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Mr. Beaks Talks TROPIC THUNDER, IDIOCRACY and Funny Sherlock Holmes With Screenwriter Etan Cohen!

By the end of the year, it is probable that the two 2008 films written by Etan Cohen - TROPIC THUNDER and MADAGASCAR: ESCAPE 2 AFRICA - will have grossed a combined $300 million domestically. In case you're wondering, that's nearly $300 million more than the total worldwide gross for his last theatrical feature, IDIOCRACY (which he co-wrote with Mike Judge). Fortunately for Cohen, he was getting work off of that brilliant IDIOCRACY screenplay (formerly titled 3001) long before the cinema-hating monsters at 20th Century Fox deemed the finished product unreleasable (they ultimately favored it with a late summer, un-promoted, 100-theater dump in 2006). One such project was a prospective big budget comedy to be directed by Ben Stiller, which, over the course of six or seven years, grew into the insane, somewhat unwieldy, but undeniably funny TROPIC THUNDER (available on Blu-ray and DVD right freakin' now!). Though the movie threatened to become that which it was parodying (depending on whom you ask, the budget either neared or surpassed $100 million), Cohen, along with co-writers Stiller and Justin Theroux, somehow managed to find just enough order in the chaos to keep the movie from turning into an aimless, all-star comedy debacle like CLUB PARADISE or CADDYSHACK 2. Now that he's associated with an actual hit movie, Cohen is lining up all kinds of studio screenwritin' gigs. One of them is THE FIANCE, a romantic comedy vehicle for Anne Hathaway. That sounds nice, but I'm much more interested in the untitled Sherlock Holmes comedy he's scripting for Hollywood comedy overlord, Judd Apatow. Currently, it's to star Sacha Baron Cohen as the deductifying detective and Will Ferrell as Dr. Watson. It sounds like it might be a ways off (they don't have a director or a Moriarty), but Cohen at least discusses the tone of the film in the below interview. Aside from Holmes, we also touch on the origin of TROPIC THUNDER, the unexpected outrage it engendered, and the sudden relevancy of IDIOCRACY. I hope you learn something.

Mr. Beaks: When did you get involved with TROPIC THUNDER?

Etan Cohen: I think I came on around 2002. Ben had already been working on it for many years, and he already had a lot of the characters and the tone of the movie that he wanted to do. I came in at the point where he was ready for someone to organize it and turn it into a script.

Beaks: You had been writing on KING OF THE HILL at that point. Had you written 3001 [which would become IDIOCRACY] at that point?

Cohen: Yeah. Let's see... 3001 was written and was then shot in 2004. This was all kind of happening at the same time. In fact, I think that's how I was able to get the job doing TROPIC THUNDER. I think Ben read an early draft of IDIOCRACY.

Beaks: It was a pretty hot script at the time. I remember when it was going around. I'd interviewed Mike Judge, and immediately tracked it down. Even with all the hype, it was still one of the funniest scripts I'd ever read.

Cohen: Cool. Thanks.

Going from Mike Judge to Ben and, I guess, Justin [Theroux]... how was that working relationship different?

Cohen: Ben had worked on it for a while, and then I came in and did my thing. It kind of went back and forth: I did a draft with Justin, and then maybe did some more work with Ben. I don't remember the order. Ben might've done his own draft. Then it sat around for a couple of years, but when it was time to get up and go, we did a final polish.

Beaks: Did you know in those early stages which actors you were writing for?

Cohen: No. It was really different. Originally, Ben was going to be just the agent character because he'd done a similar character on THE BEN STILLER SHOW. So the parts really slid around - as you can imagine with a cast like this. We knew it was going to be a great cast because of the amount of respect people have for Ben and want to be in his movies, but we had no idea that it would be like this. I mean, Tom Cruise! That's insane!

Beaks: It's not just the names that got attached to this; it's the scale of the film. It's kind of shocking.

Cohen: It really is. It's an incredibly ambitious thing that he did, to do it in that scope. It's a comedy, so you don't think about spending $100 million. In fact, we even had a joke in the early version of the script about how the movie-within-the-movie is spiraling out of control, and now it's going to cost ninety million dollars - which is not even what the real one ended up costing. So you can never really anticipate. You'd have to be crazy to think it's going to be made on that scope. But that was Ben's vision, and that's what makes it what it is.

Beaks: When you were writing the script, did anyone ever say "We're making the APOCALYPSE NOW of comedy!"?

Cohen: I think that was Ben's intention from the very beginning. With IDIOCRACY, because of the budget, you have to embrace a certain amount of cheapness in the way the world looks. But Ben did not settle for that. You anticipate that you're going to have to do that with a comedy, but this is one that didn't.

Beaks: During the writing of TROPIC THUNDER, did you know that there was going to be this "Rain of Madness" documentary going along with it?

Cohen: I think that was something Justin had planned for a long time. That's more a question for him.

Beaks: Just speaking for yourself, which characters did you find yourself getting into and really enjoying?

Cohen: Robert Downey Jr.'s character was an easy one to go too far with. That's like crack for comedy writers. But it's interesting: one of the ones who ended up being really fun was Jay Baruchel. In a lot of ways, he's the heart of it, the sort of relatable guy who audiences sympathize with; he's in charge of pulling us along emotionally through the movie. He's so likable as an actor, but even before we knew we had him, it was just fun to have that guy who's the eyes of the audience trapped in this world.

Beaks: Were you on set much during the shoot?

Cohen: Not too much. Just about half a week.

Beaks: When you weren't on set, were you ever sending in pages or punching things up?

Cohen: Not a ton. A little bit after one of the table reads, but not really. That was more like Ben's thing.

Beaks: It's interesting that you mention Jay being the heart of the story. Watching the film for the first time, I viewed it as satire, so I was waiting for Jay's character to be punished. Did you ever think about going for the jugular like that?

Cohen: Actually, it's kind of the opposite. From the very beginning, it seemed like it was clearly hilarious; there was so much comedy to be mined out of this. But one of the challenges early on was... "Who cares about these actors?" So Jay's character was there for a very specific reason, which was just to make sure that we cared about them surviving this adventure. You really had to have him succeed, I think, for the audience to be along for the whole ride.

Beaks: I missed the press screenings for TROPIC THUNDER, so I wound up seeing it with a paying audience - which is always the the way to go with a comedy. It was at the Cinerama Dome, and this guy who was sitting off to my left... he was kind of restless before the start of the film. I could tell something was up. Well, sure enough, when we got to the first "Simple Jack" bit, he got up, muttered "Disgusting!" and stomped off. I understand that there's a sensitivity to the issue from people who deal with mentally handicapped people in real life; obviously, they can't be wrong about being offended. But I was really put off by this fervor to condemn the film prior to its release. I think some people went in looking to get pissed off. Do you think there was maybe a bit of overkill with the protests?

Cohen: I think you're exactly right the way you put it: you can't tell people who have real feelings about this that they're wrong to feel hurt or offended. But at the same time, I know our hearts were in the right place. To us, it was very obvious that this was a satire of actors who exploit all kinds of people with all kinds of disabilities just to win awards. On an intellectual level, I certainly felt it was unfair; it should've been clear what we were doing. But on a personal level, you can't argue with people's personal feelings. And you can't tell people how to react to a movie; once it's out there, people have the right to react however they're going to react. But you wish people would have an open mind about what we're doing.

Beaks: Or, in some cases, wait to see the movie.

Cohen: (Laughing) Exactly.

Beaks: How surreal will it be if Robert Downey Jr. wins a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this?

Cohen: Oh, my god! He should definitely win. I guess it doesn't happen that often with a comedy.

Beaks: Not too often. But it could happen. There's a lot of love for him right now.

Cohen: It would certainly feel like it's well-deserved. But it would be a great irony if the movie satirizing douche-y actors who'd do anything to win an Oscar would wind up winning an Oscar for one of those actors.

Beaks: Moving on to what you're doing now, what kind of tone are you going for with the Sherlock Holmes comedy?

Cohen: I think it's going to be really fun. It's a cool balancing act, but a tough one, too. We want people to feel like they didn't get cheated out of seeing a great Sherlock Holmes mystery; we want to have all of the action and fun that you'd expect. But at the same time, we want to really exploit the dynamic that people loved in TALLADEGA NIGHTS between Sacha and Will. I think we can do that and still be true to the original stories. If you go back and look at the original [Sir Arthur] Conan Doyle stories, there really is a kind of comedy duo dynamic that exists between Watson and Holmes. I think we're being more true to the stories than people will anticipate.

Beaks: Is there going to be a Moriarty, and, if so, have you thought about casting yet?

Cohen: That is something I'm probably not allowed to talk about. (Laughs)

Beaks: Well, I just want to say that you should throw as much money at Ricky Gervais as possible.

Cohen: (Laughing) I will pass that up the chain.

Beaks: What else do you have going?

Cohen: MADAGASCAR 2 is out. And I'm in the middle of a rewrite on this Anne Hathaway movie called THE FIANCE [for IGBY GOES DOWN director Burr Steers]. I think that and Sherlock are all I can talk about right now.

Beaks: How vindicated do you feel now that IDIOCRACY is coming to pass?

Cohen: That happened so shockingly fast. People used to email me and Mike stuff that was right out of the movie. It happened, like, while the movie was in production. (Laughs) Apparently there really are sexy coffee places - or lingerie coffee places. One of the big things was Crocs. Our production designer had everyone wearing Crocs in the movie. We didn't even know what they were. Mike was like, "You'd have to be an idiot to wear these!" By the time the movie came out, everyone was wearing them.

TROPIC THUNDER is available on DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday, November 18th. Later this week, I might have an interview with Cohen's cowriter, Justin Theroux. Faithfully submitted, Mr. Beaks

Readers Talkback
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  • Nov. 17, 2008, 7:10 p.m. CST

    testing 1 2 3

    by xega


  • Nov. 17, 2008, 7:22 p.m. CST

    sorry to thread is st trailer...not pirate

    by bacci40 pine really does look 17...lucky fuck

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 7:27 p.m. CST


    by xsi kal

    I never read the script for Idiocracy, but I did see the movie and it was terrible. A somewhat accurate, if overblown, portrayal of where society seems to be headed? Sure. But unwatchable, despite that.

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 7:33 p.m. CST

    I'm waiting for "Ow, My Balls!" Season One any day now--

    by The Reluctant Austinite

    "Idiocracy" was one of the scariest movies I saw last year. I can't believe how close we are to the future depicted in that film. When I saw a new show on G4 called "Hurl," a gameshow about blowing chunks, I knew we were dangerously close. I can see a day when WalMart/Sam's Club is the only store in the country and wrestlers run the country just like they apparently do in Mexico.

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 7:35 p.m. CST


    by Cyan09

    That is awesome.

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 7:36 p.m. CST

    sarah palin proved that idiocracy was a documentary

    by bacci40

    nuff said....if any man deserves to make millions in hollywood, its cohen

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 7:41 p.m. CST

    jaden smith for moriarity

    by crazybubba

    awwww helllllll nawwww watson.

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 7:45 p.m. CST

    Ask something about "King of the Hill"...

    by Stalin vs Predator

    Ask if the fact that "King" gets cancelled, while the spawner of "Family Guy" gets a new show is the inevitable seventh sign of Idiocracy becoming reality...

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 7:52 p.m. CST

    The Running Man was once the bar for life imitating art

    by Regicidal_Maniac

    Today it is Idiocracy. This film is hilariously scary. Y'all should run out and watch it immediately, it's got electrolytes.

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 8:22 p.m. CST

    I Think My Wife is Retarded

    by ImMorganFreeman

    Try hunting down Cohen's short film called "I think My Wife is Retarded". It's pretty damn brilliant. I like money.

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 8:25 p.m. CST

    Bruce Campbell is Moriarty

    by beetlegeuse

    People crave electrolytes

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 8:32 p.m. CST

    Ricky Gervais as Watson...

    by Carl XVI Gustaf

    excellent idea!

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 8:34 p.m. CST

    Ricky Gervais as Moriarty...

    by Carl XVI Gustaf

    no thanks.

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 8:55 p.m. CST

    idocracy was terrible

    by onefatman

    just terrible . . .

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 9:23 p.m. CST

    Agreed onefatman, agreed...

    by Paul T. Ryan

    And thanks to this site championing it, I foolishly rented it for myself, my fiance and my future mother-in-law. I haven't felt that embarrassed in a long time. Great - if not totally original - idea, atrocious execution.

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 9:41 p.m. CST


    by Nick91884

    Is a pretty genius commentary on our societies future. I really didnt like it the first time I saw it though. When I saw it again on one of the movie channels I really started to like it. I feel its one of those movies that just kinda grew on me.

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 9:50 p.m. CST


    by bluebottle

    is one of the few movies i've bought multiple copies of to give to people... it's a total gem.

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 10:11 p.m. CST

    Idiocracy grows on you...

    by Tin Snoman

    I rented it and thought parts were pretty funny (esp. Terry Crews, also the whole Upgrayedd subplot) but on the whole it wasn't that great. But then a few months ago I saw it at the store for like $6 and I thought aw man TERRY CREWS what the heck, so I picked it up and it's still pretty scattershot but every time I watch it it gets funnier. I was going to make a comment about Fox being a crateful of douchenozzles, but why overstate the obvious...

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 10:32 p.m. CST

    I'm batin'...

    by Billyeveryteen

    Anybody who don't is a fag.

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 11:13 p.m. CST

    RAIN OF MADNESS!! Reign of fire is a dragon movie..

    by Windowlicker74

    well we all make mistakes

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 11:36 p.m. CST

    I'll stroke the shaft, cradle the balls...

    by Nasty In The Pasty the pipes and swallow the gravy.

  • Nov. 17, 2008, 11:40 p.m. CST

    i'm a lead farmer motherfucker..!

    by Windowlicker74

    i laughed so hard when he said it

  • Nov. 18, 2008, 12:47 a.m. CST


    by mrbeaks

    I just checked my recording, and I did say "Reign of Fire". I'll make the correction, but let it be known that I goofed in the actual interview.

  • Nov. 18, 2008, 1:31 a.m. CST

    Am I the only one

    by Balcony Fool

    who finds it utterly bizarre that if you move this guy's "h" four spaces to the left, he becomes Ethan Coen? Am I missing out on some kind of prank, here?

  • Nov. 18, 2008, 2:04 a.m. CST

    maybe i should give idocracy another chance...

    by soup74

    because i was actually lucky enough to see it in one of the 100 theatres it was released in, and i was excited.. and i was really let down. by making fun of lowbrow, it seemed lowbrow in itself. 'social commentary' only goes so far.

  • Nov. 18, 2008, 2:25 a.m. CST

    Balcony Fool

    by BadMrWonka

    you're not missing anything, you've just stumbled upon what we in the know like to call a "weird coincidence"

  • Nov. 18, 2008, 3:19 a.m. CST

    "In my experience...

    by Balcony Fool

    ... there's no such thing as 'weird coincidences.'" :)

  • Nov. 18, 2008, 3:30 a.m. CST

    How different is the IDIOCRACY shooting script and the movie?

    by ricarleite

    What did Fox do to it?

  • Nov. 18, 2008, 8:26 a.m. CST

    Idiocracy is the best movie I've seen in two years

    by _Maltheus_

    I only just rented it this summer, but despite any rough edges, it was the only movie in the last two years that I found worthy of watching a second time. But then, I like laughing. I think a lot of people don't like it because it hits too close to home for their tastes. It was much better than Wall-E IMO (pretty much the same plot in both).

  • Nov. 18, 2008, 8:37 a.m. CST

    IDIOCRACY 2, The search for more electrolites

    by wowsucks

    =) Any movie with a purple rubber dildo for a hood ornament is ok in my book!

  • Nov. 18, 2008, 10:40 a.m. CST


    by FleshMachine

    brillant satire...and so true is frightening. but yeah the film did not quite work. but it gets better with 2nd & 3rd viewings i think.

  • Nov. 18, 2008, 11:42 a.m. CST

    Carl's Jr.

    by Tin Snoman

    "Fuck you! I'm eating."

  • Nov. 18, 2008, 11:59 a.m. CST

    "C'mon Scro!"

    by skycrapper

    They need to make ASS: The Movie already.

  • Nov. 18, 2008, 2:36 p.m. CST

    Go away! Batin'.

    by the Grobe

    While it's not the genius of Office Space, Idiocracy has grown on me after repeat viewings. It's sad and painful to watch, just because it's so true. As for quotable quotes, the movie is full of them. "Joe was able to understand them, but when he spoke in an ordinary voice, he sounded pompous and faggy to them."

  • Nov. 18, 2008, 3:03 p.m. CST

    Indiana Jones and the Moriarity.

    by durhay

  • Nov. 18, 2008, 4:25 p.m. CST

    Don't understand the hate for "Idiocracy".

    by moviemenace

    I was lucky enough to see "Idiocracy" in a packed house with the cast and crew in LA; strictly by chance. The laughter was infectious and helped prop up the weakish third act. Even with its problems, I am surprised anyone can find this movie out-and-out terrible. There is so much here to love, and even respect. How can you hate it?

  • Nov. 25, 2008, 7:27 a.m. CST


    by The Amazing G

  • Nov. 25, 2008, 7:28 a.m. CST

    Idiocracy and Tropic Thunder are....

    by The Amazing G

    some of the best comedies of this decade

  • Nov. 25, 2008, 7:28 a.m. CST

    the UN and the UN UN-Nazified the world...forever!

    by The Amazing G

  • Nov. 25, 2008, 7:30 a.m. CST

    all you need to do to feel that you're IN Idiocracy is...

    by The Amazing G

    play Halo 3 on Xbox live for a few hours and browse 4chan's /b/ for a few hours....