Three of America’s favorite comedy directors from ten years ago are now making bids for respectability in surprisingly similar ways.
To wit, in 2004 directors Jay Roach, Adam McKay and Todd Phillips were responsible for three of the highest-grossing comedies of the year, Meet the Fockers, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Starsky and Hutch. In the past year, they’ve given us Trumbo, All The Way (an HBO Original Film about LBJ and MLK), The Big Short and War Dogs, all politically-tinged films with timely social commentaries and awards ambitions.
What happened? Did they all grow older, have kids and start worrying more seriously about the current state of the world? Or were they always politically inclined and we simply never noticed? Comedy directors have crossed over into drama before (e.g., Jerry Zucker went from Airplane/Naked Gun to Ghost), but to have three of them do so in such a short amount of time is a weird trend.
So, here’s what happened, in their own words:
What you don’t see on that list are the HBO Original Movies Roach has directed, beginning with Recount in 2008, Game Change in 2012 and All the Way earlier this year. He carried over his new political leanings to 2012’s The Campaign, and had this to say when asked by Collider about the apparent change of tone in his work:
You know, I was very interested in politics in college and was heading to be a lawyer. I have a degree in economics and I was interested in it. I hadn’t really gotten super serious about it and I’d done a lot of student politics in high school. But, you know, student senate stuff and I was the president of District Council in New Mexico for 19 schools. Like I was really into— I really think it would be interesting and fun and challenging to go into politics. But, by the time I was in school at Stanford, they made you take so many other courses and I started taking field photography and I was also writing for the paper. I worked for the radio station. And I just, somewhere along the line, it was partly that I had a darkroom in the basement of my dorm and I started processing black and white stills and that was kind of the end of pre-law. I would just stay up all night, you know, printing stills and I finished the degree but I didn’t apply to law school. I just waited a year and then applied to film school and I went to USC. But I always— I don’t know. I always had a respect and an admiration for people who got into politics. I certainly have always been interested in law and political science and I’ve been an amateur student, you know just a dilettante really in connection to politics my whole life. I’ve always read a lot about it and always been interested in it. And I’m pretty opinionated sometimes although my political views change all the time, too. So I’m not very zealous. And then I had let Paula Weinstein know that I was looking for a political film to do and the opening came up for Recount and she called me and said they had been trying to do this.
And I had actually worked on a few pictures connected with politics before I did Recount. One was sort of a similar kind of a story to The Ides of March about a spin doctor who got involved with someone who turned out to be corrupt who helped launch him and he had to undo— you know it was like a whole spin doctor. So I guess I’ve been interested in propaganda and spin and political PR for a long time. Yeah. I’ve talked about it before that I, years ago, worked on a film about the psychology of evil using Adolf Hitler as the vehicle for it and it was called The Empty Mirror and I did it with my film school partner, co-wrote it with him and then produced and also shot a lot of second unit on it. And I did a tremendous amount of research for a year; actually a number of years. We worked on it for three or four years in the research and studying Goebbels and Wiesenthal and became a little bit of an obsession about how such a dark idea could become a contagious idea.
And it was way too serious for what we’re talking about but I really did start to connect with the notion that ideas can be incredibly good. I mean you can make an idea spread for good but you can also make an idea spread for bad and the power to make an idea spread, memetics, you know which now people talk about memes. But, when I first came across the study of memetics and memes way back, I was like, oh my god! There’s people who actually have a whole science devoted to what makes a sticky meme and that idea of that question of why some ideas about how civilizations work catch on and others don’t. So it’s such an over simplistic, superficial way to talk about it but that’s what really I’m fascinated with is how ideas become and how you can change the world through making ideas stick. The whole thing of simplifying repeats or the big lie and all these things that it just seems almost people take for granted now.
I remember thinking, what? people would distort reality and make that, you know, a truth that would spread in some way?, a truthy kind of truth that just— and I’m very naïve about those things but the power of these spin doctors or any kind of salesmen or, you know, a storyteller; the power of stories to [unintelligible] make an idea contagious somehow has always fascinated me. And obviously I went away from the political side and got into filmmaking for some related reason because we do the same thing. It’s just not connected to how civilization should run.
So I guess this is the longest answer ever. But it’s just to be able to blend entertainment, storytelling with also some of the, for me, the deeper questions about how then shall they live. That’s what has led me to these kinds of films. And I want to do more of them. For sure I’m interested in this arena, be it comedy or drama or whatever.
McKay has never made any secrets about his own political activism, and even though his movies like Anchorman are broad, silly comedies they can sometimes have sneaky social commentaries. The first Anchorman is a reflection on sexism in the American workplace in the 70sm, and its sequel is a condemnation of the rise of 24-hour news infotainment. The Campaign, which Roach directed but McKay co-produced, is a satirical call for campaign finance reform.
As such, perhaps The Big Short, McKay’s experimental drama about the renegade outsiders who predicted and profited from the collapse of the housing market, should not have been such a surprise. However, it’s a film he never thought he’d be allowed to make due to his reputation as a comedy guy. As he told Deadline:
I really feel that The Big Short is Michael Lewis’ masterpiece [he also wrote the novels Moneyball and The Blind Side], his most ambitious work. And when I read it I was just, like, oh my god, I have to make this […] I thought there was no way anyone will let me make this movie, so I just forgot about it. About two years later, Anchorman 2 had come out and done really well, and then I did Ant-Man [he co-wrote the script with Paul Rudd] and that was looking good. My agent, Cliff Roberts, asked if there was anything I really wanted to do if I could and I remembered The Big Short. Turned out to be one of those right-time, right-place moments, because the script stalled at Paramount. And the folks at Plan B said, “We are open to the idea of Adam McKay doing it.” We had this gangbusters meeting, where I pitched them my vision and they were completely into it.
But why exactly did he feel the need to take on more serious subject matter?
I think things have changed in the world. There was a period in the late ‘90s, 2000s where doing absurd, laugh-out-loud comedies with a kind of secret, satirical edge was a pretty good way to play it. As our society has continued to sort of spiral out in this really strange way, I’m just not sure that’s the method anymore. It was exciting to do a movie that was about a story happening as we were making the movie. This collapse was in ’08 but the repercussions are still evolving and changing. You look at things differently as you get older, and this feels like the right type movie to do for the time that we’re living in right now. I think in the future we’ll probably do a little more work and go after issues that are a little more on the surface, as opposed to absurdist comedies that we made. There’s no question we’ll still do comedies; I just think there’ll be a different tone we’ll develop.
War Dogs loosely tells the true story of the 20-something-year-old con men (played by Jonah Hill and Miles Teller) and arms dealers who hustled their way into lucrative government defense contracts during the final years of the Bush Administration. In someone else’s hands, this might be a Big Short-esque expose on war politics. In Todd Phillips’ hands, it is a buddy comedy with an eventual detour into Las Vegas (even though the Vegas scenes in the film took place in Paris in real life).
That might be why Phillips rejects the notion that War Dogs is a great departure from his prior work, telling Indie Wire:
I don’t see it as that big of a departure. It’s more dramatic than certainly ‘The Hangover’ [films] are. To me, and maybe I’m just too inside, it just still feels like my movie. I remember when I did documentaries and I started doing narrative films, and people would go, ‘How did you make that leap?’ I would go, ‘It’s all storytelling. It’s the same process. I just don’t see it as that big of a leap.’ It’s not like I did Age of Innocence after Goodfellas. That’s a leap.”
It’s been long since forgotten, but Phillips started his career making documentaries like Hated and Frat House, the latter of which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1998. He went from that to Road Trip, and now he’s on to War Dogs, which he sees as covering the same subject matter he’s always been drawn to:
“It’s a movie about guys making bad decisions that lead to mayhem, which is really what all my movies are about. Oddly, it’s almost too similar to me. I love chaos, so bad decisions lead to mayhem equals chaos, and I just love chaos. I love it in my own life. I love it in movies. I love documenting it in movies.”
However, as Rolling Stone discovered Phillip’s past greatly informed his passion for War Dogs. Turns out, Phillips has always been something of a hustler. As a youth, he had a short-lived career as a shoplifter for hire, part of a three-man crew who called themselves Cheap John’s. At NYC Film School, he sent racy pictures of himself to John Wayne Gacy in prison (at Gacy’s request) in exchange for Gacy agreeing to create a poster for him (the documentary was about a punk pioneer who idolized Gacy). He now freely admits to staging some scenes and throwing parties to get guys drunk for Frat House. As such, the story of the guys in War Dogs spoke to him:
“I was definitely a hustler, always. The shoplifting was a business, but it was a hustle too. And it’s not about the money. Rich kids have hustle in them too. Like when I read the Rolling Stone article that became War Dogs, I was like, ‘Ah, this kid Efraim, he’s got fucking moxie.’ To me, the movie is just, ‘Look at these two awesome guys, what they were able to do.’ Honestly. If I was 20 years old in Miami and I found that loophole, I feel like I would have been a great partner for Efraim.”