By Chad Greene
As surely as the experience of fighting a war turns mere men into soldiers, the experience of writing a war movie turns accomplished actors into screenwriters?
To help him get Tropic Thunder down on the page, Ben Stiller drafted actor Justin Theroux ( The Ten ), who earns his first screenwriting credit with this satire. And did he ever earn it—developing the comic concept with Stiller over the course of a decade.
“Yeah, it took a long time. You’d have to ask Ben exactly what the hard number is,” Theroux says. “It had been in his head; I think he waited about 10 years before he got it in my head, too.
"I had written some pages for a long-since-deceased screenplay that I showed Ben ages and ages and ages ago when we first got to know each other. And he was really encouraging about them,” Theroux recalls. “He was sort of my first and biggest champion [as a screenwriter]. And then he pitched this idea to me, what this movie would be, and we sort of riffed on it over coffees and lunches and dinners. And it just got funnier and funnier, so we started writing scenes, sending them back and forth.”
Neither Stiller nor Theroux had ever been in a Vietnam War movie, but the latter says that much of the humor of Tropic Thunder nevertheless came out of their experiences as actors.
“I think it came out of the earnestness with which actors can say the stupidest things. And I include myself as one of those actors,” Theroux says with a laugh. “And I think anytime you write comedy from a real place, it’s going to be funny. With the actors in Tropic Thunder, there’s a lot of very earnest material that is very funny.
“The hardest part was trying to make the jokes not feel like they were inside jokes or jokes that only people in the entertainment industry would connect with,” says Theroux. “There was a lot of stuff that we thought might go over people’s heads, but the TMZ- and Entertainment Tonight- and Access Hollywood-type shows are so invasive on movie sets now that they actually have done our work for us. The American public actually is very educated on how films operate, more educated and more knowledgeable than we thought.”
After brainstorming the basic characters and plot of the picture with Theroux, Stiller reached out again—this time to Etan Cohen, a Harvard grad who had parlayed a summer internship at MTV into writing gigs on Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill before collaborating with those shows’ creator, Mike Judge, on the script for the cult comedy Idiocracy.
“I came on in about the end of 2002,” Cohen says. “Ben and Justin had a lot of ideas and some of the characters, and they wanted the story filled out and the rest of the ensemble filled out—to make it into a script.”
His chief challenge was balancing what was then an overabundance of colorful characters. “Absolutely the biggest challenge of that script,” Cohen confirms. “Because you’re herding so many people. Actually, there were other drafts where there were, like, seven, eight, nine main guys. That was way too crowded; we have to thin it out to the best guys. Part of who won out was who was funniest, but part of the challenge was to also ensure that, when you have such big characters, guys who can seem bigger than life, you want to make sure that you can still root for them, that you can still care about them as human beings, that—in this case—you want them to survive.”
Those making the cut included Tugg Speedman (Stiller), Kirk Lazarus (Downey), Jeff “Fats” Portnoy (Black) and Alpa Chino (Jackson), the stars of not only the movie-within-the-movie of Tropic Thunder but also a mockumentary about the making of the movie-within-the-movie that Theroux wound up writing and directing.
“It’s called Tropic Thunder: Rain of Madness,” Theroux reveals. “To make the terrible Thunder joke, we needed to make it ‘Rain.’ It’s a side-by-side companion piece which will be either online or on the DVD—or both—that chronicles the madness of the making of the movie.
“It’s just one more layer. The characters are all the same and they behave the same in the documentary, but it has a completely different tone. It’s sort of this Werner Herzog, Germanic, sober, overly earnest film about the making of a war movie,” Theroux chuckles. “So we’re sort of pulling a Herzog-meets- Hearts-of-Darkness.”
This article appears in the August issue of