Fantasia jury member Tim Matheson on the collective conscious and why Animal House still matters.
July 31st 2018
Actor Tim Matheson was in Montreal last week as a member of the jury for the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival. He will of course forever be remembered as the ladies man Eric “Otter” Stratton from National Lampoon’s Animal House. In his younger years he was the voice of Johnny Quest. Another of his largest television roles was that of Vice President John Hoynes in the NBC drama The West Wing. Recently Tim played Ronald Reagan in the adaptation of the novel Killing Reagan for the National Geographic Channel. During the Fantasia Film Festival I ran into actor Tim Matheson. After exchanging some friendly words he politely said we should talk. Thank goodness we did.
Ron : Hi Tim, I’m so so glad to have you here for the Fantasia Film festival. What is it you like about the city of Montreal?
Tim : I like the size of it. It’s not too big or crowded. I like the European feel of it. The people I love. My wife’s extended family is here, so we get to see the relatives.
Ron : This is not even your first time at Fantasia.
Tim : I’ve came here at Fantasia about two years after it started. Then they had a little offshoot of it in Toronto and I went to that. I got their catalogue every year. I was the programmer for the Asian side of the Santa Barbara Film Festival so I would always see what they were doing here and what we could get there. I dropped in last year to see a film and they invited me to come back this year. It’s been great.
Ron : Hollywood seems to be saturated with remakes and super hero blockbusters. I’m sometimes asking myself if there is any originality left in Hollywood. Do you think filmmakers at Fantasia are bringing more unique original films to the public? If those movies are better then why does Hollywood not support them?
Tim : It’s nice to see the spirit of independence still lives and is celebrated by Fantasia. It’s great. I mean these are the kind of films that I grew up on. Horror films, sci-fi, little cheapies, little independent movies, and the spirit is alive. You see these films that are so extreme, crazy, silly, over the top, and it’s the spirit of it that makes this festival so exciting. You see the audiences come out for it. There’s a passion amongst the audience and the filmmakers that we often don’t see in cinema.
As films become so much more about the big studio very few independent films are being made. I hope it will encourage major studios to take a shot but they don’t care about films only making a few million dollars. They care about tens of millions and a ride at Universal. So hopefully these films will find an independent cinema to give them an afterlife.
Ron : I see what you’re saying. I read Jane Fonda’s book a few years ago. In it she says the worst thing that happened to Hollywood was when they let corporate companies come in because that’s when everything changed. They didn’t care how good the script or actors were, it was all about the money and marketing and not as much about making a good film as art.
Tim : It’s a business. It’s always been about business, but when there were studio heads like Bob Evans, Sherry Lansing, or Alan Ladd Jr they were visionaries. Someone like Don Simpson would have gut feelings about movies.
Here I watch a movie on the big screen with an audience, then I’ll watch a movie in a small room on a TV screen. There’s just something about watching a movie with an audience.
As a member of the jury I’ll watch a movie and think “Ah, It’s not that good.” Then I’ll watch five others and realize the first one I saw wasn’t so bad or I missed something in it. I’ll talk to people about it and then I really start to think that I like that first movie even more. Sitting in a theatre and hearing someone laugh at something maybe you didn’t think was funny changes things. The collective conscious informs us of what a movie really is.
Ron : So do you prefer being on the jury instead of being an actor promoting a film?
Tim : Oh yeah. One of the best festivals I used to go to was called Filmex. They used to have like a 24 hour horror, sci-fi or whatever marathon. I remember getting up at three in the morning going to see THX-1138. The audience was so wonderfully vocal. It’s great. It makes you feel young again and inspired to want to make movies.
Ron : What are some of the movies at Fantasia that you like so far?
Tim : I liked Dans la brume. I liked Big Brother. I liked Cam. I liked Number 37. I liked The Witch. A lot of these movies I liked a lot. The Witch is a big production manga film they made in Japan. Then I’ll see a film like Cam which cost almost nothing and it’s really good and invigorating. It’s really a clever, interesting little movie. Number 37 had brilliant directing, a clever script and really wonderful acting. Dans la brume has this guy in it Romain Duris. He’s got two films at this festival. They should have some kind of honour for him. Dans la brume is about this family that is trying to survive this horrible event. It’s good.
Ron : You are one of the few if not the only actor who’s ever played both a vice president and the president.
Tim : (giggling) It’s better to be the President.
Ron : You were so important to young people because of course you were the voice of Johnny Quest.
Tim : Right. Now days it’s mostly adults who say they grew up on it. I’m still doing voice animation today. I’m doing some voice work for DreamWorks on some series they’re doing when I get back.
Ron : Do you still get called out as Otter from Animal House and if so, do you like it?
Tim : Oh yeah! I’ll tell you why. It venerates the work we did a long time ago that is still relevant today. The thing with Animal House is every year kids go away to school and their parents are like “You’ve got to see this film. It’s what to expect in college.”
My kids weren’t aware of it even though they knew I acted when they were growing up. When my daughter went away to college, all of a sudden I got a phone call from her in the middle of the night. She says “Dad, I’m at a toga party. Say hello to my friends.” Because now she’d seen the movie. I was a lot cooler than she thought I was. I think what’s great about that movie is the spirit of the lampoon. It’s outrageous, politically incorrect, way over the line, sexist, racist, with an awareness of how and why they’re crossing the line.
When they showed the screening of Animal House to the studio they said “You can’t release this film like that. It’s got to be cut. We’re going to cut the roadhouse scene. You can’t show it because it’s racist.” One of the studio heads Sean Daniel took the film over to Richard Pryor, showed it to him and asked him if it was racist. Richard Pryor said “Don’t cut that scene. You white people are crazy. That’s a funny scene.” Only because of a black man saying it wasn’t racist or it was racist, but funny, did that scene stay in the film. That’s the spirit of lampoon.
The film is totally incorrect politically. It’s sexist, and misogynistic, but it knows it’s crossing the line. When Belushi is looking out the window at the girl taking her bra off, he turns to the camera and winks as if to say “You’re looking too.”
Ron : I think today things have gotten too politically correct. Now everyone has to make movies like they’re walking on eggshells not to offend anyone. You couldn’t get away with making films like Animal House or Blazing Saddles today.
Tim : You can do it in stand up. Guys like Chapelle or Kevin Hart. Even Jim Jeffries or Sarah Silverman. They jump over the line. Comics love going too far, then turning it around and winning the audience over.
Ron : What’s next for you Tim?
Tim : I just got married in March so my wife, who’s a script consultant and I are building a house up in the Hollywood hills.
I’m very fortunate in all the years I’ve been doing this to have some success and great relationships. I think it’s all about the work. You do the right work and the right things happen.
Ron : Thanks so much. I didn’t want to take up too much more of your time.
Tim : No, this is fun. It’s great.
Ron : It wasn’t as much an interview as it was two guys sitting around talking about movies.
Tim : And it’s better that way. Thank you.