McMaster alum Ivan Reitman reflects on 35 years of 'Animal House'

The Toronto-raised filmmaker told the CBC's Jian Ghomeshi that he drew some inspiration for the cult classic film from his time at the Hamilton university.

Listen to his interview on CBC Radio One's 'Q with Jian Ghomeshi'

Governor General Michaelle Jean, right, invests director Ivan Reitman as an Officer of the Order of Canada during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Friday September 3, 2010. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Amid all the 35th anniversary Animal House celebrations at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox this week stands one person who is responsible for it all.

Toronto-reared director-producer Ivan Reitman built the foundation for the pioneering 1978 frat comedy that celebrated its birthday milestone with a cast/creative team reunion at Lightbox on Thursday. It also has a spot in TIFF's "Toga! The Reinvention of American Comedy" series, and on Friday director John Landis was also due to appear at the venue for an "In Conversation With..." chat.

Reitman says it all started "in a roundabout way" in the early '70s when he cold-called the publisher of National Lampoon magazine, Matty Simmons, telling him he wanted to make a film featuring the brand's fresh voice in humour.

Late actor John Belushi starred in the 1978 comedy 'Animal House.' (NBC/AP Photo)

"It was this combination of really smartypants intelligence mixed with silliness and parody and vulgarity that seemed to really speak to me as a kind of baby boomer just sort of hitting his 20s," the Oscar-nominated comedy master in an interview this week.

"I thought: 'Somebody should make a film that sort of speaks in this language.' "

Reitman had just produced and directed the David Cronenberg-penned stage musical Spellbound — featuring the magic of fellow McMaster alum Doug Henning, composition of Howard Shore and musical direction of Paul Shaffer — in Toronto and off-Broadway, and wanted to helm the National Lampoon film himself.

But Simmons initially didn't want a movie and instead asked Reitman to produce a stage show, which he did. National Lampoon's Lemmings ran off-Broadway in 1973 with then-rising stars including John Belushi, Christopher Guest, and Chevy Chase.

McMaster inspiration

When Lorne Michaels hired most of the Lemmings cast for Saturday Night Live, Reitman returned to his idea for a National Lampoon film. Ramis wrote it with magazine co-founder Douglas Kenney and scribe Chris Miller, setting it in university in 1962 as opposed to high school, which was the original focus.

'It was a real mix of all of our university experiences.'—Director Ivan Reitman

Reitman said he mined some of his experiences from McMaster University in Hamilton for the story but noted Animal House is not based on life at one of the school's dorms, as some have believed.

"It was a real mix of all of our university experiences," said Reitman.

After two years of development and about 18 drafts of the script, Universal Pictures finally agreed to make National Lampoon's Animal House for a budget of about $2.7 million.

They wouldn't let Reitman direct it, though, because at that point he'd only helmed a $12,000 comedy film called Cannibal Girls in Canada. Instead, he produced while Landis directed a cast including Belushi, Tim Matheson, Donald Sutherland and Kevin Bacon.

Three days before the start of the shoot in Oregon, Reitman's son was born at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. And just 10 days later newborn Jason was onset.

"His first view of show business was getting a baby blanket from Bette Midler and (star) Peter Riegert, who were dating at the time, as he arrived from the airport in Eugene, Oregon, and I guess he's never looked back," said Reitman, who did an "In Conversation With..." chat with his Oscar-nominated filmmaker son at the Lightbox on Wednesday.

Reitman said he was proud of the way the film turned out but noted it wasn't quite what his "end-goal" — directing — had been. And once the film was a clear hit, everyone involved got new jobs from it except for him.

"To me, the studio said, 'Hey nice work, and if you have anything good let us know,' and I said, 'Boy, I've got to go back to directing,"' Reitman said with a laugh. "I called up my friends, Dan Goldberg and Len Blum, who had gone to McMaster with me as well here, and said, 'Let's do a summer camp movie, let's shoot it this summer' — this is in March of I think 1978 or '79.

"And that's how Meatballs got born and made and my life as a director then continued."

Modern comedies too 'vulgar': Reitman

Reitman went on to also direct hit films including Stripes, Ghostbusters and Kindergarten Cop, which are all in TIFF's "Toga! The Reinvention of American Comedy" series.

Meanwhile, Animal House has become one of the most profitable movies of all time.

Reitman said they didn't intend in inspiring a "gross-out" brand of comedy with the film, as they've been widely credited with.

They just wanted to create comedy from their young-adult point of view, which nobody had done before.

'So people ask me what I want to do — I just want to do good work, really.'—Director Ivan Reitman

"I think (critics) thought it was vulgar in much the way I probably think of many of the comedies that are coming out today as being more vulgar than what my own personal taste is right now," said Reitman. "I think it's an inevitable shift and I think it's important for generations to get their own comedic voices and language."

So, does Reitman find himself influenced by comedic voices of today?

"I like to think they're influenced by me," he said with a laugh. "My film right now is Draft Day, which is a pretty serious movie with some humour in it. But it's very verbally based, it's very emotional and it's very tense and it's a whole different thing.

"So people ask me what I want to do — I just want to do good work, really."