a futile and stupid gesture 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.

Continue Reading A Futile and Stupid Gesture Interview >>

Pages: 1 2 3Next page

Cool Posts From Around the Web: