Capone Talks To Todd Phillips About OLD SCHOOL DOS, Inspiration From Stern, SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS, And DOGS OF BABEL!!
Published at: Sept. 26, 2006, 2:54 p.m. CST by merrick
Hey, everyone. Capone in Chicago here with my interview with the director of this week’s big comedy release SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS, Todd Phillips.
This above-average film is made all the more likeable thanks to Billy Bob Thornton in his insufferable-bastard mode, and a handful of great improv comics to fill out his class full of losers who go to him for life lessons on how to be more confident and appealing. Perhaps more significantly, Phillips directed two of biggest comedies in recent years, OLD SCHOOL and STARSKY & HUTCH. During our discussion, he dares to broach the very real chance of OLD SCHOOL DOS getting made, his nearly lifelong love and admiration for Howard Stern, and his in-development adaptation of THE DOGS OF BABEL, his first film from a script he didn’t write. He’s a massive fan of the AICN, and right off the bat he got in my good graces by saying I didn’t look as tough in person as my cartoon representation on the site. Here you go…
Todd Phillips: What name do you write under for Ain’t It Cool?
Capone: I write as Capone.
TP: Oh my god, really? I love Ain’t It Cool. Your symbol cartoon is much tougher looking.
C: No kidding. The cartoon is an actually amalgam of different Robert De Niro characters: the boxing trucks and boots of Jake La Motta; the Mohawk hair of Travis Bickle; the cigar of Al Capone. I had nothing to do with the cartoon’s creation, but I love it more than life itself.
TP: Oh, I get it. Sure. That’s so funny. The cartoons are very cool. But that one is REALLY cool.
C: I must be such a let down in person.
TP: [Laughs] I’m really disappointed; I don’t even know if I can go through with this.
C: Thanks for getting up so early [it’s about 8:30 a.m.], and for juggling your schedule around to fit me in earlier than you’d intended to start the day.
TP: I really appreciate you doing it.
C: I’ll admit, I don’t know much about the source material for SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS. I know it was a book and then a movie.
TP: The original film is one of those Ealing Studio comedies, which are funny and good, but they always felt a bit restrained. That film sparked the core idea for this one, but it was never like I was dying to make a remake of that film. Harvey Weinstein had shown me this film a couple years ago, and I was talking to Scott Armstrong, my writing partner, about ideas about other movies, and I brought up that idea. I didn’t even tell him about the other movie; at first we were just talking about the idea and we went from there. And then, of course, we watched the movie. But my point is, we were never, like, we’ve gotta remake that movie!
We were looking for something to do with Billy Bob Thornton, and I always go off of actors. For me, it’s always about the possibility of actors that attracts me to something. With STARSKY & HUTCH, for example, I wasn’t dying to remake a television show, but I was dying to work with Ben and Owen. When we wrote OLD SCHOOL, we wrote it for Vince Vaughn. It’s always the actors who define it for me.
C: But what I found interesting about this film, much like OLD SCHOOL, is your focus on a group of men who feel very much let down by life. And they find their sense of individuality by joining a group of some kind. Is that a theme you’re attracted to?
TP: Yes, it is and you’re right. That’s the thing I keep going back to: men’s relationship with each other. It’s always so interesting to me. There’s such an awkwardness to it, and it lends it self so well to comedy, just how men relate to each other in general. It just feels right for a comedy. It’s also about focusing on the various inadequacies of men.
C: Of which there are many.
TP: Of which there are SOOOO many! In everybody. So you’re right about the similarities between this film and OLD SCHOOL, in that aspect. They both celebrate the inadequacies of men.
C: It is a celebration.
TP: It is because ultimately you feel good in the end.
C: What I’d read about the original film is that it focused more on the characters being groomed as the perfect gentlemen. They’re good in sports, in manners, in conversation. Not in paintball wars, like in your film.
TP: It wasn’t as aggressive. But I love old films, but those Ealing films always felt like they held back a little, and that might have been that British sensibility. It felt very gentlemanly, and that’s part of what attracted me to it. And really tonally, that was the one thing we carried over. You never really see Billy Bob play a gentleman on film, and in this film, he kind of is. He dresses nice. Even in the film he says, “Look, I’m just trying to be a gentleman.” I really believe that was pervasive in the old film.
C: I wanted to talk about this extraordinary cast, especially about having Billy Bob Thornton in this film. What has always fascinated me about his career is his ability to jump from the most extreme dramas to some of the most depraved comedies ever made. It sounds like you had talked to him previously about working together before this project came to light.
TP: Yeah, I’d met with him a few times. Billy is a world-class actor. He has fun with comedies; he does dramas that blow you out of the water. He has a ton of range as an actor, and I think he enjoys using that range by fucking around with different kinds of projects.
C: Is it a daunting think to have someone like that in your film? It may be more so for some of the other actors.
TP: That’s a good question. Definitely more so for the other actors, but it was for me as well. I’ve worked with a lot of funny guys and great actors, but Billy is, like I said, a world-class actor and director. But it goes away very quickly and it certainly goes away before you start shooting. But for the other actors. I mean, for a guy like John Heder to come out of a film like NAPOLEON DYNAMITE and being opposite a guy like Billy Bob must be a little bit daunting.
C: This is John Heder’s best film role since NAPOLEON DYNAMITE by far. Were you at all concerned bring that film’s baggage into your film?
TP: When you say “baggage”--and you’re right, it is baggage from his first movie--it’s such a testament to how strong NAPOLEON DYNAMITE was as a film and as a character. This guy comes out of nowhere with that kind of role, they get pigeonholed into that type of role. He’s an actor, but that happened to be his first thing. Why should there be baggage? But there is, and I think he gets away from that in this film. It’s weird because everybody asks me that. “Weren’t you nervous about putting him in?” They even call him Napoleon. It’s weird. I would be tortured by it.
C: I wasn’t so much thinking you’d be nervous, but you want people to discover him as a romantic lead and a leading man.
TP: And a regular guy, because in this movie, things take place much more in the regular world. I loved NAPOLEON DYNAMITE; I loved what they did with that film. But it’s an entirely different kind of performance. But it is interesting that people assume that there might be problems with that.
C: You mentioned earlier, the inadequacies of men and how they overcome them. Do you find that in real life, being a part of a group helps them out?
TP: It does seem like guys have this innate need to belong and be part of a team or a group. And that’s the part that’s always fascinated me, because I’ve never had that in my life. Not to get too…whatever…but I grew up with women--my sisters and my mom--and maybe I just never understood man’s need to belong to a group. Really that started for me with Frat House, our first movie, a documentary on fraternities, where I really started exploring that. My mom always told us, “You have to be an individual, you have to be yourself,” and this was a whole different mentality of “No, no, no, you’ve got to hide that and just become part of a group. And then you’re defined by the group, as opposed to being defined by yourself. That’s always going to be really interesting to me, that somebody would want that.
C: Well certainly this film doesn’t have a high opinion of self-help book or confidence-boosting seminars.
TP: Well Billy says in the film, “You can’t help yourself because your self sucks.” But in a way, he’s right. What is self help? If you need help, how can you get it from yourself? But you do need to go somewhere for help, but don’t call it self help.
C: Tell me about assembling this very funny bunch of guys in the school. There are some familiar faces there that some people might recognize. It took me most of the film to piece together where I knew these guys from. Did you have a few guys in mind as you were writing?
TP: Yeah, the real link there are these guys who are probably the top seven improv artist out of New York right now. John Glaser, Horatio Sanz, Matt Walsh, Aziz Ansari, Andrew Daly, Paul Scheer, these guys are all out of improv groups in New York.
C: They are the hidden weapons of SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS. You may not know their names, but you’ll remember them after seeing this.
TP: That was very important to me. I was very conscious and deliberate about having them in mind from the beginning.
C: And God bless you for finding a great role for Sarah Silverman as Jacinda Bararett’s bitchy roommate.
TP: In the spirit of full disclosure, it’s still not big enough. People are going to say, Oh she’s underused. And she is! Until she stars in a movie, she’s underused. She didn’t star in this film. I just like having funny people around; I asked her to do it. It’s not like she’s desperately looking for work. It was more like, Hey Sarah, it’s a little part, but I’d be honored if you’d do it. And she said, Yeah let’s go. I still think, since I’m a huge fan of hers, you’re going to say, I want to see more of her. I do too. And hopefully we’ll make a movie one day where she’s the star.
C: She has a couple of great lines.
TP: Oh, she’s great! I don’t mean it like that. I just want to see her do more, as much as anybody. And I want to be the guy to do it. I love her so much, I really do. I think she’s so talented.
C: The other stamp of quality in this film is Luis Guzman.
TP: He’s the greatest, isn’t he? The coolest guys.
C: Again, the guy can run the distance between comedy and drama.
TP: For me, 70 percent of movies are casting, and I take so much time and so much care casting a film. It informs the movie, it’s when a movie comes to life. It’s not when you finish writing the script or when you find the locations. It’s really when you’re putting these people in these roles that the movie comes alive. It’s just so fun to pick and choose and be really careful about it, and be like okay Luis Guzman here, how about Michael Clarke Duncan here? And they all took these smaller roles, little fun parts, 3-day part, 5-day part. That’s the whole fun of it.
C: Thinking back on some of the work you’ve done, a lot of directors use physical comedy as a crutch when they can’t think of anything funny for their characters to say. I don’t think physical comedy is done well any more. But you actually do it a lot, and usually with a great deal of success. I mentioned the paintball scene earlier…
TP: Or the tennis scene.
C: The tennis scene is great. But even something simple like the sequence where John Heder goes to Jacinda’s door to ask her on a date and he faints straight back. That is funny.
TP: And it’s so old school, no pun intended.
C: I give John full credit, but it’s shot so well, from a distance. And it’s not your fallback strategy when you can’t think of a good joke.
TP: Thanks. To me, it’s the most fun stuff to shoot. It’s very simple to film a scene here in this room with you and me talking, but there’s something inventive and spontaneous about shooting a physical set piece and deliver those big laughs because you know this is the moment in the movie… it’s like, you know going in to work that morning that this is the day we’re going to shoot tennis or paintball. This is a big scene, and figuring out how to deliver that stuff and make it work.
C: Is there a secret to that? Or are there other films you look to and say, “I want this scene to be that good.”
TP: There are a million filmmakers I look up to, but there isn’t one specific to physical comedy where I think that. It just feels almost like common sense, like where I want to be at that moment. And you don’t want to be too tight. It’s really just knowing where the joke is and playing with it. Of course, some of it comes out in the editing room. It’s timing.
C: What are some of your favorite directors of comedy?
TP: I think Harold Ramis. Ivan Reitman, his films when I was growing up…STRIPES was everything to me. Landis’s early stuff. BLUES BROTHERS is one of my favorite movies of all time. I’d like to say that when I was 12, I was watching Preston Sturges movies, but clearly I was watching REVENGE OF THE NERDS and STRIPES. You catch up to that stuff later in life, but the truth is you grew up watching STRIPES and those police car chases in BLUES BROTHERS, and they blew your mind.
C: How are things progressing with the next OLD SCHOOL film?
TP: I don’t know if that’s the next thing we’re going to shoot. Probably not, honestly. We’re just in the writing stage right now, and, again in the spirit of full disclosure, we have none of the actors on board until we hand a script in. They know about it, and I’m hoping they’re open to it, but by no means are they on board. It’s not like a have Will or Vince or Luke signed up for this film. Hopefully we’ll hand them a script, which really won’t be until the end of this year, and then they’ll read it. Hopefully they’ll like it, and then it’s about schedules. So it’s a little bit away. Right now, all we have is the title: OLD SCHOOL DOS.
C: But more importantly, will you feature Artie Lange again in a bigger part?
TP: [Laughs] Did you like BEER LEAGUE, by the way?
C: It has not opened here yet.
TP: It will. It has to. Do you listen to Howard Stern?
C: Oh, yes. All the time. I got the Sirius, I watch the InDemand shows. You were a judge for his Film Festival earlier this year, weren’t you? How was that?
TP: You don’t understand. We were talking about comic influences, I grew up on Howard. I used to listen to Howard in the sixth grade on NBC in the afternoons, I’d come home and tape the show.
C: So you picked him up in New York? I’ve got you beat. I grew up in D.C., when he was on DC-101. But I lost him for many years after he left for New York, until he became syndicated in Chicago.
TP: You do have me beat. I feel, when you try to explain him to people, it’s like THE TRUMAN SHOW. People think it’s just dick jokes and it’s not. I remember when his wife was pregnant with their first kid, who’s 22 now! I think that’s crazy. It is THE TRUMAN SHOW. You go through his whole life with him. His divorce, everything. And you feel like you’re watching a guy's life unfold.
Before the film festival, I’d met Howard before, and the festival was just a fun goofy thing but it was just fun to be around him. I’m such a huge fan.
C: I watched all of the short films. Some of them were pretty inspired.
TP: Yeah, the one that won was friggin’ great. Isn’t it? The one with the kids radioing each other. He really captured something about the show.
C: Are you still attached to the DOGS OF BABEL screenplay [adapted from the novel by Carolyn Parkhurst]?
TP: That’s something we’re development, something Jamie Linden is writing. For me, it’s a big leap to do a film that I didn’t write. Everything I’ve done so far, I’ve written. I think the truth is, I don’t’ feel confident enough as a director to take somebody’s script and direct it. People always think it’s hard to write and direct, and it is. But it’s so much easier to make a film when it’s in you, when it’s part of your DNA. So when the wardrobe woman comes up and asks, “What would he be wearing?” I can say “he would wear this clearly” because I wrote it and I thought of it for six months. When it’s somebody else’s script, it’s a daunting thing. I’m really looking forward to it. I don’t know if that’s going to be the next one. There’s another thing I’m working on with a guy Allan Loeb, who’s a fantastic writer, called MEN, funny enough, that is a project I might do.
C: But THE DOGS OF BABEL seems like a more serious endeavor than what you’re used to.
TP: It is more serious but there are definitely elements of comedy to it. Both DOGS OF BABEL and MEN are heartbreaking comedies, which is kind of where I’m headed. I still love comedy, but it’s more layered stuff that I’m getting into.
C: You’re very well known for hiding in-jokes and references to other films in your movies. Tell me about one in SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS.
TP: I think if you’ve watched any of my films, you know I’m totally obsessed with FIGHT CLUB. FIGHT CLUB is the ultimate in awkward men films. It’s one of my favorite films of all time. I don’t know if you remember, when the first help group of Fight Club meets, when Edward Norton first meets Meat Loaf and all those other guys, it’s set in this really weird gymnasium. We shot in the same gymnasium in our film, in the scene where John goes to get his Little Brother and David Cross fires him from the program, it’s the same gymnasium. In fact, it’s got the same American flag hanging up behind them, which you would only know if you were as obsessed with FIGHT CLUB as I am.
C: Lit very differently in your film.
TP: Lit VERY differently. Ours is a day scene
C: All you needed to do was get all the Little Brothers to start punching John.
TP: Exactly, exactly.