Tropic Thunder

BEHIND THE SCENES & Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. interviews

Tropic Thunder

Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is a pampered action superstar on the wane. His "Scorcher" series of post-apocalyptic action epics have played out, and after a desperate attempt for an Oscar® nod backfires, Speedman is counting on "Tropic Thunder" to put him back on top.

Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is the star of a popular gross-out comedy franchise called "The Fatties," and now he’s looking to branch out, to show the world that there’s more to him than just getting laughs from passing gas.

Aussie thespian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), the quintessential "method" actor, has won five Oscars® and is always on the lookout for new challenges and ways to transform himself for his "art."

Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) seems to have it all. But the multi-platinum hip-hop-star-turned-entrepreneur is eager to move on up to the ranks of serious actors.

And newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), well, he is just happy to have a job.

In "Tropic Thunder," this unlikely group of self-absorbed prima donnas come together to film an epic war movie and unwittingly wind up in a real battle.

"On the surface, the actors cast in this war movie appear to be very different people," says the film’s producer Stuart Cornfeld. "But at their core, they’re all trying to do something different with their careers, something new, and they’re hoping this war movie will be the way they reach that next level. The problem is that all of them, except maybe Kevin Sandusky – who’s worked really hard so that he’ll do well in the film – are so caught up in themselves, that they’ll never be able to achieve those goals."

After the studio head threatens to shut down production, frustrated British director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) refuses to stop shooting and, instead, leads his unsuspecting cast deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia to complete principal photography "guerilla style." With no assistants, entourages, or cell phones, the cast soon encounters a very real and very dangerous band of drug lords. Mistaking the actors for American DEA agents, they resolve to capture the "American invaders."

In the movie-within-the-movie, Tugg Speedman (Stiller) plays John "Four Leaf" Tayback, the courageous real-life war hero whose memoir about his Vietnam exploits are the basis for the film.

"Speedman was the highest paid, highest grossing action star of all time," says Stiller, who also co-wrote, directed and produced the film. "He’s completely pampered, completely out of touch. He is coming off of a few flops, including a blatant attempt to win an Oscar®. That movie is called ‘Simple Jack,’ in which he plays a mentally impaired farm hand who can talk to animals. And it totally backfires. It is one of the worst reviewed movies of all-time. Now, even his action movies aren’t doing well and he is in a really bad place. So, he needs this war film to work."

Following Stiller’s vision of producing a genre-bending action-comedy, the filmmakers assembled an ensemble cast with actors who could pull off the comedic elements while still being believable in the movie’s more realistic moments.

For the role of Jeff Portnoy, the gross-out comedy star best known for his multiple roles in the "The Fatties" comedy franchise, the film makers had only one actor in mind: Jack Black. "Jack plays the archetypal, crazy, out-of-control comedy guy," says Stiller. "The thing I love about Jack is that he is unique. Nobody else has his persona, his comedic vibe. He’s also committed. He took this character and embraced every aspect of him."

"Jeff Portnoy takes things to a whole new level. Portnoy has made a career out of fart movies," Black says. "I’ve done some gross-out movies myself, but Portnoy is at the next level above Jack Black in terms of dominating the world of farts."

Although Portnoy’s lowbrow humor has made him an international superstar, Black explains, he now wants more respect as an actor. "Portnoy is trying to branch out and get a little more legit," Black says.

As Portnoy and the rest of the cast get stranded in the jungle, we learn something else about him – he has a major substance abuse problem.

As Stiller observes, "You get to watch Portnoy going cold turkey. Jack naturally did it in a very entertaining way, but he also made it very believable. Being able to strike that balance is tough, but Jack totally committed to it."

One of Black’s memorable moments occurred at the bad guys’ compound. In an attempt to rescue Tugg Speedman, Portnoy enters the compound semi-naked and hogtied, riding on the back of a water buffalo.

"I’m in my underpants strapped to the back of the water buffalo and my concern was how the water buffalo hide was going to feel against my naked belly and chest," Black says. "Is it going to be a rough surface? Would I have an allergic reaction? But actually it was very soft, like one of those fancy tiger rugs you see in front of the fireplace in some movies. But she didn’t seem to be all that thrilled with me on her back. She gave me a couple of swats with her tail and looked around at me like, ‘I’m gonna buck your butt off!’ I could have sworn there was anger in her eyes," he laughs.

The overly committed Australian actor Kirk Lazarus goes to the most extreme measures to realistically portray every one of his characters – in this case, having his skin surgically dyed to play an African-American sergeant, Lincoln Osiris.
"Oscar®-winner Kirk Lazarus is specifically drawn to the character of Lincoln Osiris, who happens to be a black man," says Cornfeld. "He seriously sees this as his next great acting challenge. Naturally, the studio doesn’t grasp how absurd this is. They just jump at the opportunity to have him in the film. When Lazarus reports for duty on set, he is Lincoln Osiris, and he refuses to drop out of character at any time throughout the entire movie."

Lazarus is committed one hundred percent to the role. "Kirk’s heart is in the right place," Downey says. "The way it’s portrayed is self-deprecating. He has literally gotten so into the role that he cannot get out of it, even when there’s no indication they’re making a movie anymore. Certain of us actors have gone that method route at times, but only up to a point. There’s professionalism and dedication; and then there’s total narcissism," he laughs.

Justin Theroux, executive producer and co-writer of "Tropic Thunder," observes that Robert Downey Jr. is "the man of a million characters. He’s an actor who can pull off virtually anything – comedy, drama – and like Ben, he’s a master of improv. Just watching them do a scene together was a joy to behold. It’s sort of like watching a beautiful little tennis match, because they’re both such talented and capable comedic talents."

Co–starring opposite Lazarus in the film is Alpa Chino. Portrayed by actor-comedian Brandon T. Jackson, Alpa Chino is a multi-platinum selling hip-hop star, (whose most recent hit was "I Love Tha’ Pussy") with an extensive merchandise line that includes the "Booty Sweat" energy drink brand, "Bust-A-Nut" candy bars and a menswear line for the Gap called "Alpa Chinos."
Alpa has now set his sights on legitimate acting, playing a character named Motown, a badass soldier from Detroit who wears customized fatigues covered in graffiti. "My character is just this over-the-top, ridiculous guy," Jackson says. "He’s so obsessed with the movie ‘Scarface’ that he has named himself after that film’s star, Al Pacino. And he’s a stickler about his name, too. People are always saying it wrong, so he’s always spelling it out: A-L-P-A."

While Alpa Chino sees the war epic as a new career opportunity, he resents the fact that the role of Lincoln Osiris has been cast with Kirk Lazarus, which leads to some testy altercations. "Our characters are always getting into it," says Jackson. "Alpa is insulted that the role wasn’t given to a black man. Yet, when he tries to argue this point with Kirk, it’s like talking to a wall."

"Alpa Chino respects Kirk Lazarus the same way he respects Al Pacino," Downey says, "because he grew up watching Lazarus in these Oscar®-winning parts. But, clearly, Lazarus has crossed a line and when the movie starts to go south, and they’re in real danger, his behavior becomes extremely irritating. Eventually, however, they develop a bond, which proves to be a really interesting twist."

Rounding out the main characters is Kevin Sandusky, an earnest young actor who gets his first big acting break playing newbie soldier Brooklyn. The role was given to up-and-coming comedy actor Jay Baruchel, who was recently seen in the summer 2007 hit "Knocked Up" and is currently filming his first comedy lead role in "She’s Out of My League."

"Sandusky is the wet-behind-the-ears rookie actor, really eager and super-psyched to be there," Baruchel explains. "He’s the only one of the cast who auditioned for the role, who bothered to read John ‘Four Leaf’ Tayback’s book, attended the actors’ military boot camp, and researched the role. So when things go bad for the cast, he becomes the de facto go-to man for all the answers. He’s the only one that actually knows how to read a map or load a gun properly. So, naturally, they all assume that he knows how to do things like fly a helicopter, too."

Sandusky gets caught up in a power struggle between Speedman and Lazarus as both vie for his expertise to help them navigate their way out of the jungle. "That makes for an interesting turn by the climax of the film, one that I think a lot of people are going to enjoy," he smiles. "I know I did."

A host of talented actors comprise the supporting cast of "Tropic Thunder," including award-winning veteran actor Nick Nolte. In "Tropic Thunder," Nolte plays the real-life John "Four Leaf" Tayback, whose Vietnam memoir is the basis for the war film and is the basis for the character Tugg Speedman portrays.

Tayback is also on hand, serving as the movie’s technical advisor, and when things start to fall apart, he becomes the catalyst for the insanity that follows.

"I’m just living on the beach while all these spoiled brat actors are in their big hotels or special trailers with their personal trainers," Nolte explains. "The young English director of this film can’t control them, and when there’s a major screw-up with a battle scene and the studio shuts down the film, I convince the director to get some video cameras and shoot it wild; take four or five days to go through the jungle, take the special effects guy along to blow some stuff up around them, and convince him that he’ll get real emotion from these guys. He’ll get real fear."

Four Leaf, however, has some secrets of his own and he inadvertently lands the actors in a real battle against members of the Flaming Dragon, a drug-manufacturing guerilla army based in the Golden Triangle.

Damien Cockburn, the war movie’s frazzled director, is portrayed by British actor Steve Coogan, a major English comedy star, who is best known as the title character in BBC’s "I’m Alan Partridge," and for his portrayal of Tony Wilson in Michael Winterbottom’s "24 Hour Party People."

"I play this director who is drowning in this monolithic beast of a Hollywood production and the comedy springs from my misfortunes," Coogan says. "Cockburn has to deal with all these actors and their huge entourages and a budget that is spiraling out of control. It looks like everything’s going to crash and burn but, ultimately, the film emerges unscathed."
He pauses and then adds, "No thanks to me."

Coogan was intrigued by how "Tropic Thunder" both pokes fun at and emulates how movies are made. "The film starts out looking like a big Hollywood war movie and then quickly becomes a high-concept comedy," Coogan says. "It laughs at itself, and Ben’s sort of laughing at himself in the film as well. Although he’s playing a fictitious movie star, he really is a movie star. He’s mocking big movie stars who have a bunch of assistants running around, but Ben has a bunch of assistants running around him. He’s taking reality and just distorting it, caricaturing and exaggerating it to make it funny. We’re kind of showing the underbelly of Hollywood filmmaking and I think audiences will enjoy seeing how vulnerable everyone is in these situations."

Danny McBride, whose comic chops will also be seen this summer in the "The Foot Fist Way" plays the film’s explosives expert, Cody, a trigger-happy explosions expert whose behavior is equal parts hilarious and scary. "SNL" regular Bill Hader, who has appeared in such recent hit comedies as "Knocked Up" and "Superbad," plays Rob Slolom, a meddling mid-level studio executive – the quintessential Hollywood bootlicker.

Tran, the head of the dangerous Flaming Dragons, is played by newcomer Brandon Soo Hoo. Stiller explains, "he is great in the film. He plays a 12-year-old who’s got this army of guys manufacturing heroin for him. This is his first movie and he is a great young actor. Just the way he looks at you, you know he could take you down. And when he starts fighting, it’s pretty amazing."

Backing up Tran is his first lieutenant, Byong, played by Reggie Lee, best known for his work in "The Fast and the Furious," "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Prison Break."

FROM CONCEPT TO CREATION

"The inspiration for ‘Tropic Thunder’ goes back to 1987," says Stiller. "I had a really small part in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Empire of the Sun.’ At that time all my actor friends were doing Vietnam films like ‘Platoon’ and "Hamburger Hill" and going off to fake boot camps for two weeks. Then during interviews they would say, ‘This boot camp was the most intense thing I have ever experienced in my entire life and we really bonded as a unit and a group.’"

Stiller pauses and laughs. "It was funny to me that actors were talking about this incredibly intense experience when in reality it was nothing like being a soldier and going to war. That sort of self-important, self-involved thing seemed funny to me; I just couldn’t figure a way to make that into a movie."

Stiller teamed up with fellow actor Justin Theroux and began working out a first draft and outline for "Tropic Thunder." "We had a first act and an outline for a few years," says Theroux. "But getting the rest of the logic and story beats to work took a while. There were many, many drafts over the course of about five years".

With Theroux living in New York and Stiller in Los Angeles, the two wrote scenes and e-mailed them back and forth. "Screenwriter Etan Cohen then joined in and it became a sort of free-for-all," Theroux continues "It was exactly what you would want a writing experience to be – a whole lot of laughing and a whole lot of fun. "

The trio’s work eventually evolved into a shooting script, "about an incredibly bloated, top-heavy Hollywood production with a bunch of actors who didn’t do the work, didn’t do the research, barely learned their lines, and who are more obsessed with how they’re all going to come off in a war movie than with the subject matter," Theroux explains. "The director, of course, has no control over his actors, which makes him go bananas. So he and John ‘Four Leaf’ Tayback — who wrote a best-selling memoir called Tropic Thunder — hatch a plan to kidnap the cast, take them to the jungle, and shoot the film ‘Blair Witch’ style. No more chefs. No more assistants. No more masseuses. No more trailers. No more TiVo. They’re just going to do it dirty, gritty, in the mud – the real deal, with real fear and real emotion."

With that concept in mind, Stiller was adamant that the film not become a spoof. "The challenge was that it wasn’t just an action movie and it wasn’t a send-up," Stiller explains. "At the end of the day, you need to invest in the reality of the situation, and care about these people or it doesn’t work. It was definitely influenced by a lot of real war movies, because I love that genre. I’m a real fan of those films. But it’s also about Hollywood and how it works on an extreme level. As stretched as things get in this movie, there is still a basic level of reality."

"Ben has a tremendous gift for movie making," observes Stiller’s producing partner Stuart Cornfeld. "In order to write something you really have to envision it, and then once you’ve envisioned it, directing is about delivering on that vision. Ben saw the film very clearly along these specific lines, knew exactly what he wanted to do and how much more there was to the movie than what was just printed on the page."

"Writing, directing, producing and acting is a lot of work, but I always knew Ben could handle it," continues Cornfeld. "When we worked together on ‘Zoolander,’ I was always astounded to see him carry the responsibility of a director and producer behind the camera, and then walk in front of the camera and deliver this amazing performance. I’ve come to believe that the acting really energizes him. When he steps in front of the camera, he is really able to dive into the character and deliver the performance, the improv and the energy. In a strange way, I think wearing all those hats is energizing for the whole production."

Co-star Jack Black agrees. "Ben has made so many great movies, and now he’s also writing and directing. But this is the biggest movie he’s ever directed. It’s got huge, epic shots with helicopters coming through the mist and dodging mountains, machine gun fire, major explosions, tons of extras. Then he’s got to make it funny. And he does. He’s a pro, totally knows what he wants to do, and it was great working with him."

ABOUT THE PRODUCTION

DreamWorks and Red Hour Films, Stiller and Cornfeld’s production company, brought in producer Eric McLeod, who had recently served as executive producer on the back-to-back productions of "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End." The team knew McLeod would be up for the challenge of shooting a film largely on location. "This was bigger than any movie I’ve ever been involved with in terms of scale," says Cornfeld. "Eric had experience mounting major productions and was well-versed with working in exotic locations and with state governments and handling major set construction and explosions without harming the existing environment. He was the key to working out the logistics of this production."

With a script in place and the producing team assembled, the filmmakers recruited costume designer Marlene Stewart ("JFK," "True Lies") to manage regular wardrobe needs and to research and acquire accurate Vietnam-era military uniforms, as well as to design hip-hopper Alpa Chino’s clothing line. Stiller and Cornfeld also recruited award-winning cinematographer John Toll ("Braveheart," "The Thin Red Line") and production designer Jeff Mann ("TRANSFORMERS") to help bring their vision to life.

"We initially considered shooting in Southern California to double for Vietnam and Burma/Myanmar in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle," explains producer McLeod. "But all of us wanted a unique, lush, and different look to this film, and that’s what Kauai offered."

A frequent destination for movie and television crews, the 32-mile wide island of Kauai has been utilized over the years for such notable films as "South Pacific" and the Costa Rica game preserve in Steven Spielberg’s "Jurassic Park." Kauai’s various jungles, rivers, cliffs, waterfalls and other diverse terrains provided the crew of "Tropic Thunder" with multiple locations to mimic the film’s Southeast Asian locales and added an important realism factor that wouldn’t have been possible in California. In total days, scope of filming and manpower, "Tropic Thunder" is the largest production ever staged on the island.

Production designer Jeff Mann recalls that early in pre-production he and Stiller spent up to 25 hours over the course of six to eight weeks in a helicopter flying over the island looking for film locations, primarily the Hot LZ ("landing zone") and the Flaming Dragon compound. "We were looking for mountain ranges and environments that didn’t feel recognizably Hawaiian – without the red earth and vertical ridges of the Na Pali Coast," Mann says. "We needed to discover someplace that felt more like the Golden Triangle."

McLeod compares the film’s massive six-month pre-production process to "adult adventure camp." He recalls, "As most of the movie was shot on Kauai, we scouted by helicopter, by boat, by ATV. We wanted unique locations, places that hadn’t been shot before. That required more work on our end, but in the end we found everything we needed and it was well worth the work."

The movie’s exterior filming took place at seven locations primarily on Kauai’s northern and eastern sides before relocating back to Los Angeles for the Los Angeles locales and various interiors, which were primarily filmed on legendary Stage 12 at Universal Studios in Universal City, California (where, coincidentally, scenes from the Kauai-based production of "Jurassic Park" were also shot).

Starting with the first day of filming, Stiller led the cast and crew in filming a major battle scene for the fictional epic war film. Reminiscent of memorable war scenes in films from "Apocalypse Now" to "Saving Private Ryan," this is where we first meet the heroes of the film-within-a-film.

The movie’s two major set pieces, the Hot LZ and Flaming Dragon Compound, were both shot on Kauai. The Hot LZ was situated on an expansive valley of tropical land, part of the privately-owned 40,000-acre Grove Farm property in Kauai’s county seat of Lihue. A few miles inland, across rocky, winding roads, was the Flaming Dragon Compound where the movie’s final action sequence takes place. The expansive set was built over several months at the edge of Mount Waialeale, a site that is noted for having 350 rainy days per year — more rain than any other place in the world.

"We had to deal with a lot of rain and a lot of mud," laughs Black. "But the locations looked great and they really added to our scenes. When you arrived on set, you kind of knew you weren’t making a typical comedy or a typical action film, and I think when people see the film they’ll understand why Ben picked those locations."

"We were actually looking at one possible location for the compound when, all of a sudden, Ben and Jeff Mann said, ‘What about down there?’" recalls producer McLeod. With that, the crew hiked down a cliff and found a couple of hydroelectric plants from the 1930s. Says Mann, "Since ‘the hand of man’ had already been here and excavated part of the property, it afforded us a road to get in and out. We selectively cleared some of the vegetation to create space for the set, but we were careful not to upset the visual balance of the environment."

The filmmakers brought in construction crews from Oahu and Los Angeles to widen the road for film production trucks, trailers and the other equipment needed to support the cast, crew and hundreds of technicians. Sets were then built, including a working hundred-foot wooden bridge leading into the compound. This bridge plays an integral role in the movie’s finale, so Mann and his team worked with a structural engineer on its construction. "The whole thing took a little over three months," says Stiller. "The bridge is my favorite because it’s something that was conceived in a drawing, was integral to the story, and Jeff totally pulled it off. It makes for a great ending to those scenes in the compound."

"When we first went out there to rehearse I realized what a drive it was," remembers Downey. "Anyone can attest to the fact that it was just insane. It didn’t seem like there was any good reason why we should be shooting here. We could’ve just gone off the side of a major thoroughfare somewhere and made it look like this. But the truth is, we couldn’t have because this was so remote and so complete in its realism and isolation. It was so tough and so knee-deep in mud and rain, but we were blessed because there wasn’t a day that we didn’t enjoy, which is so rare. Oftentimes when you go into those situations or locations you think it’s going to be hell, but this was a very enjoyable purgatory for a month or two."

One cast member had very few complaints about shooting in Hawaii, never letting it get in the way of her own agenda on the set. The filmmakers found Bertha, the water buffalo that Black’s character rides, in Texas and flew her to Kauai on a special plane. But about midway through filming, everyone was in for a big surprise. "One day the trainer called us and said, ‘Oh, by the way, Bertha can’t work because when we showed up at the corral this morning, she had a calf,’" recalls producer McLeod. "We didn’t know she was pregnant. No one knew she was pregnant. Bertha having this baby was definitely kind of a humorous morale booster for everyone." In honor of Jack Black, the animal trainer named Bertha’s baby "Little Jack."

MAKING THE BATTLE SCENES BELIEVABLE

"‘Tropic Thunder’ opens with a major battle sequence, with soldiers running everywhere, helicopters crisscrossing, and tons of smoke; it feels as real as any Vietnam movie," says production designer Mann.

Comedy is familiar territory for Stiller and Theroux, but the action elements were another matter, so the writing team consulted with famed military advisor Dale Dye to make sure the military action and jargon depicted in the film’s war sequences were accurate. Dye and his company, Warriors Inc., have lent their talents to dozens of films and television projects over the years, from "Band of Brothers" to "Saving Private Ryan," and Stiller attributes their insight to making the first part of the story so strong and credible. Then to continue that authenticity throughout production, Warrior Inc.’s advisors Mark Ebenhoch and Mike Stokey were on set as technical advisors for the first few weeks of filming the Vietnam battle sequences.

"Ben had a mandate that the film’s opening scene be as real as possible, as if the actors had been through actual boot camp," says Ebenhoch, a retired Marine gunnery sergeant. "We worked to get the actors up to speed with weapons handling, tactical moving – basically giving them the look of realistic soldiers. We then took them out for training with the weaponry – how to fire, hold their weapons, and reload." According to Ebenhoch, his biggest surprise was how adeptly Jack Black took to working with the weapons. "Jack had to fire an M60 machine gun and took to it like a baby takes to milk. He became very proficient with the weapon, which holds several hundred rounds." "We trained with some very powerful artillery," Black recalls of his brief training. "And somehow I got stuck with the heaviest gun, an M60; they call it a ‘pig.’ People were saying that I was a natural, though it’s disturbing to think that I could be such an effective, steady killing machine. Apparently when the chips are down, the fellas want me in that foxhole."

Dye also worked closely with costume designer Marlene Stewart to check all the military uniforms for authenticity, as well as with stunt coordinator Brad Martin and his team of stuntmen who portrayed the U.S. Army infantrymen, Viet Cong soldiers, and Tran’s guerilla army. "Mike and Mark made everything look better," says Cornfeld. "So when the movie opens, you’re really into it like you’re watching a regular big-budget action film." To capture the feeling of being in a grand war movie, aerial coordinator Alan Purwin was brought in. Purwin’s credits include some of the best-known war films of the last two decades, as well as "Die Hard," "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," and "TRANSFORMERS," among numerous others. He was responsible for bringing in and flying the Vietnam-era Huey military helicopters used during filming, as well as manning the aerial choppers used for air-to-air and air-to-ground filming.

Special effects coordinator Michael Meinardus and his team were responsible for all the practical effects such as bullet hits, fire and smoke, rocket explosions, squibs and the aforementioned napalm explosion in Vietnam’s Hot LZ. This explosion was created with a 450 foot-long row of explosive pots filled with 1100 gallons of a 90/10 gasoline/diesel mix that were arranged across a field lined with coconut palm trees. In one take and at the flick of a switch, 11 cameras captured the controlled explosion that created a mushroom cloud fireball reaching 350 feet in the air. The entire staggered explosion consisted of 12 separate explosions, the full run of which was completed in 1.25 seconds.

Summing it all up, producer Eric McLeod notes that "Ben wanted to make everything the best it could be, and he was one of the hardest working guys on set. He wanted everyone to understand that this was not only a comedy, but an action film as well. He didn’t want to compromise. Ben made everything important, and when you watch the film you’ll see how the littlest details ended up being important for the film."