Getting Direct With Directors...
Todd Phillips with Ben Stiller on the set of Starsky & Hutch
No.13: Todd Phillips

Having earned his spurs making documentaries, Todd Phillips hit paydirt in 2000 with his debut feature, the gross-out comedy Road Trip. Frat-house caper Old School shot him into the big league, and if the success of cop romp Starsky & Hutch is anything to go by, he looks like staying there. With another TV-to-cinema transfer in the pipeline - The Six Million Dollar Man, starring Jim Carrey - things look rosy for this NYU film school graduate. All he needs is Angelina Jolie's phone number and he'll be set...

Why did you become a director?

Like a lot of people I grew up watching movies. When I was younger I didn't really know what a director did: I knew I loved movies and I figured the actors made it up! And then when you get to 12-years-old you start thinking, What does a director do? It was really an organic beginning: this looks like something I want to do, I can't believe people get paid to do it! So I just started studying and figuring it out. I started by doing documentaries - I made three documentaries before I made my first feature.

If you weren't a filmmaker, what what you be?

Probably a journalist. Coming in through documentary I was always fascinated by real life - truth is stranger than fiction, that kind of thing.

What other director would you like to see at work?

To me Billy Wilder is always the greatest. I'm sure that's kind of a stock answer, but I've always been into writer-directors. With comedy especially, it feels like such a clear-cut thing to be a writer-director. There is so much nuance and tone in a comedy that it's hard to contextualise it in a script. If you read The Apartment and then saw the movie, there's a lot missing - a lot of the tone and those nuances are in your head, and not necessarily something you can put on a page. I always think it's interesting to watch a writer-director work. If we're going to go with someone who's not alive, Billy Wilder would be the most interesting. Alive? I would think Cameron Crowe and Paul Thomas Anderson - those two guys to me are at the top of their game and doing really interesting things.

City Of God

What was the last movie that you paid to see?

City Of God, which I missed when it first out because I was busy shooting Starsky & Hutch. The best movie of the year by about ten miles - it's phenomenal.

What was the last movie you walked out of?

I don't really walk out of movies - usually I stick around because I'm always interested to see where it goes. I know I walked out of Godzilla, but that was five years ago! It wasn't that I thought it was bad, I just thought that I'd had enough. I thought: Here's where it should end, so I walked out! And I also walked out of Hulk, for the same reason as Godzilla. Once you see the Hulk you realise it's not going to be that cool.

Do you believe in God?

Personally I don't. But I believe there's a higher power, a collective energy in people that you might say is God.

Who's the most famous person in your contacts book?

Ben Stiller, probably. Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell - they're all guys I could phone up, but those are guys I work with, so it's not that exciting. You could probably call them too! I'd like to say Nicole Kidman but I don't know her...

Animal House

What's your favourite movie quote?

Oh boy, that's a tough one. You should send these questions ahead of time so people have smart answers! I can't recite it line by line, but for me it's from Animal House: the whole "We're not gonna take it" speech that they give when he [John Belushi] is rallying the troops. I feel like Animal House has the perfect irreverent tone. It was smart that John Landis set it in the 1950s because it was very easy to be anti-authority in the 50s, much more than in 1978 when it was made. I've always felt that speech captured the irreverence and tone of the movie. But of course, I can't give you the actual line because I just woke up a half-hour ago!

Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?

Oddly enough, Robert Zemeckis. I'm always baffled Zemeckis is not a household name like Steven Spielberg, because he's doing some of the most incredibly diverse stuff around. I also think Paul Thomas Anderson is underrated. To me, he's the greatest director of my generation and maybe one of the greatest directors going right now - in the States at least.

Which filmmaker do you consider the most overrated?

I don't like talking bad about directors. It's such a hard job, and it's just as hard to make a bad movie as it is to make a good one. It's a tough question to answer, because you know how difficult it is. Even if it's a bad movie, these guys still had to get up at five in the morning and work 70 days straight and not sleep and not eat and panic about test screenings and all these things. I hate to knock people - it's not my style. Directors tend to be more underrated than overrated because it's a quiet job and people don't really understand it.

Do you believe in test screenings?

Absolutely. I think it would be bizarre to be a comedy director and not test a movie. Even if I got to the point where I could say to a studio "I won't test screen my movie", I would never do it, because it's really such an important part of making a comedy. It's very clear when you show it to an audience when it works and when it doesn't. If I made a drama, I could understand not testing it because you're not looking for that visceral audience response. People are supposed to sit there and absorb a drama, so it's hard to tell whether it's working or not, anyway. Comedy's much different, so I find the testing process crucial.

How seriously do you take reviews?

I don't, honestly. It's not a defensive thing - we've got great reviews on Starsky & Hutch, and I've probably gotten more good reviews on Old School than bad reviews. But I still don't take them seriously. I think that nowadays critics have become particularly venomous and personal in their attacks on movies. Often times I feel they're reviewing the personalities of the actors or even the directors in some cases, and I don't know if people are so interested in that.

I think reviewers have become particularly venomous because, in a way, the power has been sucked from them. A 15-year-old can write a review on the internet and it means as much as Roger Ebert's review, and that just makes Roger Ebert mad, so he comes out harder and stronger. There is no Pauline Kael anymore writing criticism from a film comment sort of way - it all feels like it's just attacking pop culture, and actors especially. I read them, but I definitely don't take them seriously. And I think that it drives critics crazy that reviews ultimately mean nothing as far as the economic success or failure of a movie goes. I think that also makes them angry and the reviews come out even harsher.

Angelina Jolie in Beyond Borders

There are five minutes left till the end of the world - what do you do?

I've got to contact Angelina Jolie. I'm obsessed with her, and I need to tell her how much I love her. I think she's the most amazing person - not so much as an actress, though she's a fine actress - but I find her to be an incredible person in what she's doing. You don't hear about 90% of the humanitarian stuff she does. I find her to be underrated personally and professionally, so I'd probably track her down and spend the last five minutes with her.

What's your biggest regret?

About movies or in life? These are crazy questions! It's like the Barbara Walters of the film community. Er... I don't know. Can I dodge that one?

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

The best piece of advice I was ever given was about making documentary films, and it was from my teacher at NYU, Christine Choy: "The first rule of documentary film is lie. Lie to everyone!" What she meant was, in documentary it's so hard to get real people to be themselves. So in the search for truth, you have to lie. It's not necessarily something you want to apply to life, but as a documentary maker I'll always remember that. Because it's so much about manipulation: putting people at ease, letting them forget they're on camera. To do that, you kind of had to lie.

And the worst?

Oh God... I love to say negative stuff but I can't think of anything - I'm drawing a blank. Maybe we can come back to that one! It's such a change - in New York they're like, "What's it like working with Snoop Dogg?" It's much more intelligent over here.

Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain

Which performer would you love to work with?

I think Nicole Kidman is incredible; I also think Adam Sandler is amazing, and perhaps more within my reach than Nicole is! There's a lot of people. There's a hundred different ways to direct a movie, and although you wouldn't expect it from a comedy director, I think I'm much more an actor's director than a technical director. I love actors, which is primarily why I made the jump from documentaries to features. I have a love for actors and how they expose themselves in movies, especially in comedies. It's a tough profession and I have a real respect for it, so there's a ton of actors I'd like to work with.

What are your three favourite films and why?

One of my favourite movies of all time is Sullivan's Travels. It's a movie by Preston Sturges about a director of screwball comedies who feels like he's not doing enough to contribute to society. So he sets out to make a movie - O Brother, Where Art Thou? which is where the Coen Brothers got the title of their movie. But he learns that laughter is actually worth something; there is an importance to what he's doing. It's obvious the parallels you can draw, but I'm not trying to justify what I do. There are some amazing things Sturges does with tone, which I think is a director's key job - you're the purveyor of tone, and what Sturges did so well is literally muck around with five, six, seven tones within that movie. I think it's such a difficult thing.

What else? Gimme Shelter is one of my favourite movies: it's a documentary by the Maysles brothers made in 1970 about the Rolling Stones at Altamont. I saw that movie when I was maybe 15-years-old and I couldn't believe the truth you can capture in a movie. The Maysles actually captured the end of the 60s on film: you can literally trace it back to ten frames in that movie when the guy gets stabbed at the concert. All this free love and peace ended at that moment.

More recently, I think Boogie Nights. Paul Thomas Anderson is the greatest director of my generation by leaps and bounds: he's so ambitious in every way, and he uses every tool given to a director - music and editing and casting and costume and sound - to its fullest potential. To watch that movie is to really watch a guy at the top of his game.

Starsky & Hutch is out now in London's West End. It opens nationwide on Friday 19th March.

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