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How ‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead’ Director Chronicled the Heyday of The National Lampoon

How 'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead' Director Chronicled the Heyday of The National Lampoon

[Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with 
Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand in support of Indie Film Month. Today’s pick, “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,” is available now On Demand. Need help finding a movie to watch? Let TWC find the best fit for your mood here.]

Told through interviews with its key staff and illustrated with hundreds of images from the magazine itself, “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of The National Lampoon,” gives fans an inside look at what made The National Lampoon work.

Earlier this year, Indiewire met up with Tirola at Sundance where “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” premiered. We caught up by phone recently to talk about the film, which hits theaters, On Demand and iTunes today.

READ MORE: Indiewire’s Ultimate Guide to Documentary Filmmaking

How long did it take you to make the film?

It took about four years. I always measure it by saying that I started and finished two other films during that time. One was as a producer, the film “Actress” and then I directed “Hey Bartender.” They both started after beginning this film and came out before this was finished.

Why did it take so long?

It took a long time to get the rights. For me, there was no way to make the film unless we made a deal with National Lampoon to have access to all of their entire archive, essentially, the key piece being the magazine. Because for me, part of the way I wanted to tell the story was to use that art as our primary visual resource, meaning not only showing art when talking about that specific art, but to use the art when there was no image available to tell the story.

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.

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. 

Who do you see as the audience for this film aside from, say, National Lampoon fans?

That’s a great question and this might not be the answer that you’re expecting, but I would say that for me the primary fans for the movie are people that see a lot of documentaries, and for me, this is going to be a different type of documentary. It adds almost a different genre within the documentary.

So documentary lovers?

“I think that’s the audience. Beyond that are people who maybe are not people who see a lot of documentaries or who maybe see a documentary occasionally or maybe not at all, but they love the National Lampoon.

Think about it like this, if you love “20 Feet From Stardom” or “Searching for Sugar Man,” you might not have “Animal House” on your top ten list.  So even if you don’t like documentaries, you’re going to like this one because you love the Lampoon or you love Judd Apatow movies or you just watched “Trainwreck” or “Inside Amy Schumer” or you’re a fan of “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report.” Those are people that I hope will come seek out this movie as well. And then, of course, those college kids who don’t go to movie theaters, who just like to get high and watch stuff at home, I hope they’re going to like it too.

That’s the headline! If you like to get high and watch movies…

I shouldn’t say that. But you know what I mean? Either as director or producer, I think this is my ninth feature documentary that’s being released in theaters and one of the things that you learn is that there’s not a lot of college kids going to arthouses to see documentaries, unless they’re film students or aspiring filmmakers.

They just don’t go to the theater for these types of films. But hopefully, because the film is a little bit more irreverent than some other documentaries and because of the content they hopefully see is somewhat funny, whether they’re watching it in theaters or watching it at home or dorm room or fraternity or off-campus housing, that they can sit back and have their own sort of Alamo Drafthouse experience in their apartment and watch it.

Right, that’s cool. What films inspired you when you were making this? 

I definitely looked at “Broadcast News.” The reason I looked at “Broadcast News” is because it’s a great movie that’s about a workplace that has humor, and there are not a lot those that are really incredible. So it’s a workplace comedy-drama that takes place in the world of media, it’s not a film company per se, but TV. It’s really a lot about people in their careers and changing in their careers and trying to put out, in their case, a nightly newscast, and in our case, a monthly magazine.

What are you working on now? Do you have another project in the works?

I’m producing two things now. One is with my longtime collaborator Robert Greene, we’re doing a movie called “Kate Plays Christine” that we shot this summer. We’re also doing a movie called “Each Sold Separately” about toy culture.

That’s a good one.

I think it’s a good one. I am working on two things that actually deal with politics, which probably gives a little bit of a wink to the idea that part of the attraction to the National Lampoon story was more than the irreverence. If you were to put it through the lens of “Animal House,” it’s not just the toga parties and the food fights, but the jokes about philosophy and Milton and race relations. So one I’m working on has to do with political cartoonists, that very small community in the wake of Charlie Hebdo and what’s happened here. I’ve also started one about political speechwriters, people doing it now and the history of them.

Very cool. Hopefully we’ll be talking about those next time we speak.

I think so. There are a few others but those are the easiest ones to explain. Just so that you know, one movie I’m trying to finish now that I’e been shooting for a while that I’m really excited about, but it’s so different than all these, it’s called “Bloodroot.” It’s about two older women who left their “Stepford Wives” sort of lives in Westport, Connecticut in the ’70s to become radical feminists and eventually lesbians who opened up a groundbreaking vegetarian restaurant in working class Bridgeport, Connecticut. They’ve been running it for almost 40 years and now they’re trying to figure out what’s going to happen to their place as they get a little bit older. I’m excited about that because it is also a workplace, and like “Hey Bartender” and even this movie, is really a lot to do with people’s relationship with work.

Indiewire has partnered with Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand for September’s Indie Film Month. Enjoy exceptionally creative and uniquely entertaining new Indie releases (“Love & Mercy,” “The Overnight,” “Time Out of Mind,” “Cop Car” and more) all month long on Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand. Go HERE daily for movie reviews, interviews, and exclusive footage of the suggested TWC movie of the day and catch the best Indie titles on TWC Movies On Demand.

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