How a writer created his own take on 'A Christmas Story' set in his 1980s Batavia childhood

Kevin Jakubowski, originally from Batavia, wanted to make a movie about growing up in the suburbs in the 1980s, with a parallel to the holiday classic "A Christmas Story."

But first, he needed to write the book.

"I actually wrote the book to help get the movie made," Jakubowski said of his 2013 novel, "8-Bit Christmas," which eight years later has been released on HBO Max as a feature film of the same name.

"I realized that many studios didn't want original scripts. They were only looking for scripts based on comic book characters, like Spider-Man, or games, like Clue," he said.

Set in Batavia and other parts of the Chicago area, the film trades the Red Ryder BB gun of "A Christmas Story" for the coveted gift of Jakubowski's childhood: the sleek Nintendo Entertainment System video game console.

"I was about 8 or 9, and I wanted Nintendo more than anything," Jakubowski said. "Everyone wanted it. It was so popular. It even had its own cereal."

After publishing the book, Jakubowski began work on the movie script. The novel helped garner the attention of producers Nick Nantell and Jonathan Sadowski, and the script earned a top spot on the Black List, a prestigious review site for new scripts.

Soon Star Thrower Entertainment was on board, which led Warner Bros. to take the project on. The movie originally was scheduled to come out in 2020, but the pandemic changed everything.

"We had to cast new actors and were very lucky to get Neil Patrick Harris," Jakubowski said of the movie's star. "He read the script on Friday and committed to the project on the following Monday."

June Diane Raphael, Neil Patrick Harris and Sophia Reid-Gantzert star in New Line Cinema and HBO Max's family film "8-Bit Christmas." Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The film features references to Batavia and other suburbs, but it was shot in Canada for financial reasons.

University Street in Toronto was transformed into Chicago's Michigan Avenue, complete with '80s cars and street signage. For the Batavia scenes, production designer Andrew Stearn and director Michael Dowse traveled to the city with Jakubowski to get a feel for the community. Then they found similar neighborhoods in Toronto.

Jakubowski's wife, Meg, gave birth to their son, John Paul, as filming began, keeping him home, now in southern California, for the start of production. Instead, he watched the early takes over an online platform that allowed him to see a live feed from the cameras rolling on set.

The Jakubowski family, left to right, Meg, Maeve, John Paul and Kevin. Courtesy of Meg Jakubowski

"I remember being at home holding my new son in the dark at 5 a.m. and hearing 'roll camera' and watching the very first shot of the movie live from my iPad. That was such a special moment," he said.

But that initial magic was lost when he realized actors were pronouncing Batavia wrong.

"I'm watching it live and hearing Bat-ah-via. I quickly texted the producer on set to fix it," he said. "Batavia - hard 'A', hard 'A.'"

In addition to John Paul, Jakubowski has a 3-year-old daughter, Maeve.

"I actually make a reference to her in the movie," he said. "The friend that Annie (the lead character's sister) always calls is named Maeve.

With positive reviews coming in from across the country, Jakubowski hopes "8-Bit Christmas" could end up a holiday classic like its inspiration.

"That would be great, because this movie is really a love letter to my childhood," he said.

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