Ben Stiller Interview – TROPIC THUNDER

     August 11, 2008

As most of you know, opening this week is the new Ben Stiller directed comedy “Tropic Thunder.” Since we’ve already run a bunch of reviews (here, here and here) and I’ve already written how much I loved the movie…let me keep the intro brief.

For those that haven’t yet heard of the film….

Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. lead an ensemble cast in “Tropic Thunder,” an action comedy about a group of self-absorbed actors who set out to make the biggest war film ever. After ballooning costs (and the out of control egos of the pampered cast) threaten to shut down the movie, the frustrated director refuses to stop shooting, leading his cast deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia for “increased realism,” where they inadvertently encounter real bad guys.

Trust me…that synopsis doesn’t do the film justice. There are many, many scenes that had the entire theater laughing out loud and parts of the film are so filthy that you won’t believe what is said. Again, I loved the movie and completely recommend it.

Anyway, I recently sat down with most of the cast…and below is the roundtable interview with director Ben Stiller. It’s a great interview and one worth reading. As always, you can either read the transcript or listen to the audio by clicking here. Finally, if you’d like to watch some movie clips from “Tropic Thunder,” click here.

Again, “Tropic Thunder” hits theaters this Wednesday. Go see it!

Question: There seems to be a sort of a petition online to have you keep on directing everything as everything you direct is just great.

Ben Stiller: I love directing and that’s my first love, definitely. No, it is. I really love directing. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do and I feel like hopefully in the length of a career when I’m not acting anymore that I will keep directing.

Q: You know, this is a great comedy, but it’s also quite an action movie. Can you talk about working with John Toll, the cinematographer?

Ben Stiller: Sure. It was incredible. I mean, we sent the script to Toll just because we felt we had to. We were like, ‘Alright, we know he’s going to turn us down, but we’ve got to send him the script just to say we did it.’ And I got this call back saying Toll wants to meet, he wants to talk. And I’d never met him before, but I’d been a fan and I really wanted the movie to have the look of a real war film. That was really important to me and so, we sat down and he’s a really serious guy and he’s a very measured guy, but he also has this really dry sense of humor. And, I sort of laid out what I wanted to do and we talked and we both sort of took a chance on each other I think, because we didn’t know how it would work out. But it was amazing to be able to see his process and y’know, guys like that who are great with outdoor work – and he’s amazing with lighting too inside – but, it’s all about where and when you shoot. So, to get out there with him and his chart where the sun rises and sets and the azimuth and his compass and to say, ‘Well, y’know, if you built the compound there, then you’d have a great shot in the late afternoon and we could shoot this way in the morning.’ Just that whole process, because that’s [why] they are masters of natural light. Those guys just understand when and when not to shoot and which way to shoot. It’s an amazing art form I think. And then to be able to do all that and the action with him and then to have him work on a comedy, and he’d worked with Cameron a lot, but this is a different kind of comedy and y’know, for us, to get him to shoot multiple cameras? That’s something he really doesn’t…multiple cameras shooting in one direction. We shot three cameras most of the time, because there was so much action and actors, but to shoot a scene where you are shooting two actors across from each other most times cinematographers don’t want to do that because you can only light one way that they feel good about, but a couple of times I sort of convinced him, ‘C’mon, I know you can shoot two ways.’ Because people were improvising so much and you want to get both sides of it. So, of course, he’s so brilliant and great and he’d be, ‘Alright, we’ll do it.’ And, of course, it looks incredible because he’s just incredible. And it’s the same thing, he’s always would say at the end of the day, because the dusk stuff is always the best looking stuff, right at the end of the day, he’d be like, ‘I dunno. Just keep shooting.’ He’d look at his light meter as the sun’s going down. ‘I dunno if it’s going to come out or not, just keep shooting.’ And then of course you get into the dailies and this is the most amazing thing. It was really great to work with him and we really spent a lot of time together and then in the DI, the final color timing, to see his process and how he can make – he showed me how you just bring something up one point how it affects contrast and lighting. All that. It was just really fun.

Q: In the notes you say satire was not your intent. Can you clarify this?

Ben Stiller: Oh, did I say that? What do I say? Shit. No, I feel like the tone of the movie is it’s own thing and I think there are elements of satire, but I don’t think it should just be categorized just as that. There are elements of parody in it, but obviously, I don’t think it’s just that. I feel like hopefully it’s its own thing, which has a real story, but a lot of familiar stuff that we are playing off of. And it’s a genre that people know and y’know, I wanted it to hopefully work as both something you could go ‘Oh, that’s funny because I’ve seen that in that.’ But it’s also funny if you hadn’t.

Q: Does that mean the trailers and all the stuff in front of it aren’t parodies? Are there any that didn’t make it?

Ben Stiller: Um, we had a ‘Simple Jack,’ the movie ‘Simple Jack,’ there is a ‘Simple Jack’ trailer that we shot that features Mickey Rooney which is awesome. (Laughs.) He plays like the angry farm owner that’s made because Jack accidentally kills one of his rabbits. It’s like a very sort of ‘Of Mice and Men’ inspired vibe. So we have that trailer. No, that was it. The trailers were actually a lot of work. So, it’s not like we had a lot of extra stuff around.

Q: The mockumentary, what happened to that?

Ben Stiller: Well, what happened to it is it is finished now. Have you seen the Reign of Madness website? So, we are releasing little bits and pieces of it. Like every day or every other day up until release there will be more little short bits from it. And then we are going to release it on Apple on iTunes I think like a week and a half after the movie comes out and then it will also be on the DVD.

Q: What is the running time on that?

Ben Stiller: It’s a half an hour.

Q: Does it have the footage of Robert doing the medication in 69 or 70?

Ben Stiller: Um, here is the deal. There is so much stuff we shot for that, what I wanted to do was put out little pieces on the Internet and then have the full thing actually be some different stuff than what you’re seeing on the Internet. So, it will hopefully, mainly be new stuff f that you’re seeing. It is mainly new stuff in the half hour. And then because there is others stuff that didn’t fit into it, on the DVD we’re going to have outtakes and probably about 15-20 minutes that’s not in it on the DVD. A lot of that is Robert sort of going crazy when he goes back to live, he goes back to live with the family of the character he is portraying and freaks out. He sort of has his post-‘Platoon’ syndrome thing.

Q: I just wanted to know how you could even know that Robert Downey, Jr. could have even done that role?

Ben Stiller: No, I never heard him do the character ever. I just knew he was a great actor. He’s brilliant. And it was really important to hire, to me, this part had to be somebody who actually was one of the greatest actors of their generation, which he is, but he also has a sense of humor. He’s like the biggest, at that time, the biggest bargain genius actor on the planet. Y’know what I mean? I mean he really was. It was like, ‘OK,’ Y’know, it’s like because of everything in his life, this guy, he had his shit together and this is it. This is the moment of time to get Robert Downey and he read the script and he was like, ‘Yeah.’ I remember he called me up and he read the script and he loved the script and hew as like, ‘Yeah, this is just really funny. The story, the whole thing is great.’ And I was like, ‘Great, so alright, we’ll start…’ ‘No, I gotta think about it for a second.’ (Laughs.) Cause he knew it was like a little bit risky and then he said yes and we did a read through right at the beginning before we went off on location. And that was the first time I heard him do the character and he started to play around with it and it sort of revved up and it was amazing. Then he just got into this groove and was just amazing.

Q: I take it that Tom Cruise never took offense when you parodied him on the Ben Stiller show?

Ben Stiller: No, he’s a really great guy. A really positive guy. And to his credit, I went and I did that which I never felt was mean spirited so I felt OK showing it to him. He saw it somewhere, but then we did the Ben Stiller Show and we did the Cruise thing too and a friend of mine was in ‘The Firm’ at the time, and I showed it to him down there and he loved it. I mean, I would probably not have loved it if I saw somebody gave me – somebody doing me. I always give him credit for that. He was always open to it. If you ever spend anytime with him, he’s like that. Then we did this thing on the MTV Movie Awards like eight years ago and that was really fun. We had a good time where I was doing his stuntman and since then we stayed in touch and talked about stuff over the years and then I showed him the script and he really was intrigued by the idea of this movie and then he – I give him credit for this character. He really came up with this idea and it sort of spurred me and Justin to go back and work on this guy, this character. And it helped move the story, because I needed to have – I needed to explain what was happening back in the world while the guys were out in the jungle, so it ended up being one of these weird organic things that just developed.

Q: Coogan said earlier you put a lot of self-deprecating moments in the film?

Ben Stiller: Sure, I think the whole movie is like we’re all doing that. For sure. That’s the point.

Q: Are there any you can point out?

Ben Stiller: Well, all of it. Y’know, it’s like, the whole vibe of the movie is we’re saying look at how ridiculous this world is and it’s the nature of being an actor and being in big movies and the infrastructure around it and the way people get protected and the way people sort of build fences around themselves, some out of necessity, but it’s a very tough world to navigate, I think. To maintain your equilibrium in it. So, we wanted to just have fun, because actors, I think, have a great sense of humor about themselves and just say this is just ridiculous. This is not important. And there have been a lot of movies that have done it. I just have always found that humor going back to SCTV, y’know, all that behind-the-scenes stuff, I just personally find it funny and enjoy it. So, I thought this was a movie to do that and hopefully people will connect with the characters. That was sort of a challenge. How can this not be too inside? But, I’m probably not the right person to judge that, but I sort of went for my gut and then when we stated to screen the movie, see just how much people could connect with the characters. How much of a jerk could Speedman be? Could you care about him or do you have to, or how far could he go? And, Downey’s character, strangely, was never an issue. Because I think he’s such a persona and the character is so well defined that people were always on board with it.

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Q: Do you think other actors will approach you saying you were mocking them specifically?

Ben Stiller: Oh, sure. Of course, I mean, honestly, that’s like the least of my worries. I really don’t think actors are like that. They really enjoy making fun of themselves, because if you’re in it you see how ridiculous it is. And it’s like a bloodless crime. You’re not really going to hurt anybody. It was always important to me that the focus was always on the actors and it was clear that Robert’s character – we’re not trying to do a guy in blackface. That’s wrong. We are trying to do an actor who wrong-headedly thinks he can do a black guy in a movie and get away with it. That’s wrong. It’s going to far. So, that was really important, that we always kept the focus on that.

Q: Any times where you stopped and thought maybe we’re going to far? Did you hold anything back?

Ben Stiller: Sure, there were aspects of my character, like I was talking about, like in the beginning that I put on the DVD, the extended cut because at that point, who cares if we’re likable or not? (Laughs.) Um, but that was one of the things, because my character is trying to adopt a baby and there’s a joke where he like, ‘I feel like all the good ones are taken.’ And it was always funny out of context, but in the movie people always felt like people thought, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to watch that guy for the rest of the movie.’ (Laughs.) So, I cut that from the movie, but ended up putting that on the DVD. That kind of thing. There was definitely, it was really like looking at the whole movie and wanting people to really get on board for the whole ride of the movie. So, that was always the framework.

Q: But you gave a lot of thought to the retarded young man?

Ben Stiller: Yes, for sure. Y’know, again, the same focus through the lens of ‘What would an actor do to try and win an award that would be wrongheaded?’ And that playing ‘Simple Jack’ was an obvious attempt for legitimacy and obviously out of context that could seem wrong, but I felt within the context of the movie we’ve seen this happen in life. We all know, anytime an actor goes out and does that it’s really putting yourself out there. It’s a really tough thing to pull off, so.

Q: Haven’t heard from Sean Penn yet?

Ben Stiller: No, no. Here’s the thing you say about actor’s having a sense of humor about themselves. Sean, I gave Sean the script to read so he knew about it and knew about it and he was totally cool with it to the point where at the end of the movie at the Academy Awards, there is a picture of one of the Academy nominees’ blind doing a character. And Sean actually posed for that picture and did that for the movie.

Q: How much ad libbing was there because Steve Coogan was saying you were yelling ‘cut’ and he was going, ‘Is he Ben or?’?

Ben Stiller: Well, that scene was ridiculously confusing because I was directing it and had my hands tied behind my back because I had fake hands which you need your hands to direct I’ve realized and I’m yelling ‘Cut’ and my character is yelling ‘Cut’, you saw the movie, so it was just very confusing. That was the most frustrating. There was a lot of improvisation. I mean, everybody in the movie improvises and is good at it, so that was why we shot so much film and there is a lot to choose from in that way, but once you get in to the edit of the movie you have to keep the story going forward.

Q: Is anyone going to be able to watch the opening scene of ‘Private Ryan’ again after this?

Ben Stiller: I watched it many, many times when we were working on the movie. And the funny, the great thing about working on this movie and getting ready to do it was getting to watch all these films again because I love these movies. They are such good films and to watch that stuff. ‘OK, we’re gonna watch the helicopter scene from ‘Apocalypse Now’ to work on, to get some ideas. And you end up watching it and you end up 45 minutes later and we’re all like just watching ‘Apocalypse Now.’ And it was the same thing with ‘Private Ryan.’ It’s like, ‘Oh,’ and then it’s like ‘Oh, god, Jesus, that’s horrible.’ So, you just get caught up in the movies because they are good. So, a lot of these prep sessions were just us watching movies and then the moment of like, ‘God, is there anything funny in this? There’s nothing funny in this. What are we doing?’

Q: Can you talk about ‘Night at the Museum 2’?

Ben Stiller: We are shooting it now. We are in the middle of it now. I’m enjoying it a lot because it’s a lot less lonely than the first one, because I get to run around the Museums – first of all we’re in the Smithsonian so we get to run into the Air and Space Museum and we get to go into the National Art Gallery and go into paintings and photographs. Amy Adams plays a statue of Amelia Erhardt that comes to life and she’s running around the museum with me the whole time. It’s a lot less lonely for me. Because a lot of the time I was dealing with CG things that weren’t there. And we’ve got this incredible cast joining, Ricky Gervais, Steve Coogan. Owen is back. And also this time around we’ve got Christopher Guest, which is just amazing. I can’t believe I’m in a movie with Christopher Guest. He’s playing Ivan the Terrible and Hank Azaria is playing the Egyptian bad guy. We actually have a bad guy in the movie. So, it’s good. It’s really been fun and we’re about 2/3rds through shooting.

Q: It has been seven years since ‘Zoolander,’ and you’re knee deep in ‘Tropic,’ but do you have anything else you’re thinking about directing?

Ben Stiller: Yeah, I mean there are a couple of other projects I’ve been working on for awhile. There is one in particular that I want to do, but I think it will be sooner than seven years before I direct again, yes, because I really enjoy this process so much.

Q: Another comedy or drama or?

Ben Stiller: It’s not a big comedy. It sort of like a little bit darker, but funny too, but smaller, y’know?

Q: If I wanted to push any further, any story you want to tell me?

Ben Stiller: It’s not really a secret, I’ve talked about it before. It’s this movie called ‘Civil War Land and Bad Decline.’ It’s based on short story by George Saunders and it’s a great short story. It’s about a guy who works in a Civil War theme park. But it’s kind of dark and it goes to a different place, but I love it and we’ve been developing it about as long as ‘Tropic,’ so I’m excited about it.

Q: ‘Tropic Thunder II’?

Ben Stiller: Definitely not. For sure. No ‘II.’

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