Seth Gordon makes bigscreen leap

'King of Kong' director readies 'Christmases'

There are Hollywood career upgrades. And then there’s helmer Seth Gordon, who shifted from 0 to 60 in the span of a year.

After directing his first feature film — the well-received but little-seen documentary “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” — the 32-year-old Chicago native landed “Four Christmases” for New Line.

“It was quite a leap, basically 450 (times the) budget,” Gordon says, “I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the massive leap from a documentary my friends and I did as a hobby at home on Final Cut Pro to working on a tentpole comedy.”

The pic, starring Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn as a couple trying to visit all their parents on Christmas Day, was a whole new world for someone who’d never worked for a studio or directed actors before. Even more daunting, “Four Christmases” went into preproduction last fall as New Line was being scrapped as a stand-alone studio and being folded into Warner Bros. — and a WGA strike was looming.

“It was absolutely crazy trying to get the script locked down before shooting began, because we would have no chance for any rewrites,” recalls Gordon. “And no one knew the fate of New Line at the time.”

“Christmases” is the type of film typically entrusted to the Adam Shankmans and Andy Tennants of the world (in fact, Shankman was previously attached to direct it). But fellow Chicagoan Vaughn lobbied hard for Gordon’s involvement. “Vince saw ‘Kong,’ and I guess he really liked it,” says Gordon, who studied architecture at Yale before moving to Kenya and shooting documentary footage. “But it’s not that big of a stretch. ‘Kong’ actually has a pretty classic narrative structure.”

Gordon signed on for the project in August 2007 — the same week “Kong” bowed in theaters.

“Kong” also provided Gordon, the son of two professors, a lesson in the world of agenting. The film, which chronicles the battle between two Donkey Kong champs in their maniacal quest for Guinness World Records recognition, unspooled at the 2007 Slamdance Festival, generating a great deal of buzz before selling to New Line and Picturehouse.

But a similarly themed doc, Lincoln Ruchti’s “Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade,” was playing nearby at Sundance, with CAA handling sales. The Endeavor-repped Gordon says the mighty CAA tried to squelch his little film.

“Ruthless is an understatement,” Gordon quips of the CAA team. “But Endeavor would probably do the same thing.”

The boyish Gordon, who is hard to miss at a burly 6’3″, is now being wooed by nearly every studio in town to tackle a broad range of choice projects. He hopes to segue next to Columbia Pictures’ “The Only Living Boy in New York,” from “Little Miss Sunshine” producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa. He also is attached to direct a dramatic remake of “Kong” for New Line, a project that will take Gordon back to the arcade but with actors this time.

In the meantime, Gordon is calmly putting the finishing touches on “Four Christmases” — checking color and watching audience reaction at test screenings. He excitedly shows off a DVD extra scene that features a house built from scratch to accommodate the sight gags. “The cost of this one set was more than the whole budget of ‘Kong.’ And that’s just the exterior. The interior of the house was an entirely separate stage.”

The budget may have been a leap, but the end goal stays the same, Gordon says, “Nothing beats making a film at home alone for developing a sense of story and an approach to filmmaking.”

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