Being English, I've never understood the concept of American college fraternities. Well, being English, and being the type of person who has no interest in drinking pints of piss and puke. We don't even have jocks in the UK, let alone fraternities, which as far as I can tell are a sort of homoerotic jock heaven where rape counts as a practical joke.
Todd Phillips, director of alpha-male comedies The Hangover , Old School and Road Trip, made the documentary Frat House in 1998. It was his second documentary, following 1993's Hated: GG Allin And The Murder Junkies - men behaving badly is his forte. Frat House is an ugly look at tribalism, abuse of power, machismo and other deplorable male traits. Phillips and co-director Andrew Gurland (who recently directed The Virginity Hit) spent a year infiltrating fraternities to make the film. Initially we get to see some predictable jock partying (bong-smoking, naked ladies sitting on boys' faces) before the directors get to know members of New York's Beta Chi fraternity, which is lorded over by an unfathomable prick called Blossom.
The self-proclaimed "King of this school," Blossom boasts of biting heads off rats and gives Phillips and Gurland access to the hazing – a mix of Full Metal Jacket violence and Freemasonry insanity. Blossom later threatens to kill the directors, and smacks Gurland in the face, so they move to the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity in Muhlenberg College, Pennsylvania, finally getting the inside footage they want by volunteering to become pledges and signing up for the ten week hazing process. Phillips ends up being shoved in a dog cage and covered in beer, ashes and tobacco spit, while Gurland is hospitalized with stomach problems.
Frat House was commissioned by HBO, but never aired. After it was screened at the Sundance Festival students involved in the film accused the directors of staging scenes and misleading them. Phillips and Gurland denied the allegations, claiming the kids were trying to get themselves off the hook, although Phillips did later admit--unapologetically--that some of the kids were drunk or stoned when they signed their release forms.
Frat House isn't readily available, but after being reminded of the film the other day, I poked around and found it on Google Video and you can watch it beneath. If you can handle the shoddy quality, take an hour out, because whatever happened, it's stupidly entertaining.
Ten years ago, I interviewed Todd Phillips about another film for another magazine, and we spent some time talking about Frat House. That part of our conversation was never published, but I've resurrected it. Here.
Vice: I've been reading a lot about Frat House.
Todd Phillips: Frat House is fucking cool.
I was particularly interested in how involved you got, getting locked in a dog cage with beer and ash being thrown at you.
That's all there, yeah. That's sacrificing for your craft. The movie is about hazing and rituals and the things men go through to belong. Everybody's so afraid of standing out in this world that they will even get beat up and peed on and thrown up on just to be part of a group, which is pathetic. It's an American phenomenon, I don't think you have it in England, but it happens in every college in America. The first school we were at, the kids ended up turning on us and throwing us out of the school, saying we couldn't film there any more. So Andrew and I went to the next school, and to gain permission, to sort of alleviate their fears, we said, "We'll go through it, whatever you do to the pledges you can do to us, so then it will look like we totally condoned it." So we took some of the heat, and they accepted that deal and... cut to me in a dog cage, and me getting thrown up on.
What was going through your mind when that was happening?
It's funny because you feel excited because you're getting exactly the footage you wanted. That's why I was there. I wasn't upset in any way because this is why I came, and the fact that it was happening meant it would only be over sooner, which was a good thing. Better than waiting around for it to happen.
Can you talk about the release controversy?
The controversy stems from one thing. When you turn your cameras on the sons and daughters of rich white Americans, you're going to get heat for it. HBO has made many award winning documentaries and they've all been about pimps and whores and strippers and crack and taxi-cab confessions and blah blah blah. They've been easy targets. They've made movies about skinheads and anti-abortion maniacs. Important movies, but movies about the fringe of society. The fringe, I feel, are easy targets, but Frat House is about upper-class white Americans whose parents are lawyers and doctors and politicians. It sounds like I'm spewing crazy paranoid controversy theory, but it's true. And when you do that movie, these people, who have many resources, will threaten to sue. You'll either fight that battle or not, and HBO has chosen not to fight that battle. That's the controversy. It's a shame--they own the copyright, they funded the entire movie, so I've no option.
What did the kids accuse you of exactly?
These kids said they redid things five times. Not once. Never did I even say, "Oh wait, walk through the door again." Which will happen in documentaries all the time. But we didn't even do that. That's not the way I do a movie. What people don't understand about good documentary filmmaking is, it's screenwriting. You write the movie before you show up. And you manipulate everybody in the room to say exactly what you want them to say. That, I'm guilty of. That is how I make documentaries. Because you know what? Fly on the wall filmmaking has gone out the window, because people are too aware of the power of the camera. To me, documentaries are now about manipulation. It's sad but true. You go in knowing exactly what you want and you come out with exactly what you want. That's just manipulation, and that I'm guilty of.