Chronicling founder Doug Kenney’s creation of National Lampoon magazine, which ran from 1970 to 1998, David Wain’s Netflix feature, A Futile and Stupid Gesture (a phrase from Kenney’s Animal House feature film screenplay) offers a combination of show business success story and lovable romp, within a decidedly modest budget.
“I had specific affinity for Doug Kenney’s work without really even knowing it,” said Wain of the comic mind which led to live shows, television, films, books, and record albums within the National Lampoon brand. “Animal House and Caddyshack (another Kenney feature script) were important pieces of my upbringing that I worshipped. Knowing there was this person behind those two movies and National Lampoon magazine—people today don’t even know his name.”
Of doing the film with Netflix, Wain noted its unique creative environment. “I don’t think many places would have done the movie at all,” he said. “They took a risk with us.”
With video of Doug Kenney being scarce, Wain and Will Forte (who portrays Kenney) had to rely on accounts of people who knew him for reference. “He was a mysterious guy,” said Wain of Kenney. “Will had a midwestern sensibility, mixed with his Harvard sardonic side. I’m from Cleveland where Doug was also from.”
Spanning the Harvard campus of the late 1960s, through New York City in the 1970s, dipping a bit into the early 1980s, A Futile and Stupid Gesture was a period production, a challenge for any film, much more so one on a restricted budget. “We shot the entire thing in Los Angeles though we had scenes in Ohio, Boston, Hawaii and New York,” said Wain. “An enormous number of worlds packed into a short schedule and relatively controlled budgets. It was a massive undertaking, but that’s part of why I like doing these movies.”
To achieve the many required period looks, Wain took note of Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which recreated 1970s San Francisco on a low budget. As Wain was a friend of Heller’s, he sought to meet Diary’s production designer, Jonah Markowitz. “Markowitz came in with his team and did their own massive amount of research building these different worlds, making it all feel real in Los Angeles,” Wain related of their feature film.
In order to represent the National Lampoon office of 1970s Manhattan, Wain wanted a sizable space but found it cost prohibitive. “We had to find a real office to shoot in,” he stated. “We looked and looked. We kept coming up snake eyes and not finding anything. We knew that we might have to green screen out all of the windows.” Fortuitously, the production offices for A Futile and Stupid Gesture were headquartered in L.A. Center Studios in downtown Los Angeles. On a fluke, Wain and his team spotted the view from the floor right above their production hub. “It was literally the perfect office–exactly the layout we wanted,” he revealed. “Out the windows looked exactly right. We never did any green screen in the office.”
In addition to production design, cinematographer Kevin Atkinson developed a shorthand with Wain, along with first assistant director, M. Ryan Traylor, to execute 32 days of principal photography. “We talked a lot to get it figured out,” Wain noted. “We were always constantly brainstorming clever ways to skin the cat. We were also working with actors’ schedules.”
In attempting to create a dramatic narrative based on actual people and events from the past, Wain knew that he was treading dangerous waters should he fail to accurately depict the Lampoon phenomenon, including Kenney’s life, which ended tragically with his death in Hawaii. “It’s very different than if I had made a fictional movie,” the director said. “What actually happened; nobody knows—I wouldn’t presume to know. I don’t think it’s that important a question; I’m happy to be any small part of Kenney getting recognized.”
With regards to his Netflix experience, Wain affirmed he would surely work with the vibrant company again. “They were creatively supportive—there with money when we needed something important,” he said. “It’s very sad that people don’t get to see it in a theater, but so many more people can now see it all at the same time. If you’re making a movie not for the Star Wars audience, Netflix is a great way to do it.”