“I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part.” So said Eric (Otter) Stratton, the smooth-talking Lothario and frat-house provocateur played by Tim Matheson in the classic 1978 comedy Animal House. As part of TOGA!: The Reinvention of American Comedy, a survey of rude and crude game-changing comedies, TIFF has assembled a reunion of the director, producers and some of the actors of Animal House for a discussion and screening Thursday evening. We spoke to three participants – Canadian producer Ivan Reitman, director John Landis and actor Peter Riegert – about the making and meaning of the frat-house masterpiece.
Reitman: “It was the first comedy movie which spoke in the youthful voice of the baby boomer generation. The comedies before were from an adult point of view. We were speaking in our own language.”
Riegert: “It was an expression of the Saturday Night Live and National Lampoon mentality. It seemed different. Whether it really was different, who knows?
Reitman: “It was the beginning of something. John Landis’s films, my films, Harold Ramis’s films, particularly in the first 10 years of our professional careers, all developed what I call the ‘shift in language’ further. It really spoke to the bulk of the movie-going audience, which really was the postwar generation.”
Reitman: “We had this remarkably confident, almost aggressive point of view on how good the script was. Writer Douglas Kenney and I just felt it was going to break new ground. I thought I was going to direct it, but, instead, John Landis got the script.
Landis: “I was originally hired to supervise a rewrite. The script was really terrific, but all the characters were unsympathetic. I had to tell them, ‘Guys, everyone can’t be a pig.’ So, we divided the fraternities into the good guys and the bad guys.”
Riegert: “The actors thought the script was beautifully put together, and we thought Landis had cast it almost perfectly.”
Landis: “I wanted as many unknowns as possible. But the writers all knew everybody from Second City and from The National Lampoon Radio Hour, which John Belushi produced, and from the National Lampoon magazine and from the stage show, which Ivan had produced for National Lampoon. The Bluto character was written for John Belushi. D-Day was written for Dan Aykroyd. Peter Riegert’s Boon part was written by Harold Ramis for himself. He wanted to play it, and, in fact, he’s probably still annoyed with me because I didn’t cast him.”
Riegert: “Universal wanted to use Chevy Chase and Bill Murray and whoever. I think it was Landis who said, ‘I’m not making a SNL film.’ He was the one who said Belushi belongs in it, but that we can’t have everybody from the show.”
THE WOULD-BE STAR
Landis: “The studio desperately wanted Chevy for the role of Otter, but I did everything I could to sabotage that. We’re having lunch with Ivan and producer Matty Simmons and a guy from the studio and Chevy, who was very hot at that moment. He was considering a Colin Higgins movie called Foul Play, starring against Goldie Hawn, so everybody was doing their best to flatter him and tell him how important it was for him to do Animal House. But I would say things like, ‘Yes, Chevy, in Animal House you’d be part of an ensemble. You don’t have to carry the movie.’ Ivan was kicking me under the table, but I kept it up. ‘Chevy, in Animal House, it would be a comedic role as a lady-killer. In Foul Play, you’re just a Cary Grant.’ I still wince from Ivan kicking me under the table.”
THE SETTING: 1962
Reitman: “It represented a transitional phase from the war generation to the postwar generation. The postwar kids were not yet going to college, but the vibrations were coming.
Riegert: “Setting a movie in an earlier age gives it a mythical quality. The time they chose was the year before Kennedy was killed. So, it has this innocence going for it, and it was about something that was about to change in the later 1960s, the so-called cultural revolution. But you have to see what the revolution was rebelling against. In 1962, the smallest things were upsetting to authority. It wasn’t the civil rights movement. It wasn’t the anti-war movement. It was something else, but it was a harbinger of what was to come.
Landis: “American Graffiti was set in the same era. It’s before the Kennedy assassination. Vietnam had not yet flared up. Also, when you put something in the past or the future, it gives the viewer a suspension of disbelief that you don’t necessarily have in contemporary settings.”
The Movie-ending Melee
Reitman: “The scene at the end of the film spoke to the unrest that happened in the late 1960s, as political attitudes shifted. That was the clash that you see there. The film certainly has a political point of view, but more than anything, we were trying to make it funny.”
Animal House reunion, July 18, 7 p.m., TIFF Bell Lightbox. (416-599-8433 or tiff.net)