For a man who brought us so many laughs, Doug Kenney had a tragic life. The co-founder of National Lampoon, Kenney found fame and success with the magazine and its movie productions, but died young when his life spiraled out of control.
The movie, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, does not dwell on the tragedy. It takes an irreverent look at Kenney’s life, including mocking the conventions of biopics, which the film conveniently follows. Director David Wain and producers Jonathan Stern and Peter Principato spoke to WLE at Sundance, where A Futile and Stupid Gesture premiered and continued to be irreverent in a formal interview. It is now available to stream on Netflix.
WLE: Is New York really another character in this film?
David Wain: I mean, okay, I think you might be joking right now but I do. Jokes aside, for us, yes, Doug Kenney was obviously the main character, and Henry Beard, but New York City really was in some ways, another character for us in the movie.
WLE: I asked Michael Showalter that about Search Party too and I love that while both of you made fun of that in They Came Together, you both really mean it.
David Wain: Yeah, this time it’s true.
WLE: Was the self-referential structure always there?
Peter Principato: I think it was meant to be there. We talked early on about really trying to stay true to the themes and what the Lampoon itself was. So with the book, it was really a book about a lot of interviews with people. They were all talking about this time in their lives.
David Wain: But I think before they even wrote the first draft, we talked about let’s not do a regular biopic. Let’s tell it in as outside of the box was as maybe Doug might have enjoyed.
WLE: Even the drug spiral is sort of like a spoof of the drug spiral in other biopics, isn’t it?
Jonathan Stern: Yeah, we really made an effort to not let the drug aspect of his life be the story that we were telling. It was inseparable from the way this group and a lot of people were living in that time period, but what was happening to him dramatically in our interpretation of the events was coming from all of the issues that he had outside of the drugs. Drugs may have been a symptom of it.
David Wain: One of the many challenges was telling a story about a guy who was taken down in part by drugs, which is the truth of the story, and yet is such a cliche of biopics. When you think of somebody who came up in the ‘70s, okay, when’s the drug montage where he goes down?
Peter Principato: We spent a lot of time talking and thinking about the fact that this was more than just that. Drugs were like wine is today during the ‘70s. It was just a part of the fabric of the culture of the time. Nobody knew the downfalls of it or anything like that. So we wanted to be careful to make sure that it wasn’t just the drugs that led to his downfall but many things. The drugs contributed.
WLE: Sure, he was already on that path.
Jonathan Stern: And the drugs were a manifestation of whatever. The drugs weren’t necessarily the cause of the problem. The drugs were coming from everything.
David Wain: I think it’s sort of apt what Vinnie Barbarino said on Welcome Back Kotter was, “Gimme drugs, gimme drugs, gimme drugs.”
Jonathan Stern: I thought he said, “Sit on it, Mr. Kotter.”
David Wain: That was actually another thing he did say too.
WLE: Did he really light Matty Simmons’ match with another lighter
Peter Principato: No, I don’t think so.
Jonathan Stern: On the other hand, we have no evidence that he didn’t. It might’ve happened.
Peter Principato: That’s a liberty.
Jonathan Stern: You can’t prove that it didn’t happen.
WLE: Did he bite glass?
Peter Principato: Yes.
Jonathan Stern: He had a couple of tricks that are represented here. The other is putting his whole fist in his mouth.
Peter Principato: Which was actually taught to him by his mother.
David Wain: Another was putting his dick in people’s ears, which we make difference to but didn’t include the actual action.
WLE: Did he buy his parents a goat?
David Wain: Yup, that was real. What’s interesting, for those who care, that little moment in the middle of the movie where we say the things we made up is pretty complete. Anything else is true.
Jonathan Stern: I should say that getting Will Forte’s fist in his mouth, we experimented with a lot of different possibilities. Prosthetic hand, prosthetic mouth.
David Wain: CGI.
Jonathan Stern: Ultimately, Forte just kind of forced his hand into his mouth.
Peter Principato: He found a way to do it.
WLE: When did you hit on the food fight could be a recurring theme in the film.
David Wain: June of 2014.
Jonathan Stern: I think it was in the script from the beginning.
Peter Principato: That was Mike and John.
WLE: How did it feel being on the set of recreations of scenes from Animal House and Caddyshack?
Jonathan Stern: You know, the Animal House scene, the recreation David constantly made me laugh by recognizing that we compressed everything in the Animal House movie set into the front yard in front of the fraternity house. You don’t have catering, hair and makeup, all the cameras [in the same place].
David Wain: They were all eating lunch right on set, but also one of the things you might not know is we shot that in an empty field and had a giant green screen which we replaced with a 3D model of the Animal House. That was its own weird thing. In general, recreating those iconic images and moments that are so emblazoned in our psyches as people who grew up watching those movies was truly surreal.
Peter Principato: Especially the Caddyshack scene with Chevy on the golf course. Just looking at that really felt like oh, it was surreal.
David Wain: Yeah, we actually found a real golf course. It was amazing how we did that.
WLE: What was some great stuff you had to leave out?
David Wain: For my money, we shot a lot of the comedy that they created that was really interesting in a vacuum to me, but didn’t fit with the spine of the story which was ultimately about Doug Kenney. So there were lengthy sequences involving the Lemmings live show, the Lampoon Radio Hour, some of the other magazine stuff, some of the other Caddyshack stuff. We just went through a very long editing process that, as always, but even more so in this movie where you reinvent and rebuild the story from scratch again, we discovered that the story really is about Doug. The rest of it is cool and funny but it’s more dressing.
WLE: Was it easy to clear the actual National Lampoon covers?
Peter Principato: I had approached National Lampoon after optioning the book very early on and then befriended the people running National Lampoon at the time. I actually helped them with other projects and things that they were trying to do so they were very happy and pleased that we were doing this story. Happy and pleased with the vision of what we were doing because it was a positive look at what the magazine was from the past. So as a result, they became sort of consultants on it and basically gave us all of the artwork, all of the magazines, all the magazine covers. It was complicated because we were only allowed to use, as long as it was an exact page from the actual magazine, we were able to use it. If we started breaking up segments of it and looked at it, then it might go into the rights of who actually was the artist on it and all of that stuff. They were really advocates of helping us with all that material.
David Wain: We developed this for many years. For years, I was always thinking, I’m dying to make this movie but I feel like it’s going to be such a legal quagmire that I’m worried, but we did it. Based on the tireless work of the men on either side of me at this table.
Jonathan Stern: I will say if you take the time to go back and look at all these covers, they’re all brilliant and wonderful. We got a few of them blown up and put on the walls. THey’re real works of art.
WLE: I think most of us know the one with the dog and the gun. What were some other great covers you wanted to show?
David Wain: Some of them were the more subtle ones like the Olympics one kills me. It’s a female Olympics Russian women’s competitor who clearly has a bulge.
Peter Principato: The Mona Lisa gorilla was always a very popular one.
David Wain: My favorite ones are the ones where you have to take one second to realize the joke and then it’s really funny.
Peter Principato: The Sex Issue where it was a take on the Coppertone.
Jonathan Stern: Actually the movie addresses this a little bit. There’s a scene where they realize that the best way for them to do the artwork for the magazine is in a realistic way rather than a cartoonish way. So that’s where these covers really took off. They look like legitimate covers.
Peter Principato: They were subtle, realistic but it didn’t overwhelm the joke.
Jonathan Stern: Well, I remember a senior in high school who I carpooled with always had them. My ability to start getting those jokes, to me, meant I was becoming a grown-up and more sophisticated. In hindsight, any 13-year-old boy should be able to get those jokes but I felt that was my passage into comedic maturity, being able to understand those jokes. Later on, about 10 years later, I had the same feeling again with New Yorker cartoons. I started getting them for the first time. I still don’t get all of them.
Peter Principato: I was voracious as a kid, both National Lampoon as well as Mad Magazine. When I was 10 years old, my father put away all these comedy albums because he had children and was being an adult now. I found all these comedy albums like Bob Newhart, Lily Tomlin, Martin Mull and the Smothers Brothers, all these people that I just started voraciously listening to. It sort of led to my hobby and passion of I think probably developing a slightly more sophisticated comedy sense at a young age, rather than as you’re saying, when you actualize it as you get older. So looking at the magazine, looking at all that stuff and then discovering Saturday Night Live and then Animal House comes out and then Vacation comes out. It sort of formulated everything that I was a fan of and led to me wanting to be in the business because of my fascination and fandom and pure curiosity of both John Belushi and Lorne Michaels, that world. But not knowing it all led back to this man during that time.
David Wain: Little did you know you’d become a Titan of the comedy business today.
Peter Principato: Somebody in the comedy business.
Jonathan Stern: I will say appreciating the humor and references in the magazine, when I was able to do it, it felt like I was joining a club of oh, now I get it.
Peter Principato: That’s how you make your friendships during that time too. Who’s likeminded? Who are you talking to about it? Do they like it? Are they aware of it? Those are the people you wind up being friends with for the rest of your life because you’re using them as a litmus.
Jonathan Stern: That’s a good way of putting it. And before that, I think David will say the same thing, is Mad Magazine.
David Wain: Jon and Peter are both quite a bit older than me. So I was just of an entirely different generation, being quite a bit younger. Just being so, so, so much younger [Sarcastic] but I actually was more into Mad Magazine and felt like Lampoon was intimidatingly smart for me. That was like graduate school.
Jonathan Stern: That’s exactly right.
Peter Principato: But it also was a little naughty.
WLE: Did any of your previous movies help you manage the tone of A Futile and Stupid Gesture when there’s comedy even in the harrowing scenes?
David Wain: Of course. I feel like every day I go to work, I’m learning something I then try to use in the next thing. Definitely there were many lessons and skills I learned about managing tone and managing different types of characters in one scene, trying to keep a whole ensemble of people in a cohesive flow. But then of course there were so many things that were new to me, which was the more exciting part, to be approaching material that was about a real person and that took place in a real time and place, that also had a much more dramatic thread to it than things I’d done in the past.
Peter Principato: That’s why we wanted David for the movie. We’ve done a lot of talking together about the kind of movies he wanted to move towards and the types of movies he wanted to try to expand into. His experience with ensembles and comedy, the comedy circles of today, all of that stuff but then taking a leap into the dramatic tone and that emotional tone just felt like he was the perfect person.
David Wain: Part of the step for me was last year when I had the privilege of directing The Big Sick which I felt like was a good stepping stone towards this.
Peter Principato: David, that wasn’t you.
Jonathan Stern: Weirdly, The Big Sick was shot after this movie and you were able to go back.
Peter Principato: It wasn’t The Big Sick. It was Get Out.
David Wain: It was right after I did Get Out.
Jonathan Stern: Also The Shape of Water. Really tonally different for you.
David Wain: I was still editing The Last Jedi.