Canadian producer-director Ivan Reitman—whose films include Stripes, Ghostbusters and Kindergarten Cop—was the Hollywood godfather for a generation of comedy stars, including Bill Murray, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. He made his breakthrough as the producer of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), a massive hit that pioneered the gross-out comedy genre, and is now marking its 35th anniversary. Reitman, 66, who is based in Santa Barbara, Calif., will help kick off Toga! The Reinvention of American Comedy, a program of 26 movies showing this month at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.
Q: Animal House now seems so tame. What’s its enduring significance after all these years?
A: It’s the first movie that really spoke in the voice of the baby boom generation. It was the first time that comedy was played from the point of view of university students. The late ’60s and ’70s was the shift of youth power in America in all kinds of things, in music and in politics. M*A*S*H  was the transitional film. But [Elliott] Gould and [Donald] Sutherland were adults. Animal House and Stripes have a much more youthful voice.
Q: At the time did you feel you were making something seminal?
A: Yes. This was the first Hollywood movie I’d been involved in. We just had a confidence about it. It spoke to us and we were hoping it would resonate with other people like us, the baby boom generation.
Q: You wanted to direct it. Was it tough to relinquish that role to John Landis?
A: It was one of my major disappointments, because I started the thing and worked on the script for a couple of years. The only movie I’d directed that I could show the studio was Cannibal Girls, which I made for $10,000. And I’d produced a couple of David Cronenberg movies. They weren’t confident. It all started because I produced and directed this magic show with Doug Henning at the Royal Alexandra in Toronto. Cronenberg wrote it and Howard Shore did the music. The show got transferred to Broadway. It turned out to be a big hit and ran for five years. That was my first real outside-of-Canada success. Then I cold-called the editor of the National Lampoon magazine and said, “I want to make comedy movies with you.” He said, “Well, I’m not ready to make movies, but we have this stage show we want to do.” So I was introduced to John Belushi, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, this extraordinary group. National Lampoon Lemmings was an off-Broadway show. It had a nice run and I produced it. My deal was, if I could put a movie together based on the show, I could produce and hopefully direct it.
Q: But another Canadian was poaching your Broadway talent for Saturday Night Live.
A: Lorne Michaels took most of the cast. Another Saturday night show with Howard Cosell took Bill Murray. The only person who didn’t get hired was Harold Ramis. So I said to Harold, “Let’s make a movie based on our show.” Doug Kenney had done this High School Yearbook [parody publication] for the National Lampoon. We thought, this is an R-rated comedy, we should shift it to college.
Q: What taboos were you breaking?
A: We weren’t thinking about taboo-breaking. We just thought, “What’s funny? And what feels real to our experience?” I don’t know how many people have said, “You based this on our college experience.” We were pretending it was 1962 but it was all coming from a ’70s perspective.That allowed us to be funnier.
Q: Was Belushi as wild on set as in the movie?
A: What John brought was this wonderful energy based on the comedies he loved from the ’50s, The Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello. His physical references came from there. He brought that physicality of the great American early comedians against this very brash and contemporary way of speaking that the script had. It made it very special. At that time, he was at his most sober self. He was in great shape. He wasn’t doing any drugs. The shooting went very smoothly except for a little brouhaha in pre-production. A couple of our actors went to a real fraternity party where they were not welcome—Bruce McGill had his teeth knocked out. I was not in town. I was in Montreal with my wife, who was delivering a very young Jason Reitman.
Q: Let’s fast-forward. Is Melissa McCarthy the John Belushi of her generation?
A: She’s certainly extraordinarily talented. She has a way of using her physicality. And there’s something about her nimbleness in moving a fairly hefty body around that is humorous, has been for generations. But when I worked with Belushi before the movie and before SNL, he was Brando on stage. He was the guy you couldn’t take your eyes off. One of the great tragedies is that with his addictions, he lost control of all this talent.
Q: What do you think of the new generation of gross-out comedies, and the stable of talent Judd Apatow has harnessed?
A: Judd found a new way of doing what we were doing in the ’80s. Like what Paul Feig did on Bridesmaids. But one of the things I’ve noticed is the emotionality is different. There’s a way that people fell in love with Animal House and Ghostbusters that’s different, but that’s probably because it’s my stuff [laughs].
Q: Well, the new comedy is not as sweet. It’s got a more abrasive, profane edge.
A: The world has become more abrasive, possibly because of social media. But people said that about us. The sexuality seems to have lessened. There’s more squeamishness about nudity and sex, but there’s a more scatological interest today than there seemed to be 30 years ago. It’s a weird shift.
Q: What do you think of Seth Rogen? He is now Canada’s biggest comedy star.
A: I really like him. I haven’t liked him doing romance so far in the little that I’ve seen. But as a comic voice and a generational voice, he’s special. There’s a slyness to him that’s really great. He’s a good writer. I’m about to look at This Is the End [Rogen’s directorial debut], which I hear is really funny.
Q: Rogen is also a total stoner. And stoner humour seems more mainstream these days.
A: Let’s not forget that Up in Smoke was one of the biggest comedies ever at its time. But it’s part of what makes him funny. And the other guy in this movie, who hosted the Oscars . . . James Franco. He certainly has that heavy-lidded quality.
Q: Was weed a source of inspiration for you?
A: No. Stripes was supposed to be Cheech and Chong Join the Army, so it was in the mainstream. Animal House was mostly drinking—the dominant activity in fraternities in the ’60s.
Q: What are you doing now?
A: I just finished Draft Day, which I directed with Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary and Frank Langella.
Q: It’s a comedy?
A: It’s funny but it’s not really a comedy. It’s more in the spirit of Bull Durham. It’s about the NFL draft. It’s funny, smart, tension-filled and emotional, and you don’t have to understand much about football to get it.
Q: Nice to hear you just got a movie made in the current Hollywood climate.
A: That’s exactly the way I felt.
Q: So it’s getting more and more difficult?
A: Yeah. It’s not a cliché, it’s the truth. The baby boom generation still likes to go to the movies, but the few movies being made for them are all geriatric, the Marigold Hotel and that sort of stuff. They’re fine. But people of that generation and younger generations are looking for good, intelligent movies the way they were made in the ’60s and ’70s. When a movie makes a billion dollars that’s all the studio is interested in making, you suddenly have a bunch of movies, mostly comic book pictures, that are making a ton of money because of the international market. Everybody wants the super home run.
Q: How do smaller films get made?
A: The world of independent filmmaking is a real mix of stuff. You have billionaires and their offspring financing smaller movies, anywhere from $1 million to $20 million, but even they want some kind of distribution. The major distributors won’t lose money but they are not interested. They want to release eight or nine movies a year and they want all of them to have to the potential to make a billion or half a billion worldwide. Q:
Q: So how did you finance Draft Day?
A: It was the top film on the Black List [of unproduced screenplays] last year. We had a really great cast, it cost only $22 million, and half came from a private investor. I still had a hard time getting it made. Paramount said if I got Kevin Costner they would make it, and then I got them Kevin Costner and they didn’t make it. That put me in a real scramble and I finally got Lionsgate to get behind it.
Q: Even Spielberg said Lincoln wouldn’t have been released if he didn’t own half the studio.
A: This is not a unique experience. The studios are giving up their desire to make good, intelligent Hollywood movies.
Q: I can’t let you go without asking about the progress of Ghostbusters III.
A: We’ve been working on a script. If we get a good script, it will get made. It will probably have cast members from the past and new people in it as well.
Q: If they can reboot Star Trek, there’s no reason you can’t reboot Ghostbusters.
A: We’re not talking about rebooting it, because the original works just fine. It’s about whether there’s a whole other story to tell.