”The first thing on the record I want to say is that I don’t want EW to f— me like they did last time.”
Apparently, Road Trip director Todd Phillips wasn’t crazy about his last big write-up in this magazine, a Jan. 8, 1999 story that inconveniently presented both sides of the controversy surrounding Frat House, his award-winning hazing documentary. And obviously, his grudge is still living large more than a year later, as he interrupts the interviewer’s first question to make the above declaration.
Well, Todd, it’s nice to meet you, too.
Fortunately, the rest of the world’s introduction to Phillips will be a bit less contentious. Road Trip, the naughty and goofy DreamWorks comedy he also cowrote, tracks the misadventures of four college chums who drive halfway across the country to retrieve a homemade sex tape mistakenly mailed to one guy’s girlfriend. And it completes Phillips’ own idiosyncratic personal journey from rule-breaking showbiz pledge to bona fide Hollywood brother.
Phillips, 29, developed an interest in documentary filmmaking as a high schooler in Dix Hills, Long Island (”Just say New York”), because, he explains, ”the ability to f— with the genre was more open than narrative film.” After enrolling at New York University’s film school, he completed Hated, an unflinching look at notorious poop-flinging punk-rocker GG Allin, and cofounded the New York Underground Film Festival. (He even manned the driver’s seat for HBO’s Taxicab Confessions.) And though DreamWorks’ official bio of Phillips says he ”graduated” in 1994, he actually dropped out before his senior year. ”I insist that I completed the courses necessary” to graduate, he says with a permanent smirk. ”[NYU] insists otherwise.”
Hated did enjoy some theatrical exposure, but it was Phillips’ unreleased documentary that made the bigger impact. Frat House, a 60-minute ”expose” that showed Phillips and codirector Andrew Gurland enduring hellish hazing rituals at the hands of fraternity brothers, shared a Grand Jury Prize at 1998’s Sundance Film Festival, where it found a fan in Animal House producer Ivan Reitman. ”I think he’s very brave,” says Reitman. ”I had a sense that he knew where the joke was.” After meeting Phillips, who was then directing commercials (he’s the guy who gave out his phone number in that Virgin Cola soapbox spot), Reitman asked him to write and direct a collegiate comedy, using Animal House‘s road-trip sequence as inspiration.
But Phillips’ attention was soon diverted by allegations from the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity that parts of Frat House shot at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College were staged. Phillips insists he and Gurland faked nothing, but a skittish HBO (a subsidiary of Time Warner, EW’s parent company) never aired the film and will not sell it back to its creators. ”Our movie was not about strippers and hookers and pimps and ho’s,” Phillips says, alluding to some of the cable channel’s other nonfiction fare. ”It was about wealthy white kids that have lawyers and parents who are active in the corporate structure. And that’s where the problem lies.” An HBO spokesman responds: ”What they filmed is probably fairly accurate. But it’s a mix of fact and fiction.”