Todd Phillips shows biz savvy

Building a career as a filmdirector can either be a thrill ride or a demolition derby. Some filmmakers, like Todd Phillips, get into the flow — he made seven films before the age of 40 and on one (“The Hangover”) came away with a total payday of $45 million. Brett Ratner, age 41, has made six movies and, like Phillips, has a big film soon coming out from Warner Bros (“Tower Heist”).

By contrast, Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” which premieres at Cannes, is his first movie in six years. Kathryn Bigelow has not started a feature since “Hurt Locker” four years ago, in her quest to lock in the right material and the right star.

As the studios continue to cut back production schedules, greenlights are tough to come by for directors. I had lunch with one production chief last week who was interviewing potential directors for an important new film and admitted his own frustration with the process. “What are your criteria in choosing your director?” I asked him.

“Damned if I know,” he replied. “You talk to them, but directors are talented at telling studio executives what they want to hear, so I hear them but I don’t really listen.”

In the present market, the ideal director is one who knows how to shoot fast, holds to a budget, doesn’t demand final cut — yet can also bring an original take to the material, even when it’s a sequel or prequel. In other words, the studios are basically looking for filmmakers who are willing to keep remaking the same stories, but differently. Not too differently, mind you.

The old-time studio chiefs had the luxury of assigning two or three movies a year to each of their crusty contract directors like Henry Hathaway or Howard Hawks. The new hierarchs don’t have anyone under contract, of course, and arguably would have trouble moving them from tentpole to tentpole.

When the old studio system finally broke down, some of the alumni became famously cranky and belligerent, and had trouble coping with Hollywood’s new anarchy. Hiring the likes of Richard Brooks or Otto Preminger was like signing on to a reign of terror.

The new generation of filmmakers is far savvier in dealing with Hollywood’s corporate system. Indeed, when Warner Bros. kept chipping away at the budget for “The Hangover,” Phillips agreed to work for scale in return for a bigger cut of the gross receipts. “I am a gambler by nature, so I bet on myself,” Phillips reminded me when I chatted with him last week. It was a gutsy bet because an R-rated film like “The Hangover” had to take in more than $80 million before Phillips started cashing in.

While some filmmakers might feel angst over making a sequel to a major sleeper, Phillips, ever the gambler, acknowledges no such pressure. “When I was shooting the first ‘Hangover’ I would find myself standing with my actors at the end of a long day and wondering, ‘Is anyone going to see this movie?’ ” There were no stars, no tentpole-like campaign.

With the sequel, Phillips believes his audience looks forward to rediscovering what mayhem his misbegotten cast of characters can now find their way into. The setting is Bangkok — “just the name Bangkok suggests trouble,” he says.

After the first “Hangover,” Phillips made a film called “Due Date” which, while reasonably successful, did not approach the impact of its predecessor. The film starred Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis, and it was all but impossible for the audience to like them. “Before we started shooting, Downey and I asked each other, ‘Why does the audience have to like a character?’ It’s more interesting in terms of comedy if we don’t like them.,” he says.

This attitude is thoroughly credible emerging from a flinty-eyed, self-contained individual like Phillips, who does not particularly strive for acceptance.

If anything, Phillips succeeded too well. While the director said that he loved working with the ever-inventive Downey, their film seemed chilly and distanced.

Ironically, the opposite was true of “The Hangover” — its admirers were like members of a fraternity who secretly (and affectionately) exchanged its in-jokes.

The in-joke of the directing fraternity is that it’s important to keep working. The profession is too hazardous to permit prolonged absences. The old-time producer Ray Stark used to warn filmmakers, “Don’t ever get off the bus, because next time you look up it will be miles down the road.” He had a point.

Peter Bart

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