'A Futile And Stupid Gesture' Director David Wain On Telling The Story Of National Lampoon [Sundance Interview]

Director and sometime performer David Wain has a long and successful history of directing beloved comedies with large ensemble casts, going back to his earliest days with sketch-comedy team The State and such feature films as Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models, Wanderlust, and They Came Together. But with A Futile and Stupid Gesture, Wain tackles the seemingly impossible task of covering the professional life of comedy writer and National Lampoon magazine co-creator Doug Kenney (played by Will Forte) in about 100 minutes. Kenny also was the man behind National Lampoon's Animal House and Caddyshack (the making of both is detailed in Wain's movie as well).

The film also stars Domhnall Gleeson (as Kenny's partner in crime Henry Beard), Emmy Rossum, Natasha Lyonne, Seth Green, Martin Mull, Joel McHale, Matt Walsh, Thomas Lennon, Matt Lucas, Joe Lo Truglio, Paul Scheer, and Finn Wittrock.

This interview took place at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, where A Futile and Stupid Gesture premiered. Director Wain was joined by two of the film's producers, Peter Principato (also an executive producer on the series "Black-ish") and Jonathan Stern (also an executive producer on "Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return." /Film spoke with the three about the process of making comedy from the '70s and '80s feel relevant today and the process of making the creative process cinematic. A Futile and Stupid Gesture is available on Netflix right now (read our review right here).

I find that like anytime a film attempts to capture the creative process—whether it's writing or painting or making music—it's tough to make it cinematic, because so much of it is in a person's head. How did you try to make it something that you can visualize?

David: Good point. It was particularly tough on this one, because it was so much about writing.

It's a guy at a typewriter. 

David: Right. Doug Kenny was not a performer. He was not an on-stage guy. So we didn't want to artificially externalize what he was doing. We struggled with that challenge all the way through every part of making the movie. But I think that we took our best crack at it just by showing the results of things in the magazine, showing how he thought of them at times, and trying anything we could think of to just give a little hint of where an inspiration came from, but also trying to avoid the artificial. I always think of it as the "Studio 60" trap, where you say, "This is the funniest thing ever done." Then you have to show it, and you're like, "Well, maybe."

Jonathan: There are a couple of scenes where people are pitching ideas, where aroom of writers are pitching ideas. And we realized we couldn't guarantee that all those pitches would be winners to the audience, so we're actually just trying to show the process, as opposed to what David just said about "Studio 60"—"Oh, each one of these is a brilliant pitch." Working in writers rooms ourselves, you know that actually most of the time, they're not. So you show the struggle.

David: And all the humor from the entire National Lampoon magazine requires context. This was a long, long time ago, and it was just different in so many different ways.

Peter: I'd also say, as both these gentlemen just said, there were a lot of conversations. But there was one moment in the movie where they were discussing the artwork and the difference between the artwork. That was one scene that was an organic way of showing, and you experiencing it probably as they experienced it, in the moment a little bit. For the most part, the same that we did with the cast was just really trying to capture the essence and the vibe of the environment, the feel of the environment. But it's always hard doing that. I did see this movie, The Man Who Invented Christmas. I don't know if anybody saw that movie. It was about Charles Dickens when he was writing "A Christmas Carol," and it was all about his creative process, about how he wrote that book in six weeks, and they really, really nailed it in that movie.

Part of the way you capture the context is having Martin Mull there as a character who doesn't actually exist, looking upon these events from the perspective of the now. It really helps explain that a lot of the humor that is so popular today would not exist without these guys. Was that idea to do it that way always in the script?

David: That was just a result of all of our discussions before they even wrote the script, wondering, how can we do exactly what you're saying—give a little context and also tell the story in an unusual, in a nonconventional way, and what kind of device can we use to keep the story flowing and let people in with a modern lens on it?

Jonathan: I actually seem to recall that was part of the original pitch from [screenwriters] Michael Colton and John Aboud. They sat down and said, "We want to do it through the eyes of a modern Doug."

David: No, that's not true? As it happens, that's not true. [laughs]

As with this movie, we're giving different versions of the same story.

Jonathan: Well, it was a long time ago.

Peter: We really did talk about the fact that we were trying, at least from my point of view. We were trying to talk about not making it a standard biopic and how to embrace the spirit of National Lampoon, while doing something in the vein of a 24-Hour Party People meets the Peter Sellers bio on HBO [The Life and Death of Peter Sellers] and American Splendor. So through those conversations, I do think the idea of the modern Doug came up through that, but I think was actualized by Mike and John.

David: Yeah. It was their idea, for sure.

Jonathan: Long story short, very early in the process [laughs].

Was it more important to you to tell the story accurately or to make it funny, make this a comedy? Did you want to make another great ensemble comedy, or was it more important to have people understand this origin story?

David: I would go more toward the later, but Option C would be we wanted to tell a great, compelling story that was also a history of where this comic sensibility started. For sure, it wasn't the same priority of previous things I've done, where it's just like get to every joke and hit every joke hard with as many as you can. It was very liberating for me to be able to say, "There's other shades to this and other layers, and it is as much a drama as it is a comedy."

Peter: From the beginning, we would always talk about this is a drama about funny people.

David: Not to be confused with Judd Apatow's Funny People.

Peter: That background of "a drama about funny people" was key. We really wanted to pay homage to this man and this time period that we looked at, all of us, as an inspiration, as the godfathers and the forbearers of what we think is the streamline of modern comedy and what inspired all of us to want to do what we do. In some way, it trickles back to this man and this period that not many people are aware of. So we wanted to tell a poignant story while still embracing the spirit of that time and do it with people from today's modern comedy scene, paying homage to them, while bringing in a few really good actors to also balance.

Jonathan: They're all good actors. Don't get me wrong.

It is a great mix of actors. Your friends from "The State" are represented well. But then  you have Domhnall Gleeson, who is arguably the greatest actor working right now of his generation and can disappear into anything. The first time I saw the trailer, I didn't even realize it was him. Is that fun to play with actors you don't know?

David: For me, I'm always excited to do that. We've done that in most of the things we've done, including Wet Hot.

Peter: You did that on "Stella," too.

David: Yeah. Just bringing in really "serious" actors and people from a different background. We also have Emmy Rossum, who is coming from Broadway and from "Shameless." All those behind-the-scenes antecedents of how actors get to where they are show up on screen in a cool mix, and this movie is no exception. It's so exciting to see Dom Gleeson and Will Forte...

Who has proven himself to be a tremendous actor over the last few years.

David: Absolutely. Some of their scenes that were a little more improvised were just astounding for me to watch these guys do it. Dom Gleeson grew up never having even heard the words "National Lampoon." So it was really a cool thing to do.

Jonathan: The reverse is true as well, putting actors that are known primarily as comedic actors in these more dramatic roles. Most of the comedic actors I see working are terrific dramatic actors that just don't get the opportunity to do it very often.

David: Carrot Top is an example.

[Everybody laughs]

Jonathan: It's all part of the same talent set.

Peter: But I think Will Forte, Matt Walsh, Thomas Lennon in this movie, really proved themselves as actors as much as comedians.

David: There are scenes in, for example, Chairman of the Board, where Carrot Top really just shows other sides. Continue.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture Review

Just a couple days ago, Sundance played this Robin Williams documentary [Come Inside My Mind], which is going to be on HBO at some point. And it reminded me of something that your film also maintains, which is that like cocaine was a hell of a drug at one point. It ruined a lot of lives, and took a lot of people away. I wouldn't say you glorify it, but you at least remind us that, for a little while, it was about having fun before it started destroying worlds. Was that a tricky thing?

David: That was the tricky thing. You can't tell the story without it; sometimes we wish we could. Because it's almost a cliché in a movie of this time: "And then they got into drugs, and then they went down." It almost seems like we've seen it. So how do you tell the story that doesn't feel like you've seen it before, in the right way? And you're quite right, it was fun for them, and it was part of the fabric of what was their exciting time, moving to LA, being a movie-maker, and doing tons of cocaine. That was what it was.

Peter: In that time period, there was nothing known about it being destructive. It was like drinking a beer or having wine. You're just doing a line of coke, and it was completely recreational, with absolutely no information. So it was an ignorant yet innocent time of drug use.

David: Times have changed to the point where neither Will Forte nor I had ever one speck of experience with what cocaine's all about at all. So, we actually hired an old friend of mine who is a recovering addict to come in and teach us a little bit about it.

One of the other challenges with making this movie is to not make it a colossal bummer by the end. Again, I think the way you use Martin's character diffuses that possibility. Plus, the memorial scene ends things on a nice note. Was that something you had to worry about, as things in your characters' lives are falling apart?

David: Well I thought that was one of the really brilliant touches that Colton and Aboud came up with, which was just how to end a movie that basically, spoiler alert, ends with someone dying in such an early, tragic, senseless way, on a somewhat positive grace note. Also, the great grace note of Martin Mull's song at the end really makes me leave the movie happy. But it still is a bummer ending, and I don't think we shy away from the fact that it sucks.

Peter: We wanted people leaving feeling good and inspired, but also, wanting to cry: I wanted to cry. And I felt like in a movie like this, you had to cry at least once. But I still leave feeling good about the fact that this man touched so many people. The legacy is just unbelievable.

Jonathan: There's a line that Martin Mull says to Will Forte in that scene,"Look, if it'll make you feel better, years from now, Caddyshack will be beloved. People won't shut up about it."

Peter: "They're kind of annoying about it."

[Everybody laughs]

Jonathan: And that line always makes me think, there are people, especially people who make movies like Doug did, who are driven by creating a legacy that outlasts them. But is there any fulfillment in that if you are not aware of that legacy?

David: That's a question for God.

Jonathan: [laughs] Yeah. He's died before Caddyshack became what we know it to be. So Dous doesn't know the legacy, but we gave him a chance to find out in that scene.

Was there any thought given to how Doug might have told this story, presumably the unconventional way that he might have told his own story?

David: That was our original seed. I think the very, very first obvious ideas of  "We'll start when he's born, then we'll take him to college, and da-da-da." But in our earliest discussions, we were like, "Well, wait a minute. Doug Kenney wouldn't approve that." How would we tell it in a way that he might've gotten a kick out of? That was the launching point, from my memory.

Peter: But also from that story point, we tried to be fearless in telling. He was somebody who was fearless in the way he looked at the world and the way he just would put things on paper so quickly and intelligently and brilliantly. It's one of those things in thinking about it, talking about it, even using the modern Doug storyteller was something that we had a lot of conversations about. There was a fearlessness to it a little bit like "This is something that we think maybe Doug would be like, 'Fuck everybody. I don't need to know what's going on. Let them hear the story.'"

Was there anyone who was a part of this scene that you spoke with that was particularly helpful?

David: A lot of people were extremely helpful. That was really nice. Everyone gave varying degrees of help and insight into Doug and to the time. There were a few people who said that that was a closed chapter and they'd rather not go back there. But of course, everyone has their perspectives too, which was always interesting.

Peter: When we were making the movie, we heard from a lot of people that wanted to be heard from, because we were trying to be very reverential to the people that were still alive in telling the story. So each of the actors, for the most part, we put them in touch with their alive counterparts, if they wanted to have a conversation. Some did, some didn't, as David said. Some didn't want to relive that time and just wanted to leave it where it was. Some were happy to talk about it. Then, the players like the Henry Beards and the Matty Simmons, they were all very good resources of certain aspects of it. And Judy Belushi, people who were there, even Janis Hirsch, Tony Hendra, and all of these people.

David: Rick Meyerowitz.

Peter: Yeah, even people from the ancillary worlds, like some of Doug's agents called. Some of his old producing partners and people that produced stuff or knew him and were friends, they

heard we were making the movie and just wanted to call and tell a few good stories about the people there. And we took ideas from that, and certain things that we put into the movie as a result of those conversations.

David: Even during the middle of a shoot, sometimes, we'd hear some little tip. I think it was mid-shoot, we heard, "Did you know that Chevy Chase had this brief case that was all decked out, with all the paraphernalia for cocaine?"

That might be the most damning thing in this movie, by the way.

David: [laughs] As soon as we heard that, we were like, "Props department!"

Peter: A studio executive, at one point, had a sign on his door that he literally put up when the guys were coming up for a meeting saying "Friend of Comedy."

David: I will say, the making of Animal House alone would be a great movie. There's so much there. Same with the making of Caddyshack. Same with the early days of SNL. There are so many side movies you could do. I would love to see these same cast members play the parts too.

Speaking of meeting with their counterparts, the one bit of casting that blew my mind on several levels was seeing Joel McHale as Chevy Chase. There are so many reasons that works. Physically, he resembles him at that time, the height, plus having had that access to him for so many years [both men were in the cast of "Community"}. Whose idea was that?

David: It was Joel's idea.

Peter: Netflix, at the time we were making the movie, gave us a couple of things that they wanted as we moved forward, and one was "We don't want to see famous people playing famous people. We don't mind famous people playing unknown people or soon-to-be-known people playing famous people, but we're a little nervous about famous people playing famous people." And Joel, we had gotten a phone call from him about [playing Chevy Chase]...

David: I sat down with Joel, and my own instinct was Joel is a great actor, as well as a really funny and smart guy. And I really was like, "If he feels like he can handle this, I bet you he can." That was where I took it. I had no clue that he would channel this character and play it so brilliantly.

Peter: He also did what we wanted from everybody, which was we didn't want soundalikes, lookalikes, or just impersonators; we wanted people who embodied the spirit, embodied who these people were.

David: As it happens, he also looked and sounded exactly like him.

a stupid and futile gesture

And you do have people playing, for example, Bill Murray and John Belushi, who I recognize, but I couldn't tell you there names, but they're perfect. They're like exactly right. 

David: We took a lot of time and care in trying to find the right people.

Jonathan: Our casting director, Allison Jones...there were a number of those parts, where she simply said "This is the person for that role."

David: She introduced us to Jackie Tohn, who plays Gilda Radner. Long story short, she was like, "Jackie Tone is going to play Gilda."

Peter: Allison Jones, who is a very famous casting director and has cast some of the best television shows and movies, especially in comedy, she wanted to come on this movie early. She was one of the first people we spoke to before we even put it together. I called her up and asked her if she wanted to come aboard this project, and she and her brother had their own history with National Lampoon.

David: Her brother had been at Harvard at the same time. This was an interesting movie process because the casting director and probably the legal clearance were the first two departments to get going, before we even wrote a script.

I can only imagine, for a casting director, what a dream job this would've been to cast these legends. One other choice that impressed me me, only because Michael O'Donoghue is this man of mystery, is Thomas Lennon.

David: That's a classic case of "actor, meet part." I mean, Jesus Christ, he's so good.

The humor at Lampoon, even at the time, was very edgy, people were protesting the magazine at times. I feel like a lot of what they did wouldn't fly today.

David: Definitely. To me, there are so many different angles of what you're saying. There's our strange new level of PC puritanism. But also, we've evolved and grown in our culture in ways that have gone well beyond the misogynistic, sexist, racist stuff that they did. And there's some stuff that just doesn't play because it's just not that funny anymore.

Jonathan: I actually think that there's a lot of things now that we take for granted that comedy can handle that wasn't the case then. For instance, all the political stuff. They were doing something then with politics and social commentary that was probably much more shocking than we realize now, when every late night show is mostly political in the monologue.

David: I also remember, like when Doug's dad says in the movie, "What are you doing, making fun of the president? How dare you?" The comedy about the president in earlier eras, I remember that "First Family" [1962] record about the Kennedy family was such a light touch. They were not going for the jugular at all.

Jonathan: Vaughn Meader [the legendary John F. Kennedy impersonator, who appeared on "The First Family" album].

Peter: There was a rule at the magazine then that there was nothing sacred. I think they would still have that attitude today, except they would be hiring more women and more people of color, but I think they would still be fighting that battle that nothing is sacred. We're in such a moment now of everything is sacred, and we understand that. Things have to change. Things have to evolve, but they would be looking at it through the lens of nothing is sacred.

David: There's also a very tricky question always, which I don't think has any simple answers, are there truly wide categories of things where there's nothing funny to be said about it? And, I don't have an answer to that. I don't think there's any simple answer to that question.

There have been documentaries in the last couple years that cover that exact topic. One was specifically about jokes involving the Holocaust and others covered it in a broader sense. To this day, the "Vietnam baby book" is still one of the most shocking things they've ever done.

David: It's so amazing.

Could somebody get away with that today?

David: Well, no. But I do think that's one of the pieces that you could look at that right now, and you'd be like, "Wow, this is hysterically funny and brilliant."

Peter: But take out Vietnam and insert Donald Trump. Make it a Donald Trump baby book.

Jonathan: The other thing is it doesn't have to be funny to still recognize the satirical targets from it. So looking at that Vietnam baby book, there are very few things that I find that I can laugh at from it because it's so disturbing, but I still really appreciate the satire.

David: That to me is O'Donoghue in a nutshell. Some of his stuff, you're not like, "Ha, ha, ha" as much as like, "Oh!"

I've often heard that the minute you decide to make a period film, it becomes exponentially more difficult to make. And this had to be a period film, which you've done before but not to this degree.

David: True. There's a difference between period of people wearing t-shirts and shorts at a summer camp versus walking around New York City in the '70s with hundreds of people around.

Jonathan: I'll tell you where it gets you. It gets you at the exteriors and the cars. On a technical level, yeah, if you look at the movie, there are a lot more interiors than you would have if it wasn't a period piece.

David: And it's supposed to take place over a span of 30 years, and every single person that shows up in the background needs to be dressed. It's a whole thing. If I could just say one more thing...

Jonathan: Is this about Carrot Top?

David: No, no, no. At the risk of saying something super, super obvious—in many ways, one of the main characters in the film is Doug Kenney.

Thank you for clearing that up.

David: Well, I said it was obvious.