School for Scoundrels' Director Todd Phillips Interview

September 27, 2006

I had the opportunity to talk with School for Scoundrels / Old School director Todd Phillips on the phone yesterday. I asked some questions (obviously) about School for Scoundrels, but also about "Family Guy," Borat, Old School Dos, and The Dogs of Babel.

School for Scoundrels is a hilarious movie that is opening up this Friday, September 29th, about a "loser" guy (played by Jon Heder) who enrolls in a class taught br Dr. P (played by Billy Bob Thornton). The class teaches "losers" how to boost their confidence and become a man. We'll have our review posted early Friday morning for everyone to check out.

This was supposed to run in Monday's podcast, but due to Todd's busy schedule we had to reschedule it. So I'll host the audio file for anyone who wants to download it or listen right here on the website.

Listen to the Interview::
Download the MP3 directly here.

Read on for the complete interview!

FirstShowing: School for Scoundrels is a remake from a 1960 film, how did you and Scot Armstrong go about writing this remake? What elements of it are different and what has changed?

Todd Phillips: Honestly, the core idea is similar, which was really… the thing we took from it was, what if this place existed, what if there was a teacher out there who gave hope to the hopeless. And really that's the core idea of the original. Other than that, it's pretty much a departure, not taking away from it. But it's just a little but updated, and our's becomes a teacher vs student movie, which the original really wasn't. But we did take that kind of original one line concept.

FS: How was it working with such an entourage of fantastic comedic actors, Jon Heder, Billy Bob Thornton, Horatio Sanz, Sarah Silverman, just to name a few?

TP: Yea, in the movies I've done in the past, and this one included, I just try to stack it with as many funny people as I can. It seems to really just find it… the energy of that just finds its way into the movie. So for this it was no different, a lot of these people are doing smaller parts, you call them up, you say, 'hey, would you do three days on this.' Obviously Ben Stiller does a cameo, it's a favor, it's like those kind of things. For me it's just about putting together an ensemble like that. It's always, A) the most exciting part and most rewarding part. I mean casting is such a big part of a director's job.

FS: How did you decide to cast the lead roles of Jon and Billy Bob and how did you know they were the right choices.

TP: Well really we wrote the film with Billy [Bob Thornton] in mind. It was one of the reasons for even wanting to remake that film. As you say, the impetus for it was the opportunity to work with Billy. And I just thought it would be an interesting role for Billy. And from there we kinda cast everybody else. In other words, in the movie, obviously the guy playing opposite- We wanted to find somebody to play opposite Billy, who was the opposite of Billy, in other words. The movie works because of the tension between the two guys. It's not a buddy comedy. You want them to actually be entirely opposite. So from there, its like 'well who's the opposite of Billy Bob Thornton?' 'well, I think Jon Heder is probably about as different as Billy Bob as you can get.' It's kinda like that's how you start the casting process. It all starts with one guy, in this case Billy Bob, and it goes from there.

FS: Was there much improvisation or the actors playing off of each other during the filming?

TP: Yea, we do a lot of that on all the movies. I think, you really want to keep it loose. And you hire all these great people; you hire Sarah Silverman, you hire Jon Glaser and Paul Scheer, and all these funny people. So you really want to let them do what they're good at. Which is, be funny, and it's not necessarily always in the script, sometimes you wanna just let them go. So there's always a lot of that in all the movies I've done.

FS: What came first in both the writing and directing, the romance and relationship between Roger and Amanda, or the comedy involving the entire class and everyone interacting with Roger?

TP: You know, because you outline a movie, it kinda comes at the same time. I mean, there are days when you are just concentrating on 'ok, let's worry about just comedy today,' and there are days when you're like 'you know what, we gotta just beef up the story.'. But, it's not like process wise it's that technically separate. One informs the other, so they kinda all happen together ideally… honestly.

It's a good question though. It is, it's an interesting point, but I wish it worked like that, because it would make it easier.

FS: Was there any side of it, whether romantic or comedic, that you were really trying to emphasize more than one another?

TP: Not really, except that… when these movies work, they work because they kind of connect on more than one level. So, yea they have to be funny of course, it's a comedy, you want to laugh. But this film, you want it to also work emotionally, you kinda wanna really root for Jon [Heder] and actually believe that you want him to be with the girl, whether in real life or not you do. You want to in the film, you want to be rooting for him. So it's not something where it's exclusive, I feel like they each, again, inform each other… I'm sorry, I lost my train of thought. Neither is a priority, but they both… you want the movie to work on more than one level. So they both kind of become the thing. Sorry about that, I just got handed a note.

FS: What goes into the writing and creating of a comedic scene, for example the tennis court scene in School for Scoundrels was one of the funniest in the movie, how do you form and how do you go about creating such a scene?

TP: It's tough to write those scenes, I mean you come up with the idea for it, and then you kinda get on set and you have to deliver a big physical set piece. So, a lot of that stuff is really where directing comes in and where the actors come in, and we kind of, say, 'alright, let's make this.' We have to deliver something physical and big here, and let's do it. Those are my favorite scenes to do, but they also happen to be, oddly, the hardest scenes to do. A) you're working with usually a large group of people, something like tennis you said, or even the paintball stuff, that physical stuff that you remember. And B) it's just figuring it out just technically 'ok, how's this gunna go.' Those are always hard to do, they always take a couple of days, but they're also the most fun part.

FS: Definitely. Do you think it's important to see a comedy like School for Scoundrels with a full audience in a theater, is the experience enhanced in doing so?

TP: I think if you're not going to see it with a full audience, then you should definitely get high and watch it alone. Either way, you're fine. No, but I do. I have a lot of friends that make comedies, be them directors or writers or actors, and I always try and go see their movies with a crowd. Because I really feel like it's the way to give a comedy a fair shot. Because it's such a group experience seeing a comedy, it's so much about… listen, I watched [School for Scoundrels], obviously I'm not going to laugh when I watch it, I've seen it 30 times, it's not necessarily funny to me anymore. But when I watch it with 400 people around me, I'll suddenly laugh again, because it's such a kind of group thing. If somebody [were] to ask me, of course I'd prefer them to see it with an audience, I think these movies are just a different experience when you see them with an audience.

FS: I've heard that you're a fan of "Family Guy"-

TP: Big time! How did you hear that?

FS: From another interview, actually.

TP: Oh really, ok, good.

FS: Have you ever considered doing some work with Seth McFarlane?

TP: You know, I don't even know him. I mean, I know who he is, but I'm saying I've never met him. Ya, I'd love to, I just think the guy is so funny, really so funny. And the show is so good. So yea, I'm not sure what I would do, the guy seems to have his own thing all sort of figured out. But, I am just a big fan.

FS: You were originally going to direct the Borat movie, what happened, and why did you leave?

TP: That was just, kind of a long story, but… [laughs] Really, truly, it's just the reason why I left… is cause it's like, nobody understands when you say 'well, it's creative differences' that it really is. It sort of boils down to what it was. And they kinda always want something more. I was joking to a friend of mind, I have to figure out something more to say, because creative differences doesn't seem… But anyway. Really it was just a direction thing. The Borat movie is fantastic, I've seen it. It's funny as hell and it's going to be great. But this was 2 years ago, I think, when we started doing it. It was timing, as well as creative differences.

FS: Can you tell us anything about you future projects, The Dogs of Babel, or The Disassociates?

TP: Really right now we're working on Old School Dos, and we're writing that right now. Those things that you might read about, I don't know where those come up, but it's probably-

FS: Rumors on the internet?

TP: Yea exactly, those are development things only.

FS: Excellent.

TP: Cool man.

FS: Last question, in Old School Dos, where is it going to pick up?

TP: It picks up now, 5 years later, in these guy's lives. Obviously the same guys. We wouldn't make the movie unless we had all the guys on board. And we don't have them on board until we write the script - just to be clear, that's not done yet. So once we finish it, we show it to them, but basically it does pick up where these guys would be now 5 years later. In other words, not right after we ended it.

Thanks again to Todd Phillips for the interview! If you haven't already watched the trailer for School for Scoundrels, definitely do so and check it out in theaters this Friday!

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