by Jeremy Smith
AIN’T IT COOL NEWS 2008

Last week, I interviewed Etan Cohen, one-third of the writing team behind the very funny Tropic Thunder. Today, I have an interview with another third of the writing team: Justin Theroux. There will be no Ben Stiller interview.

Before Justin Theroux became an A-List screenwriter of budget-busting, blockbuster entertainments (he’s currently tapping out Iron Man 2 for Jon Favreau), he was a deadly effective character actor in films like Mulholland DriveAmerican Psycho, and The Baxter. I suppose he’s most recognizable as the faux-hawk-sporting baddie in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (do we have him to blame for this unfortunate coiffure craze?), but I prefer to recall Theroux’s spooky encounter with the Cowboy, or his epic breakdance battle with Michael Showalter.

I also love Theroux’s Jan Jurgen, the Herzog-ian German documentarian whose Rain of Madness captured the fake disaster of Tropic Thunder. The obvious template for this spoof-within-a-spoof is Hearts of Darkness and Burden of Dreams, but the finished product is mostly just a collection of insane improvisations done on everyone’s downtime. At thirty minutes, it shouldn’t work, but in some ways it’s actually more inspired than Stiller’s feature (though I wouldn’t recommend watching it directly after the Director’s Cut; that’s just piling overkill on top of overkill). It’s definitely solid enough to get me interested in Theroux’s career as a writer-director.

Right now, Theroux is focused on the writing part of the equation with the sequel to Summer 2008’s second biggest superhero movie. And while you might be disappointed that I didn’t work in a question about Iron Man 2, all you’re missing is a whole lot of equivocatin’. If you’re into that, check out my pal Jenna Busch’s interview at UGO.

When did you first hook up with Ben Stiller? And at what point did you get involved with Tropic Thunder?

I hooked up with Ben somewhere in the mid-90s. I was doing a play with a friend of his in New York, and he introduced us. I was a big fan of The Ben Stiller Show, and… I think we realized we had a similar take on certain kinds of humor. We’d always wanted to work on something together, and [Tropic Thunder] was the thing that always made us laugh the hardest.

Was it deflating the egos of actors that was the way in [to Tropic Thunder] or was it just making a really big comedy with a bunch of talented performers?

I think it was different things at different times. At one time, we wanted to make a sort of Vietnam comedy, and at another time we wanted to make fun of Oscar-winning actors, and at another we wanted to make an action movie. We went through so many genres of film, and… there were so many elements of this script that we fell in love with. We’re obviously big fans of Oliver Stone and Francis Ford Coppola. And it’s sort of that thing where, since you can’t be a part of those movies, maybe you can satirize them. [Laughs] That’s what we felt was most interesting. And then actors are just funny creatures, especially dramatic ones. They can be incredibly odd and funny. There was a lot of humor to be mined from that territory.

I love that you said “Vietnam comedy.” Was there ever a time when you thought, “Hey, let’s just write a full-on Vietnam comedy, and see what happens”?

I think we knew, correctly, that there’s nothing funny about Vietnam. You need a way in, and what we were reacting to was the DVD extras on some Vietnam movies — and not just Vietnam movies, but war movies in general. When you have young actors playing these guys, there’s this incredible gravitas they bring to their EPK footage. They’re like, “Yeah, it’s just like fighting a war, man. Every day, we were in Manila.” They have this whole kind of patter, and you’re like, “What do you mean, ‘It’s like fighting a war’? It’s nothing like fighting a war!” That’s initially what made us laugh really hard: Actors pretending, and thinking, that they’re really as tough as [soldiers] when all they did was go to an [exotic] location. I think that was the original joke: How do we make fun of these guys? And then there are people who’ve done movies at certain times in their careers to either save their careers, or keep their careers on track, or give birth to their careers. If you look at those movies, there’s always sort of an interesting parallel storyline to the people’s careers who are in those movies, that’s secondary to the movies themselves.

Well, when you see the roll at the end of Platoon, there are so many young actors who went on to have major, or at least interesting careers.

Exactly. Some of them, you’re like, “What happened to that guy?”

Corey Glover from Living Color!

Right.

And then taking this a step further by incorporating a mockumentary… [Theroux laughs] at what point did you decide to do Rain of Madness?

I think it really came out of the realization that there were some jokes we wanted to get in, but that we just couldn’t get into the movie tonally. The movie has a certain caliber of humor, and there were other jokes that we thought were funny, too. So we decided to put them in a separate, sidecar piece. And then we were like, “Well, why don’t we do a Hearts of Darkness, Werner Herzog-y documentary tracking the history of making this movie?”

That’s got to be a lot of fun to at least play a Werner Herzog-y type of filmmaker.

[Laughing] It’s amazing. He’s a great character.

In prepping for this, did you watch some of the Herzog documentaries?

I did, in a really lame way. I went to YouTube. [Laughs] He has this great one on nature, where he’s like, “Nature is disgusting. It’s repulsive. Many people see beauty in nature. I see nothing but death.” [Laughing] He’s just got this unique eye. And he’s very dry: You can never tell when he’s being funny. That’s what I thought was great about the documentary guy: He has no sense of irony or humor. And it’s fun to watch Steve Coogan trying to convince him that things are going great.

So you’re on set shooting this mockumentary. Were you also still working on the script? If so, how were you able to devote time to both?

It was very hard. Any time we had three or five minutes, we’d run off and try to steal some footage. But it was sort of done with our left hand, and it actually fell together more nicely than we thought it would. We had a rough script for it, but a lot of it was improvised. It was hard balancing the two.

I talked to Etan Cohen last week, and he said his job was to nail down the structure. Once he did that, I guess he was done?

Yeah, I think he visited the set once. But he pretty much handed it back over to us.

But when he was off working on his own, were you still exchanging pages back and forth?

Me and Ben had written a bunch of scenes. Basically, we beat out the characters, and had sixty pages of loose stuff that we were trying to organize. But Ben was working and I was working, so we called Etan, and he came in, gave us an outline, and wrote a short draft. Then me and Etan worked together in L.A. I came out from New York, and we hung out for an intense five days where we went through the script and recalibrated the tone. Then he went off, and me and Ben took the script and kept refining it. But the characters pretty much stayed the same. Then once we cast it, that was another level. We sort of kept tweaking it and tweaking it, making sure it was as good as it could be, all the way up to the editing.

When you were shooting the film, did you have any idea that the “full retard” speech would become a flashpoint for controversy?

No, we didn’t. Any time you include any minority group in the material you’re working on, you’re working with gunpowder a little bit. But we were very confident that we had paid very close attention, to make sure that the joke was not on people who are mentally impaired. We wanted it to be very much about making fun of Tugg Speedman and Kirk Lazarus — and actors in general. And I was a bit pissed off, frankly, that they chose to put on their sandwich boards and march around. I didn’t think it was fair.

I feel like they didn’t see the movie first.

They didn’t see the movie. They didn’t want to see the movie. It’s more convenient for them if they don’t see the movie.

Getting back to Rain of Madness, did you work in any of your own experiences from the strangeness of working on, say, a David Lynch film or Miami Vice?

[Laughs] For sure, Miami Vice.

[Laughing] Yeah, I didn’t want to lead with that, in case —

No, no! Any time you work on any big-budget, star-heavy thing — and Tropic Thunder is no exception to the rule — you confront massive egos, and strange people, and people who are the best in their field, and people who are the best in their field but not very good at what they do. You know what I mean? You come across all kinds of ironies. And me and Ben were pulling on all kinds of past experiences. Rain of Madness was mostly just pulling off of all productions that go catastrophically wrong. What was the other one? The one Depp was supposed to be in?

Oh, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

Yeah, that kind of thing where rivers wipe out sets. I don’t know why that’s so compelling to watch. You’re watching a guy who’s trying to mobilize an army to make his movie, and nothing goes his way. It’s just inherently funny — especially if it’s Steve Coogan.