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Justin Theroux Talks TROPIC THUNDER And RAIN OF MADNESS With Mr. Beaks!

Last week, I interviewed Etan Cohen, one-third of the writing team behind the very funny TROPIC THUNDER. Today, I have an interview with another third of the writing team: Justin Theroux. There will be no Ben Stiller interview. Before Justin Theroux became an A-List screenwriter of budget-busting, blockbuster entertainments (he's currently tapping out IRON MAN 2 for Jon Favreau), he was a deadly effective character actor in films like MULHOLLAND DRIVE, AMERICAN PSYCHO and THE BAXTER. I suppose he's most recognizable as the faux-hawk sporting baddie in CHARLIE'S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE (do we have him to blame for this unfortunate coiffure craze?), but I prefer to recall Theroux's spooky encounter with the Cowboy or his epic breakdance battle with Michael Showalter. I also love Theroux's Jan Jurgen, the Herzog-ian German documentarian whose "Rain of Madness" captured the fake disaster of TROPIC THUNDER. The obvious template for this spoof-within-a-spoof is HEARTS OF DARKNESS and BURDEN OF DREAMS, but the finished product is mostly just a collection of insane improvisations done on everyone's down time. At thirty minutes, it shouldn't work, but in some ways it's actually more inspired than Stiller's feature (though I wouldn't recommend watching it directly after the Director's Cut; that's just piling overkill on top of overkill). It's definitely solid enough to get me interested in Theroux's career as a writer-director. Right now, Theroux is focused on the writing part of the equation with the sequel to summer 2008's second biggest superhero movie. And while you might be disappointed that I didn't work in a question about IRON MAN 2, all you're missing is a whole lot of equivocatin'. If you're into that, check out my pal Jenna Busch's interview at UGO.

Mr. Beaks: When did you first hook up with Ben Stiller? And at what point did you get involved with TROPIC THUNDER?

Justin Theroux: I hooked up with Ben somewhere in the mid-90s. I was doing a play with a friend of his in New York, and he introduced us. I was a big fan of THE BEN STILLER SHOW, and... I think we realized we had a similar take on certain kinds of humor. We'd always wanted to work on something together, and [TROPIC THUNDER] was the thing that always made us laugh the hardest.

Beaks: Was it deflating the egos of actors that was the way in [to TROPIC THUNDER], or was it just making a really big comedy with a a bunch of talented performers?

Theroux: I think it was different things at different times. At one time, we wanted to make a sort of Vietnam comedy, and at another time we wanted to make fun of Oscar winning actors, and at another we wanted to make an action movie. We went through so many genres of film, and... there were so many elements of this script that we fell in love with. We're obviously big fans of Oliver Stone and Francis Ford Coppola. And it's sort of that thing where, since you can't be a part of those movies, maybe you can satirize them.(Laughs) That's what we felt was most interesting. And then actors are just funny creatures, especially dramatic ones. They can be incredibly odd and funny. There was a lot of humor to be mined from that territory.

I love that you said "Vietnam comedy". Was there ever a time when you thought, "Hey, let's just write a full-on Vietnam comedy, and see what happens"?

Theroux: I think we knew, correctly, that there's nothing funny about Vietnam. You need a way in, and what we were reacting to was the DVD extras on some Vietnam movies - and not just Vietnam movies, but war movies in general. When you have young actors playing these guys, there's this incredible gravitas they bring to their EPK footage. They're like, "Yeah, it's just like fighting a war, man. Everyday, we were in Manila." They have this whole kind of patter, and you're like, "What do you mean 'It's like fighting a war'? It's nothing like fighting a war!" That's initially what made us laugh really hard: actors pretending and thinking that they're really as tough as [soldiers] when all they did was go to an [exotic] location. I think that was the original joke: how do we make fun of these guys? And then there are people who've done movies at certain times in their careers to either save their careers or keep their careers on track or give birth to their careers. If you look at those movies, there's always sort of an interesting parallel storyline to the peoples' careers who are in those movies that's secondary to the movies themselves.

Beaks: Well, when you see the roll at the end of PLATOON, there are so many young actors who went on to have major, or at least interesting careers.

Theroux: Exactly. Some of them, you're like, "What happened to that guy?"

Beaks: Corey Glover from Living Colour!

Theroux: Right.

Beaks: And then taking this a step further by incorporating a mockumentary... (Theroux laughs) at what point did you decide to do "Rain of Madness"?

Theroux: I think it really came out of the realization that there were some jokes we wanted to get in, but that we just couldn't get into the movie tonally. The movie has a certain caliber of humor, and there were other jokes that we thought were funny, too. So we decided to put them in a separate, sidecar piece. And then we were like, "Well, why don't we do a HEARTS OF DARKNESS, Werner Herzog-y documentary tracking the history of making this movie?"

Beaks: That's got to be a lot of fun to at least play a Werner Herzog-y type of filmmaker.

Theroux: (Laughing) It's amazing. He's a great character.

Beaks: In prepping for this, did you watch some of the Herzog documentaries?

Theroux: I did in a really lame way. I went to YouTube. (Laughs) He has this great one on nature, where he's like "Nature is disgusting. It's repulsive. Many people see beauty in nature. I see nothing but death." (Laughing) He's just got this unique eye. And he's very dry: you can never tell when he's being funny. That's what I thought was great about the documentary guy: he has no sense of irony or humor. And it's fun to watch Steve Coogan trying to convince him that things are going great.

Beaks: So you're on set shooting this mockumentary. Were you also still working on the script? If so, how were you able to devote time to both?

Theroux: It was very hard. Any time we had three or five minutes, we'd run off and try to steal some footage. But it was sort of done with our left hand, and it actually fell together more nicely than we thought it would. We had a rough script for it, but a lot of it was improvised. It was hard balancing the two.

Beaks: I talked to Etan Cohen last week, and he said his job was to nail down the structure. Once he did that, I guess he was done?

Theroux: Yeah, I think he visited the set once. But he pretty much handed it back over to us.

Beaks: But when he was off working on his own, were you still exchanging pages back and forth?

Theroux: Me and Ben had written a bunch of scenes. Basically, we beat out the characters, and had sixty pages of loose stuff that we were trying to organize. But Ben was working and I was working, so we called Etan, and he came in, gave us an outline, and wrote a short draft. Then me and Etan worked together in L.A. I came out from New York, and we hung out for an intense five days where we went through the script and recalibrated the tone. Then he went off, and me and Ben took the script and kept refining it. But the characters pretty much stayed the same. Then once we cast it, that was another level. We sort of kept tweaking it and tweaking it, making sure it was as good as it could be all the way up to the editing.

Beaks: When you were shooting the film, did you have any idea that the "full retard" speech would become a flashpoint for controversy.

Theroux: No, we didn't. Anytime you include any minority group in the material you're working on, you're working with gunpowder a little bit. But we were very confident that we had paid very close attention to make sure that the joke was not on people who are mentally impaired. We wanted it to be very much about making fun of Tugg Speedman and Kirk Lazarus - and actors in general. And I was a bit pissed off, frankly, that they chose to put on their sandwich boards and march around. I didn't think it was fair.

Beaks: I feel like they didn't see the movie first.

Theroux: They didn't see the movie. They didn't want to see the movie. It's more convenient for them if they don't see the movie.

Beaks: Getting back to RAIN OF MADNESS, did you work in any of your own experiences from the strangeness of working on, say, a David Lynch film or MIAMI VICE?

Theroux: (Laughs) For sure, MIAMI VICE!

Beaks: (Laughing) Yeah, I didn't want to lead with that in case--

Theroux: No, no! Any time you work on any big budget, star heavy thing - and TROPIC THUNDER is no exception to the rule - you confront massive egos and strange people and people who are the best in their field and people who are the best in their field but not very good at what they do. You know what I mean? You come across all kinds of ironies. And me and Ben were pulling on all kinds of past experiences. RAIN OF MADNESS was mostly just pulling off of all productions that go catastrophically wrong. What was the other one? The one Depp was supposed to be in?


Theroux: Yeah, that kind of thing where rivers wipe out sets. I don't know why that's so compelling to watch. You're watching a guy who's trying to mobilize an army to make his movie, and nothing goes his way. It's just inherently funny - especially if it's Steve Coogan.

TROPIC THUNDER is currently available in a variety of viewing formats. Faithfully submitted, Mr. Beaks

Readers Talkback
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  • Nov. 29, 2008, 4:59 p.m. CST

    by DHJeffries

  • Nov. 29, 2008, 4:59 p.m. CST

    by DHJeffries

    Who knew you could shoot blanks?

  • Nov. 29, 2008, 5 p.m. CST

    Tropic Thunder is the funniest movie since Lebowski

    by I Dunno

    That movie bitch slapped Hollywood egos and somehow Tom Cruise developed a sense of humor.

  • Nov. 29, 2008, 5:07 p.m. CST

    Agreed Tropic Thunder was amazing.

    by 2sdaychicken

    Hilarious, kickass, had everything. It was a movie movie. But, why wasnt this guy asked about Iron Man 2?

  • Nov. 29, 2008, 5:09 p.m. CST

    Thunder = Good Opening, Loses Its Way In 2nd Half

    by My Mom Is A Whore

    Hopefully Rain Of Madness is stronger, as I haven't seen it.

  • Nov. 29, 2008, 5:24 p.m. CST


    by mrbeaks

    I planned for a fifteen-minute interview and got cut off at eleven.

  • Nov. 29, 2008, 5:38 p.m. CST

    Either Mr. Beaks is Justin Theroux or TYPO!!!

    by ImJustSaying

    When Kirk Lazuras finally looks in the mirror and it shatters I lost my fucking shit. Tropic Thunder was fucking hysterical. Is Rain of Madness online somewhere?

  • Nov. 29, 2008, 6:09 p.m. CST


    by SanityKaos

    It's so odd that Justin Theroux is this big screenwriter now. I remember his short lived character in Six Feet Under. Anyone else watched that show?

  • Nov. 29, 2008, 6:28 p.m. CST

    My goodness

    by Chopper3

    actual news, I thought this site had shut down for a while, the rate of new articles has become glacial recently - nice to see someone's managed to get their keyboard working again.

  • Nov. 29, 2008, 7:42 p.m. CST

    I like his face.

    by mr.brownstone

    I think I have a man crush on him.

  • Nov. 29, 2008, 7:47 p.m. CST

    No longer on iTunes?

    by HonestAbe

    The "Rain of Madness" site says it is available for free on iTunes store, but the link is dead and the download is nowhere to be found. Anyone?

  • Nov. 29, 2008, 7:52 p.m. CST

    Most comedies lose steam after the first 45 minutes

    by I Dunno

    Clerks, Office Space, Shindler's List...there's usually a point where comedies start to get into the actual plot and it's hard to maintain the humor after that. Even Lebowski started to unravel towards the end there.

  • Nov. 29, 2008, 8:41 p.m. CST


    by BronwynMaye

    To be honest, I like what he brought to Alias. I think his story arc was the only good thing about season three.

  • Nov. 29, 2008, 9:32 p.m. CST


    by Zeke25:17

    Yeah, you just get along there, little doggie...

  • Nov. 29, 2008, 9:38 p.m. CST

    tropic thunder SUCKED.


    there, i said it. robert downy jr's transformation ws amazing and impressive and any of the best lines were his. after the fake trailer spots, and the sudden coogan death-by-mine, me and the large group of people i watched it with laughed AT NOTHING in the movie until stiller tossed the asian kid at the end. for all i heard about this 'amazing comedy' we laughed aloud maybe once or twice. that same day we watched PINEAPPLE EXPRESS and laughed aloud every few seconds. i'm buying it. and i can't stand pot or pot humor for the most part. tropic thunder sucked. flame on.

  • Nov. 29, 2008, 10:38 p.m. CST

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

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

  • Nov. 29, 2008, 11:55 p.m. CST hates Tropic Thunder AND Pot

    by Shia LaBeoufs Uncle

    That's like the very definition of an invalid opinion.

  • Nov. 30, 2008, 12:53 a.m. CST

    Director's Cut of Tropic Thunder is much better

    by Ribbons

    There aren't even really that many changes, but unlike the "unrated" editions of most comedies that come out the stuff that's re-inserted actually has some substance to it. Although I am kinda bummed that "Run Through The Jungle" by CCR got scrapped.

  • Nov. 30, 2008, 1:49 a.m. CST

    Justin you were great in Mullholland Drive!

    by TinDrummer

    Hey Justin, Rain of Madness was obviously a parody of hearts of darkness, but I also saw some burden of dreams elements? werner herzog craziness? anyway, Tom Hanks movies are still enjoyable to watch! and say hello to Louis! He's kinda brilliant

  • Nov. 30, 2008, 3:39 a.m. CST


    by J-Dizzle

    I'm still waiting for them to sell those fuckers!

  • Nov. 30, 2008, 5:27 a.m. CST

    Shia LaBeoufs Uncle

    by Broseph

    I agree.I actualy thought pineapple express wasn't very funnny and feeled pointless plotlines and characters

  • Nov. 30, 2008, 7:40 a.m. CST

    If the Oscar jury makes some sense this year...

    by DerLanghaarige

    ...compared to the shitfuck that was going on the last time (Golden Compass best FX? Bourne best Editing?), they nominate Downey Jr. for this. (And ignore Heath Ledger's "Look, I'm licking my lips, chew with open mouth and have a strange voice, can you believe how crazy the Joker is?"-performance in TDK, even if he is already dead.)

  • Nov. 30, 2008, 10:13 a.m. CST

    Tropic Tunder is a strain of cannibus

    by Hikaru Ichijo

    and we were too cheezed NOT to laugh at the "full-retard" jokes. Everyone else was too afraid, which made for an interesting social situation considering how passive a theater experience is, that it was a media induced bias, that we stunk of reefer... What I don't get is why RD Jr. didn't offend everyone. Then again, what's he got to lose? Great movie.

  • Nov. 30, 2008, 10:16 a.m. CST


    by Flint420

    Everybody said "Oh Tropic Thunder is the shit, it's hilarious!" Bullshit. My wife & I caught it last nite and it straight up sucked. If it wasn't for Tom Cruise I would've turned it off. Other than There's Something About Mary, Ben Stiller is one of, if not thee, most unfunny overrated clowns working today. I fucking hate him. And as for Theroux, let's hope he does a better job w/Iron Man 2's script.

  • Nov. 30, 2008, 10:49 a.m. CST

    The thing about Tropic Thunder

    by smackfu

    is it's kind of meant for smart people. I'm not just saying that to insult the people who hated it, though if that happens I'm fine with it. But in all seriousness, the world is filled with all sorts of people, and it's just a fact that a large portion are just kind of dull mentally and don't know it. As long as your ego is working at capacity, you're invariably going to think you're pretty much the most awesome person on the planet, but it's simply not true, it's an illusion you create for yourself to help you get through life as effectively as possible with what you have at your disposal. So I'm sorry to say, but if you didn't *like* the film, that's a matter of subjective taste, but if you didn't find the jokes funny, then you simply didn't really get them. You thought you got them, and just decided they weren't funny, but you didn't *really* get them, not the way others did. I'd suggest sticking with the talking Chihuahua movies and Wayans Bros films.

  • Nov. 30, 2008, 12:50 p.m. CST

    Me and Ben had written a bunch of scenes

    by TregsHimself

    This guy's a writer? Just like the a-holes on American Idol, "You did good!" It's the decline of American culture...

  • Nov. 30, 2008, 1:47 p.m. CST

    If you like "Something About Mary" and hated "Tropic Thunder"...

    by rev_skarekroe

    ...remind me never to go to the movies with you because we will never, ever get along.

  • Nov. 30, 2008, 4:07 p.m. CST

    don't forget Six Feet Under

    by jr42602

    I think that's where I first took notice of him.

  • Nov. 30, 2008, 4:44 p.m. CST is right on the money

    by SmokeFilledTavern

    Tropic Thunder was terrible. If this is what passes for comedy these days, then boy I miss the '70s and '80s more than could ever be expressed.

  • Nov. 30, 2008, 4:54 p.m. CST


    by BadMrWonka

    right on. I pretty much agree. although I think there were enough throwaway gags in the film that it should have at least entertained someone who didn't get the bigger themes. but oh well, some people just gotta hate.<p>I still think Stiller should have held out for an "action star" to play the lead though. he almost got Keanu Reeves, can you imagine how great that would have been?

  • Nov. 30, 2008, 7:14 p.m. CST


    by Ribbons

    I can see your ego has no problem working at capacity...

  • Nov. 30, 2008, 8:26 p.m. CST

    Tropical Disappointment

    by Maxwell Bishop

    The movie was not good. The jokes were not funny. According to “smackfu” I must not be “smart people”. The movie was not rocket science. The undertones to what Stiller and gang were going for were understood, but the black face has been done before as well as the retard jokes and the shallowness of Hollywood and her audience. This is not new ground here, but yet people think it was brilliant comedy.

  • Nov. 30, 2008, 10:22 p.m. CST

    I laughed harder at Rain of Madness than Tropic Thunder

    by RandySavage

    I definitely recommend getting DVD version that includes this mockumentary. Tropic Thunder didn't hold up that well on 2nd viewing, but I thought the Rain of Madness was hilarious. I didn't know Theroux played that hilarious I-banker deusche in American Psycho: "how'd he get a res at Dorsia on a Friday night."

  • Nov. 30, 2008, 10:47 p.m. CST

    TT and what constitutes and "intelligent comedy"

    by RandySavage

    I love what I consider to be "intelligent" comedies of the late-70s to the mid-90s. With a few exceptions, I don't find the comedies of the last decade (shockers, spoofs or stories about whiny, neurotic families) very appealing. <P> What I can appreciate about Tropic Thunder is that it tries to resurrect the big budget, big idea comedies of yesteryear (ie, Spies Like Us, Ghostbusters). There are some moments that are intelligent (the mirroring of the opening and closing action segments), but more often it relies on Jack Black going overthetop and RDJ milking his black guy impersonation. <P> I think of films like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Trading Places, Naked Gun or Vacation and I see genius at work. I think of Tropic Thunder and I see a couple of established comedy stars lazily throwing ideas back and forth and patching together a decent rip on Hollywood war movies. But there is no genius in Tropic Thunder.

  • Dec. 1, 2008, 4:24 a.m. CST

    Jistin Theroux for Banner in the Avengers movie!

    by chien_sale

    Good actor, he would look the part, and he's already friend with Robert and Favreau.

  • Dec. 1, 2008, 6:28 a.m. CST

    Richard Dawkins?!?

    by Rommel Catuncan

    God, not that guy! Jesus...