[David Wain at Sundance 2018. Photo credit: copyright 2018 Zach Gayne.]
The biopic or docudrama is one of the most fascinating, if not tickling, film genres. Unlike most other genres, whether a biopic succeeds with flying colors in capturing, or even illuminating its subject, or winds up a juicy movie-of-the-week trainwreck, there is generally entertainment value to be found in even the worst attempts to honor a life. Biopics deal in collective territory and with it comes the baggage of public entitlement, or perhaps, the delicacy that is pop appreciation.
Films like Tim Burton’s Ed Wood or Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There demonstrate what’s possible when knowing filmmakers are trusted to represent subjects that have deep sentimental value for their storytellers. In short, it takes one to know one. To the relief of comedy enthusiasts everywhere, in A Futile and Stupid Gesture (now available on Netflix), comedy legend and unsung hero, Doug Kenney, the man who co-founded the ground-breakingly irreverent National Lampoon magazine with his best friend, Henry Beard, “the oldest man who was ever a teenager”, is imagined with great admiration and comedic inheritance by one of this era’s funniest, most visionary voices, David Wain.
That Kenney isn’t a household name is one of those typical ironic tragedies that makes you wanna laugh if only to keep from crying. Doug was not ‘in it’ for the immense success he was rewarded at every turn of his ambitions. In fact, his unspeakable wealth would only embarrass him. Nor was he ‘in it’ for the tremendous acclaim and respect it brought him from those in the know. Nevertheless, it’s a sadness that people generally don’t know. Those who grew up in the 80s and beyond did so taking for granted how drastically the 70s changed the trajectory of comedy. Born into a world where Saturday Night Live and its universe of comedy films seemed to define the genre, there was little staying power for the brightest light at the source of it all.
So what was Doug Kenney in it for? Laughs, for one. Particularly the laughs of his fellow Harvard piss-taker, Henry, at first, eventually expanding to love interests, kindred species, and then a nation of readers desperate for hard-cutting truth in humor - reality via absurdity. With a penchant for underscoring America’s most ludicrous and hypocritical societal pastimes, Doug and Henry found a way to fight back and address their country in a radically subversive fashion. It was a beautiful dream driven by a purity of purpose. But hey-day’s, by definition, aren’t meant to last.
Curbing the tragedy at the centre of Wain’s film is a celebration of the spirit and energy that drove the National Lampoon enterprise, and a tribute to the joy of such a divine undertaking. David Wain - co-founding member of MTV’s The State, as well as the nightclub act-turned holy one-off Comedy Central season, Stella - is no stranger to the joys of the collective and working within a family alive with the synergy of doing exciting work, feeding off one another.
Doug’s invaluable work at the Lampoon, and then in creating the great modern comedy narrative with Animal House and Caddyshack, was an absolute family affair, and given how well known this first modern family would become - an endless list of Belushi, Chevy, Murray, Guest, Gilda… - one of the biopic’s treats is the delight it takes in recreating people and events with inspired casting in a way that only someone with Wain’s disdain for the artificial nature of narrative could; Like a fever dream, the film exists in a uniquely wonderful world of collective imagination, where history and legend lucidly engage one another. In doing so, A Futile and Stupid Gesture cuts through the bullshit of its genre in a way that’d make the original Lampoon family proud, all the while underscoring the affair with wistful nostalgia, empathetic loss, and very genuine love.
I wonder why David Wain chose to open this interview by performing a card trick on me. Was this an opportunity to size me up or was he just excited about a new trick? Did he guess every interviewer’s card throughout the day, curious as to who would include it in their article, or was I the only one? In any case, my card was the two of spades and he was bang fucking on the money. Out of 52 cards, there it was. Boom! The two. That much he certainly sized up. I wish the interview would have lasted longer, but then, I also wish his Futile and Stupid Gesture was a miniseries. I guess that’s a fitting feeling for a portrait of a man who could have offered this world so much more than we can possibly imagine, as if he didn't do enough already. But as J.R.R. Tolkien might've philosophized, “Always leave them wanting mor...dor”.
(Watching David put away the deck of cards) Are you a casual magician, or more of...
David Wain: I would say I'm as serious a hobbyist as one can be about magic.
Beautiful. Well, thank you very much for taking the time to chat with me. I appreciate it.
How did you get to make this film in the first place? How did it come about?
Well, it started with the real life story happening, and then in 2006, Josh Karp wrote this great book. And then that was found by Michael Colton and John Aboud, our screenwriters, who then took it to Peter Principato, who then took it to Jon Stern. And the four of them brought it to me, and it just sparked me immediately as an obvious and incredible next thing to do. But we then worked on it together for eight plus years developing and really thinking it through, and then obviously looking for financing, and all that. And of course, and we shot it, and it was a daunting task to chronicle this world that gave birth to my world.
...That you've grown up worshiping, I'm sure.
Grown up worshiping, and being influenced by so directly, and so, just telling a biopic is such an interesting and challenging task because you're trying to boil down some essence of a whole life into an hour and a half.
Right. I mean, it's dense as hell. I'm very impressed by how much you smashed in there.
Oh, thanks. Well, I mean, that was a big goal of mine - to get the right amount in, and make it feel like it's a story instead of just like, "Here's this moment..." and make it flow in some way. And I give great credit to so many people that worked with me particularly Craig who did the music, and the editors, Robin, David, and Jamie.
Did you collaborate with the screenwriters? About the narrative devices and such?
Oh, yeah, I mean, definitely. They for sure wrote the script, but of course, I was working closely with them from before when they wrote the first draft and the whole way we tell the story is something we all worked on together.
So, why Josh Karp's book? I mean, there are so many about the Lampoon.
Well, I mean, I think it's the only actual biography of Doug Kenney.
Oh, right, of specifically Kenney. I guess Matty Simmons has a book, but you wouldn’t want to read that - or at least adapt it.
I mean, well, I think I like the fact that we're telling the story of the advent of Lampoon in that time in history of comedy through the anchor of the story of Doug Kenney because I think he himself is the fascinatingly unknown, but so pivotal figure.
The film opens with your voice behind the camera interviewing a hypothetical Doug Kenney. What might that actual conversation look like?
I mean, it would be like ... First it would be like, "Hi, thanks for talking to me. Is there anything that you ... ? Do you want a drink?" And then I think I would be like, "Is there any particular thing that you're wanting to promote right now, or can we just have like a free wheeling ... ?" And then, "How long do you have?" I would say.
Right, you’d be sure to take care of the housekeeping...
Because I want to, you know, ask a certain number of questions, but I don't want to go too far off the rails…
Well, that's what's happening here. So, let's reign it back in.
Oh, right. Okay.
What was your first exposure to National Lampoon, do you remember?
I think I'd seen the magazine hanging around in my older sibling’s areas at one point in my childhood, but I think I was too young to really get into the magazine at the height of when it was relevant. So, my real first exposure was Animal House, and that, to me, was a life changing movie.
When it came out theatrically?
No, I never saw it in the theater at the time.
You were a little kid.
I was a little kid. Well, I was 7 when it came out, and so, yeah, I was too young to see it in a theater. But I think that my friend, Craig, the composer, actually went to see it with his dad, and it was like, "Oh, my ... " But we taped it. Animal House was taped off Showtime on a Beta tape that we had. Then we taped Steve Martin's Wild and Crazy Guy special over the first hour of it. So I saw the rest of Animal House hundreds of times in a very bad, pixelated, Beta tape, which was so low res that, honestly, when I first saw the actual film on TV, or something I was like, "Oh, my God, there's a whole movie here that I didn't know." Plus the first hour of it! So, anyway, that was my first big dose. And then of course, Caddyshack, became even more of a thing. My friends and I would get together at sleepovers and I feel like there was a period where I watched Caddyshack daily.
So, were you shocked upon learning Doug's reaction to that production?
I mean, it's surprising on the surface, but getting to know Doug in the way that I have a little bit, it makes sense. He was so driven to be at the very top of whatever he was doing, and so when he perceived that he was anything but topping what he had done before, he crumbled.
“If it's any consolation, people really like it today.”
So, was there any conversation with Matty Simmons at all?
Yeah... I forget, honestly, if I personally spoke to him. I think he might even be coming to the film tomorrow night. He was in our loop.
It's not that he's perceived badly, per se, but...
Yeah, but it's been a long time, and I think that everyone's got different perspectives, and everyone's got different levels of distance from the events of the time, and memory is elastic. And I think at the end of the day most of the people who are still around are just happy for the story to be told. And I think that there's so many angles on Matty Simmons and what happened, and when, and how, and everyone's gonna have theirs. This is one.
Can you talk about your approach to casting? I mean, I like thinking about STELLA, the way you utilized extras, or how little you cared about things like resemblance in body doubles and such. In other words, the show enjoyed enunciating artificiality.
Well, we knew that there was a real pitfall in approaching a story where you're portraying people who the audience knows their face and their voice and how they look, and so... Do you hire people who can do the perfect impression? There's a lot of weird ways to go about it, and a lot of ways that can be distracting. And we thought about doing things that were more radical in terms of like, "Do we get Jordan Peele to play John Belushi?"
Or Cate Blanchett...
Right. Exactly. But we decided to go with the slightly more conventional approach to it, but basically just really tirelessly look for the perfect people to play these roles. And of course, most of the roles of the really familiar faces are not large, they're more of the salt and pepper in the movie except for Chevy Chase, which somehow we hit gold with the acting. Having Joel McHale who just was a revelation, and obviously knows Chevy Chase, but somehow was able to channel him in a way that I can't even describe. I take no credit for it. It was amazing.
It was amazing. I love when he smashes the liquor cabinet at his parents’ house.
Oh, my God, yeah. I mean, it's so Chevy, right? Joel's physicality, and his rhythm, he got it so down, and I have to say, that was him. That was one of those pieces where there wasn't a lot of editorial help. Yeah.
It’s really great work all around.
*The remainder of this interview contains spoilers. Come back after you've watched the film, now available on Netflix.*
It's obviously such a crime as to how unknown Doug Kenney is ... to the extent that for me to state the widely known fact that Doug died in 1980 would be to spoil the film for the majority of its audience. Your film almost banks on the audience's lack of awareness in a very exciting way.
I mean, I will say, I would love to, to whatever degree, if possible, it would be so awesome for people to see this movie and not know the ending because I think it makes it all the more impactful and interesting.
I love all the discussions of the story’s aspects that are a little dated by today's standards. I feel like Doug would explode today in these delicate times.
Yeah, it's interesting. I mean, I'm always wondering ... You always wonder if John Lennon was alive what would he be doing? But then again, who knows? It may be nothing. Some people have their period where they're super productive and relevant, and then they stop even if they don't die, and some people don't. Some people continue. Look at Bill Murray. He's just continued to be interesting and going in new places, and being a fascinating figure. So, who knows?
I was thinking about this yesterday in lieu of Doug Kenney, but if Dylan had died in that motorcycle crash he would be Jesus Christ. Not that ...
Right. Not that he's not.
Right, but that he became God-fearing and sort of had this very disappointing trajectory as far as history is kind of concerned...
Well, obviously dying does a lot for your legend, although it didn't for Doug as much. For example, my guess would be somebody like Jim Morrison would not be anything if he was alive today.
Very overweight, I'm sure… Did you have a favorite day on set?
The scene of the food fight
Which food fight?
The climactic ending food fight because we had just about the entire cast of this very large filthy movie all in one room, all getting very messy. And we also had to go very fast because we were on a budget where we had to move super fast, but it was a very cathartic ... all the material of the movie - the shoot and everything - was culminating on this one amazing day, and it was a really special scene, I think, that we all remember well.
This is your most serious film to date, right?
As hilarious as the film is, you're dealing in drama - a new territory. What was it like?
It was interesting, I mean, there were definitely moments - I can tell you're familiar with my earlier stuff - there were moments where I was like, "And now, let's do this kind of thing." And then I was like, "No, I can't do that." And there's a certain way of breaking the fourth wall, or a certain brand of silly that is my natural goto that was not right for this movie. But I still feel like I could layer in certain-
...that made it mine... but to go into the drama was great. And then I think that it taught me that storytelling is storytelling, and it was great to also take the time and places to communicate the drama without having to every second rush to the next joke, which is basically what I normally do. So, yeah, it was really cool, and I hope to do more of that kind of stuff.
There's so much I love about the film. One thing I love is the discussion of the L.A. person versus, I suppose, the not L.A. person - I think there's an element of that in the Doug Kenney story, "We're not L.A. people?", Henry tells Doug.
And eventually, "Where are you from?" "Chagrin Falls, OH." For all the success you yourself have found on the big screen, you don't strike me as an L.A. person.
Well, I'm from Cleveland. I'm from near Chagrin Falls. I grew up very close to where Doug grew up, and so the parallels are very clear in our first chapters.
Right. Well, forgive me if this question is similar to the last one you didn't love, but, God, what might you have said to Doug... if you were hanging out with him in Hawaii with Chevy Chase?
I mean, I don't know. It's interesting because that was a time when so many people were very caught up with drugs, and some people made it through that time and got into another era of their lives, and some people didn't. It's somewhat arbitrary and horrible. I've thought about like, here I am spending my life telling this guy's story, and I didn't ... I can never claim to have actually known him, or ever met him. And it's a whole weird thing, and sometimes I wonder if I can ... Can I communicate with him, or what would you ... ? It's very interesting, it's very ... Somebody's soul is somewhere.
I really wish Doug Kenney could have seen WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER…