John Belushi was a comedy comet. There was no one else like him, and his bright flight was amazing to behold — until it tragically flamed out in 1982 when he died of a drug overdose. A dozen filmmakers could make a dozen different interesting movies about his life and times, especially since he — more than probably any other Saturday Night Live alum — helped define what that now-iconic show would be. In 1989, Michael Chiklis starred as Belushi in Wired, a poorly received effort that featured Belushi’s ghost reflecting on his life to biographer Bob Woodward. The energetic comedian deserved better.
On Monday, it was announced that Emile Hirsch would portray Belushi in a new biopic from writer/director Steve Conrad (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty). Among its producers are Dan Aykroyd, Belushi’s close friend and frequent co-star, and Belushi’s widow, Judy Belushi Pisano, whose 2005 oral-history biography (co-written with Tanner Colby) is the foundation for Conrad’s movie. She spoke with EW to discuss the movie, the surprising casting of Hirsch, and which SNL stars are sure to be portrayed in the film. (Hint: Not many.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Plans to make a biopic about John’s life have been swirling for years. How long have you been involved in trying to bring it to the screen?
JUDY BELUSHI PISANO: One of the producers Bonnie Timmermann approached me maybe five years ago… seven years ago? But I was not interested at that point. I was raising a family and just didn’t feel it was the place to put my energy. She persistently called every year or so, and about the third try, as my youngest son was going off and I had various transitions in my life, I thought, Why not? Because it’s inevitable that someone will do it, and I figured it would be nice to at least have some effort in there to put a good team together, which I believe we have, and to find people with the heart and the wit and the temperament and the integrity to try to pull together something out of this massive giant undertaking.
When I read that Emile Hirsch was cast as John, my first impression was… “Interesting, question mark.” But when I actually look at them together, there is a decent resemblance.
I know. I certainly meet people sometimes and I’ll think, “Ah, kind of a John type.” So, yeah, would not have thought that looking at his pictures, but when I [really looked] because Steve started talking about him, I was like, “Yeah, his facial features are very similar.” And I’ve always felt more of a gut feeling about finding a young actor who probably isn’t associated too strongly with any other role who can find the character as an actor. Like Michael Chiklis said, when he was a young man and was offered that role in [Wired], he thought it was a great opportunity and it was. He was just unfortunate not to have a better script because he himself was fine. But I think we’re going a little deeper. On one hand, it’s not a comedy. That’s why someone like Emile makes sense. But we would fail if people didn’t walk out feeling that they’d laughed a lot and maybe a little bit of an emotional roller coaster on top of that.
In this genre, I automatically think of Man on the Moon, the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic. Is that sort of the vein you’re aiming for?
I think there are a lot of things that I liked about that, and I think Jim Carrey was terrific. But he didn’t come across funny enough. The movie didn’t make me laugh much, and maybe I’m a little bit jaded in that it’s harder to see someone you know — we were not great friends, but I did know [Andy] and spent time with him in rooms where he had a record player. [Laughs] But yeah, I missed that it didn’t make him funny enough.
Wired was based on Bob Woodward’s book, which wasn’t exactly endorsed by those close to John. Is this film based on your 2005 book?
That’s more of an inspirational springboard. There’s so many stories there that we will incorporate. Happily, Danny [Aykroyd] is now an executive producer, and he brings an important element to understanding their relationship, which is really a beautiful bromance. Dan’s become more central to the script than initially envisioned, and upon seeing that, I didn’t feel comfortable going forward without his participation. So we sent him the script, and he’s been his gracious self to come on board.
I’m sure there are a dozen different great versions of a John Belushi movie. How do you want to frame the story?
Steve is obviously the one really mulling this over, but the things we’ve discussed and where he seems to keep landing is we’re more behind the scenes. We don’t want it to be a parade of imitators. So many of the people in John’s circle were famous. It brings its own issues to when you’re filming, so we’re going to try to keep it to really close friends and more, like I say, behind the scenes. I’m quite certain you will not see Saturday Night Live being filmed on the floor, unless it’s a rehearsal.
He’s best known for SNL and The Blues Brothers and then Animal House. You’re suggesting we won’t see John in those settings?
We’re more likely to see him developing those characters and working with them in ways that are less familiar.
What other “really close friends” should we expect to see in the movie?
To be honest, it’s mostly me, Dan, John, some family… Um, I can’t say. I’m not going to give anything way.
[Long silence] I… don’t know. He’s a great guy.
What’s most important to you in terms of getting John right on the screen?
It’s a tremendous weight. It’s a daunting task, but I feel in good hands. These [filmmakers] understand the story. They’re after it for the right reasons. I’d like audiences to be able to walk away feeling that there was something gained from this two hours they spent in the movie theater, that they had this feeling of having spent time with a great guy.