LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - When Seth Gordon was lugging bundles of cash and a video camera around rural Kenya 11 years ago, he didn't see it leading to a gig directing Vince Vaughn in a big-budget Hollywood comedy. But sometimes that's just where altruism takes you.
With "Four Christmases," a New Line release co-starring Reese Witherspoon that bows Wednesday (November 26), Gordon has reached a new peak in a filmmaking journey that began on a volunteer mission to Africa in 1997. Several documentaries ("Shut Up & Sing," "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters") and a fortuitous pitch meeting later, and Gordon is about to unveil his feature directorial debut on thousands of screens.
He sees it all as part of the same cinematic mission.
"I'm really interested in stories about identity -- who I am now versus who I used to be," Gordon said. "I think that's really what 'Kong' was about. That's what 'Four Christmases' is about, too. That's a real throughline for me."
At Yale, Gordon pursued an architecture degree until he realized that New Haven was not his kind of town. So he decided to teach high school for six months in the wilderness of Shimanyiro, Kenya (not far from President-elect Barack Obama's father's village).
After discovering that the Kenyan infrastructure leaves school-building to the locals, he helped get philanthropic U.N. financing to finish up Shimanyiro's school and then filmed the students and residents as they experienced the ensuing changes.
"How you learn in Kenya is you behave and you get whipped if you don't behave, and I was trying to break them out," Gordon said. "I had them debating gender equality and the importance of AIDS training. So I would record them arguing about that."
The result was "Building Shimanyiro," a documentary that he edited about "the difference between Third World corruption and what we understand as corruption, and how problematic that was to be in the middle of it."
BEHIND THE MUSIC
This led to a gig directing behind-the-scenes spots for the touring Dixie Chicks. Those videos became a global phenomenon after one of the members of the country trio, Natalie Maines, dropped her infamous remark slamming President Bush onstage in London in 2003. Gordon, who caught it on video, continued on tour with them as one of the cinematographers and contributing producers of the resulting documentary, "Shut Up & Sing," which covered the vituperative aftermath.
Similar fortuitous timing hit "New York Doll," a documentary he produced, edited and shot about the New York punk band's reunion. The film's tone and content deepened when bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane discovered that he was dying of cancer.
"Kong" then became Gordon's first full-length documentary, a fanciful 2007 drama about two men vying for the ultimate high score on the classic arcade game "Donkey Kong." The popular doc got great word-of-mouth, and a disc ended up in Vaughn's DVD player.
The motormouthed comedy star invited Gordon to discuss the script for "Christmases," a comedy about a couple who have to visit all four sets of their divorced parents on the same day. He ultimately got the job and quickly had to adjust from a DIY guerrilla crew of five and a $200,000 budget to daily crawl sheets jammed with 150 crew names and $80 million with which to work.
"The hardest part of the transition was the sheer volume of opinions and interested parties and the huge amount of pressure as a result of the budget," Gordon said. "When you're making a film all by yourself, that requires you to have quite a bit of a point of view in order for anything to get done. The hard part (with "Christmases") was never the filmmaking; the hard part was the politics and fielding and understanding all of the different opinions."
With the bankable Vaughn toplining a holiday romp that opens on an extended weekend with no other comedy competition, box-office prospects look strong for Gordon's debut. Vaughn's past three comedies -- "Wedding Crashers," "The Break-Up" and "Fred Claus" -- grossed $582 million theatrically worldwide.
But Gordon is not necessarily looking for a career in big-budget studio comedies. He and producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa are trying to persuade Sony to let him move forward with "The Only Living Boy in New York," a much smaller slice-of-life dramatic comedy written by Allan Loeb ("Things We Lost in the Fire," "21").
"In 'Kong,' there was a real balance between comedy and heartfelt emotion that I would like to find in future projects," Gordon said. "But it doesn't have to be a budget of a certain size to meet those requirements. It's more about what the story is. I certainly don't intend to stick only to these big things. For me, it's all about good scripts that strike that balance because that's where my comfort zone is."