June 20, 2004|It happens this way sometimes: I'm surprised by a film, I write the review, and then I seek out an interview with the director to, in essence, commiserate on how surprising it all is--the liking, the desire to know more about the creation... Such was the case with Zack Snyder and his Dawn of the Dead remake, and I've done it again for Rawson Marshall Thurber because of his smart, incisive Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. It's funny where you find the shards to shore against your ruins, and it's exhilarating to feel like the first member of a cult. The desire to be a critic is tied at least in part, I think, to the desire to be the first fan in the club, as well as its most active recruiter. I spoke with Mr. Thurber on the telephone from Los Angeles the morning that his movie was released to surprisingly strong reviews; sounding a little tired, a little worried about how his debut will do ("I've got a few applications out to Starbucks, just in case"), Mr. Thurber proved himself to be as articulate and well-spoken as his film implies. A self-described "comedy snob," his desire to make films that don't cater to the slowest student in the class seems genuine and borne out by not only his feature, but also his classic short Terry Tate: Office Linebacker. With the imminent success of Dodgeball, the hope is that he'll continue to be allowed to make as many obscure references to Sappho and Lewis Carroll as he pleases.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Tell me about your love of Revenge of the Nerds.
RAWSON MARSHALL THURBER: (laughs) It's a geek love, man, and it was certainly an antecedent to my movie. Not only was it extremely funny, but you revisit the movie and it's extremely insightful, too. It holds water. I think it's an important movie--and I think that it still speaks to the anti-intellectualism embedded in our culture.
What's interesting is that so many of the films of 2004 seem inspired by films from 1984--the same relative time in the terms of relatively similar presidents.
Isn't that cool? One of the big movies for me, too, is Real Genius--Val Kilmer's never been better, and it was really profound, too. It had a lot to say about military proliferation and how a lot of our finest minds are enlisted in escalating conflict. Not just nerd movies, though--wasn't Ghostbusters around 1984, too? (Yup, 1984. -Ed.) I was always a sucker for a good sports flick. Hoosiers. Bull Durham is one of my favourites.
With Terry Tate and now Dodgeball, you take some pretty well aimed shots at our sports culture vs. our culture at large. I'm thinking of Janet Jackson in particular.
The Janet Jackson thing is just ridiculous--asinine, completely out of proportion with the offense and so hypocritical, too. I don't know if you watched, but that whole halftime show up to that point was essentially soft-core porn. Her boob was the least offensive thing about the whole thing--gyrating, fucking each other on stage. Then the commercials, then the cheerleaders doing their skanky routines. The puritanical underpinnings of our society... It's a scary world. It makes you clench your jaw and roll your eyes.
At what point does common sense become minority thinking?
Exactly, thank you. You really feel like an alien sometimes in your own culture. I have to say that when we did the cheerleader joke where Jason Bateman's colour guy says how it's a family atmosphere after this really sexual dance that Boob-gate was not at the front of my mind. I'm a big fan of sports and my intention was to satirize it in general--but that it applies so well to the Janet Jackson thing speaks a little to that hypocrisy, doesn't it?
You address the homoeroticism of the sports culture as well.
(laughs) Yeah, yeah, it's unavoidable if you're honest with it: large muscled men in tights slapping each other, kissing each other, hugging. You remember that kiss between Magic Johnson and Isaiah Thomas? That was such a big ghastly deal for people, but it's like Boob-gate, people don't go nuts until it's spelled out for them.
There's deniability until then.
Right, you're right, people can pretend that they don't see it until there's no question of it anymore.
|Ben Stiller, Christine Taylor, and statue in Dodgeball|
The cast-iron Greco-Roman wrestlers in White Goodman's office is a pretty subtle jab at that homoeroticism.
(laughs) We originally had this scene where you get a point-of-view from Christine when she goes into the office, but it was just a lot funnier for it to be in there without drawing any attention to it. Believe it or not, we made a few choices like that, the "deus ex machina" on the treasure chest, for instance--we decided that we'd trust that the kind of people who would catch it would be the kind of people who would appreciate it. The statue, though, made me laugh and I have to admit that it became pretty central in our coverage. But I wanted to avoid holding peoples' hands through it.
"Let the schadenfreude commence."
(laughs) I knew you'd like that, and I knew that it had to be a throwaway line. You instantly lose any respect you gain by dwelling on your own cleverness. One of the things I love so much about those Eighties nerd comedies is that the more you watch them, the more little things you catch. That's just not the case with a lot of movies anymore--there are so few jokes that all of them get a long take, then an explanation, then a repetition. Some of my favourite jokes in the movie, the thing about Darwin, about the submissive, the Lewis Carroll reference--a few were ad libs, a few were late additions in ADR, and all of them were essentially things that I thought were funny even if nobody else would. It's not that I only like jokes about the quadratic equation, y'know--I'm a fan of a good ball to the groin joke anytime, but not just.
Did you have trouble getting them in?
Well we trotted a few of them out in front of a test audience and nobody laughed--but you know what saved them was that [co-producer] Ben [Stiller] liked them and [co-producer] Stuart Cornfeld liked them. Ben had my back every step along the way, I have to say, and he really let me do what I wanted to do--never gave me an opinion that I didn't ask for, never tried to impose himself. He's an honourable guy--this movie never would have had a chance without him. But I didn't care if anybody in those test audiences liked those jokes, I liked those jokes. When it's all said and done it's my name on this thing and I have to live with it for good or for bad.
It's so tiresome to always see movies pitched to the lowest common denominator.
I'm sick of that, too, so sick of it. Credit really goes to Stuart and Ben for being really steadfast in their belief in that ideal that dumb entertainment doesn't need to be stupid.
Credit to you, too. Stiller and Cornfeld weren't the first people you went to.
No, that's true. Thanks. And those other people didn't validate either so it cost me seven bucks each time they said "no." The first meeting I had with this really big name, name in the name of the company and everything--the first meeting I had on this film, this guy sits me down and says, "I really loved your script, laughed out loud, and let me tell you why it'll never get made." He explained to me that everything that made the script funny was too smart and had to get pulled out and then the movie wouldn't be funny. 'And by the way, we don't validate.'
That's interesting logic.
(laughs) I know, I know. This idea that all the good parts nobody would get so they had to come out and then the movie would suck. There's a real lack of respect for the audience.
Yet the test audience didn't like the jokes.
This is true. I suspect that the audience is comprised of more than the kind of people that they harvest for test audiences--especially for movies like this. The test for me was things that made me laugh. It had to make me laugh. I had to be proud of it. There are things in there that I'm not all that proud of and wish I [hadn't kept]--but keeping some of those jokes, that's a good thing.
What aren't you proud of?
Well, I think that some of the turns that Vince Vaughn's character makes, I don't completely buy. I love that Lance Armstrong cameo, don't get me wrong, Lance was a highlight, but I don't know if I really bought into that emotional turnaround. It's hard to make that as believable as you want because you have to be worried about pacing and tone so much in a comedy. You spend a lot of time wringing that situation for whatever pathos it has and sometimes the comedy boat sails and you can't get it back. I also was worried about the ending with the lesbian/bi-sexual thing. I keep wondering if I've gone one-step too far with the one-two have your cake and eat it, too, thing. I think it's funny, but...
The ending, and the flashback with the fat cheerleader, those are the two instances where I had some issue with the "smartness" of it. They seemed out of place and a little unfortunate.
You know, I would actually agree with you. I was really on the fence about the ending--it played okay, but it really split people. Frankly I think we missed the mark a little bit there. But the fat joke, that was always something in the script that I wasn't entirely comfortable with. In the flurry of post-production, in the flurry of putting it all together--and this has something to do with my inexperience, too--it was just left in. I have to admit that it's the one joke that I'm not proud of, frankly.
This is the best performance that Ben Stiller's given in a while. It reminded me a lot of his work on his sketch show.
I was such a huge fan of that show--the Manson sketch, man. I went up to Ben the first day--and this is the kind of humble guy he is--I told him how much I loved that sketch and he just said, "Oh, thanks, that was really Bob Odenkirk's work on that, he's really great." Just deflected all the credit for it. When we were talking about his character we talked a lot about Tony Little and, even more, we talked about the hair. I suggested "lion's mane" sort of a Patrick Swayze from Road House look.
"Pain don't hurt."
(laughs) Thank you! He hadn't seen it in forever so we had a screening of it to prepare. That's classic: the homoerotic, Oedipal fistfight with Sam Elliott--it doesn't get any better. Ben's one of my favourite comics and I hadn't seen him play a villain in some time, but I remembered him in a little role in a movie I didn't particularly like, Happy Gilmore, and he was this really mean orderly in an old folk's home so that was really my launching point for the White Goodman character. I never had anyone else in mind when I was writing the script.
The indictment of the fitness culture is great, but I almost liked the satire of our love/hate relationship to food more.
Have you read a book called Fast Food Nation? I really took a cue from that--there's an absolute love/fear relationship thing in our culture. We're so weight conscious, so image conscious, so youth-oriented--and wrapped up with all that psychosis are these ad images of it being so cool and all-American and sexy to eat McDonald's and drink pop and all that. It pulls people in all sorts of different directions, so I wanted White Goodman to be sitting there with a donut and the car battery attached to his nipples, or jerking off with a slice of pizza--it's really, that situation with food, with sports, with so much of our culture. Already almost too surreal to satirize.