Todd Phillips on comedy, “scoundrels”

Filmmaker Todd Phillips talked with me the other day (actually, last Friday) about comedy and his latest film, School For Scoundrels, which opens today.

What made you laugh as a kid?
"For me it was all about Eddie Murphy’s Raw. and it was all about Stripes and Blues Brothers. Those are the kinds of things I grew up on. You’d like to pretend you grew up on Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder but that stuff came later in life. The truth is it was Animal House and Meatballs and Stripes and Eddie Murphy. That is definitely what my younger influences were."

But you didn’t start making comedies until you hooked up with Ivan Reitman (on Road Trip), right?
"I was also only 26 years old…I started doing documentaries, but if you had seen the documentaries that I had done…they all have a real comedic slant to them. They’re not done like, I never approached documentary like journalism, it was always as a director and a filmmaker. So it wasn’t a big leap to go from a documentary into narrative features, because well, if you do a documentary correctly, and if you actually direct a documentary, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has little things about each character that get let out slowly in the story just like in a narrative feature. So it’s all storytelling. It’s all filmmaking."

I also noticed you have a story credit on Borat. What part do you take credit for? "I know those guys, Sacha, and we just helped them brainstorm that movie. I mean, Sacha, he’s a genius. He does his whole thing entirely. For him it’s so much about just coming up with the big idea and then he goes in and does it."

Why remake School For Scoundrels?
"For us it was really an opportunity to work with Billy Bob," he said. "It was really about finding something cool that would be in his wheelhouse that we could do. So that’s really where it started."

Did you make a conscious effort to cast comedians with street cred like Sarah Silverman and David Cross?
"There’s about seven improv guys in this movie who are probably the top seven improv guys in New York right now…For me and David Cross and Sarah fit into this reasoning, I like having as many funny people on the set as possible. I like having, it’s really a spirit thing more than anything. It helps the vibe of the set. It’s very much like, I read somewhere early on, it’s important to set the tone of the movie on the set of the movie and its very much that. It’s keeping the atmosphere and the vibe really loose and funny and it always ends up finding its way into the film."

"I realize sometimes I sound like a major stoner, because all I ever do is talk about vibes. But it’s true….I don’t really do casting. I don’t have people come in and read lines and videotape them and watch it. I just meet people and I feel it. It’s the weirdest thing. I feel like I sound like a psycho. But comedy to me is about essence and tone and all these things that you can just really feel and you don’t really act. So when Jon Glaser walks into the room, even though I haven’t really seen him do anything and we start talking about the part. You feel it. If I tell you to stand up and read these lines right now and put a video camera on you and sat two other people next to you — that’s not how you’re normally going to be anyway. And it’s not the atmosphere I’m going to set up for you on the set of the movie. So it’s so much more about the underneath stuff."

Do you think it’d be fair to characterize your films as "big dumb comedies"?
"The dumb part I don’t love, but I’ll take it. Two out of three ain’t bad…But I don’t know that broad means dumb. I think dumb overall would describe, I’m trying to think of a comedy that’s dumb…Really I think these movies work because there’s an emotional thread through them that people connect with, and I find that hard to say that that’s dumb. So even the tennis scene is ridiculous and broad. It’s not necessarily dumb, because there’s something going on there, it’s happening for a reason, that I think actually drags you into the movie more. So dumb? I think I would take umbrage with the word. I don’t see comedies as the ugly stepsister in narrative filmmaking. I don’t see it as a genre that you grow out of. I’d be happy doing comedies forever. I love doing comedies. And I love working with funny people."

Later, we came back to the nature of comedians and comedy.
"Comedy is so much about fearlessness. It’s about setting up the environment on a movie set where people, actors feel safe to (expletive) up. It’s so much about, Will’s biggest strength is his fearlessness. And Jim Carrey’s biggest strength is his fearlessness. And Sacha’s biggest strength is his fearlessness. These guys have no fear. And that translates in such a huge way, because you just can’t be self-conscious in any way, and you just can’t worry about if it’s going to work or not, because it’s all about going for it. And you know what? 9 out of the 10 times it doesn’t work, but we’re only going to see it in the movie the times it worked. It’s so hard. And live theater is the hardest because if it doesn’t work, people see your mistakes…Movies, you watch the Borat stuff, you didn’t see the 18 times it didn’t work, you see the (expletive) golden time. But that’s why he’s so brilliant. Because he’s relentless. You know what I mean. That’s why Will’s so great, because he’ll try it eight different ways until the one way that works golden. The best guys just blow you away with that."

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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