by Fred Topel

Justin Theroux may be the hottest writer in Hollywood now. His first script, Tropic Thunder, is this summer’s most controversial comedy. Now he’s landed the gig writing Iron Man 2. Not a bad career, considering he spent most of his Hollywood life acting.

How did you get Iron Man 2?

I don’t know. I think, obviously, Robert was instrumental. He was also a champion of mine. He put in a good word, I’m sure.

Have you started it?

Yeah. Not really. Everything’s sort of on the table. We’re still talking about it, and that’s sort of where that’s at.

Do you have any ideas you can tell us?

Well, if you have any ideas, that’s the stage we’re in. Got any bright ideas, send them our way.

Is it intimidating?

Yeah, no pressure, dude. Yeah, of course. Hugely intimidating. But also enormously exciting, because it’s sort of like, you’re writing for Robert Downey, Jr. so at the end of the day, that’s an enormous amount of fun.

How exciting is it to think of all you can do with Iron Man?

That’s almost the problem. It’s kind of like opening an internet page and being like, “Where should I go?” You can go anywhere, do whatever you want. So I’ve just stopped marinating in all the Iron Man lore that I didn’t know, and I’m firing up the chainsaw and ready to attack it.

Was Tom Cruise ever supposed to be the lead in Tropic Thunder?

No, in my mind, Ben was always going to be that part. He’s done aging action stars well before, previously on The Ben Stiller Show. So when we were writing it, Ben, I think, at certain moments was like, “I don’t know, should I do the part?” I was like, “Come on, dude.” He didn’t want to direct it, he didn’t want to, he was like, “Oh, I’ll do it, I’ll direct it; I won’t direct it, I’ll do it.” So then eventually the right thing happened. He did it and directed it.

How did screenwriting come about for you?

It’s totally ridiculous.

Have you been working on things over the years?

I have. Ben was actually, kind of — was the first, he originally had the idea, he probably said that when he was doing Empire of the Sun. Then I met him, I guess in like, the mid-90s, and he sort of pitched the idea to me, a bunch of actors going in to do a boot camp and getting post-traumatic stress disorder or something. It was a funny idea. It was sort of funny in like, a sketchy kind of way. We were like, “Well, how could you extend that into a movie?” And at the time, I was like, writing pages for this great screenplay that I was going to write, and he didn’t like it. He was like, “This is good, the dialogue’s really good. The dialogue’s great.” So he was my early, early champion of writing. I was sort of more focused on acting, but I kept writing, writing. Then he was like, “I think we should write Tropic Thunder,” or at that point, The Vietnam Project. So we started passing ideas back and forth and writing scenes. I would write something and send it to him, and he would edit it, and he would send it back to me and then I would work on that, et cetera, et cetera. Then Etan [Cohen] came in and wrote a draft. We handed him a bunch of scenes and said, “Make some sense of that.” He did a draft and then we went back to work on that draft and changed it more and again. It just sort of blossomed, but it was one of those things where we were sort of like, I don’t know. I don’t know how I started becoming a screenwriter. Just, I was very lucky, and it started to happen. I started to have the patience for it.

Did Tropic Thunder prepare you for writing action?

Yeah, yes and no. We worked hard on our action scenes in Tropic, but yeah, I don’t know. It’ll be sort of an experience. I have no real good reason to be sitting in the chair I’m in, but I’m grateful for it.

Were you worried about things like the speech about “going full retard”?

Yeah, I am. I’m worried. Well, I’m not worried about it, because at the end of the day, I’ve sort of rectified it all in my head. The movie takes a lot of shots all over the place, but we did our due diligence and really tried hard to focus on keeping the joke on the actors. When you get to put funny stuff in the mouths of really pretentious, douche-y actors, that’s the fun of the movie. So again, that kind of celebrity — and obviously, we’re exaggerating it — but the air gets very rarified when you’re at that place in your career. So the fun was just letting the air out of those egos and putting them in a situation where they’re back at square one.

The black stuff is really touchy, but you get it when he says The Jeffersons and “400 years of oppression.”

Yeah, he’s fucking bananas. Robert had — so much of his stuff is so subtle. A lot of it was unscripted, a lot of it you’d just sort of throw an idea out and you’d think, oh, this thing where he’s in the rice paddy, and he’s like, “I’m gonna noodle up some crawfish and make some crabapples. Collar up some greens,” that’s all him, just opening the can of snakes that is Robert’s head, letting it come out.

Do you like it when actors improv?

I love it. There’s times when you think, okay, just for the mechanics of the scene, some of the actors can be doing funny stuff or whatever, but for the mechanics of the scene, how to get in and out of the scene, you want them to adhere to certain signposts that you have to, in order to propel the story. Sometimes actors are not really thinking about that, but about how funny they can be, and they are, but for the most part, on this movie, it was a fantastic thing. They really went for it and had a lot of fun.

Were you on the set?

Yeah. We wrote every scene at least 10 times, if not 30 times. It’s one of the things that Ben does that’s really smart. The ins and the outs of the scenes are always the same, but he writes variations on jokes, twists on jokes, bends them. He really gets every piece of comedy to its breaking point, and has different variations within so that when it comes time to edit, we can screen it and go, “Okay, that joke’s not working as well as maybe this joke,” so he’ll be able to literally just swap out another piece of footage with a different punchline, different joke, in order to sort of consistently get good laughs throughout. It just makes him a great director, comedic director. He really know how to massage a film that way.

Are you doing something for the DVD extras?

We’ve got a little something in the can. We’ve got a mock-documentary called Tropic Thunder: Rain of Madness, about the making of Tropic Thunder, which will be coming out. I don’t know if we know when it’s coming out, but it’s coming out shortly. It’ll probably be on the DVD, or not, but  think it might even come online before then. We have teasers now, — if you go to, there’s a bunch of little clips in there.

What’s the point of doing a sendup?

There’s no point to any of it, really. What is life? But I think the fun was, again, sort of — we watched every Vietnam movie. We watched every war movie. But the real fun was watching the DVD extras. I’m not naming anybody, but you have these people who would be like, “You know, making a movie is like going to war.” They’d say shit that was so over the top, “and your director is your General.” Yeah, but you’re not going to die. You’re not killing other people. It’s not anything like fucking going to war. You’re cameramen. So we laughed really hard at a lot of things. A lot of them have making-ofs and very serious interviews with all the cast, like, “such-and-such director was just ruthless. He didn’t give a shit.” So there was all these kinds of things, and we thought it would be funny. There was that wonderful documentary, Hearts of Darkness, which was made by Francis Ford Coppola’s wife. So we thought, how could we do a spin on that? I play sort of a German sort of Werner, overserious, Herzog guy, but nothing like Werner Herzog, because he’s great, too. So I play a version of him where it’s just sort of this completely dry German guy who’s seeing the lies behind the Hollywood machine, kind of thing. Then, of course, there’s a mystery within it.

This was so long in development, how do you approach the hard deadline of Iron Man 2?

I don’t know. I think it’s hard work. Again, we’re just sort of starting that up, so I don’t know how that’s going to — I don’t know. We’re approaching it from all sides, really. Right now, it’s literally one of those moments where just everything’s on the table and nothing’s taken off it. Everyone’s looking at it.

Are you a 9 to 5 writer?

On Tropic, yeah. We got the script into a good a shape as we could. We did a reading of it. Then, once we had cast the film, we then started doing rehearsals and seeing whatever played. So it did become, not just nine to five, it became five to midnight kind of rewrites, and comb-throughs, and trying to track certain stuff. There was some stuff in the film that, when we started shooting, wasn’t working, but we had the blessing of having time to work on it still. Again, there is a three-hour cut of this movie that is just as good, I think, as the current cut.

Maybe on the DVD?

Yeah, I know, maybe in 20 years Ben will do a redux, or something like that, show it at the Cannes Film Festival.

Is there a plantation scene to put back?

No, no. Literally, it’s just that everyone has more. Vietnam movies are all three hours long. The reason is, there are so many good characters in them. So we could have easily made a three-hour movie.

Do you have other screenplay ideas?

I do. Nothing really to talk, nothing really to toot a horn about, but I have a couple things that I’m working on and I’m excited about.

Dedication is coming out.

That’s done. We’ve already come out. Yeah, I know. We did.

They’e still waiting in Canada.

No, it hasn’t actually in Canada. I don’t know. I’ll go call Harvey and see when he’s going to buy me a screen in Canada.

Did you have an itch to write a part for yourself in Tropic?

Not really. It was one of those things that it was sort of nice to be on the backside of the camera, and also, I was just almost weirdly too busy to be doing anything in front. I don’t know how Ben splits. Ben’s really good about that separation thing, of sort of like, walking from the monitor to in front of the camera and doing what he does, and then walking behind the monitor and putting on a different hat altogether. I’m not that good at that.

And you got to goof off in the mockumentary?

Yeah, I got to goof off on the lunch hours in the mockumentary. We were making it while doing the film, believe it or not. We were making it while the film was happening.