What's the hardest you've ever laughed at in a movie theater? What movie caused you to rock back and forth and clutch your knees? What title releases the serotonin into your brain and makes you forget the time and space continuum for a couple of hours? 

For me, Tropic Thunder was that movie. 

But as I look back on it, it's not just a great comedy, but a great film that we can learn some useful lessons from that can supercharge our own stories. 

So today, we're going to cover Tropic Thunder in all her glory. Let's head into the suck together. 

8 Great Filmmaking Lessons from Tropic Thunder

1. Let Your Characters Be Wrong

There are no pulled punches in this movie. In a world of political correctness and sensitivity, Tropic Thunder brings us characters who are very wrong.

That's part of the comedy. They are toxically masculine, racially insensitive, greedy, needy, and pompous. It gets them into a ton of trouble and forces them to arc. It allows the audiences to buy into the ridiculous premise without worrying about what's "realistic."

The tone sells the story. I mean, he stabs a panda! 

Jack-black_tropic_thunder'Tropic Thunder'Credit: Paramount Pictures

2. Know the Details

This feels like a gimme, but if you're going to tell a story about something, you have to get the details right. This movie is about Hollywood. Sure, it has actors and a director and special effects, but what makes this movie hilarious is that it gets the details about Hollywood right.

From the gift baskets to the assistants, to the crude Weinstein impression that cracks me up every time. The detail here makes it all feel very real and immerses us in these characters' world.

Do you have the details in your story? 

3. Let the Talent Have Fun

It is so clear that every actor in this movie is having a blast. Sometimes all you have to do is let your actors work. Ben Stiller directed Tropic Thunder, with a script from him, Justin Theroux, and Etan Cohen. He knew to give the best actors some elbow room and to let them work.

As a creator, it can be hard to let go and let other people work, but that's the essence of filmmaking—trusting the people you employ. Sure, you have to direct and rein them in, but it's okay to let the actors flourish.

Ben Stiller said of the film,  "... I feel the tone of the movie is its own thing. I think there are elements of satire, but I don't think it should be categorized just as that. There are elements of parody in it, but obviously, I don't think it's just that. I feel like hopefully, it's its own thing, which has a lot of familiar stuff that we are playing off of." 

4. Know Your Tropes! 

This ultimately becomes a parody of a Vietnam War movie, so from the needle drops to the last-minute standoffs, the movie has to hit those tropes.

We hear the characters openly talking about other movies and the beats they're participating in. But the script is so smart that it uses those tropes as beats too.

If you know what the audience is expecting, you can continue to subvert expectations to surprise them. 

5.  Embrace Your Logline 

This is a movie about actors stuck in the jungle where they think they are recreating a Vietnam movie. And this story lets that ride as long as they can until they make all but one of the characters aware of what's going on. In the meantime, they let them have an incredible amount of fun. We see Stiller fight and kill a panda, a director explodes, a firefight occurs, and they endure the cliche bombing around the campfire.

Your premise has a promise to keep, so give the audience what they want. This is why they are here. 

Tropic_thunder_2008_photo_3'Tropic Thunder'Credit: Paramount Pictures

6. Plant and Payoff 

Early in the movie, we hear that Stiller wants a son badly but has been unable to adopt. When he gets to the heroin farm, he finds a baby he wants to take back with him. It's so funny, but also earned thanks to his arc.

There are lots of little plants and payoffs, from Grossman's greed and insurance payout if the movie fails, to McConaughey's agent character who loves his client so much he will fly in to give him a TiVo.

These are all laughs, but they have to be set up in a brilliant script. 

Tropic_thunder_les'Tropic Thunder'Credit: Paramount Pictures

7. The Risks Paid Off

One of the most amazing things in the world is that Robert Downey Jr. was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of an Academy Award-winning nutjob.

Downey reacted, saying, "It's so funny to me that the role is a guy who is an Oscar-seeking moron. His whole motivation is Oscars ... Irony is synonymous with pretty much everything that is going on."

The film also made a ton at the box office and went on to critical acclaim.

The point is, commit to the bit. Put everything you have into the comedy and into taking a risk to talk about something. The risks pay off. People respect you even when they don't pay off. You can learn a ton from trying.  

8. Maybe Add Some Women 

I love Tropic Thunder, and I think it's a perfect film, but watching it in 2021, I definitely think the movie should have had a female character, or maybe a handful. I know I'll get some nasty comments, but I wanted to flag this for people—it matters.

Yes, if you were making an actual Vietnam movie, maybe you wouldn't have to think about the "woke" world, but this is a comedy about a made-up battle. There is certainly room for a battlefield nurse or maybe one of their agents for a female role. You're telling me there's no comedy to be mined from this perspective?

Tropic_thunder'Tropic Thunder'Credit: Paramount Pictures

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