Cabs, DVDs, Frat House, Foot Fetishes and Other Things Essential to the Great American Road Trip
by Kevin Clemons
Sitting down to talk with Road Trip director Todd Phillips is a lot like having a conversation with a friend. Nothing seems to be out of bounds. Having received his big break at Sundance with the controversial documentary Frat House, with two other acclaimed documentaries under his belt, as well as a $70 million dollar hit in Road Trip, Todd Phillips is someone you would want to be friends with.
I talked on the phone with Todd on the afternoon of November 21st, and the following is an excerpt from what turned out to be a great conversation.
dOc: How did you become involved with Road Trip?
TP: I first became involved because it was an idea I had, and Ivan [Reitman] and I just sort of sat down and started talking about doing a movie together. We threw some ideas back and forth. It mainly evolved from my wanting to work with Ivan, and Ivan wanting to work with me.
dOc: And Ivan Reitman came along at what point?
TP: I met Ivan on the Internet in a chat room.
dOc: Really? (Half believing...)
TP: No. I met Ivan at Sundance when I was there with Frat House. And we just started talking. I was a big fan of his movies. And we started talking about that, and it was just sort of very natural. It wasn't a big Hollywood sort of thing....
dOc: There are two versions of Road Trip arriving on DVD at the same time. One is an unrated version and the other is the version shown in theaters in May of this year. What is difference between the two versions?
TP: The rated is actually the version that was released. I mean that is THE version that is the movie. The unrated version isn't really stuff that we weren't able to get through. It isn't really the movie, it is a little bit different.
dOc: Which version is your favorite?
TP:I am happy with both. I mean, the unrated isn't all that different. If you like nudity you will like the unrated version. And if you don't you won't like Road Trip!
dOc: What can we expect to see as the main difference between the two cuts? For instance there is a scene in the trailer for the film that shows Josh, the Breckin Meyer character, punching a guy in a neck brace.
TP:Oh that is funny...that isn't gonna be back in it. That is a scene that just got cut out.
dOc: There are also seven deleted scenes on the disc. Why weren't those put back into the final unrated cut?
TP: Those were seven scenes that we thought were cool but just didn't make it into the movie...
dOc: Extensions of existing scenes?
TP: Yeah. There is more of the Tom Green tour stuff.
dOc: That is actually my favorite stuff in the movie. Plus anytime you can actually get more Ethan Suplee...
dOc: Did you test screen Road Trip at all?
TP: Oh yeah. I am a firm believer in test screenings. I think you get really wrapped up when you write, edit, and direct a movie. When you've seen the movie like a hundred times it just isn't funny to you anymore.
dOc: Can the test screening process be harder for comedies since groups rarely tend to find the same spots funny. What if a test audience in Sacramento might find one moment funny, but another in Toledo doesn't? When do you know what works with an audience?
TP: Yeah. I mean nothing is more painful than when a joke doesn't work. It is pretty universal. We found that the stuff that worked, worked everywhere, and the stuff that didn't, didn't work anywhere. I agree with certain directors who don't test their movies because they aren't making a comedy, but with comedy I really think it is important. It is a tool that as a director you have to take advantage of.
dOc: I first heard of Road Trip on the Internet at Ain't It Cool News.
TP:Was it positive?
dOc: Yeah, in fact after reading a few reviews on there, I was hooked on seeing it. Do you look at a lot of the stuff about your movie on the net?
TP: I always look at that stuff, everyone does. It is all so accessible, and the thing about the net that I love is that it is giving as much power to a fifteen-year-old fat kid from Tampa as it does to Roger Ebert. That kid's review means as much as Ebert's does.
dOc: Did Ebert like it?
TP: No he didn't. That is one of those things. You make your first film and you are like making it for DreamWorks. You want Steven to like it, of course... but also it is like ya know I want Ebert to like it, too.
dOc: What was the first day of release like for you.
TP: It is cool because the studio sends you everything. By five o'clock that night you have every paper and every review and it is one big package. It is exciting. I was in L.A. the day before it came out. I got on the net to look at the N.Y. Times since they post early—at like 10p.m. eastern. It was great, and I was like gosh we got a good review in the Times. Comedies are such a personal sort of thing. It is like 300 people are in a room and they can be laughing but you are thinking "god this is the worst thing I have ever seen." It is such a personal thing.
dOc: There has been a lot of talk about gross-out comedy films lately. Each summer there seems to be a new film to take the crown. Your film followed American Pie, There's Something About Mary, among others to the genre. Your film features everything from a trip to the sperm bank with strange results, to french toast made "just the way Kyle seems to like it." It still wasn't crowned the gross out film of the summer. Scary Movie seemed to take things one step further, with less humor. And my take on gross-out humor is that it is easy to be gross, but it is hard to make it funny. The question I am asking is when does too much become too much?
TP: I agree with you that it is hard to make it funny. I think that as long as the intentions are for comedy and you aren't trying to top the movie in front of you it works. I thought Scary Movie was pretty funny. It worked for me not because it was so gross but because it delivered laughs. If people compare it to Pie or Mary I love that, because those movies were both successful and good movies.
dOc: How much money did Road Trip wind up taking in?
TP: We hit 69 million appropriately, and about 70 million overseas. We opened in one of the biggest weekends of the summer, and we were sandwiched in between both Gladiator and M:I 2. Plus, we also opened against Dinosaur.
dOc: What was your opening weekend take?
TP: We did 16 million on the opening weekend, and the film cost 15 million to make so we did OK.
dOc: I have always heard that working for DreamWorks is a director's dream. Is that true?
TP: I would like to say something different. But you really get the sense that it is a company run by filmmakers. I had Ivan and Steven, and those two have produced a lot of movies, but they are directors at heart.
dOc: I noticed that you aren't doing an audio commentary for Road Trip. Why is that?
TP: I am a huge DVD fan, and I love commentaries... but I wanted to do it with the actors. A movie like this, I could listen to David Fincher talk foreverŠ.
dOc: I just got the new disc of Seven in for review. It has got five commentary tracks on it, it seems like it is going to take me weeks to get through it.
TP: Man, I can't wait for that. Movies like that I can listen to the commentary, but comedies I would rather hear more behind-the-scene antecdotes. I tried to get the actors, but it didn't work out because of scheduling conflicts. Listening to the Farrely brothers do a commentary, talking about their friends in the movie, and I love those guys...But yeah, I mean I wanted the commentary for this movie to be cool, but we just couldn't make it happen.
dOc: What are some of your favorite discs? I know you mentioned Fincher.
TP: Fight Club, Boogie Nights are two of my favorites.
TP: Man, Magnolia is unbelievable.
dOc: That documentary is amazing.
TP: I'll tell you what, that is one of the most telling behind-the-scene things you will ever see. Had I had DVDs when I was 19 years old I would have never gone to film school.
dOc: What is your theater setup?
TP: It is being done as we speak. I have a plasma screen, I just went all out. I really love DVDs.
DOC: Back in, I believe it was the summer/fall of 1999 or '98—I can't remember exactly when—but there were a few pieces in Entertainment Weekly about Frat House and its journey to HBO and how it got a bit bumpy along the way. The pieces were informative, but they never cleared up what finally happened. Has there been a denouement to the whole mess yet?
TP: The stuff in Entertainment Weekly is bullshit. Not to claim conspiracy theory but Entertainment Weekly is owned by Time Warner, which also owns HBO. It is a black helicopter theory but I am telling you there is something to it.
dOc: Yeah, well I had heard about it at Sundance, and I wanted to see it and I know what goes on in frats.
TP: It is like, what—did we invent hazing? Everyone knows it happens. Like we invented it, it never happens. Ya know we made it up, kids don't die every year from it or anything.
dOc: Kind of like the ostrich head in the sand kind of thing....
dOc: Is there a time frame as to when we will see Frat House out on any kind of video format?
TP: We have had some movement on it within the past few weeks.
dOc: Who will it be released by?
TP: That hasn't been worked out just yet. Maybe Criterion. (laughs)
dOc: Hey they did Armageddon!!
TP: True, and Chasing Amy.
dOc: Hey I loved Chasing Amy.
TP: I like Kevin Smith, but on that one I am kind of wishy-washy.
dOc: I have two more questions before I let you go. The first question I am dying to know is what you are doing in a couple of episodes of the hugely addictive Taxicab Confessions on HBO? I have three things I want to know about it:
1. What was it like to film?
2. Were you actually a cab driver?
3. Are there any great stories that didn't make it to air?
TP: Well I like how you called it hugely addictive. (laughs)
dOc: It is like a train wreck where you just can't look away.
TP: Well, the first answer is that it is a lot of fun. But I didn't think anyone knew about it. In fact, while we were shooting Road Trip, Ivan came up to me one day and started talking about how he couldn't sleep and started to watch HBO at like two in the morning. I knew what was coming. The second answer is gonna have to be a no comment. And the third is that there are so many great stories that never make it to air because the people sometimes don't sign the releases.
dOc: Second. What is with the foot-licking scene in Road Trip, where you literally lick Amy Smart's feet?
TP: Well, I have a foot fetish. And one day Amy was wearing Flip-Flops, so I just decided to do the scene with her. It is something I am working on—my foot fetish—so in time I will get better.