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Three Madmen With a Plan

Take a new director, a wacky comic and a film comedy veteran, put them on a 'Road Trip,' and what do you get? A crash course in spontaneity.

May 07, 2000|AMY WALLACE | Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

Tom Green was riding a dog down Ventura Boulevard, and it wasn't even the 28-year-old comedian's own hound.

Moments earlier, the gangly, goateed Green had approached a stranger--an older woman with a cocker spaniel--and had wordlessly slipped the leash out of her hand. As she watched, stunned, he scrunched up his 6-foot, 3-inch frame, squatted over the dog and shuffled down the sidewalk as if on horseback.

Nearby, two movie directors--comedy auteur Ivan Reitman, 53, and newcomer Todd Phillips, 28--burst out laughing. Reitman is best known for directing or producing many '80s comedy favorites like "Animal House," "Ghostbusters" and "Stripes," and his company, the Montecito Picture Co., produced Phillips' first feature: "Road Trip," a $15-million raunchy comedy that DreamWorks releases May 19.

To hear Reitman and Phillips tell it, the process of making "Road Trip" was collaborative in a way that happens too rarely in Hollywood, with the elder filmmaker mentoring the younger as a way of honing his own skills and sensibilities. What made that collaboration outrageously fun, though, was the inimitable Green--a Canadian comic whose "The Tom Green Show" on MTV has a fiercely devoted following.

Green's shtick appears simple: He acts like an idiot--or jerk, depending on one's sensibility--and records how others react. The result is a wacked-out version of "Candid Camera." Green has snorkeled in a shopping mall fountain to retrieve pennies (then taken the wet coins to the bank). He has duct-taped himself to a lamppost, drunk milk straight from a cow's udder, and followed people down the street, commenting on their clothes through a bullhorn. He once ate a paste of Vaseline and human hair, and in "Road Trip" he nearly swallows a mouse.

Green's humor is strangely intimate. His parents, for example, are frequent targets of his pranks. Once, he dumped a bloody cow's head in their bed at 3 a.m. Another time, he spray-painted a lesbian love scene on their car. But lately, Green's fans have been let in on something even more personal: Green's battle with testicular cancer. He is currently editing "The Tom Green Cancer Special" for MTV.

The other day, Green, Reitman and Phillips sat down over breakfast at Art's Deli in Studio City and talked with The Times about what's funny, what's not and what to do when a small rodent crawls into your mouth.

Question: How did you all meet?

Todd Phillips: I made a documentary, "Frat House," which was at the Sundance Film Festival [in 1998]. Ivan's son, Jason, raised his hand at a forum and asked me why I made "Frat House." I didn't know it was him, but I said, "This movie is an homage to these '80s comedies that Andrew [Gurland, the co-director] and I grew up on." We had this idea of remaking '80s comedies as documentaries. "Frat House" was "Animal House." We were also going to do "Stripes"--both of them Ivan's movies.

Ivan Reitman: So at the awards, which "Frat House" won [the Grand Jury prize], I went up to Todd and we made a date to meet. Right away I could see he had a real good sense of where the laugh is--always the hardest thing to find.

Q: And how did you feel about being "remade"?

Reitman: I was both flattered and shocked.

Phillips: So when we got together, Ivan said one of his favorite parts of "Animal House" was when the guys go on a road trip. He thought there was a great college road trip movie to be made. So I got together with [co-writer] Scot Armstrong, and we started pitching around ideas. . . . It was amazing for me and Scot to be able to work with Ivan.

Reitman: From a purely selfish point of view, this was a great way to renew one's self. Certainly I have a level of experience now, and I've made, fortunately, some films that people liked. Especially in humor, you need to find fresh ways to tell stories. And Todd really reminded me of myself, in my first years starting out. Then there was Tom, who does the hardest thing: trying to create comedy out of thin air. What happens on his show comes from the accidents of real life and people's reactions to them.

Green: We've gotten better at figuring out how to plan the reactions and make them happen the way we want them to.

Phillips: What I like about Ivan and Tom's take on comedy is that it's based in reality, which is where I come from with documentaries. If you look at the first 20 minutes of "Stripes," it's so real. Once your characters are real and it's founded in reality, you can go anywhere. That's where Tom comes in. He takes that to the extreme: uber-realism.

Q: I want to hear more about how Tom provokes the reactions he wants. Because in some ways that's what you're all trying to do: elicit laughs when you want them.

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