Mr. Beaks Talks TROPIC THUNDER, IDIOCRACY and Funny Sherlock Holmes With Screenwriter Etan Cohen!
Published at: Nov. 18, 2008, 12:48 a.m. CST by mrbeaks
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.