John Landis didn't set out to reinvent the motion picture comedy. But as the director of National Lampoon's Animal House, he invested what might have been an ordinary college picture with anarchic, antic energy, starting a chaotic movement that swept through Hollywood like wildfire.
It's a movement TIFF Cinematheque's celebrating all summer long in Toga! The Reinvention Of American Comedy, which kicks off Wednesday (July 17) with producer Ivan Reitman's screening of Some Like It Hot and continues through August with a wide variety of comedies - everything from Caddyshack and National Lampoon's Vacation to Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy and Bridesmaids.
In advance of his appearance at the July 18 Animal House Reunion screening - where he'll join Reitman, actors Peter Riegert, Stephen Furst and Martha Smith and producer Matty Simmons to celebrate the picture's 35th anniversary - Landis chatted about rewrites, schedules and getting John Belushi to channel the Cookie Monster.
What brought you to Animal House?
It sounds insane, but that script was originally sent to John Schlesinger, George Roy Hill, Richard Lester and Alan Pakula - all of whom threw it back. When I read it, it was misogynistic, racist and anti-Semitic. Kind of horrible. Very funny - really funny - but I was brought in to supervise a rewrite, and if the rewrite went well, then to make a movie. My major contribution at that stage was that I said, "Well, everybody can't be a pig. We have to like people in here." So my big influence was to impose good guys and bad guys - you know, like one fraternity would be the one we'd root for and the other fraternity would represent things we don't like. I think the success of the movie has to do with the fact that it's a traditional underdog situation.
Slobs versus snobs, as they say.
As anarchic and subversive as it is, it's ultimately sweet. You know, that's the strength of John [Belushi]'s performance. If you look at Bluto - as written, Bluto was a pig. He was just kind of a thug. But he was all appetite, and therefore I said, "John, this guy, we must like him. We can't dislike him," [laughing]. I said, "You've gotta think of Harpo Marx and the Cookie Monster. Those two characters are completely destructive, and yet we find them sweet." And that was the strength of Belushi's performance. I mean, he brought the sweetness.
He was fantastic at that. He does it in The Blues Brothers, too, with that "trust me" moment.
Yeah, which he completely betrays [laughing]. No, John was an extraordinary talent. He was doing Saturday Night Live at the time, so it meant we only had him two and a half days a week of the four weeks we were shooting in Oregon. His part is all entrances and exits. I mean, he really does get to sort of come in, steal the scene and leave.
There's definitely a sense that everyone in the movie is having a great time. Even the bad guys.
Animal House was one of those experiences where it really went well. I think a lot of it was cuz we were so low-budget. But we were left alone! We were up in Eugene, Oregon, and it really was a good experience with a happy ending, you know? That's something you treasure in your career.