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.
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!