For people who grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s like I did, or at least those with an inherent bent toward irreverent or downright inappropriate comedy, magazines like National Lampoon were a staple of life. Ditto for movies like Animal House and Caddyshack, which for better or worse have become cultural landmarks for us younger Baby Boomers. Few writers out there understand this better than Entertainment Weekly senior writer and movie critic Chris Nashawaty, the man behind the fantastic book “Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story.” The book came out in hardback last April and releases in paperback today, so it seemed like a great time to sit down with him and talk about his effort to detail one of the most truly bizarre and unique experiences in movie making history.
Open Mic: I loved “Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story.” What was the impetus for choosing that movie as a subject matter?
Nashawaty: I write about movies for a living, so any book I would write would obviously be about movies. It was a question of finding the right one. I was a teenager in the 80’s, so movies like Caddyshack and the John Hughes movies and Stripes and Animal House were really formative for me. But in 2010 Sports Illustrated asked me to do a story on the making of Caddyshack for the movie’s 30th anniversary. In reporting that story I talked to Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, and the stories about the making of the movie were so insane that I knew there was a lot more there to report after turning in the article. That set was so chaotic – just a primer on how not to make movies – and I thought I might really have a book here. So it began as a five-page story in Sports Illustrated that planted the seed that there was a bigger tale to tell here about this whole decade of comedy, and how this movie embodies both the best and the worst of that decade.
Open Mic: You provide copious footnotes. How many interviews did you do for this book?
Nashawaty: I interviewed about 75 people who were directly connected with the film, or who were working at the studio or in the business at the time. And the book is about more than just the making of this one movie. It’s about how three different tributaries – the Second City comedy troupe, NBC’s Saturday Night Live, and The National Lampoon magazine – came together on a movie. So there’s a lot of ground to cover, much more than just interviewing the people who were involved with the movie. I tried to cast the net as wide as I could without becoming too obsessive about it. There was also a lot of archived digging at the Margaret Herrick Library [the archive and research library for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] out in Los Angeles. You can see the studio archives and many of the memos that were sent by the studio executives about the movie, so that’s a really great resource too.
Open Mic: I noticed a lot of the interviews were from years ago. Is this something you had always planned on doing someday? Or do you always keep such notes?
Nashawaty: I’ve been at Entertainment Weekly for 25 years, and over the course of that career I’ve talked to a lot of people who were in Caddyshack or just around in that time period. There were transcripts I’ve had on my computer that became jumping off points to get someone back on the phone. So there was a lot of really hard core intensive research conducted for the book, but there were some past interviews I had done that fed into it as well. I had done an oral history on Animal House for Entertainment Weekly back in the late 90’s, and some of those people are no longer alive so that was a great resource to sort of get their voices into the book talking about that period even though it would be impossible to interview them now.
Open Mic: Were you always a fan of the movie? And if so, how did you make sure you didn’t let that interfere with your work as a reporter?
Nashawaty: You don’t want to spend two years of your life writing about a movie that you don’t really have a vested interest in, but I’ve never been a gushy sort of fanboy when it came to interviewing people. It’s just not my style. Hopefully some of my love for the movie comes across in the book, but also I think there’s a lot of bad behavior involved with the making of the movie and I hope I didn’t leave any of that out either. How we treat actresses, for example. Cindy Morgan was basically a #metoo story 30 years ahead of its time, and I didn’t want to skimp on that just because I love the movie. I didn’t want to whitewash it. So I would say that there’s passion, but also a pretty sort of clear-eyed take of all the flaws of these people as well.
Open Mic: Every reporter knows that everyone essentially has their own spin on how something happened. If you ask five people about the same incident you’ll get five different answers, especially when the real truth might not make them look good. How was it for you to get to what you felt reasonably sure was the truth in this case?
Nashawaty: You put your finger on it. This movie was made nearly 40 years ago, so everyone, especially with the amount of drugs that were consumed during the making of the film, has a very foggy recollection of whatever happened. So you have to talk to as many people as possible to make sense of those varying accounts of what happened. Anything where I had two people disagreeing about how things happened, I made sure to either include both sides or to get as much confirmation of one side as possible. Or to determine if someone was just tooting their own horn. This especially happened in the chapter on Animal House, where I note how everyone was trying to take credit for the success of the movie. The director was trying to say he was the reason the movie was a hit, the writers were saying that they were the reason the movies were a hit, the producers were saying they were the reason the movie was a hit and the studio was saying they were the ones. Everybody thought they were a genius, everybody thought they were the ones who pushed that movie over the top, and that clearly wasn’t the case. So you have to be a little logical about it too. I’m a professional movie critic, so I can look at a movie like Animal House and determine that the director and the writers had a lot more to do with the success than some guy in the studio who wrote the checks. It’s just using some common sense.
Open Mic: You’ve seen your share of movies come and go. Why do you think this movie has resonated for so long with so many people?
Nashawaty: It’s a good question, and a hard one to answer. I think it’s a movie that has a lot of really memorable performances: Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase, Ted Knight even, and it’s got great quotable lines. It is one of those rare movies where when you are at a party or work, or even at a golf event, and someone quotes a line from Caddyshack, you immediately know that person is a kindred spirit. Even though it wasn’t a huge success when it came out in 1980, it has become this cult phenomenon because it is so quotable and because the people who love it, love it so passionately. There are a lot of movies that have done better in the box office than Caddyshack, but the thing is people don’t just like it, they love it.
Open Mic: As you noted, this movie is now iconic. But it is still almost 40 years old. What was the response when you pitched the idea of the book?
Nashawaty: There were fortunately enough publishers who had at least one person in their acquisitions department who was a big fan of the movie that they saw the book’s potential. Not everyone we pitched it to “got it,” but there were enough people who did, and you wouldn’t want to write it for a publisher who didn’t get it anyhow. We also had a little bit of proof of concept with the Sports Illustrated article. Before I had even written a word of the book you could see where it was headed.
Open Mic: You write in detail how chaotic and disorganized everything was around the making of this movie, and about its lack of diversity. Could a movie like this even be made today?
Nashawaty: I think it could, but it couldn’t be made in the same way so it wouldn’t be as good. I think there was something about the way they made this movie – which, for the record, is not the way you’re supposed to make movies – that somehow miraculously worked. Harold Ramis, the director, had come up from Second City, where the whole philosophy is improvisation. So yes there was a script when they got to Florida to film, but they pretty much put it in the trash and let the really experienced improv comedians like Chevy Chase and Bill Murray and Rodney Dangerfield just go freestyle. Nine times out of ten that is going to be a complete disaster, but they managed to pull this one off. In that way I do think it’s an instruction guide on how not to make movies. If you read the book, you’ll see all sorts of things that they did wrong that somehow managed to work out. I do think if they were to make this movie today there would be more diversity, but back then the setting is a starched collar sort of white bread country club, so they were lampooning the things that we’re currently calling to task. I mean, it’s not a progressive movie, but it definitely was ahead of its time in parodying this Republican country club bastion of leisure entitlement.
Open Mic: You deal all the time with celebrities. I think we all have an idea of what that must be like. What is the reality for you in dealing with this particular group of folks? Are they as big a pain in the ass as they appear to be at times?
Nashawaty: Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t. I’ve had some bad interviews with people who have been jerks, but that’s usually not the case. The truth is they have a product they’re trying to sell, and they’re usually on their best behavior. You may hit it off better with some than with others, but it’s usually a bit of a choreographed dance. If you can walk into those things not being star struck and remember that you’re a journalist, you may find that you get some good answers to your questions. You’re always trying to get that un-canned anecdote or insight that they haven’t rehearsed. These people are actors so they’re pretty good about sticking to a script. Your job is to get them off script a little bit, and that takes preparation. There have been a couple of interviews where I’ve gone in and the subject is not really being forthcoming. I remember going into one like that and finally saying, “You don’t seem to want to be here. You don’t seem to want to answer the questions, so I don’t need to write this story. We can just call it a day and go on our merry way.” It got better from there. The key is just not to be too in awe of these people. You have a job to do. You have to write a story. You need to get information and anecdotes and that’s what you have to stick to.
Open Mic: I have colleagues in political journalism who look down on celebrity coverage as trivial. But we are truly a media and celebrity-obsessed culture, and people really do care deeply about movies and music and other forms of entertainment. Why do you think that is?
Nashawaty: I think the truth is that sometimes the politics section of the newspapers can get pretty grim, and you need some diversion. You need a way to forget about that a little bit, and pop culture has always done that. Of course not all pop culture is escapism – there are plenty of movies that tackle serious things. I began my career as a political reporter too, and I enjoyed it. But I think you can find really good writing and kernels of truth and things that are just as enlightening in the entertainment section of the newspaper as you can in the politics section. It’s not just fluff. Pop culture reflects what’s going on in the entire culture, sometimes a lot more than some of the bigger news stories of the day.
Open Mic: Do you have any other book projects in development?
Nashawaty: I’m working on one now. I’ve been working on the proposal and I don’t want to talk about it yet because I don’t want to jinx it. But it is another movie-related book. I’m just figuring it out now and wrapping my head around it. If you ask me the question in six months I’d have an answer for you, but as of right now I am hard at work trying to prepare something but I just can’t say what it is yet.
Open Mic: Books are such big, unwieldy projects. How much did being a reporter help you in this? Did any of it hurt you?
Nashawaty: I think it only helped. The hard part is really that as a reporter, you’re always encouraged to make that extra phone call and to do the extra step to make sure you’ve got everything covered. But there comes a point in every book where you have to realize it’s time to stop reporting. You have to sit down and write. It was hard for me to do that because I always want to talk to more people. I enjoy interviewing people, but I also don’t want to leave anything on the table. So I think next time around I would leave myself a little bit more time to do the writing. Whether that means getting more time on the whole book project or what, but with this one I had to write a lot faster than I would have liked because I spent so long researching and reporting.
With Entertainment Weekly, the articles are very concise. You rarely get to write anything that’s more than 3,000 words, and so when you turn in the book proposal saying you are going to write, 80,000 words or 100,000 words, it’s a little bit daunting. I mean, how the hell am I going to do that? But the mindset I tried to keep myself in to keep from getting overwhelmed was to say that today I’m going to write a chapter, and that chapter needs to be 6,000 words. If I look at that like a 6,000 word story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, then I’m really just writing twelve stories to make this book. So I broke it down in a way that I psychologically could wrap my head around, because if I didn’t then I would have been just too overwhelmed.
Open Mic: Rejection is such a huge part of any creative enterprise. How do you handle rejection?
Nashawaty: There’s not any way to handle it other than to just keep going. I’ve been a little bit lucky on this project, but I do run into it all the time at my day job. You want to get an interview with someone or you want to get so and so on the line to comment on a story and you can’t get them and what do you do? Well, you just have to find another way. And with this book, I’ve gotten really, really lucky. You know I wrote a proposal and a few different publishers really responded to it. There was no one I wanted to talk to for the book who didn’t agree to be interviewed, and it did pretty well when it came out. The reviews were pretty positive and it sold pretty well and so I can’t really find anything to complain about on this one.
Open Mic: I like to end on a fun note. If I could set you up for a conversation – or perhaps a round of golf – with any one of the following three people, who would you choose and why? Your options are David O. Selznick, President Bill Clinton, or Hedda Hopper.
Nashawaty: Oh my goodness, I couldn’t have forfeited before this? Probably not Selznick because it sounds like he was kind of a taskmaster who was maybe not the most fun guy in the world, so let’s scratch him off the list. Clinton I think would be a good choice to play a round of golf with. I think he would certainly tell you some good stories. Hedda Hopper would have good anecdotes and probably tell you where all the bodies were buried, but I think I would go with Clinton.