Inside the comedy franchise that hilariously pushed the boundaries of good taste.
I first became aware of the National Lampoon brand as I imagine many other children of my generation did: by watching Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo travel around the world in National Lampoon's Vacation road trip comedies. It was only after reading countless issues of coverboy Alfred E. Neuman in MAD Magazine, did I begin to hear of the history of National Lampoon and, to my bewilderment, that it served as an unaffiliated spin-off of a magazine created at Harvard.
Co-founded by Doug Kenney (here played by Will Forte) and Henry Beard (played by Domhnall Gleeson) after their college graduation, the magazine soon found a publisher and a faithful audience throughout the 1970s. As the film makes clear, it was as insanely hilarious and controversial to read as it was to run. The humor was enraged and inspired, profane and profound.
David Wain's latest narrative feature, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, takes us behind-the-scenes of the magazine and eventual comedy franchise that sustained itself much longer than anyone anticipated. The film shows us the staff walkouts, the excessive drug use and infidelity, the vicious threats from readers, the poaching of employees by Saturday Night Live's Lorne Michaels, and most importantly, the birth of several comedic geniuses that went on to become household names. The story is not a paint-by-numbers recount, however. No mere conventional biopic, the film, lead by an unreliable narrator played by Martin Mull, provides the facts and, occasionally, a reason to doubt their accuracy.
As A Futile and Stupid Gesture premieres on Netflix today, No Film School spoke with director David Wain and producer Peter Principato about their ties to the source material, working with Netflix to produce the film, recreating iconic moments in American comedy, and ultimately concluding the story as a drama about some very funny people.
No Film School: How did you get this project off the ground? Had you read the book by Josh Karp and immediately tried to secure the rights for a film adaptation?
Peter Principato: Well, the basic story was that John Aboud and Michael Colton, who wrote and executive produced the film and who were also Harvard Lampoon guys, asked if I knew who Doug Kenney was. This was about 10 or 12 years ago. Now, I've been a comedy nerd since I turned 10 years old and I've built a business based on the comedy world, have been involved with a lot of projects and have an arrogance about my comedy tastes, and even I have to admit, I didn’t know who Doug Kenney was right-off-the-bat. And so they gave me the book, I read it, and I was embarrassed that I didn't know who he was. I felt a desperate need to make the movie. I had to make this movie.
I optioned the book and started putting together the team of Jonathan Stern, who's been a frequent collaborator of mine, and David Wain, who I felt would be the perfect director and partner on the project. We began to put the package together. We went through so many different iterations of “Let’s do it as a small independent film and take it to Sundance,” or “Let's go to HBO and make it like a Peter Sellers' movie!” We began to realize that in order to get the money we needed, we had to have the script written and some of the major roles cast. Colton and Aboud agreed to write the movie and then we began developing and nurturing what the story was. We wanted to do a biopic that wasn't a biopic. We wanted to pay homage to the tone and experience and energy of what the National Lampoon was and who this man Doug Kenney was. We wanted to do something like 24 Hour Party People meets…
David Wain: American Splendor.
Principato: Just breaking the mold and doing things with no rules. We got the script and then went out looking for financing and potential studios. We were working on a number of projects with Ted Sarandos over at Netflix and Ted just asked me, “What are you working on that you're excited about?” I told him about the script. I've known Ted a long time, since he was buying stand-up specials for the Red Envelope [Entertainment] service, [a now shuttered distribution arm of Netflix]. I know that he’s a comedy fan, a true fan of comedy. He's a true fan of talent and of original voices. He read the script and was like, "Oh, we should make this."
I didn't take it seriously at the time because Netflix wasn't making original movies back then and so first we decided to make Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp for them and that experience was great. Ted loved it, and it got him and David a little closer, and it allowed Ted to get to know Jonathan a little more. The whole team went back to Netflix with the Futile and Stupid Gesture script and asked Ted, “What do you think? Do you still want to make this movie?” He admitted that he did and he gave it to his film team, kickstarting the process of putting it together.
NFS: What was it like to cast and subsequently direct actors being asked to play men and women whom the American public is pretty familiar with? Could you speak a little bit about directing performances that are based on some very legendary comedic figures and the fine line between giving a very authentic performance and a solid impression?
Wain: I feel like 90% of the contribution to making those performances work was picking the right people. The other 10% was directing them not to do imitations. They had to focus on being the human beings that were in the room at that moment in time. I think the homework involved in figuring out how to make those characterizations work was largely done by the actors, individually and beautifully so, and so I take minimal credit for how that all came out.
"Colton and Aboud came up with that black-and-white comic strip choice. For my money, it became much more powerful to take away the color and sound from that scene and put it in the language of those photo funnies."
NFS: In order for certain plot lines to advance quickly—Doug's rampant infidelity being a significant one— you incorporate black-and-white National Lampoon-style comic strips that come across as still-frame slices of (unfortunate) life. It’s an ironic, morose twist on the more upbeat humor we come to expect from that style. Was there ever a discussion about when to incorporate the actual visual texture of National Lampoon magazines into your film?
Wain: Definitely. Throughout production, we were just looking for interesting ways to tell the story that wasn’t boring. Thematically, it had to relate to what we were doing overall, and [each choice] would have to serve the story and tie together disparate vignettes or chapters in Doug's journey. Colton and Aboud came up with that black-and-white comic strip choice. For my money, it became much more powerful to take away the color and sound from that scene and put it in the language of those photo funnies.
NFS: And because the film quickly takes us through a number of decades with a rather unreliable narrator (the “older Doug”) at the helm, were you working with your production design team and—as evidenced by Doug’s continuously evolving hairstyles—hair-and-makeup department to indicate a series of visual transitions that indicated time and place?
Wain: Oh yeah, it was a big creative project in collaboration with our production designer, our costume designer, and really everyone on the crew. We worked with the DP Kevin Atkinson on the color palettes and overall look and the feel of the story, and it was intentionally shot to give each era and location its own thing. We also wanted to tie it together in the right way, to transition everything in the right ways so that it feels like we’re telling one, singular story. It was really fun and the team we had was great.
NFS: Although primarily known for being a magazine, National Lampoon also ran live performances, a radio broadcast, and, of course, some extremely successful motion pictures. Were you constantly thinking through how much screen time would be necessary to devote to each specific section that National Lampoon branched off into?
Wain: That did change and grow and evolve in our thinking all the way through the shooting and well into a long post-production period as we started to identify what the spine of the movie was. We realized that while, as you mentioned, those recreations of the material are often fun, the real spine of the story wasn't that as much. Some of that stuff we shot we paired back on in the final film.
NFS: What was it like to recreate the iconic scenes from Animal House and Caddyshack that the general public already knows so well? You show them being produced, behind-the-scenes, to show what it might have been like to be on-set during those moments. Of course, a quick scroll of text early in the film notes that some of these things may not be factual, but…
Wain: I think I speak for all of us that those scenes were some of the stuff that we were most excited about, rebuilding those sets and creating the world that's so emblazoned in our own memory of our childhood. Now we’re seeing it from a perspective of, “Oh, these are guys that we now know a little bit and here's what brought us to this famous, iconic moment of Chevy Chase hitting that golf ball or whatever it is.” It was a blast to do that. Tender loving care went into every department that made sure that every prop was exactly as it might have looked on screen [forty years ago] in every location and every costume. People put their heart and soul into it.
"I pulled so much from my own experience, especially doing The State where I was working with a group in a New York office trying to make comedy and feeling like we were these kids that were let loose in a playground."
NFS: What I also took from the film is that deadlines are always pressing and they always matter. It can be a thrilling and extremely stressful thing to have hanging over your head and, as your film shows, writers are often driven to sleep in front of their typewriters by the end of the night. Could you speak a little bit about creating the film’s hectic, fast-paced office setting?
Wain: Well, for my own sake, I pulled so much from my own experience, especially doing The State where I was working with a group in a New York office and trying to make comedy and feeling like we were these kids that were let loose in a playground. I brought a lot of direct, emotional memory, and then we did a lot of firsthand research talking to people that actually worked in that National Lampoon office and trying different approaches to creating that chaotic feeling. In that pitch meeting scene, for example, we had a very loose script, but we also just said, “Hey, everyone's got some pitches you can give, but now just go and we'll see what happens and try to get a feel for [what it was like to pitch in those meetings].” It was a different time where magazines actually mattered and people cared about magazines. Also, I’m so glad to live in a time when people don't smoke in offices anymore.
NFS: If you go into the film unfamiliar with Doug's life and how it ended so tragically, you may not be prepared for the tonal shift the film ultimately takes. You employ an interesting visual motif of Doug’s POV with and without his glasses on. That’s how we start the film, where he’s a young boy with blurry vision on his way to his brother’s funeral, and then at the end of the film where he takes his glasses off and most likely jumps to his death.
Wain: I don't know if I'd want to put a point on what that's about because there's a lot of different ways to look at that, but it certainly has to do with seeing through Doug's lens and Doug's different way of looking at things. There's a lot of things about those glasses, but I don't want to say anymore. I identified with it because I wear glasses, too [laughs].
Principato: It was a moment to be used as a way to look back at his childhood, looking at his life. It's a lens through which we see who he was and how things were out of focus again. And then he's gone. We had a lot of conversations about the glasses.
Wain: It moves me. When we see it now in the finished film, I get very, very moved.
Principato: One of my goals with this movie was to make a drama about funny people. I wanted to cry.
Wain: I cried all the way home! [laughs]
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