Looking for action, he got it

Times Staff Writer

Ben STILLER handed them out to cast and crew at the conclusion of a punishing 13-week location shoot as a gesture of thanks, but also contrition: T-shirts that read “I SURVIVED BEN STILLER’S COMEDY DEATH CAMP.”

Sitting at a bayside restaurant in Vancouver, where he’s currently filming “Night at the Museum 2,” Stiller -- who co-wrote, directed, co-produced and stars in the ensemble action-comedy “Tropic Thunder” -- waved it away as a joke, a riff on marquee star Robert Downey Jr.'s acerbic nickname for the production, most of which unfolded in the steaming jungles of Kauai last year.

But according to actor Jay Baruchel, Stiller might have had a different rationale for his choice of “wrap” gifts. He called Stiller a mensch and “one of the kindest directors” he’s worked with but continued: “I think for everybody, it signaled the end of the madness.

“The pressure got to every single person on that movie at some point,” said Baruchel who, like Stiller and Downey in the film, portrays an actor caught in the middle of real paramilitary strife while filming a big-budget Vietnam War epic. “It rained 12 times a day. There were a tremendous amount of things to worry about, from prolonged exposure to mud to the leptospirosis virus caused by every animal in creation [defecating] and having it flush down the mountain. A lot of people were getting sick. You had to cross a river out of ‘Jurassic Park’ every day to get to work and then go up a mountain that was like something out of a cartoon.”


Added Jack Black: “A couple of people got bit by centipedes. It’s like getting shot by a gun, apparently. You have to go to the hospital.”

More than simply an inside joke, the shirts provide a telling glimpse of comedy death camp’s head counselor. After two decades in the business, Stiller has become one of Hollywood’s most consistently hit-making A-listers; his movies have collectively taken in more than $3.5 billion in worldwide box-office receipts, landing him on Forbes magazine’s list of the Top 10 most bankable stars. But under the gun, the man responsible for bringing “Zoolander” to the screen may not be as far from Werner Herzog -- in terms of director-despot dedication -- as you might think.

While “Tropic Thunder” is no “Fitzcarraldo,” Stiller’s collaborators, such as his producing partner of 10 years, Stuart Cornfeld, say that when Stiller is in the director’s chair, he inspires a “daunting” level of commitment from those around him, burning through millions of feet of film (Stiller is loath to yell “cut” for fear of interrupting the improvisational comic mojo). Especially while trying to wrestle into submission a “passion project” with the potential to damage his and other ensemble cast members’ public standing if its more outre jokes (including one star acting in blackface and an extended goof on “retard” movies) don’t go over as intended.

Stiller, 42, began incubating the idea for “Tropic Thunder” more than 20 years ago, developed the script off and on for the last decade and landed a budget from DreamWorks reported to be around $100 million.

Viewed another way, with its biting satire of studio greed, talent agent vapidity, movie star butt-kissing and hubris, the R-rated hommage to films such as “Apocalypse Now” and “The Thin Red Line” is a hugely expensive poke in Hollywood’s eye -- a joke Hollywood paid through the nose to have played upon itself. The film never second-guesses its audience’s familiarity with entertainment industry inside baseball nor does it defang its jokes -- and for that reason, early buzz has been mixed.

Nevertheless, after working on such mainstream fare as “Night at the Museum” and “Meet the Fockers,” “Tropic Thunder” marks Stiller’s return to the kind of edgy, take-no-prisoners humor he became known for on his early ‘90s MTV variety program “The Ben Stiller Show.”

Downey recalled that during the Hawaiian shoot, “People were dropping like flies.” Lest he paint the wrong picture of “Tropic Thunder’s” co-writer/director/star, Downey points out that Stiller is more apt to get what he wants through creative collaboration than tyranny. “He’s not mean-spirited . . . He’s not one of those [crazy, mean] guys you hear about,” Downey said. “That’s not Ben. His drive: He’s obsessed with the idea of delivering the best product he can.”

‘Post-"Platoon” syndrome’


“Tropic Thunder’s” movie within a movie centers on a quintet of buffoonish yet instantly recognizable Hollywood types -- Black plays a “fart movie” comic (think Eddie Murphy in “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps”) saddled with certain chemical dependency issues while Downey portrays a pretentious Australian Method actor whose immersive “process” brings to mind Russell Crowe and Daniel Day-Lewis -- filming the “biggest war film ever” in the jungles of Vietnam. A profanity-spewing studio boss (played by a nearly unrecognizable Tom Cruise) threatens to pull the plug on the production’s runaway costs unless its director (Steve Coogan) can get things under control. So he leads the cast deep into the jungle where hidden cameras will capture the verite-style terror and dismay of hotshot actors out of their mollycoddled depth.

None of them realize until it’s too late, however, they’ve encroached upon the turf of heavily armed heroin dealers. And a real war -- of egos, wills and blazing machine guns -- erupts with Stiller portraying Tugg Speedman, a washed-up action superstar who has pinned his diminishing career hopes on “Tropic Thunder.”

Unlikely as it sounds, the plot was born of personal experience. One of Stiller’s earliest roles was as a prisoner of war in Steven Spielberg’s 1987 drama “Empire of the Sun.” And starting out, he unsuccessfully auditioned for war flicks including “Platoon.” When thespian pals started getting parts in war movies such as “Hamburger Hill,” Stiller took note of the fake boot camps they enrolled in. Then, while he was a cast member on the 1988-89 season of “Saturday Night Live,” Stiller considered using the premise for a comedic short.

“I thought it would be funny to have actors who had done this kind of immersion suffer a post-'Platoon’ syndrome instead of post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said, “but we never figured out how to do it. You don’t want people to think you’re making fun of veterans in any way when you’re making fun of actors who take themselves so seriously.”


His turn in the Farrelly brothers’ “There’s Something About Mary” propelled Stiller into comedy’s major league, and he started working on the “Tropic Thunder” script with Justin Theroux (and later, Etan Cohen). “We knew what the first act was. But what do they do when they’re out there in the jungle?” Stiller said. Chief among the film’s vivid characters is Kirk Lazarus, a quintessential Method actor and multiple Oscar winner who undergoes a “controversial” skin-darkening treatment to portray an African American sergeant. Approached for the part, Downey blanched at performing in blackface and speaking in an exaggerated Ebonics patois.

“I first got mad,” Downey said. “He’s going to call me up and say, ‘I want to do a great big movie with you, but I want you to have the highest risk factor. And I want to maybe put you up to ridicule and have people, like, hate you for what you should have . . . known was wrong to do.’ ”

Stiller ultimately persuaded him to do it but admitted worrying that people won’t get the joke. “It’s such a touchy area, " he said. “It had to be clear: What we are satirizing is the character and his loss of identity. So we have a black actor there” -- Brandon T. Jackson, who plays the braggadocios rapper-actor Alpa Chino in -- “calling [Lazarus] on every moment to be perfectly clear about our point of view. We never wanted it to be OK.”

Similarly, a subplot involving “Simple Jack” (another film set within “Tropic Thunder’s” bizarro Hollywood universe) treads shaky comedic ground, lampooning such genre standard bearers as “Rain Man” and Sean Penn in “I Am Sam.” Stiller’s Tugg breaks action-hero type to play a “mentally impaired farmhand” -- a wild-eyed, bucktoothed simpleton who is repeatedly referred to as a “retard” in “Tropic Thunder” -- with hopes of winning an Academy Award.


“I’ve never played a mentally impaired character,” said Stiller. “But I put myself out there. I’ve had flops. There is stuff I do that could easily become parody too. Again, it always comes back to what we are satirizing: the actors and the Hollywood system. What do you do to be taken seriously? How far do you go?”

Anticipating precisely the counterpoint Stiller presents, Patricia E. Bauer, who blogs about disabilities issues, wrote of the film: “For the 14.3 million Americans with cognitive disabilities and their families, such arguments may be problematic. These people share a history of segregation and exclusion, and report that what many call the ‘R-word’ reinforces negative social attitudes just as racial, ethnic and sexually oriented slurs do.” (Bauer also said that disability rights advocates will discuss their concerns with DreamWorks executives this week.)

System in its sights

“Tropic Thunder” was greenlighted by DreamWorks in 2006. And the movie was already in preproduction when Stiller received script notes from Cruise -- achum since the two collaborated on a 2000 TV comedy sketch “Mission: Improbable,” in which Stiller played “Tom Crooze,” Cruise’s doltish stunt double. Stiller credits one of the iconic actor-producer’s suggestions with helping him conquer the better part of a decade’s worth of false starts. “He said, ‘It’s really funny, but where’s the studio head? It would be really funny to see a studio head in this,’ ” Stiller remembered. “For me, that triggered something. It solved a piece of the puzzle. It fulfilled this story point that had been bothering me for eight years.”


Stiller and Theroux rejiggered the plot to pivot around Les Grossman, a hard-cursing, hip-hop dancing studio impresario who mashes Diet Coke cans when angry, verbally eviscerates his co-workers and puts profitability before actors’ safety at every turn. And of course Stiller gave the part to Cruise, disguised by a marshmallowy fat suit, chest-hair wig, bald pate cap and an enormous pair of prosthetic hands.

Speculation has ranged that the portrayal was a kind of payback for Cruise’s rough treatment by a former studio nemesis. In 2006, the actor went through an acrimonious falling out with Sumner Redstone, the combative chairman of Viacom, corporate parent of Paramount where Cruise’s production company was based for many years (a delicious irony considering Paramount, which owns DreamWorks, is also distributing “Tropic Thunder”). Other industry observers liken the character’s righteous rancor to that of Weinstein Co. chief Harvey Weinstein.

Not so in either case, says Stiller. “It was never going for somebody specific. This is obviously based in my experience in the entertainment industry. And you can pick and choose who is the loudest yeller or the most infamous shouter.” Despite his insistence to the contrary, it’s hard to shake the perception that Stiller, one of Hollywood’s most fortunate sons (his parents are the venerable comedy team of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara) has set out to bite the proverbial hand that feeds him by making a movie highlighting the entertainment industry’s self-absorption, greed and ruthlessness.

“DreamWorks always liked the script, always wanted to make the movie,” said Cornfeld. “When we started talking to them specifically about Ben’s vision as a director, they knew this was not going to be a low-budget, high-concept comedy, that we really wanted to deliver the production values of the films that inspired it.”


Even if that meant operating a comedy death camp? “It was good, hard work, and everyone felt connected to the material” is all Stiller will cop to.

Cornfeld elaborated on his producing producer’s perfectionist streak. “There was always a sense we were not going to move on until every scene was the best it could possibly be,” he said. “It’s a function of his full-on intense commitment. That and the lashings he gave the actors.”