Sometime actor (“Mulholland Drive”, “Wanderlust”) cum in-demand screenwriter, Justin Theroux is the man responsible for the magic that lies within the pages of the “Rock of Ages” script that now sits proudly in Adam Shankman’s file cabinet.
I caught up with Theroux, also the man behind “Tropic Thunder”, to talk about the new musical-comedy and his upcoming projects.
Did you see the movie?
Yeah I saw it.
Because I can kind of tell you want to see it again.
I know. I want to see it again.
Do you like it?
Did I like the movie? Yes. I wrote some of it. I did like it.
How much of the comedy did you have to add to it? I haven’t seen the play so I didn’t know how funny it was but I really enjoyed how funny this movie was.
I’m glad you enjoyed how funny it was. I actually didn’t see the show but I read the script. There was this moment where I was just coming on to the project and…actually, the show was in LA and I was in LA and then I missed it in LA. I thought, you know what, it actually might be better to not see it, come in fresh and just sort of work it more organically for me. I could tell from the script that there was a lot of stuff that would play really well on stage that wouldn’t play as well in a cinematic experience. Also, we’re developing the characters further, giving them a little more dimension I think especially Tom’s character. He was sort of the engine that brought me into the process. So working with the actors and trying to sort of deepen them, make them funnier and things like that.
Because you’re kind of responsible now for two ridiculous performances from Tom Cruise.
Tropic Thunder and then this.
I know. I love working with him as is evidenced by this and also Tropic Thunder. He will go anywhere you want him to go. He’s great like that. He’s really the greatest. I’ve now put in him on on some thin comedic limbs and he’s totally marched out on to them and really killed it both times. It’s very exciting.
Is the cast coming up to you and ask you to write something for them especially where they felt the character should be going?
Tom, I worked with. We definitely did that because we sort of wanted to have kind of a different take. He’s a much broader character I think in the musical. We wanted to make him a little more tortured, a little more beaten. We also wanted to give him sort of a resolve like give him sort of a more defined arc in the movie. We also gave him a monkey, you know, things he can’t do on the stage. We wanted to make him slightly more tortured in a really funny way. Some guy who is just so – he’s been a rock star for so long that he just doesn’t know – we kept referring to it like he’s just been breathing thin air for so long, he’s just slightly off by it.
Was there stuff that they said like this is too ridiculous, we’re not going to do that?
Nope. No. We kind of did like whatever we wanted which is how you kind of – and then you sort of, I guess in the editing or whatever, you pull it back. I think we shot everything that we ended up with in the final draft. We really wanted to like go as far as we could for the rating or how it’s rated. It was just broad and funny and ridiculous.
Is there anything that is not in the movie that you really wanted to be in there?
Not really. I’m trying to think. I noticed they did some trims just for time and stuff like that and things that ended up not working as well on the film. I think it’s a pretty tight movie now. I don’t think there is anything – no jokes or anything that I was like, I’m sad to see that go or anything.
Did they not make it… we were just talking to Adam, they sort of cut a lot of the sexiness out of it after test audiences reacted unfavorably he said?
I don’t think so. He would know better than I would. Like the Malin scene with Tom is like ridiculous and funny and sexy. It’s like all that stuff. It’s great. I’m trying to think. There was one scene, one musical number, that I think will show up on the DVD. I’m not going to talk about it but that’s going to be amazing, like a little extra. It’s that sort of can’t be sex stuff. It’s not unlike sort of the videos of the era, you know, gauzy mosquito netting around beds kind of stuff which is just so funny. I know Adam, I think, watched a lot of bad Poison videos and things like that. Girls straddling motorcycles in garages and things like that…uuggghh. But it’s when you’re playing it for a musical comedy it’s really funny.
How important was it that the actors kept the dialogue you gave them?
I’m not precious about dialogue. Some actors love to stay on a rail with dialogue and some actors like Russell likes to improvise a lot. He’s obviously very funny so he’s only going to improve it. I’m not a stickler… unless there is an elaborately constructed joke that needs to have the structure that it has, I’m not bothered by anyone changing it.
Was it in the script the tonguiest tongue kiss of all time?
The tonguiest tongue kiss of all time, that was in the script yes
Malin talked about this, why put this in the script? What’s the reason?
I think you want to impress upon the actors how tonguey this is actually going to be. You just make it very clear that this is not going to be some timid little kiss. This is going to be someone jamming a rocket down your throat. I wanted to make it as ridiculous as possible. That’s purely played for a joke.
At the same time, you want to make it funny but not a spoof of the era.
Yeah. Not a spoof of the era either. You would believe that this guy would have done many tongue kisses and this is the big moment at the end of the film when he gets this girl…
It’s the biggest tonguiest tongue of all time.
I wish I had…I do have an uptake. It’s the tummiest tonguiest grossiest Akermaniest kiss…it’s very funny too I think.
Did you not want it to be a bit of a spoof though because it seems to me like Tropic Thunder was such a wonderful like lampooning of that kind of thing.
Yeah. I love spoofs like the Naked Gun movies or Airplane I think but those are super spoofs. I would like to think that we’re living more in the world of satire like we’re kind of making some sort of joke on the era or something like that.
No sort of This Is Spinal Tap references…
No because that’s obviously well tried territory. They did that so brilliantly. That actually was one of the hard parts. You obviously wanted to start gravitating towards those kinds of jokes but they’ve already done it so you can’t really and you’re not going to improve on that.
So was that tricky that treading that line between spoof and satire, kind of keeping it real and fantasy?
Again, in working with Tom, he was really clear. I’ll always go for a joke or something. Tom is really good at bringing back like any good actor, just going like what is the true line for the character. Let’s bring it back to reality and then I get to decorate it with jokes. He really plays it dead straight. He just goes right down the middle like all great comedic actors. If you just play it real and let the lines and the situation be funny, it’s going to be funny. But he’s great at also just knowing that like what’s the destination for the guy. That’s across the board for all the characters. It’s like everyone has to arrive somewhere and have some kind of…they have to land somewhere. They have to grow in some way in order for the film itself to be satisfying.
Did you have to adjust somewhere the writing onset as you were filming because it didn’t fit or you weren’t there?
I did some emailing back and forth with Adam when they were shooting. He would be like, we’re thinking about going like this or some physical production thing would change and he would say, can we tweak this to be like this? I would say yeah but we’ve gotten the script into pretty good fighting shape by the time they started rolling.
I understand what you wrote had more depth and was more realistic than they had?
That was just sort of that process of making it more filmable I think. Obviously in a stage show, there is [inaudible 9:37] and there are things you just can’t do. Where you can do much bigger – you got much bigger set piece scenes for the film and you have quiet moments and you can have like really weird moments that you can only get if you’re tied on something. In a stage play, it’s harder to have those intimate moments or you kind of have to play things broader. I think my job if anything was just to sort of obviously put some more jokes in and make it a little more raucous but also find the places that we can exploit the medium, exploit the fact that it’s being filmed.
Did you know the music of the 80s? All the pieces that are in there?
Yeah for sure. In that weird way of like…like I can’t even remember even going out and buying any of these records but I had actually – they were playing with radio back then. We didn’t have MP3s. It’s background music to your childhood.
Did you study all the lyrics of each song because they are so well placed with…
Chris D’Arienzo placed all those songs so beautifully. My job was just to sort of build the ramps to the songs and build the ramps down from the songs. It was kind of criminally easy because you have the emotional center to your scene. Normally when you’re writing a narrative, you’re having to write sort of the pillars of the scene emotionally. The songs in this case are the emotional center. That’s when people really say what they want to say. That part was really fun because the heavy lifting is done, because you would go by the music. I just write the [inaudible 11:16] joke.
Did you add in a song?
I did add in Jukebox Hero because that was actually one of my favorite songs. It’s also very melodramatic and it’s got that whole kind of like, “Standing in the rain…” It paints a great picture in the prologue to that song. It’s a great song in it of itself.
It seems like all those songs from an era such like Journey, the story of the song.
They tell a story. Yeah, they tell an actual story. I know. It’s not the same.
Are you a fan of musicals?
Interesting question. It’s one of those things where it’s like, “Really? I’m going to get to write a musical? That’s the weirdest thing in the world.” Yes, I am a fan of musicals but particularly there is definitely musicals that I’m not a fan of, that I would never have to hear again.
What are you writing now?
Right now I’m working on a thing with Newline and Jerry Weintraub. There is nothing to talk about. It’s just a thing that I’m struggling I guess.
What about ”Zoolander 2″?
Zoolander is chambered. We have a script, a very, very funny script that’s ready to go but we’re just sort of waiting for all the stars to align and then make it. I think it’s going to be great. That’s going to happen. It’s just a question of when.
Where do you pull your inspiration from? How did you grow up comedically? What did you watch? Where does the sense of humor come from in you?
Oh God. I don’t know. Lots of pain. Laughing at lots of dark moments. I don’t know. It’s one of those things. I don’t know. I have no idea. There are times when I also don’t think I’m terribly funny either. I don’t know. It’s fun to write. It’s fun to work on. I don’t watch sitcoms, and I couldn’t write them. I’m terrible at that. I’m not great at that. Maybe that’s a virtue, I don’t know. I don’t watch a lot of television. I mean I like television. I can definitely flick around the channels. There is nothing that I’m locked in on. There is no terrible…people are like you got to get the box set to the dadada, and just watch them all in one day. It sounds like torture. But I think my experience in acting helps me a lot because then I know – one thing I’m very sensitive to is bad writing so I know when I’m writing horrible shit because I can then sort of switch hats and realize like, I would hate to say that line. There are certain kind of bad habits that writers have that they think actors don’t notice but actors notice. I think if anything, I can steer actors clear of that where it’s like I don’t have to give anyone too much exposition or I can spread exposition out so it looks like dialogue.
Is that why you haven’t done more acting because of all the bad writing?
With all the bad writing, the stuff I could offer. No. I think I love writing and I like the process of writing because it’s a little more gratifying and then when I get to do an acting job, if it times out right – I also get to choose what I’m going to do. So much of when you’re just acting you’re really just waiting for trains to come and hit you which is no fun. Now, in acting it’s sort of like I’m really actually getting to be choosy which is like I don’t have, you know. It’s just fun. It’s a fun thing. Writing is like harder but you know, who knows.