If You Don’t Read This Interview with ‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead’ Director Dogulas Tirola, We’ll Shoot This Dog

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The National Lampoon pushed the boundaries of comedy and taste within the pages of their legendary magazine. But the National Lampoon didn’t just restrict itself to the pages of its magazine, it branched out into stage shows, radio shows, comedy albums, and motion pictures. As debauched as the gags that lined the pages of the Lampoon were, the people behind the Lampoon also engaged in their own debauched lifestyle of sex and drugs, pushing the envelope personally and professionally. The rise and subsequent fall of the Lampoon is documented in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, the lively new documentary by director Douglas Tirola. I recently got to sit down with the filmmaker and discuss his film and the legacy of the National Lampoon.

“I got into the Lampoon through Animal House,” the director said of his personal interest in the subject. “I grew up where we had a showcase theater and looked at that poster because there’s so much going on in it, and convinced my dad to take me to go see Animal House. And we ended up seeing it twice in the same night. Only movie I’ve ever seen twice with my dad. That led me to the magazine. Finding the magazine through friends who had older brothers, and then eventually I saved up and bought this tenth anniversary anthology.”

“Part of what the Lampoon is is no limitations,” Tirola says of the Lampoon’s unique brand of humor. “Just complete freedom of expression in terms of who you’re gonna attack and how you’re gonna attack them.”

The road to making Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead was a bit more complex than most documentaries. “We heard Barbara Kopple, multi-Oscar-winning documentarian who is like a legend in that field, is making a movie. Then we never saw anything about it,” the filmmaker says of the film’s origins. “I got a meeting right down the road at the Chateau Marmont, which I thought was kind of interesting because we’re like 50 feet from where John Belushi died. It’s kind of like, ‘Is this Lampoon humor?’ You know, I think their office was just across the street, but it was interesting. Then I could explain my vision for the movie and we made a deal with them because I felt you needed to have the access to all of the magazine to make the movie.”

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“I think one of the key decisions was this idea to ignore the option to go get archival footage that you usually see in a documentary that takes place in a bygone era,” Tirola says of using the pages of the Lampoon to flesh out the story in the film. “Obviously, there’s no video or photos of Doug Kenney doing drugs, so you’d go into a dark room like this and film baby powder with a razor blade with some filter on it so it’d look like the ‘70s, or you find some disco Studio 54 thing that connotates this image. In our case, it was going through the magazine and I was lucky enough to find this thing, The Rich Pretty Person’s Game of Life. There was this board game, basically, about being a rich person indulging in cocaine and doing all these other things. And we sort of animated it and cut things in. So the idea to be able to use the magazine, or the choice to use the magazine art beyond just talking about the magazine art, beyond just saying, ‘Sam Gross made this great image.’ There it is. That gives you like a fantasia where you’re immersed in Lampoon.”

But it wasn’t easy to convince the former staff of the Lampoon that this is a film worth making. “This is not the sort of movie where these people were waiting by the phone to be in a documentary,” Tirola says, “whether they were well-known or somebody that nobody’s ever heard of since they picked up an issue of the Lampoon. Most of them didn’t want us to make the movie. They did not think anybody was capable of doing justice to the story. And because most of them have worked in the entertainment business, they’re all like highly skeptical.”

Once the ball got rolling on the film, Tirola was able to score some key interviews that were considered nigh impossible to get. “Some of the tougher interviews to get, the two that people point to the most are Chevy Chase, because he’s apparently not always in the best mood, but he gives an amazing – I don’t even refer to it as an interview, it’s more of a performance,” the filmmakers says of the emotional interview with Chase in the film. “He’s just a great interview. He was very generous with his time. And I think that for people that like him, they’re gonna like him in this movie. And people that are interested in him but, you know, maybe love to not like are gonna appreciate him in this movie.”

The biggest interview of the film is Lampoon co-founder Henry Beard. “He had not talked about the Lampoon since he left in 1975. And pretty much everybody we spoke to would say, “Are you trying to get Henry Beard? You’re never gonna get him.’ They take glee in telling us that we’re not gonna get him,” the director recalls of the greatest challenge facing his film. “And because I didn’t know we would get him I watched a bunch of rock ‘n’ roll documentaries where the lead singer was dead. I’m like, ‘We don’t have him, Doug Kenney is dead, basically some of our main characters are unavailable.’ We had a cut of the film ready to submit to festivals – Sundance, most notably – in August, and then we got a call back from him after, like, 22 calls finally saying he would do it. And he gave us a great interview, filled in a bunch of stuff for us that I don’t think were adequate from other people, just knew things that other people couldn’t know.  To get it first hand, so it feels more like this scripted experience, this like living in real time experience. As opposed to just reminiscing about the good ol’ days. I think for real fans of the Lampoon the fact that he’s in the movie is a big deal.”

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“There were no duds,” Tirola says of his multiple interview subjects. “That’s what I would say more than who was my favorite. There was nobody that were like, ‘This guy must’ve been the worst, most boring person at the Lampoon.’ They would all be the most interesting person at any dinner party you went to now. Just a wealth of information.”

The legacy of the National Lampoon is much more complex than its heyday in the ‘70s. “I think what’s more upsetting is when people think of things like the movies that came later that people under 30 know about, which are all the movies that are not made by the Lampoons but there was a moment in time when the person running it licensed the name,” Tirola says about the dreadful straight to video movies that have tarnished the name of the Lampoon over the past 20 years. “All those movies are there to make you think of Animal House. They’re all sort of college/high school based. I think the one with the best title that sums the whole thing up is called National Lampoon’s Master Debaters, about a college debating team. It’s actually like a silly, funny title, but that says it all: this is sex, Animal House a few decades on and they paid for the name to be on it. Which shows how much it still meant 30, 40 years later. It’s more disappointing when people think of that. I want them to think of this and to look at it and sort of as a political statement as, ‘Why don’t we have something like this?’ Or ‘Why doesn’t The Daily Show just go a little bit further?’”

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead doesn’t cover those dreadful years of decline in the film. The reason, simply, were time constraints as well as it being a diversion from the film’s central story of the original crew behind the Lampoon. “Our movie ends around 1988, which is when the last people from the original beginning sort of go and were a few years away from when the magazine stopped being published,” the director says of the late era omission. “We had a longer thing. And I’m looking at an 80, 90 minute movie with this ten-minute ending which felt like it could be its own CNBC movie. At that point, it becomes strictly a business story and not about creating, writing, and art and things like that. Then we condensed it to a scene the length of ‘Holiday Road,’ a great animated thing where we’re going through the pages of the magazine and it gives you information and interviews pop up. It basically just explains: Tim Matheson, this guy who came from Disney cable, then these two guys from Indiana; explains that these other movies are licensed, they weren’t based on their content, it’s not done by Lampoon people, and then a couple of them ended up in jail, and now these nice guys from New Orleans have it and they’re trying to go back – not that they’re trying to recreate what they had – but they’re more honoring the roots of it. So we did have that scene.”

Douglas Tirola sees parallels between the end of his film and that of Rocky. “My feeling is ending where we end it, which is the last people leave and even though it doesn’t end under the best of circumstances – they don’t win just like Rocky didn’t win,” he says of removing the “morning after” scene as he calls it. “The story in general is that they won. That they look back and this was an amazing time in their life where they did this amazing work. By cutting what I would say is the morning after of the Lampoon story, we end with really what the movie is supposed to be more about, which is about these people coming together to do something really special, just like the Beat Generation, or the Algonquin Roundtable, or CBGB’s, or London in the late ‘60s for music. And to have that changes the whole way you walk out of that theater.”

 

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