennis at the time,” says Quaid at the pool scene where Chase takes off his shirt. “Yeah,” replies Chase, “and I was eating a lot.”
- According to Ramis, they had to completely rethink the end of the movie. Originally, after the family discovers Walley World is closed, Clark leads them to Roy Walley’s house taking the man and his family hostage. Clark then forces the Walley household to sing and dance for the Griswold family’s entertainment. Needless to say, this ending didn’t work well with audiences during test screenings. Four months after completing filming the cast and crew came back together to film the ending the film has today. It was during this period of time that Hall went through puberty, and Rusty clearly grows a number of inches in height between scenes at the end. Barron also points out the family members have all lost their tan at this point. Chase mentions he has Vacation with the original ending on a video cassette. Good luck finding something to play that on.
- While on “SCTV,” John Candy had a recurring character named Paul Fistinyourface. According to Ramis, the security guard character Candy plays in Vacation is a relative.
- To get the footage they needed, the cast had to ride the big, wooden roller coaster at least seven times. Chase mentions it might have been eight or more. Barron recalls having to take motion sickness medication, and was passed out on a bench between every take. Naturally, all the reaction shots in the coaster scene are genuine.
- “Good bye, and thanks for being my fan,” says Chevy Chase over the closing credits. Classic McChevy.
Best in Commentary
“I can’t tell you how many thousands of people have said to me in these 20 years, ‘Just like my family.’” – Matty Simmons
“Basically we figured this was the story of a dad who gets two weeks off a year and overcompensates like a mad man to give his family he didn’t give them for the rest of the year.” – Harold Ramis
“He’s not a very good person. No, he’s not a good husband or even a good person, but he’s enough like people really are that we see ourselves in it.” – Harold Ramis
“This is all very funny physical stuff if I may say so my damn self.” – Chevy “By God” Chase
The Vacation commentary is fine, nothing spectacular, but it’s all interesting and consistent. Harold Ramis was clearly recorded separately from the others, who were all recorded together. It’s always nice hearing cast members lending commentary to a film they all got along on. Of course, Chevy Chase’s ego doesn’t just bleed into the commentary, it’s splashed in there every time he opens his mouth. He never passes up an opportunity to point out his comedic timing or the reactions he gives, basically applauding himself the whole time. It’s hard to blame the guy, though. He really is damn funny. Still, it’s interesting and sometimes a little disheartening to hear someone you love feeding their own ego.
Also it would have been amazing to get Beverly D’Angelo on there and have a single commentary track with just the family, preferably in character. Regardless, small issues aside – as small as Chase’s ego could possibly be – the Vacation commentary track is a fun one to enjoy for anyone who is a fan of the movie. Or if you’re a fan of Chevy Chase. Or if you’re Chevy Chase himself. Or Dan Harmon. Maybe not so much Dan Harmon.