Talking with ‘A Futile and Stupid Gesture’ Producers Peter Principato and Jonathan Stern
It’s hard to argue that anyone could be doing better in comedy production right now — digital, TV, and film — than Peter Principato and Jonathan Stern. Principato is coming off the recent releases of Central Intelligence and Keanu, the first of which grossed over $200 million worldwide and both of which are north of 70% on Rotten Tomatoes, a significant mark for comedies. And Stern has come off seven seasons of producing Childrens Hospital — among other things — with new seasons of Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later and Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return and much more.
It’s fitting, then, that the two paired up to produce a movie for Netflix centered around one of the most influential figures in comedy history and a name that not many people have heard before: Doug Kenney, one of the founders of National Lampoon.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture, which premieres on Friday, stars Will Forte as Kenney and longtime Stern collaborate David Wain behind the camera as director. Domhnall Gleeson, Emmy Rossum, Joel McHale, and Martin Mull are among those in a comedy-star-studded cast for a movie about comedy stars such as Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Harold Ramis — but the movie is really about Kenney and Henry Beard (Gleeson) and making things that you find funny regardless of what your parents, business partners, or critics may say.
Some may watch A Futile and Stupid Gesture expecting it to be funny — and there’s no denying that for people who enjoy work from Principato, Stern, and Wain that at times it is — but the subject matter around Kenney and the Lampoon often is quite serious. The movie then profiles as a bit of a funny drama than a serious comedy, which is perfectly welcome from a group of people who have proven a lot in that world already.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture often “feels” and is shot like a movie of the time and films that it is profiling; it seems like something that Kenney himself would have approved of. How did you approach getting the tone right for the movie?
Peter Principato: The way it came together was that I didn’t know who Doug Kenney was, other than he was in the credits of Caddyshack, and when Michael Colton and John Aboud (A Futile and Stupid Gesture’s screenwriters) gave me the book, I read it and then I was sort of embarrassed that I didn’t know who this man was. It was always about, “How do we tell this story and walk the line of comedy and drama with an incredible amount of heart? When putting this together, the first person I wanted to do this with was Jon. We were longtime collaborators looking for more stuff to do, so Jon and I sat down to talk about how to actualize that version of the movie. One of the first things we talked about is that we wanted to make a movie that would go to Sundance.
Jonathan Stern: Specifically with tone, one thing we’ve all said to each other is “What would be a tone that would honor the people that the movie is about?” Not exactly this, but “If the subjects of this movie had been making this movie now, what kind of approach would they have taken?” and “How do you make a movie about comedic people and situations, but you’re telling a dramatic story?” What Peter says is exactly right: The line between is this movie a comedy or a drama is something that we were feeling out all the way through the script, the shoot, the edit, the re-shoots, and the re-edit. If you asked me at the beginning of the process I would have thought that the movie would’ve been more comedic and less dramatic that it ended up being; by the end of the day, the movie came into itself with a lot more drama to it. Even though these are people making comedy, the lives that they’re living every day is not necessarily full of laughter, although they were making each other laugh.
Principato: They’re trying to deal with their own demons while trying to turn the world on its ear a little bit. We wanted to try to pay homage to it but also through the tone of the movie, look at how would they look at this material and do it today? Some of the things were we wanted to be a little fearless in breaking some tropes of movies. From the beginning the tone was always going to be a little bit of a drama about funny people with a comedic tone, and also us wanting to pay homage to this comedy community of the early seventies with today’s comedy community — looking at them as godfathers and forebears of modern comedy, all while telling the story of this man, which is at times kind of a tragedy.
Stern: One of the things that helped us was our director, David Wain, who we’ve worked with so much. He somehow has a way of having the characters in this movie be self-aware in a way that doesn’t take you out of the movie, but that self-awareness is a part of who they were. It really informed a lot of the tone of these scenes. It’s almost as if they know they’re being watched, and they are in that we had a camera on them, but the characters themselves just knew more about what they were doing than maybe they let on.
What’s the fraction of fact and fiction in this movie, and how do you improvise and create — when you have so many great improvisers and writers involved — within a true story?
Principato: We wanted to try and tell a story about this man and his journey and in doing so you also want to tell a compelling story, so we definitely played with the fact and fiction a little bit. In one piece of the movie we actually call attention to “Here are the things that historically we didn’t get right.” The book was really a retelling of many people’s recollection of that period of time, so even in that we did it almost as if it was recollections and wanted to focus on telling the best story. So trying to stay on the line of things that were obviously true and were documented, but also when needed felt like we wanted to be able to tell the best story. But we also wanted to own that by putting it in the movie.
Stern: The two main characters, Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, are probably the least documented of all the characters. If you want to see what Chevy Chase, or John Belushi, or Bill Murray, or Gilda Radner, or Harold Ramis looked and acted and sounded like during that period, there’s a lot of material to do that. Doug and Henry, our main characters, there’s very little in terms of actual videotape or even photographs. So what we’re going off, which is freeing and liberating, is people’s descriptions of those people and their relationships and that time. That might just help you get down to the spirit of these people more than a simulation of those people.
You have both worked a lot of funny actors and I imagine that many of them wanted to be in, and were considered for, roles in this movie. How difficult was the casting process, and how did Forte come aboard as Kenney?
Principato: It was only difficult from the point of view of having so much to draw from and having so many people that wanted to be involved once they heard about what the project was. Then we sort of took the time to carry the people that really embodied the spirit of the actual characters. What was fun was that we really wanted to draw from a mixture of today’s different comedy worlds; you have people from UCB, from The State, from Saturday Night Live, members of other comedy troupes, people from Little Britain, and we really pulled together a group of people that have a mutual respect for each other and a definite respect for the people that they’re portraying in that era of time. We didn’t necessarily want to go for look-alikes. Kind of like what National Lampoon was — people that embody a character or spirit of a character rather than going for specific look-alikes or people like that. We had choices for each role, and we’re really proud of the way our casting director Allison Jones and her team aided us, in actualizing all of these people.
Stern: You know, I think that there were a handful of parts, and I won’t tell you which ones, where Allison said, “Of course you’re going to cast this person in that role” and “Okay! You’re right!” She’s always right. Maybe we’d say, “Show us a few other people,” but she’d say “I’ll show you, but I’m telling you, this is who you’re going to cast,” and she’s always right.
Peter, Central Intelligence and Keanu were arguably the two biggest comedies of 2016, and you produced both. What was that year like for you personally, and how did you plan to build off of it?
Principato: As somebody who wears multiple hats, that year was important for me because I’ve always produced in certain ways and collaborated in certain ways, but I felt like 2016 was the year I became a “real producer” — really utilizing all the skills that I’ve sort of built over the years from owning a company, owning a business, managing artists, believing in artists, first and foremost always being a representative of those artists, but then also turning those skills into the beginning of nurturing projects. Central Intelligence, not unlike Futile, was an eight-year process for me. It was an eight-year process to get to that place of The Rock and Kevin Hart coming aboard this project, and it was something that I had originally set up at Universal and then I brought Scott Stuber on as my partner; he’s one of the best people in the business to actually learn from if you want to produce movies and understand the producing, marketing, and distribution of them. He was so gracious and giving in that process that it led to us being able to make Keanu simultaneously of Central Intelligence. I’m just really proud of both of those movies. Having the financial success that Central Intelligence did, it was exciting, and it’s like “Okay, I’ve learned how to produce, now I want to continue to figure out that beast a little bit, build off it, and try to put projects together.” It’s really about the passion of it more than the success of it. Futile has been a passion project for almost nine years now, and that means as much to me as putting together a Central Intelligence and happily being involved in Keanu and seeing those guys bring their vision to the screen for the first time. I just really want to continue to help artists passionately bring their visions to the screen, so that’s sort of what I’m focused on.
For you Jonathan, you’ve produced a ton of successful digital and TV features since sort of entering the comedy world in 2007 with The Ten, but haven’t produced much in the film world in that time. Is that significantly different when producing Futile or much of the same?
Stern: That’s an interesting question. Producing The Ten was a crossroads in that that’s when I realized and started focusing primarily on just comedy. I came from the indie film world where I did all sorts of genres. And at the very same time, it’s when I stopped doing indie films and started doing digital and television, and it took awhile for me to come back around and to get into features. It took this project and Peter putting it together and getting me involved because films are a different thing. You work on them for a long time before they get out there, and maybe a lot of people see them, maybe they don’t. I mean, I had episodes of digital series that had more viewers than any feature I produced. So it’s a different kind of commitment in the big picture, but when it comes right down to the making of it, on a day-to-day level, it actually is a very similar skill set to all the other things in that you’re using the same tools.
But after so long thinking in shorter formats, it was really liberating to be thinking in a longer format where you’re thinking about characters, where a story is going to be over at the end of that movie. You’re not waiting to see what happens in the next season. So it was a good alternative and at the same time you’re still, scene by scene, saying, “Is this working?” If it isn’t, why? How do we improve on it? What are some jokes? This joke isn’t hitting. Find a joke here. That works on a dramatic level too. With the cast in front of the camera and the people behind the camera, we worked with a lot of the people we’ve worked with in digital and television for all these years, so they’re a comfortable group that way.
Speaking of the indie community, your first credit is with director Greg Mottola (Superbad) on the 1996 movie The Daytrippers?
Stern: That was the first movie I ever did. I was working as a development person in a small production company in New York and Greg had a script that he wanted to do called The Daytrippers. He had $60,000 committed from investors, and by the time we made it we got it up to $75,000 I think, and he literally walked into the front door of the office I was working in and said, “Mutual friends thought we should meet, I’m looking for a producer for my movie.” I read the script and I’m like “Wow. This is excellent.” I took a leave of absence from work and that was the first thing I worked on. It was so hard. It was great, but I remember on the cab ride on the way home right after we wrapped on the last night, I opened my mouth to speak to the cab driver and no words came out. I had lost my voice. I held onto my vocal chords until the very last minute and then my body just… everything went. Hard work.
Is there a project that holds a special place in your heart maybe because of the time you were at in your life or career, or memories of the best set you’ve ever been on?
Stern: I’ll point to two hard-to-find things, I love this question. About 12 years ago, A.D. Miles and Joe Lo Truglio and I did a web series called Horrible People that A.D. wrote, and it starred Joe and Miles and Kristen Schaal and a bunch of other tremendously funny people. It was basically a soap opera parody, but a very twisted version and I loved it. And a few years ago, Adult Swim started doing these 4:00am fake infomercials and we were, if not the first, then amongst the first with what turned into an eight episode installment of something called You’re Whole, which was a character created by Michael Ian Black. He played this self-help guru and Michael Schowalter directed, and they’re 11 minutes long, and they’re weird — pure Michael Ian Black — and I love those two. Neither one of those is going to change society, but I never get tired of watching them.
Principato: Two things in television that I wish more people would lay their eyes on: one is a show called Flaked that was on Netflix and one is called Married that was an FX series and only lasted for two seasons. And on the movie front, believe it or not, I wish more people would see Keanu.
Stern: I saw it. I went to the premiere! I thought it was terrific. Actually one more thing, it just went up on NBC.com, is a show called Shrink. It was originally on Seeso but they went out of business. It is now findable and it’s eight episodes, created by Tim Baltz and Ted Tremper, and it’s really terrific and no one’s gotten a chance to see it.
So as two people who are constantly seeing and meeting and getting correspondences from people who aspire to work in comedy, what do you look for in a person or a project?
Stern: I look for something I want to see — something that I would like to be the audience member of, and preferably I’d like to see it 100 times because I am going to see it 100 times or 500 times. If I think I’m not going to be able to stand to watch it a few times then that’s a big warning sign. The fun thing about some of these comedies, and the same is true with great dramatic performances, is even though you know what’s going to happen you delight in discovering new things each time you watch it. Really after 500 times you might stop discovering things, but at least you don’t want to shoot yourself.
Principato: I’m always looking for originality, a specific point of view, compelling characters, an element of surprise, things we haven’t seen before, talent that I believe in working with, bringing like-minded people together that help elevate the subject matter that I’m personally passionate about and would spend hours searching online to find out stuff about. I’m predominantly a guy that works in comedy, these things are all equally important to me. It’s funny, because when you look back on the world that we made this movie about — Animal House, Caddyshack, National Lampoon — it was about guys who had an original way of looking at the world. A way of looking at the world that turned it on its ear. That couldn’t take it so seriously. That would make fun of it in a way but really had something pointed to say. Animal House is as much of a drama as it is a comedy in a certain way, because it really is about the haves and the have-nots — the people that are coming together against the man. Bucking the establishment. Really themes that are very dramatic, that they put into this world. Caddyshack was definitely about the class system and looking at the way that different classes are treated and how they do that. Going about it in a way that’s telling something meaningful while adding real-life humor to these situations. It was a lesson in getting back to those basics of really looking for those types of people.