The snow-covered, typically Midwestern street inhabited by Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Dan Aykroyd in the movie "Christmas With the Kranks" is actually located a couple thousand miles to the west of Illinois, but can't be found on a Hollywood back lot.
After scouring "every outlying neighborhood in Chicago" to no avail and rejecting existing studio facilities as unsuitable, production designer Garreth Stover convinced producer Charles Newirth and director Joe Roth to build the entire neighborhood from scratch. The movie's crew erected 17 houses, including the featured five belonging to the main families in the story, on a parking lot in Downey, California.
We talked to the movie's creators to see how they did it. Read on to get the story.
Searching for a Spot
The comedy, based on John Grisham's novel "Skipping Christmas," is about what happens when the Kranks (Allen and Curtis) decide to go to the Caribbean for the holidays and opt out of the neighborhood decoration mania.
"It was definitely the biggest set I've ever built," observes Stover ("While You Were Sleeping," "13 Going on 30"). His extensive research gave him a clear idea of what he wanted -- an older neighborhood with a timeless feel -- and frustrated him when he couldn't find it on location. "I also had to take into consideration that it might snow when we didn't want it to snow or not snow when we wanted snow," Stover explains. "The other problem was the three or four weeks to prep and the five weeks to shoot, and that time period would have been over Easter and Passover, not a good time to ask people to leave their homes."
Existing back lot streets wouldn't work either. "They looked 3/4 size, there were no front yards, and the streets were completely flat. They looked two-dimensional to me," Stover dismisses. "I needed the street to look like it was real, and had been there for 80 years."
The decision to build it from scratch posed another problem: finding a suitable asphalt parking lot at least 400 by 700 feet. "Not a dirt lot because if it rained, we'd be screwed. It would be better to bring in the dirt that we needed," explains Stover. "We narrowed it down to two locations. I really liked Santa Anita racetrack, because it had a lot of trees around it, but we were going to be making a lot of noise and probably working around the clock. They were worried that we'd hurt a horse or a horse would freak out and we'd be held responsible."
The Downey location offered advantages logistical and financial-Stover was allowed to tear down four adjacent buildings, "and they ultimately gave us the best deal."
Plan of Attack
With the location secured, Stover had three weeks to design the street and houses. "When it was finally lit and decorated at night and we saw the whole street lit up, it had to look magical and beautiful," and that was in addition to accounting for blocking, sight lines, and the relationship of each house to the others. In addition to creating different height levels for various properties, the street had to be oriented East-West, so that the Kranks house could be on the south side "so it would be in shadow throughout the day and the cinematographer could control the light."
In Stover's "back story" premise for Hemlock Street, the housing tract was developed in the 1920s and had previously been a pasture with a river running through it, which accounted for the bridge he erected there. "There are cobblestones showing through the tar on the street. The curbs are bashed up so they look 50-60 years old. There are old manhole covers. There are no sidewalks because I don't think there would have been sidewalks then. We went through a lot of trouble to make it look as old and as real as possible."
Then, continues Stover, "The next horror became how do we make the vegetation look like it has been here for 80 years, and the only way to do that was with a core group of old-growth trees." Fortuitously, the owner of the Downey property had a half dozen 40'-60' trees that were about to be cut down, and Stover was able to uproot and replant them on the set. "Then, of course, we had to get rid of all the leaves." Crewmen hand-denuded them to make them appropriately wintry, and supplemented them with purchased evergreens. "We had to put sod in, too."
Not even hundreds of trees could camouflage some aspects of reality. "Because you could see between the buildings and see all of Downey, we had to build the facade of two houses on wheels," Stover explains. "We had scenic artists come in and paint the backs of two houses on the other street, the way two backyards butt up against each other, so we could move them around on a flatbed."
Stover had to include a facing street as well. "I put a curve in Hemlock Street so you could see the main houses, so we needed a street at the end with a curve as well-two compound arcs intersect with each other." One building he couldn't raze was painted "municipal park green" and was incorporated into the design as a processing plant.
As for the actual houses, Stover amassed books and photographs for inspiration on the look of the exteriors, interiors and Christmas decorations. Each house needed to reflect the personalities of its inhabitants.
"Because we were going to be looking at the Krank house the most, it was important that it didn't overpower the other houses. I tried to make it the most nondescript so when it's not decorated it stands out as this black hole on the street and in the end when it gets all its lights and decorations it really stands out," notes Stover, who used white lights to distinguish it.
Appropriately, the regimented, ultrapatriotic Frohmeyer (Aykroyd) lives in a brick edifice with a clipped hedge, a flag out front, and red, white and blue Christmas lights. The Trogdon house is Colonial-looking with a sloped driveway that figures in the plot, and the Scheel house has a porch from which the nosy owner (M. Emmet Walsh) can survey the neighborhood. "They were all basically the same design because that's how people did tract homes. But there's a character to each house that sets it apart so the audience knows where they are at any given time."
Inside and on the Roof
During the design process, Stover would post the drawings of the houses on the walls of his office hallway, "so I knew which house was across from another house and could see how it looked. Everything had to work visually." Next, hundreds of carpenters, steelworkers, plasterers, painters, molders, greensmen, carpenters, prop makers, and cement makers descended upon the Downey set, including contractors hired by production coordinator David Elliott.
Once the street was in place and the structures went up, attention shifted to the interiors, matched to the inhabitants. "We made the Trogdon house very densely decorated--a lot of kid stuff. Mrs. Scheel likes cats, so there are a lot of cat motifs in the house. Frohmeyer has an elk's head over the fireplace, with little flags on the Christmas tree."
The Krank house's interior, devoid of holiday decoration until late in the movie, was created at the Downey location as well, but the second floor interior set was built at Culver Studios. Also erected at Culver was a replica of the Kranks' rooftop, because the 26' elevation of the house was too precarious for a stunt involving Tim Allen. "The set rooftop was still pretty high -- 16 feet -- but I could change the slope of it a little bit," explains Stover.
The roof stunt involves a Frosty the Snowman figure, and Stover requested 20 versions, of different weights and sizes. The one that looked best on the roof was 8' tall, "but it wouldn't have fit in his basement, so we had to cheat with a smaller one that would," notes Stover. Other decorations, including wreaths, ornaments, and lights, were brought in by a Christmas decorations company.
Stover was also careful to coordinate the holiday color palette with costume designer Susie DeSanto. Mrs. Krank, whose home's walls are green, always wears red, while Mrs. Scheel, whose walls are red, wears green.
Cue the Weather
Stover's next challenge was approximating Chicago weather. To establish the season, "There had to be snow present from the beginning of the movie, and by the end of the movie everything is covered with snow. We used several different things," he outlines. "For snow that was far away we used cotton snow blankets that give a contoured, round look, and we put fake snow on top of that. Everything has to biodegradable so it's made from starch or soap or cellulose. We used several different kinds of falling snow-foam snow, that's blown out and falls like real snow, and cellulose and starch. But the starch was so fine that we had this mist of starch in the air constantly."
The snow is long gone, but Hemlock Street is still standing, available for use in other movies, TV shows and commercials. Even though it lacks structural foundation, "it was built to code," Stover says. "There's an infrastructure for electricity, for water, for drainage," noting how pleased the crew members were that their handiwork would remain intact. His own satisfaction comes from solving an enormous logistical problem. "What makes any given movie more interesting is how big of a challenge it seems and how you conquer the challenge," he says. "It was a great luxury to be able to design that street exactly how I wanted it to look."