Photos by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete
In 2001, Tom Green was arguably the most popular comic performer in America. He had an MTV show, co-starred in the hit college comedy Road Trip, and somehow crafted a successful song out of the idea of putting your ass on things called “The Bum Bum Song.” He was on top of the world, but as is often the case with these things, it got real messy—like "Rip Torn getting cummed on by an elephant in Pakistan" messy.
Green starred, co-wrote, and directed Freddy Got Fingered, a movie that features Tom licking an exposed broken bone, ripping open a deer and wearing its skin like a coat, and masturbating an elephant to the aforementioned explosive climax. It was not what Hollywood insiders would call a "four-quandrant movie." It was really the only movie Tom Green could make, because it was the only movie Tom Green wanted to make.
Now, with a new talk show on Axs.tv and a career touring as a stand-up comic, Tom invited me to his home in the Hollywood Hills to discuss the creation of a transgressive masterpiece. We talked over expensive Belgian beers for almost two hours, the results of which have been condensed (all of my belches have been removed) into the below.
VICE: Was there a thing in particular that you said or did that convinced people with money to make a movie that the system would never make?
Tom Green: The hardest part about Freddy Got Fingered is that we got people to go along with it. It was a combination of the success of the TV show, the success of Road Trip, and my stubbornness.
So you just say no, and no is an answer they don’t get often.
Pretty much. There’d be arguments. There’d be fights. They’d call my manager, my manager would call me, but no one wanted to say no to me at every single step of the way. But at that time, people were really excited about the TV show. They really wanted to put the movie out. So I really had some power at that time. I think a lot of people would have rolled over. When fights and arguments got to a certain point, a lot of people in that position, unlike me, had probably grown up in Hollywood and grown up around this "just say yes" mentality. You don’t argue with the studio. You just say yes. We dug our heels in and we did it.
It was the perfect storm of opportunity and desire to make a crazy movie. I was being offered these other movies. I didn’t really want to make them, but I did see the opportunity to make the movie. We would stay after work when we were at MTV in New York, my friend Derek and I. It took us about a month of writing every night. There were 10 scripts sitting on my desk from major studios, and they all wanted me to make them, these piles of paper. And I thought, why don’t we just make a pile of paper, send it to them, and say, “This is the one we want to make.” It was a very unique position to be in. Not many people get that chance to have multiple studios wanting you to make a movie with them.
As you’re sitting there with Derek and you’re going through this late at night, and you come up with ideas that are very out there, was there ever a moment where you thought, “should I jerk off the elephant or not?”
There’s always moments like that. I don’t remember specifically what they are, but I’ve never done anything that I have ethical or moral problems with. We never made fun of people who are less fortunate. We’d rather take on authority. It was more about making fun of movies. The whole point was that we were going to make each scene so over the top.
So, you delivered the script to the studio.
The movie didn’t instantly get made. The movie got bought by a major movie studio. They make all the major movies with all the major comedians. We went in for our first meeting and said I wanted to direct the movie. And they said, “What? You wanna what? You wanna direct the movie? Have you ever directed a movie?” Well, I’d directed my TV show, but that’s not a movie. I said I want to direct the movie, and I don’t want to change a thing in the script. Nothing. And they sort of looked at me, and I think they were kind of confused by that. They’d already bought the script.
Needless to say, the next day we got a call. They said, “We don’t think we can make the movie the way Tom wants to make the movie. We have to change a lot of stuff in this. We can’t do this the exact way it’s in the script.” They said they were going to put it in turnaround. That’s a film term for basically giving you a certain amount of time to sell the script to another studio. If nobody buys it after that, we own the script and it never gets made. They gave us a 30-day turnaround. That was them saying, “Screw you. You don’t want to do it the way we want to do it, so we’re basically going to throw it on a shelf.”
It seems strange to me that they bought it in the first place if they read it and saw this was the movie you wanted to make. They bought it and then wanted to change it. That’s counterintuitive.
You’d think it would be the opposite, but that’s not the way Hollywood works. They buy things and then they change it. The corporations and executives take young talent that’s interesting, bring them in, and then make their movie with them. Not make some kid from Canada’s movie. It’s some kid from Canada in their movie. They were going to make it a cookie-cutter studio movie, and I said no. I had an opportunity to make a movie. We’re gonna make our fucking movie and we don’t give a fuck.
In hindsight, would I have done everything the same? I probably wouldn't have, because I would have known the effect it would have on me and my ability to make another movie. I certainly wouldn't have been as cutthroat in my firmness when it came to creative decisions—like walking away from a studio because they wanted to take a couple of scenes out of it.
To everybody’s surprise, New Regency and 20th Century Fox bought the movie the next day. Literally, the next day. And I went in for our first meeting there and I met this really interesting executive named Sanford Panitch who worked for this really, really interesting man named Arnon Milchan. You can look into his story. He’s a very interesting guy, and maverick in a lot of ways. When I asked them if I could direct the movie, they thought about it for 24 hours and said yes. Initially, at that studio, I wasn’t going to direct the movie.
I interviewed five directors to direct Freddy Got Fingered—big comedy directors. When I was interviewing those directors, I was bedridden. They came to my house, two weeks after my lymph node dissection. I couldn’t get out of bed. I could hardly walk for about five weeks. William Shatner was my landlord, just to add an element of absurdity to everything.
How is he as a landlord?
Really cool. He was a nice guy. You can print that.
Did you feel more motivated to have it your way, having the cancer scare? You have this brush with mortality, you need to do it your way and have your big chance to express yourself fully?
I’d like to say yes, but it’s not really true. No. The script had been written already. For about three or four years, I was in a lot more physical pain and stress than anybody knew. When I would meet people, I was kind of standoffish. That was because I was in a bit of a funk. I had a lot of nerve pain from the surgery. I think people might have felt I appeared a bit standoffish. I didn’t realize what was going on other than I was in pain. There is a layer of that that’s probably reflected in some of the movie. In the sense that when there’s guts, there’s more guts. When there’s blood, there’s more blood. When there’s screaming, the screaming is a little bit louder and angrier.
There’s that scene where Freddy’s watching the surgery in his house by himself.
That was my surgery, my intestines. You know how Alfred Hitchcock made a cameo in all his films? Even though I was already in the movie, as the main character, I made another cameo as my intestines.
So the studio sees the cut that you want, what happens next?
The cut of the movie was about half an hour longer. It had a very dark soundtrack throughout. Some of the songs were the same, some different. There were scenes that were removed. A lot of it wasn’t just scenes; it was the length of scenes, the amount of time we held on certain shot. The tone was completely different. The movie’s choppy now. It was smooth all the way through. Important scenes were removed. Things were made shorter to make them less gross, less shocking, less strange—to keep it moving.
It wasn’t the studio. Arnon Milchan was super supportive of me. We had a screening at 20th Century Fox. Everyone from the studio was there. It was my director’s cut. The movie ended and Arnon Milchan stood up and started clapping. He did a long speech about it being the best movie a first-time director had done in his career. He said it was perfect. He didn’t want to change a thing. It was a great day. Everyone was happy. Then we went to test it. Every movie does it. This is the final stage of making everything as cookie-cutter as possible.
We all flew out to Phoenix to see the movie with all these people who’ve been selected to come in and play film critic for the day. Some guy comes out and says, “Was there too much blood?” Yes, there was too much blood. “Was it too gross?” Yes, it was too gross. “Was it too long?” Yes, it was too long. “Was it funny enough?” No, it wasn’t funny enough. “Do you like this character? No? Then we’ll just take him out.”
They’re always going to say the thing that they think is the most appropriate thing to say. It went over everyone’s head that this movie was not meant to be focused. It was supposed to piss off every one of those questions. Every question on a traditional focus group page, we were trying to do the opposite of what you’re supposed to do.
So they took a whole character out?
Well, the uncle owned the cheese sandwich factory. When I originally got to Los Angeles, there’s a scene with my uncle played by Stephen Tobolowsky, who’s hilarious. He introduced me to the cheese sandwich factory. Then we did the I Love Lucy machine sandwiches thing. But they didn’t like that scene. So we get to the factory and I’m just putting cheese on my head.
And then it’s over.
And then it’s over and it just seems strange, right? So the critics looking at the movie don’t understand the process I had to go through. There’s a much better movie in there that I actually made. The ending…
When the kid gets chopped up by the propeller, he says, “I’m fine.” Was that added after the fact?
Of course it was. He wasn’t fine. He was dead. He ran into an airplane propeller. He was dead. There was an arm that flew into the shot. His arm got chopped off. His father was screaming, then an arm lands. It was more over-the-top crazy stuff.
The movie came out and it cost $14 million. It made $14 million. Everyone considered that to be a failure. The critical onslaught was immense. Everyone said it was the most puerile, offensive, grossest, worst movie ever made. It was very extreme.
What do you do in that situation?
The weekend the movie came out. It’s not the blockbuster people had wanted it to be, but if you do the math, not as big of a failure as it seems. If a movie cost $80 million and make $14 million, that’s a failure. When a movie costs $14 million and it makes $14 million at the box office, then $30 million on DVD, which has not been reported by anyone. I have talked to the studio. The movie has actually profited. It’s not a financial failure. Nobody ever says that.
So, people were saying mean things in the paper the weekend the movie came out, which baffles me to this day. If you’re a writer who writes about movies, and every weekend ten movies come out and they’re all exactly the same, then this thing comes out which is like an aberration. It’s not the movie you wanted it to be in your mind, but at least give it the credit that it’s different. Don’t be so unrelenting with your criticism that you can’t admit that it’s different.
I actually consider all of that more successful than I had anticipated. It pissed off more people than I thought it was going to piss off. It pissed off everybody. I thought it would piss off half the people, but we got a lot of joy when we’d go to screenings and when I’m swinging that baby around. Right when I bite the umbilical cord and the blood comes out, four old ladies would get up and walk out of the movie. Me and friends would be screaming into our fucking hands.
But you saved the day.
Exactly. But we loved it when people walked out of a movie, to get that kind of a reaction, where people get angry. Who makes a comedy movie to try to piss people off?
So I got a call after the reviews came in, and the box office receipts were counted and it was a call from Arnon Milchan. He said, “Tom, I want you to know you should be very proud of this movie and that I made a movie once called the King of Comedy. When that movie came out, it got bad reviews. It didn’t do well. Roger Ebert gave it a thumbs down. 10 years later, people looked at it different. Now it’s become a classic film. It was the only movie at the time Roger Ebert revised his thumbs down on. Be proud of it. In 10 years, people may come to you and say they liked the movie.”
And sure enough, the only other movie he changed his mind on was Freddy Got Fingered. He didn’t 100 percent change his mind, but he did come back five years later and he said, basically that it was ambitious.
Follow Dave Schilling on Twitter.