Holiday films such as “Home Alone” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” have used the Chicago suburbs as a backdrop for years, but few take advantage of the area’s unique vibe better than “8-Bit Christmas.”
Written by Batavia native Kevin Jakubowski, the film follows Jake Doyle, played by Neil Patrick Harris, as he recounts a childhood Christmas season spent trying to secure a Nintendo Entertainment System, a journey that takes him across a 1980s-flavored Chicago region.
“You write what you know,” the 42-year-old Jakubowski said. “I could have made up some fake name for a town that’s just somewhere in the Midwest, and painted it that way. But I really believe that the more specific you are, the more universal you become. So for me to be as specific as possible, I just made it Batavia.”
Released late last month on HBO Max and directed by Michael Dowse, “8-Bit Christmas” includes a multitude of references to the Kane County area, all of which Jakubowski used to develop a distinct sense of place.
“Batavia is just a great little town. It’s typical of so many Midwest towns,” Jakubowski said. “That specific that I already knew – whether it’s jokes about Mary Todd Lincoln who went crazy in Batavia, or Fermilab, or things like that – could be peppered in. Not everybody could get those references, but they felt so specific that you understood them.”
“8-Bit Christmas” is adapted from Jakubowski’s 2013 novel of the same name, which he wrote while working as a screenwriter in California.
“I decided to write it as a book first and flex a different creative muscle,” he said. “ … I thought I could have the book as something I have more creative control over, whereas a movie you have less creative control because it’s such a collaborative process. And this way I could get this story out. People could read it, rather than if it didn’t sell right away as [a] screenplay, and it would just sit on a shelf somewhere.”
Jakubowski lived in Batavia but commuted to Fenwick High School in Oak Park, where he graduated in 1997. His first TV experience came when he and his friends wrote and produced a sketch comedy show for Batavia’s Public Access channel.
“There was this thing called ‘cable access,’ like ‘Wayne’s World’ style. And there was nothing good on it,” Jakubowski said. “There’s the high school football game maybe, and it’s shot by some kid’s grandma.
“My friends and I thought we could create a show, and we did,” Jakubowski said. “It was called ‘A Bit Carried Away.’ It had sketch comedy, mock commercials, mock newscasts, and it was just so much fun. And because there was no YouTube, people watched it. It was really fun to have people I went to school with or saw at the grocery store, or whatever, be like, ‘Hey, man, loved your show.’”
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Villanova University in Pennsylvania, and a master’s degree in film studies from University College Dublin in Ireland, Jakubowski moved to Los Angeles, where he began working as a production assistant on the animated Comedy Central show “South Park.”
Jakubowski has worked as a writer and producer on numerous shows, including Comedy Central’s “Brickleberry” and Disney’s “Bizaardvark.” He has created shows, including “Legendary Dudas,” which aired on Nickelodeon in 2016.
“I was able to sell a couple scripts while I was working at ‘South Park,’ and was able to quit that job because of it,” Jakubowski said. “That was about 2006, and I’ve been writing TV and film ever since.”
While it’s set in Batavia, “8-Bit Christmas” was filmed mostly in Canada.
“It was hard shooting in Toronto, honestly, during their peak of [COVID-19]. It was a scary time to get up there,” Jakubowski said. “I was able to get fully vaccinated in March, and was able to get up there. I had to quarantine for two weeks.”
As circumstance would have it, Jakubowski quarantined at the same time as Harris.
“We were both complaining about what we had been eating for two weeks once we got to set,” he said.
Despite necessary adjustments for the pandemic, the production went smoothly.
“It was great. Director Michael Dowse is just amazing,” Jakubowski said. “He’s got a great voice and a great eye and is just super collaborative. It was so much fun to collaborate on this movie, and being there on set everyday was a dream come true.”
Jakubowski said that working on “8-Bit Christmas” was a particularly special experience since it allowed him to both represent his hometown and write about his favorite time of year.
“I love Christmas,” he said. “[During] Christmastime, everyone’s just a better version of themselves. I really love that, and it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to write [the movie], so I could sit down every day and just think about Christmas.
“I’m very excited to write the next one.”
“8-Bit Christmas” is available to stream on HBO Max. It also stars actor Steve Zahn, who appeared on ABC’s sitcom “Modern Family” and the film “War for the Planet of the Apes.”