Todd Phillips on School for Scoundrels

I had the chance to interview writer/director/producer Todd Phillips about his film School for Scoundrels as well as his past and future work.

I know that you went to N.Y.U. and had done some student films but where did the desire to make films come about?

Todd: I had not started out to be a director; I just sort of evolved into it while making documentary films.

How did the idea to remake “School for Scoundrels” come about as it is an interesting title to redo?

Todd: I love old films, and especially good films. When I saw the original, I loved it, I just did not think they pushed it far enough. So, I sat down with Scot (Armstrong) and went over ideas for the film, and it evolved from that.

You have a very solid cast for the film; tell me how the casting choices came about please.

Todd: The script had been written with Billy Bob Thornton in mind for the part. I had noticed Jon from his amazing performance in “Napoleon Dynamite”. Ben Stiller did his part as a favor. On a lark we contacted the reps for Michael Clarke Duncan and asked if he would be interested in doing a few days work on the film. Luckily for us, he was. We kept thinking we should make his part bigger – he was so good at what he did.

70% of the success of a film is casting because getting the best actor for the part is necessary. So often the studio wants to have a big name that many times is not the right choice and the film suffers because of it.

What makes you laugh and what are some of your inspirations?

Todd: I love stand up, and I love Family Guy, The Simpsons.

Not a fan of South Park?

Todd: Not really but Family Guy to me is amazing. It is weird, funny, and throws a joke at you every two seconds, it is bizarre.

On a technical question, what do you think of the film versus digital debate and which do you prefer?

Todd: I was very resistant when I was doing documentary films because to me so many movies were being made in the editing room and this is not how I think a film should be made. Michael Mann has done some amazing stuff with HD using low light and his night shooting is great. However the material and budget you are working with has a lot to do with this.

It must be very rewarding to be able to direct your own stories rather than have others attempt to interpret your work. If you were forced to select either writing or directing which would you select and why?

Todd: They both have different sets of challenges, but it would be directing. Unlike writing it is not a solitary profession. With directing there is a focus on people, as well as the environment, energy, and teamwork that you do not get with writing.

The freedom of being able to direct my own work is something I am very grateful for because I have not had to worry about how someone else would cast, edit, and envision my stories. Like you mentioned, so much can be lost from the page to the screen by the time so many people get their hands on a script. I am blessed to be able to do my own material. Plus, when you are writing, you are with the characters for months at a time and after 6 months, you know their D.N.A. as well as where they live, what motivates them, etc. All of this helps with casting and filming since you know the characters because you created them.

You obviously have a knack for comedy, but I have to ask, is there a dark film or drama where you will not be trying to leave the audience laughing?

Todd: That is something I would be interested in transitioning into, but I have a great vibe with comedy, and that is where I focus now.

George Lucas once said that films are never really finished, they are abandoned, going back to your past works, what would you change if you could?

Todd: You do have to ask what does “finished” mean because in many ways, the films are taken away from you. If I had my way, I would have liked to refine thethird act of “Old School” because I thought the ending was weak and we should have shot more. The nice thing about time is that it allows you some distance to look back and better examine your work.

How do you work on pacing the films to try to spread the humor out and not have all the best laughs in the trailer?

Todd: It is a challenge to be funny throughout. So many comedies have no real ending, they just stop, and maintaining energy is very hard. I am happy with “School for Scoundrels” that it has an ending and that the best laughs are not shown in the trailer.

What is the latest on the next “Old School”?

Todd: We are writing a sequel which is called “Old School Dos.” No actors have been signed yet, and nobody has agreed to be in the film. The plan is that once the script is finished, we will approach the cast and go from there.

You had mentioned that you would have liked to have added more to “Old School.” The main thing I wondered was why Frank’s wife was so afraid of seeing Frank the Tank again, shortly before his infamous streaking event. I had wondered what he had done in the past that had caused her so much concern.

Todd: It is funny that you mention that because it is something that will be addressed in “Old School Dos” so stay tuned.