Buzzine‘s Emmanul Itier sits down with Ben Stiller, star and director of Tropic Thunder, and gets his take on the new film, his life and childhood, and Ben’s very busy career.
Emmanuel Itier: Since your parents [Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara] have always been such highly-respected TV actors and well-loved stand-up comedians in New York City, was it inevitable that you were going to be in show business, since you come from a great show business family? Is it genetic?
Ben Stiller: I don’t know. I just knew that I wanted to do it early on. Maybe that’s because I was around it, but I always loved movies. My parents were doing a lot more nightclubs, doing plays, and doing some TV, but not too many movies. I remember my dad was in Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three, and I remember going to a location shoot one night. He had a scene in a tollbooth on the Tri-Borough Bridge in New York with Walter Matthau. He took me with him one night, and they were shooting this one scene all night. It was in 1974, so I was about nine or something, and I remember thinking it was the coolest thing to stay up all night and they were doing this one scene over and over again, and the cameras and the lights — it was really exciting for me. I thought it was awesome, and I thought, “I want to do this.”
EI: What would you do if your kids said to you that they wanted to go into show business too?
BS: I’m totally open to whatever is going to make them happy. At this point, they’re so young, I’m very interested to see where they’re instincts take them.
EI: Are your kids impressed by the goings on when they come to one of your movie sets? Were there a lot of “oohs and ahhs” when they came to see you while making Tropic Thunder?
BS: Not really. For a six-year-old — my daughter Ella is six — she’s not that interested in movies. She’d rather be playing with her dolls, which is good. I think that’s healthy. And my son [Quinlin] sort of gets it. I also kind of feel bad showing them how movies are really made, because when we were on the set of Night At The Museum, they have to understand that all that stuff was not real. So I’m like, “I’m showing you this so that you can understand what Daddy does, and I’m going to destroy the illusion of the movie for you at the same time.” It’s kind of selfish of me, showing them why I’m leaving them every day, because I’m basically doing it so that I can assuage my own guilt. [Laughs]
EI: The scale of Tropic Thunder is so much bigger than anyone expected. It’s been called the most expensive comedy ever made. Did you know what you were getting into when you decided to direct it?
BS: Well, it was so long in the gestation process that by the time we were making it, I was so excited to be making it, and it was fun to be able to do it on that scale and to work in that way. I’d never gotten to do things like that as a director, so to work with the crew that we had and then the cast, the whole thing was really the most enjoyable experience I’ve had making a movie.
EI: Where did the idea for character Alpa Chino’s “Booty Sweat” energy drink come from?
BS: I don’t know. There’s “Pimp Juice,” so it’s really not that far from reality. Maybe that was sort of the inspiration.
EI: The film trailers/previews at the beginning was a great way to introduce your main characters, how the industry views them, their forte, and the type of actors the perceived themselves to be. It was a truly inspired idea.
BS: Thanks. Actually, at one point, the trailers weren’t at the beginning of the movie. We introduced all the characters through the Access Hollywood piece you see later on. But that’s always the problem I had with the script — the Access Hollywood piece was so long. It introduced everybody, but it was always like, “How do we get this thing going earlier?” Then we thought that we could pull out some of the clips from the Access Hollywood piece and then turn them into trailers at the beginning of the movie. That’s how that happened.
EI: How did you get permission from the various studios to use their logos for each of your imitation trailers/previews?
BS: I have no idea! It was definitely annoying to me, because I thought about it. I mean, these studios, these rival studios were letting us use their logos because they have a sense of humor about this. For me, I really wanted to have as much of a feel of that realism going into the movie. Really, it’s impossible to do it without the real logos, because movie theaters now have the commercials and then they have the theater logo or whatever, and then the cell phone thing. They didn’t have a cell phone thing before this, though, and just started with the movie. In a lot of the previews, though, they’d play the cell phone ad first — “Please turn off your cell phones” — just to get people used to that.
EI: Why didn’t you also use the MPAA ratings for each trailer?
BS: I wanted it to go seamlessly into the movie, but you just can’t really do that without the MPAA cards. I wanted to use MPAA ratings, but they just won’t let us do it.
EI: In Tropic Thunder, Tom Cruise has a great extended cameo as a big, hairy, obnoxious, bling-wearing, rude, balding, hip-hop-loving studio head. How in the world did you get Tom to agree to play such a funny but grotesque character?
BS: I don’t know, but I think he’s awesome. I sent him the script and I give him credit for really coming up with that character. He really liked the script and wanted to be a part of it. At one point, I was thinking of him playing the agent’s role (Matthew McConaughey), and then he said, “Well, this studio guy — it’d really be interesting to be this studio guy.” I said, “Alright. That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about that.” He said, “I really want to have big hands – big, hairy hands. I want to have really big hands.” I said, “Really?” He goes, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I have a guy who’ll make the hands. Let me show you.” I said, “Okay, well how about if you’re bald too?” He goes, “Okay, yeah. I’ll try that.” We did some make-up tests. We ended up doing three make-up tests and really got this look together. Then he started dancing and he said, “I think I want to dance with this guy.” Then he started dancing in the make-up test. We were filming the make-up test. I got the film back and put some music to it, just for fun. There was no dancing in the movie or anything, and I thought, “Wow, this is really good.” He was dancing in perfect time to this music that wasn’t there. He just had this natural rhythm. So then Justin [Theroux] and I went back and wrote this scene where he’s dancing. I was so into it, and I thought we should do an end title thing of him dancing, and he was up for it.
EI: Have you always wanted to be a director ? Has that always been your game plan?
BS: Yes, since I was like 10 or 11. That was always my thing. I really liked it. I always enjoyed that aspect of it, and I always felt like that’s what I’d end up doing when I wasn’t acting anymore, because you don’t know where acting is going to go. I love acting too, but for me, directing is much more fulfilling as a creative process because you get to actually see the whole thing through. When you’re acting, you’re obviously putting it out there, but you don’t have a real say in its completion.
EI: How did you feel about acting and directing at the same time in Tropic Thunder?
BS: That’s not my favorite thing to do, but sometimes the necessity of it is there. For a movie like this, I think being in this movie also helped get the movie made, on a certain level. I would have directed this movie even if I wasn’t in it — for sure.
EI: But didn’t you enjoy acting in it too?
BS: Oh yeah, and to get the chance to act with Robert Downey and Jack Black — all of them — I’m very impressed with all of them. I’ve known Jack for a long time so, for me, it was a really great experience to be able to work with Jack in a way where I felt I could just sort of encourage him to do all the stuff that I love about what he does. That’s the great thing about being a director that works with actors. I think that every director sees an actor differently, so working with Jack was really exciting for me because I got to see him do the stuff that I love to see him do and work with him, because I think that he’s so good. He really made me laugh a lot.
EI: You are also a director who knows what it’s like to be an actor in a movie. Does that help?
BS: I think that helps. It helps to have some sensitivity to what it feels like to be in front of the camera and what it takes to allow people to have a comfortable enough situation to do their thing. But I never knew Downey before the movie. I had met him about six months before the movie started and have always been a fan of his. I thought that it was very important to have a serious actor who’s respected to play this serious actor who’s respected. I just felt like otherwise, it’d be too much of a joke. It couldn’t be a comedy guy. He is that rare talent where he’s an amazing actor, but he’s also really funny and has an incredible sense of humor. He has really done that — like he’s done in it our movie so much. You see what he did in Iron Man, and that’s made that movie. He just took his personality to it, but it was fun to see him take his personality and his mind and funnel it through this Australian guy playing this black guy in this movie. All the layers that he gave to it were just amazing.
EI: Robert was so great in Tropic Thunder that I want to see his Satan’s Alley — his gay priest movie from his fake trailer in the movie.
BS: Oh, yeah. I think both he and Tobey Maguire would be great in it.
EI: Logistically, what was the hardest day of shooting Tropic Thunder?
BS: There were some hard days. It rained a lot, almost every day. So those days were hard, wondering if it’s going to stop, and there were like five or six guys in most of the scenes. That’s just a lot of people to film every time. So when you’re shooting that river scene, where we sort of breakup in the river, that was hard because we were halfway out into the river most of the time. The opening sequence was hard. Actually, the hardest scene was the one when I say, “Can we cut?” at the beginning of the movie. Not the scene leading up to it with all the action stuff — because that was something we had six months of planning on and it was very much by the book in terms of having it set up, so we knew what we were doing. It was actually when the cameras turned around on the crew and we had to shoot the crew. We’re filming the movie within the movie, and we’re setting up the special effects guy and the studio and all of that. There were so many people in every scene and my hands were tied behind my back and I’m yelling, “Cut,” but they don’t know if I’m really yelling, “Cut.” I was very happy to get out of that scene. I think that took about a week to shoot and it was like, “Alright, we’ve finished that one. Thank goodness.”
EI: Jack Black’s character is essentially a drug addict and an alcoholic. As a director, how do you deal with such a sensitive issue on the set when you know that Robert Downey, Jr. has had those same problems?
BS: With no sensitivity whatsoever — none at all. That’s the great thing about Robert Downey. He has an incredible sense of humor about himself, and you have to. I think that anyone who’s acting in this film has to have a good sense of humor about themselves, because we’re just making fun ourselves. That’s the great thing about Downey. He’s in such a great place in his life that he doesn’t have any issue with that. I think if you’re respectful towards him as a person, it’s like he gets it. There is a lot of mutual respect for everyone on the set, and you learn very quickly that that’s how he deals with that too. He’s very self-effacing.
EI: Downey has a line about being in a fridge in an alley in Burbank. Was that ad-libbed or in the script?
BS: That was in the script.
EI: So what’s going on with the The Hardy Men, about the Hardy Boys as men?
BS: It’s in development and I’m not sure, but hopefully some day…
EI: Were you a fan of The Hardy Boys while growing up?
BS: I did like the books a lot while I was growing up.
EI: What about the sequel to Night At The Museum?
BS: I’m in the middle of shooting that right now. It’s subtitled Battle At The Smithsonian, since we’re at the Smithsonian.
EI: Where are you filming Night At The Museum: Battle At The Smithsonian?
BS: I’m filming in Vancouver. Ricky Gervais is back. Amy Adams is in it. Christopher Guest is in it. Steve Coogan is back…so it’s really a great cast.
EI: Will there be a Tropic Thunder sequel?
BS: No, definitely not. I promise. I don’t think so. [Laughs]