Take a good look at that Tropic Thunder poster. Go past the glossy, airbrushed photos of the film's many stars, past the lush jungle setting, past the fiery explosions, and you might notice something. See there? Down at the bottom? It says "Screenplay by Ben Stiller & Justin Theroux, and Etan Cohen." Sure, other more "legitimate" media outlets may give all the ink to those first two dudes, but here at Defamer we like to dig a little deeper. Just who is this Etan Cohen fellow and how did he get roped in to working on the biggest comedy of the summer? Stick around after the jump to hear one of Hollywood's newest writing stars dish the dirt about meeting Tom Cruise for the first time, what it feels like to suddenly have people kissing your ass, and why you shouldn't be offended by all that Simple Jack stuff.
DEFAMER: Tropic Thunder was based on an idea by Ben Stiller who then started working on the script with Justin Theroux. Why did they bring you along? ETAN COHEN: In about 2002, Ben Stiller, who's about the busiest guy on the planet, was looking for someone who could do some of the unsexy heavy lifting of fleshing out the script. I think he read an early draft of Idiocracy [which Etan co-wrote with Mike Judge] and thought maybe I was someone he could trust to take it the rest of the way.
DEFAMER: What was it like meeting Ben for the first time?
ETAN: You know, every time I met with Ben he was incredibly intimidating because he was in costume for whatever movie he was working on. I think the first time I was wearing the usual writer's costume and he and was dressed in a full tux like James Bond because he was shooting Along Came Polly.
DEFAMER: What was the writing process like? Did Ben just give you the story and the ideas and say, "go to town?"
ETAN: Ben and Justin gave me a lot of material that I incorporated into a screenplay. Basically, I laid it out into script form and gave it to Ben in stages. When it got to a certain finalized point, I started working more closely with Justin. And then everyone started sending it back and forth. Ben too. But it was rare for all three of us to be in the same place at the same time.
DEFAMER: Any fights about keeping stuff in the script?
ETAN: No fights. You just do what Ben says. I think he knows what he's doing.
DEFAMER: There are lots of huge actors in this movie. As a director, how did Ben Stiller control all those raging egos?
ETAN: Basically, people had tremendous respect for Ben. He was able to command the set. Also he works out like crazy. He got ripped for this part because he was playing an action star and he was super buff. He even had dumbbells on the set. So knowing someone can kick your ass is probably more intimidating than just thinking they're really smart.
DEFAMER: Let's talk about the whole Robert Downey Jr.-in-blackface thing. How sensitive were you to the fact that some people could have been offended?
ETAN: As a writer sometimes you're able to be detached from the reality of what you're writing. I think it was maybe just a funny joke in my mind and I wasn't aware of how crazy it was. It didn't really hit me until I visited the set and I saw Robert taking a break while his stand-in, who was a real African American actor, stayed on camera. Then I realized it was truly insane.
DEFAMER: But do you worry about offending people in your work? I mean, they already took down that Simple Jack site and now the National Down Syndrome Congress is calling for a boycott of the movie.
ETAN: I do worry about it, but I hope that people realize our heart is really in the right place. The statement we're trying to make is not to make fun of those people, but to make fun of the way Hollywood views those people. I would feel terrible if people thought we were making a racist joke or a joke at the expense of handicapped people when what we're really trying to do is say, "Hollywood please stop fetishizing handicapped people."
DEFAMER: Alright, let's change gears here. Tom Cruise plays an evil studio exec in Tropic Thunder. What's it like meeting that dude?
ETAN: It's astounding. He just seems like the healthiest, happiest, most energetic guy you've ever met. He's radiant. He comes to the table and you think he's the biggest superstar, he's certainly earned the right to half-ass it, and he just brings it in the most wonderful and shameless way.
DEFAMER: Please put the rumors to rest. Did Tom base that performance on anyone in particular?
ETAN: I've heard all kinds of theories about that. But in the script it was really just a conglomerate of classic studio bosses going back to Jack Warner.
DEFAMER: I don't want to give anything away, but Tom Cruise dances in this movie. Now do you just write in the script "he dances," and Tom takes it from there?
ETAN: Actually the dancing was his idea! It was something he wanted to do, and to me, it's one of the best parts of the movie. People will see it and remember how great he is. It's a transcendent moment. I wanted that scene to go on for half an hour.
DEFAMER: I have to ask. Any Scientology crap when you met him?
ETAN: You know, I'm a religious person, so when I read that stuff I truly do sympathize with him because anyone's religion can be made to seem crazy by people who don't believe in it. I just have the benefit of my crazy things having happened thousands of years ago.
DEFAMER: Ok, let's talk about your career. What's your work ethic like? Do you write every day? To be douchey about it, what's your process?
ETAN: I have three kids at home so I don't sleep much past five. I try to treat writing like I would any job. You got to put in the hours. You hope if you work enough, some of the hours will coincide with when you're feeling inspired.
DEFAMER: What's next for you?
ETAN: Well, I'm writing the new Sherlock Holmes movie for Sacha Baron Cohen and Will Ferrell. And I also have Madagascar 2 coming out. That's something my kids can watch.
DEFAMER: Robert Downey Jr. is in a competing Sherlock movie. Are you concerned about that?
ETAN: I've let him know that LA is a dangerous place. All kinds of things happen. People disappear. I heard he's a martial artist and he should know that I take karate with my daughters, so don't fuck with me.
DEFAMER: But seriously...
ETAN: I think that it's odd, but I also don't think they're really competing projects. Ours is a big comedy and his is a serious action movie. I think there's an appetite for both. That said, at the junket, he was like, "Oh you've got the other Sherlock Holmes movie." And I said, "No you've got the other Sherlock Holmes movie."
DEFAMER: You're a big comedy writer in Hollywood now. You have some heat on you. What does that feel like?
ETAN: It feels pretty awesome. I've heard other people say this, and now I think I understand. People start to say yes more and that's scary feeling because they're gonna let you do what you want, so it's your fault if it's bad. But all in all, it's great.
DEFAMER: Are your agents kissing your ass more?
ETAN: You know, I unfortunately have an agent who was a good friend of mine before he was an agent so he could really be a much better ass-kisser than he is.
DEFAMER: Tropic Thunder opens on Wednesday, August 13 (that's today, kids!). Here is what you are competing with over the weekend: Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the new Woody Allen movie Vicky Christina Barcelona, a horror movie called Mirrors with Keifer Sutherland, and some indie dramedy called Henry Poole Is Here starring Luke Wilson of Idiocracy fame. Why should people go see Tropic Thunder instead of those?
ETAN: I have a history of not helping Luke Wilson's career and I think I'm going to continue to do that. But why should you see our movie over Star Wars and the others? There's a truly amazing scope in our movie that's never been done in a comedy before. I think people will be astounded at how huge it is. I'd say for your ten dollar ticket, you get fifteen dollars of movie.
DEFAMER: Fair enough. One final question. The Dark Knight— greatest movie ever or a little overrated?
ETAN: I didn't even see it yet.