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‘Animal House’ Director John Landis Talks “Charles Manson In High School” Origins, Cast & The Legacy Of The Comedy Classic

'Animal House' Director John Landis Talks "Charles Manson In High School" Origins, Cast & The Legacy Of The Comedy Classic

SF Sketchfest, the San Francisco Comedy Festival, is hosting a 35th anniversary retrospective screening of John Landis‘ 1978 college comedy classic “National Lampoon’s Animal House” on February 6th. Following the screening will be a Q&A and conversation between Landis and writer/comedian, Carl Arnheiter. In anticipation of this event, we got to chat with Landis about the making of this seminal comedy, plus myriad other topics. As anyone who has seen or heard Landis speak over the years knows that he can talk at length about anything. The director of “Trading Places,” “The Blues Brothers,” “Coming to America,” “An American Werewolf in London” and more ’80s classics, Landis’ encyclopedic knowledge of cinema makes Quentin Tarantino seem like an unlearned noob, and so in the lead-up to the screening and conversation we’re going to pare down our chat with Landis to just focus on “Animal House.” More stories from the always-chatty director (and king of anecdotes) to come.

How did “Animal House” come together? 
It was at the National Lampoon Magazine, which I had nothing to do with. Michael O’Donoghue, Doug Kenney and someone else founded it. They came from Harvard. And eventually Matty Simmons bought the magazine. So Doug and Michael and the other guy made a lot of money and Doug said, “Well, I think I’m going to leave.” And in my opinion Doug was the genius at that magazine. There were three or four years there where they did extraordinary work and Doug was one of the most remarkable guys I’ve ever met. 

So my understanding was that Doug was getting fed up at the magazine and Matty Simmons was freaking out because he knew that Doug was the brains. So he said, “Doug, don’t you know National Lampoon is gonna make a movie?” And Doug said, “Oh really?” And that’s how he kept him for another year or two.

Doug wrote a script called “Laser Orgy Girls,” which I’ve never seen, all I know is that it was unacceptable. Matty was working with a young producer named Ivan Reitman, who had produced one of the National Lampoon Off-Broadway shows, and so this guy Ivan Reitman said to Matty, “The way to keep Doug is to make a movie.” So he became Matty’s partner and they decided to make a movie. “Laser Orgy Girls” wasn’t going to work so they brought in Harold Ramis, who was from Second City. You have to remember this was before “Saturday Night Live” and “Lemmings,” the National Lampoon Off-Broadway show about Woodstock. You have to look at who was in that – it was Second City people from Chicago and Toronto and then Lampoon people, because there was a National Lampoon radio show that John Belushi was a producer of. And “Lemmings” was John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest.  This is years before “Saturday Night Live!” 

Anyway, the point is that Harold and Doug wrote a script that was basically “Charles Manson in high school.” I did read that one and it did have some brilliant stuff in it but it was too outrageous. It could probably get made now. But it had one of my favorite openings of a movie ever. The exterior of that prison and the camera moves into this fortress prison and through the thick walls and down the hallways and it’s this brutal fortress to keep people in and you go deeper and deeper into this fortress prison until you get to this heavily barred and gated doors and into a padded doorway into a padded cell and in the corner is this man in a straight jacket and you move deeper and deeper in until you see that it’s Charles Manson with the hair and the swastika carved into his forehead. And he looks at the camera and says, “Is it hot in here or am I crazy?” It went on from there.

When Doug and Harold turned in that script, Matty went, “Holy Shit!” So he said, “You can’t have all this gangrape stuff. Put it in college!” [laughs] And at that point they brought in Chris Miller, because Chris Miller wrote a whole series of pieces for National Lampoon about his fraternity experiences at Dartmouth. So they were all at Ivy League schools in 1962 and they wrote “Animal House.” The original script, which I read, was, like the National Lampoon, very funny but very white elitist, racist, anti-Semitic – all the Lampoon earmarks. For many years no Jews or Blacks were allowed to be on the Harvard Lampoon staff. But the script was terribly funny and Ivan was very gung-ho and flogged it at all the studios.

I’m from L.A. I’m a high school dropout. I couldn’t be less Ivy League. I started working at 20th Century Fox in the mailroom and I was in Europe for years working on westerns. I have a very different trajectory than those guys. So at that time, in 1977, I made two movies – in 1971 I made my first movie, “Schlock,” so through another circuitous route I made “Kentucky Fried Movie.” We did this skit movie that we shot for half a million dollars for 20 days. The script girl was Catherine Wooten and her boyfriend at that time was Sean Daniel. He came to the studio and saw my assembly cut of “Kentucky Fried Movie,” and they hired me. To give you the idea of the importance of the movie to the studio, was that “Animal House”‘s finished budget was $2.3 million. The next cheapest film that Universal made that year was $8 million. They were spending that on “Kojak” episodes.

That’s insane.
I was hired to develop it, basically to supervise the rewrite. The writers’ initial outlook was that they saw me as this “Hollywood guy” from the coast. This script is theirs, and the screenplay is finally get the credit its due, but my big contribution was – everybody in the movie can’t be a pig. You have to have good guys and bad guys. Fraternities to me were grotesque. One of the ironies of “Animal House” was that the Greek system was dying and the movie came out and brought it back huge. It was dying because it was the ’60s and ’70s and considered square and unhip and creepy and “Animal House” brought it back.

I really respect and like those guys but Harold [Ramis] is still pissed at me, because he wrote the character of Boon [eventually played by Peter Riegert] for himself but he was 28 and the rest of the cast was 19. He would have looked like Katie’s father. It’s funny – when it opened Harold called me up and said, “You fucked us!” But about a week later there was a big article in The New York Times called “The Writers of ‘Animal House,'” and boy he was right there! But he should be. Because it’s a really sharp script.

Was there ever talk of Reitman directing it?
He wanted desperately to direct it. I had made one low budget movie called “Schlock” and he had made one low budget movie up in Canada called “Cannibal Girls.” It stars Andrea Martin and Eugene Levy. I think she’s naked in it. So both of us had made one small low budget movie but the studio for whatever reason wouldn’t hire him. I know that Ivan was very unhappy about it, and for a while I suffered through that. And his son, who is now a very successful director on his own, was born during “Animal House.” So Ivan was only there for one of the four weeks. The other time he was up in Montreal having the future Jason Reitman. And he brought the baby to the set!

What about the cast?
The writers knew all these guys – they wrote the part of Otter for Chevy Chase [Tim Matheson played the part]. They wrote the part of Bluto for John Belushi. Now this was the first season of “Saturday Night Live” and it wasn’t a hit show but it was a critical smash and had huge cache. John and Chevy were breakout stars. And so during the second season we were shooting. Belushi commuted, which was amazing – he would perform Saturday night, Sunday morning he would fly to San Francisco, from San Francisco he would fly to Portland, and then he’d do the two hour drive to Eugene, Oregon. He’d get to Eugene on Sunday night, we’d shoot Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday he would work during the day, do the red eye to New York, rehearsal for Saturday night, then do the whole thing over again. And he did that for four weeks.

Did you have any idea it would have such a cultural impact?
Listen, I have made a lot of hit movies, and you have no fucking clue. Everybody works on movies the same way. My wife, the brilliant costume designer Deborah Nadoolman, who designed the costumes for “Animal House,” she designed “1941” for Steven Spielberg and then right after “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” “1941,” her work is brilliant, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” her work is fine but “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was a low budget, difficult picture. Of course now it’s this cultural landmark but everyone who worked on the movie had a miserable time. So you never know. And your credits, it’s only the hit movies that matter. And, as you know, the success of a movie has to do with luck, timing, marketing, and the zeitgeist. So many great movies failed and so many bad movies have been big hits. So you never know.

Can you talk about the score to “Animal House?”
The real two innovations of “Animal House,” which people never talk about, that had a big impact… I went to school with Peter Bernstein, whose father was Elmer Bernstein. Elmer took me to see The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl when I was 15. So I’ve known this guy. And my intention was to score the film dramatically. The convention was comedy scoring. The great Henry Mancini, with his score for “The Pink Panther,” was comedy music. That was the style and had been the style since the ’30s but I wanted to score it as straight drama. And I remember the head of music at Universal, when I said I’d like Elmer Bernstein to score, he looked at me and said, “Elmer Bernstein? He won’t return your call.” And I thought, “Oh yeah, fuck you!” So I called Elmer and I told him what I wanted and he did a brilliant job. And that has become the style.

The other thing, that I started in “Kentucky Fried Movie,” is that comedy is funnier the straighter it’s played. I don’t necessarily mean straight as in dramatic, what I mean is that the character has to be sincere. It has to be played straight. So actors, who are not known for comedy, do comedy brilliantly. And so I wanted, for the dean, Jack Webb, I thought he would be brilliant. I ended up hiring John Vernon, who was the badguy from “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” The studio was furious with me for my cast. When I went to New York I cast Tommy Hulce out of “Amadeus,” Mark Metcalf out of “Streamers“… Kevin Bacon and Karen Allen hadn’t done anything, they were kids! The studio said, “Get Chevy Chase and John Belushi or we’re shutting down the picture.”

At the time, I didn’t know him but I didn’t want Chevy Chase because I felt, at that moment, that you wanted to accept these people as the characters. Every Saturday night Chevy Chase looked at the camera and said, “I am Chevy Chase and you are not.” He played Chevy Chase in everything he’s ever done. I didn’t want that. Belushi finally agreed to do it, even though he thought the part was too small, mainly because I showed him “Kentucky Fried Movie” and he loved the “Fistful of Yen” bit. The bottom line was that the studio finally called me and said, “John, get us a fucking movie star and we’re shutting you down.” And that’s how Donald Sutherland ended up in the movie.

He was a huge star at the time. I met him on “M*A*S*H” when I was a mail boy. He was shooting “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” for Philip Kaufman and I called him up and said, “You have to do this for me.” He worked two days on the movie and the story is that the studio offered him $35,000 and 15 net points. He called me up and said, “John, it’s Universal – I can’t do this, they’ve got to pay me.” So it ended up that he ended up making $50,000 for one day’s work (he promised me three days) and no points. 15 net points in “Animal House” by 1980 was worth $19 million. He still talks about it. So he did me that favor and I owe him big time. In the script was the pot smoking scene and the scene with Katie and on the day I said that we have to have a scene that shows him teaching and that wonderful scene where we see him teaching Milton was written by Doug Kenney, like the Gettysburg Address, on the back of an envelope.

For tickets and schedules, visit the Sketchfest site.

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