Ben Stiller on Tropic Thunder


What happens when a bunch of whiny and overly self-involved actors become too much to handle? You take them to the middle of a jungle, of course, and let them fend for themselves! This is the premise for Paramount Pictures’ new crude and crazy comedy, Tropic Thunder, produced, directed and co-written by and starring Ben Stiller. caught up with the Stiller at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles to talk about the passion project he’s been working on for years.

Q: How do you direct yourself and survive shooting in the middle of a jungle?
Ben Stiller: You just take it one day at a time. For me, the movie was so long in the process of getting to the point where we were shooting. I was so excited to be doing it. I had lived with it for so long that the fact that we were actually making it was so much fun really. Over the course of eight or nine years a lot of drafts of the movie and real work on the drafts. [There were] times I’d never thought we’d make the movie and times I thought this was a good idea , but how do we figure this thing out? The idea was always there. The first act was always there and the idea for the second and third act was always there, but the actual articulation of it and trying to keep it going. When he finally got to the point where we were filming, I was just so happy that we were doing it, and then we had the cast that we had and then [director of photography] John Toll shooting it, making in Hawaii, for me it every day there were definitely times where there was a lot of pressure, but I felt like I had such a good group of people around me. When you’re working with people at that level you feel very supported. I always felt supported by the other actors and it was the kind of movie that I wanted to see. For me, it’s been a long time I think since I’ve made that kind of movie where I’m the core audience for myself.

Q: You don’t just end up with these people. You chose who you want to collaborate with. What was that process like?
Stiller: It’s an important part of the process, but for [Robert] Downey’s part it was a very short list of people who I thought could pull that off because you had to buy that he was one of the greatest actors of his generation. I knew it couldn’t be a comedy guy. It had to be a guy who was one of the greatest actors of his generation. It had to be a guy you bought in that role as a serious actor and yet also the guy had to be funny too and be able to pull that off. I think there are very few guys who can do that. Jack was always the prototype in my mind so I sent him the movie. It was actually a very easy process with Jack and Robert. I sent the movie to Jack not knowing if he’d want to go for it because he’s sort of so in his wheelhouse, but I knew he’d be the best guy for the role. He responded to it and said, “Yeah I want to do this. I’m on board,” which I was surprised by and I was really happy. Then Downey read it and he got it. I said, “Oh great you want to do it?” and he said, “No, I’ve got to think about it.” It was obviously a risky venture for him. He was just about to start “Iron Man” and I think he responded to it and he’s like, “I’ll do it,” and I’m like well, “Can you do it because you’re doing ‘Iron Man,'” he’s like, “I’ve got two days in between and I can start right after.” I’d just worked with Danny McBride in “Heartbreak Kid” and I was really a fan of his. I’d just seen his movie “Foot Fist Way” and I’d been writing the movie with Justin [Theroux] for years, but these guys were all new. Jack was probably the only person I had in my head for a long time. Then it was like I want Danny if he wants to do it because I think he’d be great for Cody. Then we auditioned other people for the other roles.

Q: How difficult was it to write Downey’s character?
Stiller: It was fun to write it. It also went through a lot of changes. Originally he was written as an Irish man. He was Irish up until we started shooting. Then Downey came to me one day and said, “Can I do him Australian?” We’d already been shooting, but he hadn’t done any of his out of character stuff and he said, “Can I be Australian because I think I can improvise better in Australian.” He’d done “Natural Born Killers” and he’d done an Australian accent so that changed while we were shooting. Then also, for a long time he’d drop character in the middle of the movie like when we were at that river and I split off and go off on my own. In that scene he originally used to drop character and was Irish for the rest of the movie. As we started to get closer to shooting, it just seemed funnier that he just stay in character. Then the idea developed of the guy being lost in his character and not really being afraid to drop characters. Sometimes there were ideas that were funny ideas that we had to figure out a way to get to. It’s funny for him to be in character so we had to justify that. Why would he stay in character?

Q: How great was it to make fun of Hollywood?
Stiller: I’ve always enjoyed that kind of humor going back to “SCTV” where it’s sort of making fun of behind the scenes stuff. Obviously it can be a little insular sometimes because if you’re in the business you can find that stuff funny. For me I always knew this stuff was funny. To me I just wanted to figure out a way to hopefully justify making it on the scale we were making it and it could reach out to a broad audience. I love that kind of humor and I think actors like to make fun of themselves and the business because it’s so ridiculous. There’s so many people who take themselves so seriously, myself included. We all have moments where you read a quote or an interview or you’ll see yourself saying something in an interview where you’re on TV 10 years ago and you’re like, “What was I thinking?” because it’s just a trial and error process and I think some people get caught up in it. Sometimes you sound silly, sometimes you take yourself too seriously. It’s hard to navigate through this world – the bullsh*t of it all.

Q: Was it important to make it R rated?
Stiller: The R rating came very early on. We knew we were satirizing these war movies and the opening scene was like, “Get your motherf**king ass in this f**king chopper now,” and I knew I didn’t want to lose those jokes right off the bat because of PG-13. It felt like we’d be shortchanging the satire of the war movies. Those movies have all that language in them. So we were strapped with that R rating right from the beginning because if you have two f**ks in a movie, that’s it.

Q: Is there going to be a more gruesome version for the DVD?
Stiller: Slightly more gruesome on the DVD – a little bit more blood and guts. I think we went far with the head.

Q: It seems like the movies you direct have a much wilder sense of humor than the films you star in. Why do you think that is?
Stiller: Probably just because I’m one of the writers and directors. It’s probably more of my own sense of humor. For me, the movies that I work on on my own as writer, director, co-writer or whatever all that kind of for me is a different process and it’s my own thing I feel.

Q: But you are still involved in the writing on a lot of your projects?
Stiller: Any movie that I’m acting in, I’ll usually have a lot of input into, but that’s the thing about directing a movie – directing is a really subjective thing. Any movie is going to have the imprint of whoever is directing it. I’m not trying to put my stamp on other people’s movies. As an actor, I’m going to be whatever I’m supposed to be in that film and I enjoy that process too, but to me directing has always been what I’ve enjoyed the most and feel most connected to.

Q: How do you feel that this movie might be more successful than other Iraq war movies?
Stiller: I think that it’s unfortunate that people don’t go see movies about the war in Iraq, but I also feel like it’s the nature of we’re in a conflict that’s very close to home and it’s hard, people don’t want to go there for entertainment. This is a comedy about making movies, it’s not a war comedy. It’s not like “Catch-22.” It’s a different thing and I love war movies. I think that there’s some amazing movies. The movies that we’re satirizing like “Platoon,” “Deer Hunter,” “Full Metal Jacket,” all those movies I grew up watching and was very affected by. I enjoyed watching them getting ready for this movie. This is a comedy and it’s really a comedy and it lives in its own place. I think sometimes in times of war people want escapism too.

Q: How game was Tom Cruise to go all out with this character?
Stiller: That’s him. He’s doing that. I give him full credit. He read the script and he was like, “You have fun with the actors, it’d be great to see you do something with the studio guy.” I didn’t even think of him playing the studio guy, but it helped fill this hole in the story which was what is going on while the actors are in the jungle? Why is nobody going to save them? He said, “I want really big hands playing this guy.” I said, “Really? Big hands?” He had these hands made then I said it’d be really cool if he was bald too and so then we did this makeup test and he started dancing in the makeup test. He said, “It’d be interesting if this guy danced.” He just had these ideas and I was like, “This is funny and weird.” I was loving it. I love watching him do this. He started dancing in the makeup test and then we went back and wrote up this idea that he danced in the movie and I liked it a lot and thought he could do it in the end credits too. I asked him if he’d be up for dancing in the end credits and he said, “Yeah let’s do it.”

Q: Did you have to toss aside being empathetic to actors and be more directorial?
Stiller: Have you talked to Downey yet? You’re directing a movie and you need to get the movie shot. Everyday you have the responsibility of getting your day done and people are looking to you to know what you want because otherwise you’re floundering so there’s definitely that element and Downey will tell you there’s definitely the issue of control issues because you want it to look the way you want it to look. It’s fun and I like working with a director who knows what he wants and you also want to have freedom as an actor. It was important to me to have the actors have the freedom to do their thing and also get what I wanted.

Q: But don’t you have to give up something as yourself as an actor who empathizes with other actors and at some point say okay, I have to be in charge?
Stiller: Yeah, but as I was saying I think actors appreciate when a director is in charge. I like when I walk out on set and a director says, “I was thinking you might do this, this and this and I’m going to be the camera here and do that.” You don’t want the guy to go, “Hey what do you think? Hmmm, what should we do?” That’s horrible. Then you’re like who’s running the show here. It’s a balance and it was fun. Everybody was on board with it. The hard thing is when you’re acting and directing you want the actors to feel like they’re being directed. You don’t want them to feel like you’re so consumed with your own performance that you’re not there for them. That’s the balance sometimes, making them realize they’re being directed and someone is watching their performance and giving them feedback.

Q: How exciting was it for you to scout all of the locations and oversee the special effects?
Stiller: It was really the most enjoyable experience making a movie for sure. There have been years of getting ready to do it and I’ve been going to Hawaii for years and knew where I wanted to shoot it. To actually be able to go into the helicopters and scout to find these places that you couldn’t really get to was really fun. To work on these big action sequences, especially in the beginning of the movie and the end of the movie and build a bridge, blow up a bridge, work with a great cinematographer, great production designer¬ójust that process for me as a director I enjoyed a lot.

Q: How important was it to document the process?
Stiller: We have our documentary about the making of the movie. It’s the fake documentary like our “Hearts of Darkness” meets “Burden of Dreams.” Justin Theroux plays this German documentary filmmaker who’s documenting Steven Coogan’s character trying to make the movie “Tropic Thunder,” so that will be online and on the DVD. There’s B-roll footage, but we thought it’d be good to do it funny.

Q: Can you talk a little about your character? He’s the only one of the actors who doesn’t get they’re really not filming in the jungle and seems a bit more delusional.
Stiller: He’s not the most intelligent guy, but he’s not stupid. What’s going on with him is that he’s one of these guys who’s been sort of protected from reality. He’s been living in this cocoon and he’s the action guy who’s on the downswing. He’s tried to do this movie that was going to get him some credibility and it just backfires on him – the “Simple Jack” movie. He really needs this movie to work and when the director says he’s going to be out in the jungle filming and they’re going to be hidden cameras, he really needs to believe this is happening for his career. That’s really his motivation and he really believe this movie is happening. He needs this movie to work. I think there’s a sort of desperation for him. I think there’s also a little bit of a metaphor for being caught up in your own movie and your life all the time and taking yourself too seriously.

Q: It hilarious he doesn’t believe the other actors when they try convincing him of what’s really going on.
Stiller: Yeah some people can just be like that.

Q: What new adventures are in store for “Night of the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian”?
Stiller: It’s a new museum – it’s the Smithsonian so there’s a bunch of different museums which is cool. We get to go to the Aerospace Museum, there’s the national art gallery so there’s paintings and photographs that we go into. Amy Adams is playing a statue of Amelia Earhart that comes to life so she’s running around with me the whole time. Ricky Gervais is back, Steve Coogan is back, Owen [Wilson] is back. There’s a bad guy that Hank Azaria plays, an Egyptian pharaoh. Chris Guest is in it.

Q: Is there a new monkey?
Stiller: There’s a space monkey. Chris Guest is playing Ivan the Terrible which has been really fun.

Q: Is your wife in it?
Stiller: No, my wife is not in it.

Q: Is there going to be a third “Fockers?”
Stiller: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

<< Back to Interviews