Tropic Thunder by Ben Stiller

The Source

“The inspiration for 'Tropic Thunder' goes back to 1987,” says Ben Stiller, the producer, co-writer and star of the picture. “I had a really small part in Steven Spielberg's 'Empire of the Sun.' At that time all my actor friends were doing Vietnam films like 'Platoon' and 'Hamburger Hill' and going off to fake boot camps for two weeks. Then during interviews they would say, 'This boot camp was the most intense thing I have ever experienced in my entire life and we really bonded as a unit and a group.'”

“It was funny to me that actors were talking about this incredibly intense experience when in reality it was nothing like being a soldier and going to war. That sort of self-important, self-involved thing seemed funny to me; I just couldnt figure a way to make that into a movie.”

Collaborating with Justin Theroux

Stiller teamed up with fellow actor Justin Theroux and began working out a first draft and outline for Tropic Thunder. We had a first act and an outline for a few years, says Theroux. But getting the rest of the logic and story beats to work took a while. There were many, many drafts over the course of about five years.

With Theroux living in New York and Stiller in Los Angeles, the two wrote scenes and e-mailed them back and forth. Screenwriter Etan Cohen then joined in and it became a sort of free-for-all, Theroux continues It was exactly what you would want a writing experience to be a whole lot of laughing and a whole lot of fun.

The trios work eventually evolved into a shooting script, about an incredibly bloated, top-heavy Hollywood production with a bunch of actors who didnt do the work, didnt do the research, barely learned their lines, and who are more obsessed with how theyre all going to come off in a war movie than with the subject matter, Theroux explains. The director, of course, has no control over his actors, which makes him go bananas. So he and John Four Leaf Tayback who wrote a best-selling memoir called Tropic Thunder hatch a plan to kidnap the cast, take them to the jungle, and shoot the film Blair Witch style. No more chefs. No more assistants. No more masseuses. No more trailers. No more TiVo. Theyre just going to do it dirty, gritty, in the mud the real deal, with real fear and real emotion.

Anything But Spoof

With that concept in mind, Stiller was adamant that the film not become a spoof. The challenge was that it wasnt just an action movie and it wasnt a send-up, Stiller explains. At the end of the day, you need to invest in the reality of the situation, and care about these people or it doesnt work. It was definitely influenced by a lot of real war movies, because I love that genre. Im a real fan of those films. But its also about Hollywood and how it works on an extreme level. As stretched as things get in this movie, there is still a basic level of reality.


Ben has a tremendous gift for movie making, observes Stillers producing partner Stuart Cornfeld. In order to write something you really have to envision it, and then once youve envisioned it, directing is about delivering on that vision. Ben saw the film very clearly along these specific lines, knew exactly what he wanted to do and how much more there was to the movie than what was just printed on the page.

Writing, directing, producing and acting is a lot of work, but I always knew Ben could handle it, continues Cornfeld. When we worked together on Zoolander, I was always astounded to see him carry the responsibility of a director and producer behind the camera, and then walk in front of the camera and deliver this amazing performance. Ive come to believe that the acting really energizes him. When he steps in front of the camera, he is really able to dive into the character and deliver the performance, the improv and the energy. In a strange way, I think wearing all those hats is energizing for the whole production.

Stiller's Biggest Movie

Co-star Jack Black agrees. Ben has made so many great movies, and now hes also writing and directing. But this is the biggest movie hes ever directed. Its got huge, epic shots with helicopters coming through the mist and dodging mountains, machine gun fire, major explosions, tons of extras. Then hes got to make it funny. And he does. Hes a pro, totally knows what he wants to do, and it was great working with him.