As the president of the New York-based production company 4th Row Films, Douglas Tirola has produced “Kati with an I” and “Actress,” among other documentaries. Previously, he directed “An Omar Broadway Film,” “All In – The Poker Movie” and “Hey Bartender.” Indiewire met up with Tirola to talk about “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of The National Lampoon,” which premiered last week at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
You pitched the film to The National Lampoon to get the rights to the original art work. What was your pitch?
The pitch came down to two things. One was that we were going to tell the story of the Lampoon and instead of following one character, the arc was going to follow the arc of the Lampoon. Part of what makes the Lampoon so great is that it’s sort of like a college — it’s about what they did and then what they went on to do. That’s why we pay so much attention to it. The content was great. The magazine was great. The movies they did were great. Off-Broadway shows, records, radio hour…and then what they went on to do and their massive influence on people.
To me, the story was about this moment in time when all these people came together. I always like to say “imagine our worst fear that all of life is like a high school cafeteria.” And what I felt about the Lampoon was that these guys would never have been at the same table, but in pursuit of making this great magazine, every month a different a different theme, they came together. I could relate to that because that is how I feel about independent filmmaking.
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That was my way into the film. I also like stories about groups like the expatriates in Paris or the Beat generation or the Punk movement at CBGB’s where there’s a moment in time where all those people were in the same place.
It was also a very specific cultural moment — after the 1960s and post-Watergate, but before the ’80s.
It’s just an era that’s awesome to go back to visit. Making a movie, you get to go back and live that era. They’re not quite ’60s and they’re not hippies — they were the first people to make fun of the hippies. But they’re also not the ’80s part of the ’70s.
What was the most challenging aspect of putting the project together?
I would give it more of a Top Ten Challenges. There were so many challenges. When I think back about making the movie, I think back to Ike and Tina Turner’s version of “Proud Mary” where they go “we can’t do anything nice and easy.” That is the National Lampoon. It was incredibly challenging throughout. It took about six months to convince the National Lampoon to give us the rights. And then when we started the movie, we didn’t have funding. All the movies I’ve directed or produced, we’ve just said “let’s go make this movie and we’ll figure out a way to get it done.” I’ve never had the luxury of saying “here’s my perspective, thanks for the money and now we’ll go make the movie.”
How did you get the talent involved?
Well, there’s a variety of factions inside the National Lampoon. There’s the Hollywood element — and if make you a film about the National Lampoon, people are going to expect to see some of those people — and then there are the writers and creatives. They all have a variety of emotions they feel about their time there and feel about what they’ve written since then. I’d have people literally say to me, “If you’re going to talk to that mother f-cker, I’m not going to talk to you.” I will say it’s so emotional for people that the day we were accepted into Sundance, I got a call from someone who said “I’m not going to be there and if you let this guy up anywhere near the front, I’m going to try and tank this movie.” So imagine that for four years.
That doesn’t come across in the project. Onscreen, it’s such a positive depiction overall.
My feeling was when you go to see a movie and there’s a known topic, there’s going to be expectations. You want to give the audience some of those expectations — you want to hear “I’m Alright” from “Caddyshack,” and then you want to tell them things that they don’t expect.
Given the tension, how did you get everyone onboard?
National Lampoon fans will know the name Henry Beard. He was one of the founders. He hadn’t talked to anybody about this since 1975. Every interview we went to the other Lampoon people were curious. “Did you try and get Henry?” “You’ll never get Henry.” So for four years, we chased this guy. We were a month into editing and we finally got him.
The film is a bit of a hagiography. Was there any thought of including feminist criticisms or anything negative about The National Lampoon?
I would say that the negative is in there. Ann Beatts, one of the National Lampoon’s first writers and the first female writer at “SNL,” makes a joke saying, “I got into this on my back.” That is a criticism. For someone not to understand that, but she’s doing it in the Lampoon-way and she’s making a joke about it. It’s in there.
Given the recent tragedy at Charlie Hebdo, does the film take on new relevance?
Whether it’s in the city or the suburbs or a discussion among documentary filmmakers, there are moments when people say, “that’s just going too far.” What I liked about the Lampoon was there was no going too far. What was great about the Lampoon was that if it was funny or if it inspired a reaction, they were going to go for it.