With the recent attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Doug Tirola’s documentary “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” is timelier than ever. The film chronicles the evolution of one of the most irreverent publications in U.S. history: Harvard’s “National Lampoon.” The college magazine paved the way for today’s modern satire with its raunchy sense of humor and no-holds-barred political ridicule. Below, Tirola explains his unique approach to the documentary, including his decision to only use archival footage from the magazine itself.
What’s your film about, in 140 characters or less?
“Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” is a film about the story of the National Lampoon. It follows two Harvard graduates who start the first humor magazine for adults, and turn it into the most prolific comedy empire of the 1970s until success and excess among its contributors begin to challenge its existence.
Now, what’s it REALLY about?
Embracing those moments in your life when you believe anything is possible. How a group of people that saw the world in a way that was different from most people, found each other and, through the common goal of putting out a great magazine every month, inspired, angered and worked together to create something special. In so many ways, the story of the National Lampoon reminded me of the process of making an independent film. I think that is one of the reasons I loved this story and making this movie so much.
Tell us briefly about yourself.
I worked my way up as a PA working on films directed by Woody Allen, Robert Benton, and Mike Nichols; my collaboration with all of these great directors was me bringing them selected items from the craft service table. The only film I have ever seen twice with my dad is “Animal House.” I have a company where I hire indie filmmakers to make content for brands. I went to Columbia University graduate school for Poetry/Fiction and planned on being a professor (so I could have my summers off) but ended up in the film school which led me to being a filmmaker, where I now have a job with much longer hours. I produced the documentary “Actress.” I produced a documentary called “Making The Boys” (about the play) and film, “The Boys in the Band.” One of my favorite books is “The Demon” by Hubert Selby Jr. I met my wife at a bar in my hometown the night before Thanksgiving. We now have two kids, Charlotte (12) and Cooper (9), and I am hoping she will let me take them to the premiere, even though my movie is called “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead.”
What was the biggest challenge in completing this film?
Many documentaries films dealing with a subject where little footage exists of their subjects turn to archival materials to help visualize their story. Early on I made a decision we would not do this; instead we’d only use images from the National Lampoon magazine to tell our story. So, for example, instead of finding stock footage someone shot in the ’70s to establish New York City, we have a great piece of art called “An Afternoon on St. Marks Place Sometime Late in the 1960’s.” This gives the film a unique language and I believe creates a more cinematic experience. It also allows us to showcase more of the amazing work that came out of The Lampoon. It’s a risk because not every image is a direct representation of what is being talked about, but this is what allows the audience to see things from a different point of view. The challenge is that we were always looking for images. I must have looked through each issue by hand 500 times. It felt as if there were more decisions to be made on this film than any other I have made.
What do you want audiences at Sundance to take away from your film?
First and foremost, I want the audience to have a great time and experience the particular genius that was the National Lampoon. I want them to come away wishing they had worked at a place as free and welcoming to ideas as the National Lampoon. In terms of the effect the movie has on people, I hope after seeing the film the next time they encounter someone or something that seems to go too far – that maybe is even offensive – that before judging and condemning, think about what that person is really trying to get you to think or react to. The Lampoon did not censor or self-censor; they created work that fueled debate. For me, the National Lampoon was this perfect balance of entertainment and political anarchy. “Animal House” is a perfect example. It’s about bringing down the phonies, the hypocrites and the people in power, especially those who abuse it. It’s about people who are a little different and don’t quite fit in finding a place where they can be themselves and live the way they want.
Are there any films that inspired you?
When preparing for a film, I always watch other movies that might have dealt with the same subject. I watched “The Future is Unwritten” about Joe Strummer, “End of the Century” about the Ramones and “The Filth and The Fury” about the Sex Pistols. Also, films about people working together in a creative setting, which included Alan Rudoph’s “Dorthy Parker and the Vicoious Circle”, DA Pennebaker’s “The War Room,” Joan Micklin SIlver’s “Between The Lines” and Michael Apted’s “Bring on the Night.” There are many films that inspire me on a regular basis. I will mention a few here that i don’t hear ever mentioned or mentioned as much as they once were, in the hope someone might seek them out: “The Decline of the Western Civilization I and II,” “All That Jazz,” “Breathless (1984),” “Valley Girl,” “Parting Glances,” “Down By Law,” “Heavy Metal Parking Lot,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “The Times of Harvey Milk.”
What’s next for you?
I am directing a film about today’s leading and aspiring political cartoonists.
What cameras did you shoot on?
Cannon 7D and C100.
Did you crowdfund?
We have had one experience and it was successful. We thought about it but felt we did not have the time to execute the idea we wanted to pursue.
Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2015 festival. Click here for more profiles.