writing the script for animal house -- 8/17/17

Today's encore selection -- from The Real Animal House by Chris Miller with foreward by Harold Ramis. The movie Animal House became the highest grossing comedy in history when it was released in 1978 and set the comedic tone for a generation. Based largely on the fraternity experiences of Chris Miller at Dartmouth in the early 1960s, the anarchic tone of his fraternity (and generation) had initially been set by the disillusionment of Korean War veterans returning to attend college in the 1950s. The movie was the first venture into film for National Lampoon, and young producer Ivan Reitman gave the scriptwriting assignment to Harold Ramis, who later gained fame in Ghostbusters and Stripes and himself directed such movies as Groundhog Day and Caddyshack. Ramis was joined in his scriptwriting duties by Doug Kenney and Chris Miller. For all the chaos of the movie, the scriptwriting was the result of a disciplined three month process in a New York office building. Here is Ramis' recollection:

"Faced with the assigned material, I looked for a unifying setting and theme, and it was at that point that Anne, my wife at the time, said, 'Why don't you write a college movie?' In fact, I had had some extraordinary experiences at Washington University in St. Louis; I joined a fraternity and lived for two years in the Zeta Beta Tau house and then another two years in an off-campus apartment.

"What characterized my college years, 1962 to 1967, was the dra­matic shift in mood and focus that began with the Kennedy assassi­nation and continued through the onslaught of the free speech movement, the civil rights struggle, and the anti-war movement, all fueled and somewhat intensified by what I call a 'national volun­tary drug-testing program.' In that period, fraternities were becom­ing increasingly marginalized as students converted their anarchic energy to legitimate political protest and activism, and the free­form social experiments of countercultural lifestyles like com­munes and collectives. In that new context, the old Greek system made less and less sense, and the film treatment I wrote attempted to describe that shift. I called it 'Freshman Year,' but when I sub­mitted it to [National Lampoon publisher] Matty [Simmons] and Ivan, it was clear that nobody liked it enough to move forward. What we all recognized was that it lacked the spirit and hard comic edge of the Lampoon, so at that point I sug­gested working with a Lampoon editor, Doug Kenney, Harvard Lampoon alum and one of the founding partners of National Lampoon.

"Doug was a Harvard graduate from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and the Lampoon's leading comic authority on puberty and adolescence. He had edited and compiled Lampoon's highly successful high school yearbook parody and had authored two classic Lampoon pieces, First Lay Comics and First High Comics, elements of which later found their way into the screenplay for Animal House....

"Enter Chris Miller, the lanky, good-natured Connecticut ­looking gentile whose boundless enthusiasm for the golden age of fraternity life instantly put us on the right track. Doug and Chris were Lampoon colleagues, and the three of us bonded quickly. What followed was an initial three-month period of forty-hour weeks on the eleventh floor of the Lampoon building at Fifty-ninth and Madison, bankers' hours spent totally debriefing each other on the American college experience. Working with Chris's treasure trove of published Adelphian Lodge stories, Doug's Harvard expe­riences, and my own fraternity days at Washington University, we compiled a virtual database of every funny thing that ever hap­pened to any of us; every distinctive character we'd known; all the extraordinary and outlandish things we'd heard about fraternity life from our fathers, uncles, brothers, and cousins; and, finally, every single college myth we could remember hearing. Furthermore we looked back and discussed classic gang comedy, from Our Gang to Archie comics, identifying relevant archetypes for our emerging narrative. But what galvanized all our thinking right from the start was the term animal house, not just as a title but as the organizing thematic element from which everything else flowed. ...

"What didn't make it into the film were some of the really hard-core events, true stories that the pro­ducers and executives at Universal found too shocking or disgust­ing to include in a film intended for general release, even with its R rating. In fact, we were told that when Ned Tannen, the president of Universal, read the script for the first time, he appeared disturbed and said, 'I don't get it. These are the heroes?' Reassured by the studio's younger executives, principally Thorn Mount and Sean Daniels, the studio proceeded, and the movie went on to become, in 1978, the highest-grossing comedy of all time."

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