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Tropic Thunder: The Stars Speak

  Ben Stiller (Tugg Speedman, co-writer, director)
Jack Black (Jeff Portnoy)
Robert Downey, Jr. (Kirk Lazarus)

Were there more of the fake trailers at the start of the film than you ended up using?

Stiller: “No, that was it, that was the limit of our creativity. We basically wanted to be able to set up the characters in the movie, since the movie is about actors and the main characters are movie stars, it was a really unique way to be able to set up who these guys were. So it was based on that.

Were you tempted to write some false scripts for each one?

Stiller: “Yeah, it was fun to do those. Obviously, it’s fun because it’s such a specific type of humour, I think everyone loves trailers and it’s fun to make fun of trailers. But it really was uniquely set up for the movie. At the end of the day, when you do have trailers in front of a real movie and you know that you’re coming after other real trailers at a certain point you have to be able to start the real movie.

“So, it was actually interesting to see it and see how it played out because there’s just a certain amount of time that an audience will sit around until the story kicks in.

Black: “I haven’t seen it with a real movie audience, does it flow right in, smoothly?

Downey Jr: “Very.

Stiller: “We played around with the order... where to put the Booty Sweat commercial. It seemed like the Booty Sweat was the best way into the movie.

Black: “My trailer was not always going to be The Fatties: Fart 2.

Downey Jr: “It was going to be Doody For Dinner.

Stiller: “That’s right. It was going to be Doody For Dinner, where you were a grown up guy in a boys’ boarding school and there was a big food fight and it was called Doody For Dinner. But as you can tell by the reaction, we went with something else.

Black: “Tell them about Robert’s fingering of the rosary beads though, or was that Tobey [Maguire] fingering your beads?

Downey Jr: “Yeah, it was Tobey pulling my beads.

How much did you know of Steve Coogan’s previous work and do you think he can follow in the footsteps of other successful British comedy stars working in America, such as Ricky Gervais?

Downey Jr: “How did Hamlet 2 do?

It hasn’t opened yet...

Downey Jr: “Well, it’s too early to decide, isn’t it.

Black: “He is a legend among the underground comic community, there’s a secret community of comedians and everybody knows [him] in that circle. But I’d say that most people in the US aren’t clued in to who he is yet.

Downey Jr: “He told me about his one man show that he’s going to be doing, and it sounds pretty great.

Black: “What’s that?

Downey Jr: “I can’t tell you, it’s a personal thing we shared. Ben worked Steve Coogan like a rib. When he was there, I’ve never seen someone under such undue pressure.

“If you notice at the beginning, he’s at the centre of every shot, and if you notice the opening sequence has about 375,000 shots that Steve Coogan was at the centre of. 375,000 x 200 takes, you do the math. This man was the most consummate gentleman I’ve ever worked with, and he immediately gained my respect.

Black: “How do you work a rib?

Downey Jr: “Down to the bone, like gnawing on the bone.

Black: “That’s very expressive language: ‘worked him like a rib,’.

Stiller: “That’s Downey speak. I’m a huge Coogan fan. I’m never good at predicting what will go over with an audience, or not, in that way. But I just think he’s a brilliant actor and I loved working with him. I think I did so many takes with him because I had so much fun working with him and he gave so much.

“I’ve been a fan of his since the Alan Partridge days. I hope that an audience catches on to him in that way because he’s very deserving of it. He’s a really, really funny guy and I hope to keep working with him.

What are your favourite and least favourite war movies?

Black: “I’m going to go with, it’s kind of obvious, but Apocalypse Now. I know everyone’s going to say that, because of what’s his name? Who’s that actor – the fat bald guy. Brando. And the worst one? Shit, I don’t want to say it. You say what the worst one is.

Downey Jr: “We’re so not safe hanging out with this guy, honestly. My favourite war movie is Paths of Glory. My least favourite, I’m thinking but I’m not saying. I don’t want to, Ben will do it.

Stiller: “I don’t know, I really liked Platoon a lot. Just because I remember the first time I saw it I was so affected by it. I think it’s the iconic Vietnam war film. It’s obviously such an authentic film in terms of where it came from and Oliver Stone’s experience that’s most affecting for me.

Black: “Apocalypse Now has the funny part in it where Robert Duvall comes out and sniffs the napalm. That’s the only one that has a little psychedelic comedy. So, I win I say.

Stiller: “Maybe Birth of a Nation as the least favourite.

Black: “That is a safe least favourite.

Stiller: “That’s safe. Everybody’s dead who made it, and it was racist.

The Green Berets?

Stiller: “The Green Berets actually has a great opening credits sequence that we actually were inspired by for our movie.

Black: “Delta Force. That’s my favourite war film.

Downey Jr: “Red Dawn.... Swayze!

Tom Cruise gives a great scene-stealing performance, was his look and the dance his own idea?

Stiller: “It was all sort of a collaboration, but he was totally into it and it sort of evolved. We were doing the make up test and he had this idea that he wanted to have really big hands in the movie which I thought was a strange idea when we first talked about it. Then he actually had these hands made and I thought: ‘wow, that’s really great,’.

“I wanted to have him be bald. So, we started working on the look and did a few make up tests and during one of those he started dancing. He started doing a little move that sort of felt to me like the gopher in Caddyshack. I thought that was really funny so I told him to keep doing it.

“He started this whole dance in the make up test with no music playing, then we went back into the editing room and put some music to it and based on that we wrote all the dancing into the movie because I enjoyed it, I thought it was really funny.

Vanity taken down a peg or two is a recurrent theme in your work Ben, why is that? And why did you choose to parody the war genre?

Stiller: “Well, if you’re doing a comedy and you want to somehow satirise people who are taking themselves seriously, I think the most serious genre is the thing you’re going to get the most out of. If you’re trying to satirise a comedy, it’s hard to do that, it doesn’t really work as well.

“I love the war movie genre and I’m a fan of all those movies that are part of what this movie is. So, for me that’s why that’s there. The vanity thing, I never really thought about that much but I can understand that there was that theme through Zoolander.

Downey Jr: “Often vanity has a lot to do with trauma and low self esteem, so why don’t we talk about your trauma regarding war films, Ben Stiller.

Stiller: “Or my trauma regarding low self esteem and vanity?

Downey Jr: “No, there was talk about the war film you wanted to be in, what happened with Steven Spielberg and all that.

Black: “This thing is really taking a turn for the dark.

Stiller: “There was no trauma there. I mean, I had a small part in Empire of the Sun, which was one of the first jobs I ever had, which was a great experience, and I got to sort of be around a large scale war movie and see what that was. I went in on Platoon, had a meeting with Oliver Stone, I had a bunch of friends who were in Hamburger Hill and I had a lot of stories that I heard from them.

Stiller: “There was no traumatic thing.

Black: “Come on dude, tell them about the trauma. The whole thing is about the trauma. It’s what started the movie, right? The trauma on the set of Empire Of The Sun?

Stiller: “There was no trauma. There was one thing that happened. On Empire Of The Sun, I had a really small part and there was one shot where a 10 year old Christian Bale was coming out of the weeds or something, he’d gone to catch a pheasant and he was coming through.

“It was a really long Steadicam shot, like a five minute shot which ended up with him coming into this barracks and all the way through and got to the end and we were at the very end of the shot. And I screwed up my line at the end of the shot. I had like one line, probably my only line in the whole movie, and I screwed it up and went: ‘oh shit, sorry,’.

“There was silence and Steven Spielberg was off by the monitor 300 feet away and I just heard: ‘what? what?’. I said: ‘I’m sorry, I screwed up the line. I guess we should stop,’. And I heard nothing, and then he said: ‘you never yell cut! You never cut! You never stop!’. He got upset, Steven Spielberg got mad at me. He was like my idol, so that was traumatic.

Black: “You were basically a glorified extra and yet you had cost Spielberg millions of dollars.

Stiller: “Exactly, and I realised that’s why you never yell ‘cut!’. That, actually, was sort of the inspiration here.

Black: “And there was a 10 year old Christian Bale laughing under his breath at your misfortune.

Stiller: “He’s still laughing.

Black: “And here we are 25 years later, Christian Bale laughing.

Downey Jr: “There were entire weeks where Ben Stiller never cut.

Stiller: “That’s right, since that moment I’ve never cut the camera.

Downey Jr: “He just has a 30 mile mag on the camera.

Stiller: “But it’s nice that it came around and Steven’s company, DreamWorks, ended up making this movie. He’s been nice to me, we’re friends now.

Did you have any real actors in mind when creating Kirk Lazarus, perhaps a cross between Danny Glover and Russell Crowe?

Downey Jr: “Separated at birth. Well you know, I’ve got people I admire. Lincoln Osiris just came because I had a phoner set up with Ben where I was supposed to let him know that I was actually working on the character, even though I was shooting Iron Man.

“So I did the voice over the phone, and he laughed, and I wondered if that was because it was great or he was just cajoling me because he knows I might get up tight. Then when I was thinking about Kirk Lazarus, there was a little Colin Farrell, I like Daniel Day-Lewis and Russell Crowe’s great. It’s an amalgam, it’s an alloy.

Stiller: “I think they all were, we didn’t want to get too specific with being one person because I don’t think it’s funny. We wanted a lot of these characters to be their own people, but they’re obviously influenced by these people too. That’s just part of what the movie is.

Downey Jr: “What about you, Jack?

Black: “I wasn’t really channelling any other actors. Your character’s always acting, even when we’re not filming he’s still in character. My character is just going through heroin withdrawal, so I just sort of focused on that. I wasn’t thinking about any other people.

Stiller: “I think what was great about what Jack was doing was that he has that iconic thing anyway of what Jack does. In a way, you’re able to satirise that on one level. And also there are all the guys who have gone before you too. To me there was a lot that you were doing that was influenced by other people, and you were doing your own thing too.

Will you be doing a drama now, with possible Oscar potential, perhaps drawing on the Bosnian refugee scenario you dealt with in your episode of Extras?

Stiller: “No.

Downey Jr: “There’s the story about the famous Siamese twins. I forget their names, it’s irrelevant. It’s the story that’s important and I’m going to direct Ben in it. He plays both the Siamese twins. We’re going to start working on make up tests where we’re going to conjoin him to himself.

“He’s going to play both heads, both brothers. It’s going to be a big tech job, kind of like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, except there’s two Buttons. He got me to score in the comedy department, I’m getting him two Oscars.

Stiller: “It’s going to be the first role that an actor wins two Oscars for.

Black: “One of the heads is a supporting role.

Downey Jr: “Now we’re going to be picketed by the Siamese Twin Coalition who will call for awareness to the problem.

Stiller: “Don’t call them Siamese twins... they’re conjoined twins. Proper nomenclature.

Downey Jr: “I’ll be doing a cameo as a Siamese cat. We’ll be have a crazy moment where Ben, as the conjoined twins, plays a few jokes on me as the cat to challenge each other to be funnier. One of them, he pees in my food dish and the other one ties string all around the room, so when I run in and bounce off the walls I just freeze there and I’m really confused.

“That way I’ll be able to participate in the film as well as directing. And I’ll have got Ben two Oscars, one for dramatic and a Globe for comedy or musical because one of the conjoined twins likes to tap the boards a little bit.

Black: “That might win something. Not an Oscar.

Will you be doing the DVD commentary as Lincoln Osiris? And what would Russell Crowe make of Kirk Lazarus?

Downey Jr: “He’s fine with it. I know that for a fact. Luckily, right before we do the DVD commentary I remembered what I’d promised in the movie. And so yes, the first part of the commentary is Osiris entirely, and then when he unmasks I go to Lazarus and then when the credits are rolling I’m finally myself – the Siamese cat, doing a cameo.

The Lazarus character obviously takes his work very seriously, which roles have you taken most seriously during your careers?

Black: “I had to do a lot of preparation for Nacho Libre, a lot of wrestling training and also I worked on my accent a lot.

Stiller: “Probably Permanent Midnight, where I played a drug addict.

What else will be on the DVD in the way of extras?

Stiller: “The DVD is going to have a lot of extras. We shot a lot of footage, so there’s a lot of stuff that wasn’t in the film. There is a Director’s Cut that’s 20 minutes longer. There’s a bunch of deleted scenes. What I’m sort of psyched about is we put on, instead of bloopers or anything like that, we put on what we call full mags.

“A lot of times we run a whole roll of film and these guys improvise so much, so there’s a whole roll of film where you get to see Jack when he’s tied to the tree, you get to see how Jack would improvise.

“There’s a whole roll from that same scene where Robert is just there with the water buffalo and you get to see his process, which I think is really interesting because you get to see the little bits that got used in the movie and how these guys got to that.

“Then there the mockumentary, called Reign of Madness, the documentary about the making of Tropic Thunder, starring Steve Coogan as the director, Damien. Steve and [the film’s co-writer] Justin Theroux did it together while we were filming. There’s a bunch of stuff in there.

Have any of you ever been mean to a director on set?

Stiller: “Yeah, I think Robert and Jack have. I remember Robert being very mean to me at certain times. Honestly, I think we all got along together but it was funny, Robert in character had this freedom when he was being Lincoln Osiris, because he was so not himself he had this freedom to shout out stuff.

“It was almost like a Tourette’s like thing where he would shout out, and curse at people. He could say whatever he wanted and get away with it in the character, which he does in the movie too. To me, it was the funniest thing listening to Robert do that, he would do that all the time on the set and it was pretty enjoyable.

This is the first feature you’ve directed in a while, what was it about this particular story that made you want to take on the dual roles?

Stiller: “I’d actually been working on the script for this probably since Zoolander. We had our first draft going back to 2000 or something. Over the years I’d been working on the script and trying to get it to the place where we thought it was ready to go.

“About three years ago we got to a draft on it that felt pretty, we did a read through of it and that helped. We did another read through based on that, and then I felt we could start to try to make it. So it was just working on the script and doing other things. There are a few projects I’ve been working on for a while, but this was the first one that I felt was ready to film.

What was it like directing an action movie?

Stiller: “It was really fun. When I was making the movie, I was really excited by that aspect of it and all the other stuff we were doing. But at the end of the day it’s a comedy, people want to laugh when they go to see a comedy.

“All the other stuff. It’s great to have that, but if they’re not connected to the characters and they’re not laughing then I think people are disappointed. That was an interesting lesson to learn as we screened the movie.

What are you all working on next?

Downey Jr: “Sherlock Holmes. Guy Ritchie is directing it, Joel Silver, Susan Downey are producing it. I can’t wait. I’m so excited. I feel like it will be, besides Chaplin, it’ll be an iconic thing. Like a literary thing. And of course there’ll be Iron Man 2 following that, need I say more? I’m on fire.

Stiller: “I’ve got nothing.

Downey Jr: “Jack has something so exciting that he can’t even discuss it.

Jack Black: “It’s too early. It’s not official.

Stiller: “I just finished shooting a sequel to Night At The Museum. But then I have nothing, I’m taking a break.

Black: “I’m shooting a Biblical comedy called The Year One. Harold Ramis directs it and Michael Cera is in it.

Downey Jr: “You can see now why there’s a window here for my conjoined twins idea. That’s a no-brainer.

Black: “Didn’t the Farrelly brothers already do a conjoined twins movie?

Downey Jr: “This one’s going to be so good there won’t be a dry eye in the house.

Did you cast Tobey Maguire in the Satan’s Alley trailer so we could see Spider-Man and Iron Man flirt?

Stiller: “No, that totally just happened. Actually, Tobey was a last minute replacement for that. He did us a big favour and it was one of those situations where the last minute replacement ends up being better than the first choice. We were very lucky that he came in.

“He was going to do another movie, he literally had two and a half hours, but I pitched him the idea on the phone and he was nice enough to come down and do it. And then of course the idea of Iron Man and Spider-Man hooking up was icing on the cake.

Black: “The baby would be so powerful – a Spider Robot.

Stiller: “Who would give birth to it though?

Is there any news on [Marvel’s] The Avengers movie?

Downey Jr: “Yes, there is. I don’t know. I do this for cash and chicken, they give me a call sheet and I just show up.”

Stiller: “But you are contractually obligated as Iron Man to show up in other Marvel movies, right? I’m impressed, because I don’t get to do superhero movies. So you had to show up in the Hulk movie, or you just wanted to be in it?

Downey Jr: “I don’t want to talk about that yet. I’ve got an idea for a bit we can do at the San Sebastian Film Festival, where we’re going next. I was just trying out some material, that whole Siamese Twins thing. We’re going to have to whittle it down to two or three or seven or 12 minutes.”
Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018