It's About Coming Home

The heart of Christmas-themed movie "Nothing Like the Holidays" lies in the importance of families coming together

Published on LatinoLA: November 26, 2008

It's About Coming Home

If there's one thing everyone can agree on, it's that family time isn't always a walk in the park. In Nothing Like the Holidays, John Leguizamo (Ice Age, Moulin Rouge), Freddy Rodriguez ("Six Feet Under," Bobby) and Debra Messing ("Will & Grace," "The Starter Wife") headline an all star cast in the humorous and heartwarming story of one unforgettable family holiday from award-winning director Alfredo De Villa (Washington Heights).

Nothing Like the Holidays, in theaters on December 12, also stars Alfred Molina (Spiderman 2), Elizabeth Pe??a (Rush Hour), Luis Guzm?ín (Beverly Hills Chihuahua), Vanessa Ferlito (Death Proof), Jay Hernandez (Friday Night Lights) and Melonie Diaz (Be Kind Rewind). The film is directed by De Villa from a script by Rick Najera and Alison Swan. The film's producers are Robert Teitel and George Tillman, Jr. of State Street Pictures (Soul Food, Barbershop). Rene M. Rigal, Paul Kim, Reid Brody and Freddy Rodriguez are executive producers, with Thomas J. Busch serving as co-producer. The film is edited by Amy E. Duddleston (Laurel Canyon) and John Coniglio (Saw). Cinematographer is Scott Kevan (Stomp the Yard). Daniel B. Clancy (Fred Claus) is production designer and Susan Kaufmann (The Strangers) is costume designer.

It's Christmastime and the far-flung members of the Rodriguez family are converging at their parents' home in Chicago to celebrate the season and rejoice in their youngest brother's safe return from combat overseas. For Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez), coming home has rekindled feelings for an old flame, although she can't seem to forgive him for leaving. His older sister Roxanna, a struggling actress, has been chasing her Hollywood dreams for years with little to show for it. Meanwhile, eldest brother Mauricio (John Leguizamo) brings home a high-powered executive wife (Debra Messing) and finds himself caught between his mother, who is eager for grandchildren, and his spouse, who would rather raise capital than a kid.

In the course of one eventful week, traditions will be celebrated, secrets revealed and major life decisions made. It all begins when Anna announces to her children she is leaving their father Eduardo (Alfred Molina). The shock waves from this familial upheaval prompt Roxanna, Mauricio and Jesse, each in their own way, to reevaluate the past and rethink the future. But when the Rodriguezes learn that one of their own is facing a true crisis, they instinctively pull together: Old resentments are forgotten, familial bonds are reaffirmed and the healing power of laughter works its magic as the family discovers they are much stronger than they ever realized.

The story for Nothing Like the Holidays had been percolating in producer Robert Teitel's mind for almost five years. A partner in State Street Pictures and producer of such hit films as Soul Food and Barbershop, Teitel grew up about 15 minutes from Humboldt Park, Chicago's best known Puerto Rican neighborhood. "My grandma, my cousins, my aunts all grew up there. My mom would take my brother and me there in the summers. It seemed natural to do a family story and set it in the neighborhood that my family grew up in."

Teitel says for years he was asked by relatives, "'When are you going to do a movie about Humboldt Park?' I heard it so many times, I told Freddy Rodriguez about it. Fred and I have been friends for around twelve years, and I knew Freddy grew up right outside Humboldt Park."

Rodriguez, an award-winning actor best known for his Emmy-nominated role as ambitious mortician Federico Diaz on "Six Feet Under," has been friendly with both Teitel and his partner, writer-director George Tillman, Jr., for more than a decade. "We're all from Chicago," says Rodriguez. "Bob and I left Chicago around the same time, we had our first projects out around the same time, and we always talked about doing something together. We kicked around a couple ideas, but this one was always in Bob's head. He asked me to come on board as executive producer and help put it together."

Rene M. Rigal, State Street Pictures' president of production, had been pitching an idea to Teitel since his first job interview. "In that meeting, we started riffing an idea for Nothing Like the Holidays. We started talking about a family and how we wanted to make it an American family that happens to be Latino."

"With a strong personal connection to the material, the producers had very specific ideas about the movie's screenplay. "I wanted a story with a lot of heart and a lot of drama," says Teitel. "We gave it to the writer, Rick Najera, and he gave us a draft. Then I went to my wife, Alison Swan. She would always come back here with me to Humboldt Park for Christmas and she saw my crazy family and saw what was going on at Christmastime, so she was the perfect person to mesh it all together."

Teitel acknowledges that a lot of the details in the film are based on his own family. "My dad owned a small auto paint store and I grew up in that. I had to grapple with whether or not to take over the store or go to Hollywood. A lot of the same kinds of things that Freddy's character is dealing with in the film. So, it's really close to my heart."

Director Alfredo De Villa had impressed the producers with his work on three previous films, notably the acclaimed independent production Washington Heights. "He really captured that specific neighborhood in New York," says Teitel. "I felt like this was a natural progression for him. As soon as we met him, everybody embraced him. His ideas were totally in tune with ours, so it was an easy connection."

Although the filmmakers met with a number of talented directors before offering the film to De Villa, says Rodriquez, "I go with my gut, and my instincts told me that he really got what we were going for in this film and he got wonderful performances from his actors in his earlier films. I was confident he would get the same kind of performances out of all of us."

De Villa was attracted to the film's emphasis on family and community. "It says that these things are sometimes more important than individual needs," the director says. "It really sounded truthful to me. By embracing the authenticity of this unique community, we allowed the movie to become broader and speak about larger themes of unity."

Teitel adds: "My goal is for this film to be received as a universal film. People will see bits and pieces of their family in this film. It doesn't matter what race or religion you are, you're going to see your family on the screen."

"It's kind of what George and I did with Soul Food," the producer continues. "We were fortunate enough to make this movie that crossed over universally. People of all ethnicities would come up to us and say, 'That was my family!'"

De Villa believes the questions at the heart of Nothing Like the Holidays will strike a universal chord. "As a culture, it feels like America is in a time of transition. That's when it's most important for families to come together. When there's that emotional union or communion, it gives you a sense of purpose that you might not have when you are just on your own."

Nothing Like the Holidays, says Rigal, is ultimately about coming home. "As in a lot of American families, each of the Rodriguezes has been living a very different life with its own unique set of personal challenges. When the kids come home for the first time in three years, they bring all their problems with them. And the thing they think they can depend on most, the foundation of family, is completely thrown into chaos. But no matter what obstacles, no matter what things we deal with, no matter what the trauma within the family, the only thing that'll get us through is the family."

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