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Looking for action, he got it


'Tropic Thunder's' faux war may be half the battle for Ben Stiller.

August 10, 2008|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

VANCOUVER, CANADA — Ben STILLER handed them out to cast and crew at the conclusion of a punishing 13-week location shoot as a gesture of thanks, but also contrition: T-shirts that read "I SURVIVED BEN STILLER'S COMEDY DEATH CAMP."

Sitting at a bayside restaurant in Vancouver, where he's currently filming "Night at the Museum 2," Stiller -- who co-wrote, directed, co-produced and stars in the ensemble action-comedy "Tropic Thunder" -- waved it away as a joke, a riff on marquee star Robert Downey Jr.'s acerbic nickname for the production, most of which unfolded in the steaming jungles of Kauai last year.

But according to actor Jay Baruchel, Stiller might have had a different rationale for his choice of "wrap" gifts. He called Stiller a mensch and "one of the kindest directors" he's worked with but continued: "I think for everybody, it signaled the end of the madness.

"The pressure got to every single person on that movie at some point," said Baruchel who, like Stiller and Downey in the film, portrays an actor caught in the middle of real paramilitary strife while filming a big-budget Vietnam War epic. "It rained 12 times a day. There were a tremendous amount of things to worry about, from prolonged exposure to mud to the leptospirosis virus caused by every animal in creation [defecating] and having it flush down the mountain. A lot of people were getting sick. You had to cross a river out of 'Jurassic Park' every day to get to work and then go up a mountain that was like something out of a cartoon."

Added Jack Black: "A couple of people got bit by centipedes. It's like getting shot by a gun, apparently. You have to go to the hospital."

More than simply an inside joke, the shirts provide a telling glimpse of comedy death camp's head counselor. After two decades in the business, Stiller has become one of Hollywood's most consistently hit-making A-listers; his movies have collectively taken in more than $3.5 billion in worldwide box-office receipts, landing him on Forbes magazine's list of the Top 10 most bankable stars. But under the gun, the man responsible for bringing "Zoolander" to the screen may not be as far from Werner Herzog -- in terms of director-despot dedication -- as you might think.

While "Tropic Thunder" is no "Fitzcarraldo," Stiller's collaborators, such as his producing partner of 10 years, Stuart Cornfeld, say that when Stiller is in the director's chair, he inspires a "daunting" level of commitment from those around him, burning through millions of feet of film (Stiller is loath to yell "cut" for fear of interrupting the improvisational comic mojo). Especially while trying to wrestle into submission a "passion project" with the potential to damage his and other ensemble cast members' public standing if its more outre jokes (including one star acting in blackface and an extended goof on "retard" movies) don't go over as intended.

Stiller, 42, began incubating the idea for "Tropic Thunder" more than 20 years ago, developed the script off and on for the last decade and landed a budget from DreamWorks reported to be around $100 million.

Viewed another way, with its biting satire of studio greed, talent agent vapidity, movie star butt-kissing and hubris, the R-rated hommage to films such as "Apocalypse Now" and "The Thin Red Line" is a hugely expensive poke in Hollywood's eye -- a joke Hollywood paid through the nose to have played upon itself. The film never second-guesses its audience's familiarity with entertainment industry inside baseball nor does it defang its jokes -- and for that reason, early buzz has been mixed.

Nevertheless, after working on such mainstream fare as "Night at the Museum" and "Meet the Fockers," "Tropic Thunder" marks Stiller's return to the kind of edgy, take-no-prisoners humor he became known for on his early '90s MTV variety program "The Ben Stiller Show."

Downey recalled that during the Hawaiian shoot, "People were dropping like flies." Lest he paint the wrong picture of "Tropic Thunder's" co-writer/director/star, Downey points out that Stiller is more apt to get what he wants through creative collaboration than tyranny. "He's not mean-spirited . . . He's not one of those [crazy, mean] guys you hear about," Downey said. "That's not Ben. His drive: He's obsessed with the idea of delivering the best product he can."

'Post-"Platoon" syndrome'

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