THE TH SECRET TO ZOOLANDER’S ZO ENDURING EN SUCCESS
In embracing the Zoolander sequel, does the world of fashion fully realise it is the butt of its jokes? By Michael Bodey and Simone Fox Koob
Hollywood’s allure is so strong that even the victims of its parody and satire play along, wittingly or not. And so it is with the comedy Zoolander 2, which marks the return of Ben Stiller and Drake Sather’s sublime creation, the ridiculously dim male model Derek Zoolander.
Fifteen years after the original film opened as a comic oddity flitting on the outskirts of the fashion world, Stiller’s Zoolander returns with Owen Wilson’s Hansel and Will Ferrell’s Mugatu, along with the seeming embrace of the fashion industry the film satirises so mercilessly.
Zoolander 2’ s co-writer Justin Theroux chuckles at the “meta” nature of it, noting it is “not that dissimilar” to Theroux and Stiller’s previous collaboration on the Hollywood satire Tropic Thunder (for which Robert Downey Jr improbably earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance as a method-acting Australian performer).
“We were thinking, ‘ Oh boy, is Hollywood going to be angry at us because we’re making fun of so many people?’ ” the screenwriter recalls. But after Tropic Thunder, Theroux met the people on whom that film’s super-agent character Les Grossman or others were largely based and they would gush: “Oh my god, I can’t believe you’re making fun of so-and-so.”
“No one thinks they’re the butt of the joke,” he says. “And that’s the beauty of satire. People, particularly narcissistic people, rarely want to point the finger back at themselves. So they immediately transfer these traits on to other people they think they’ve met.”
Theroux chuckles as he recalls people in fashion — “with a totally straight face” — enthusing how they loved Zoolander. “In the back of my head I am thinking, ‘ You’re kind of the inspiration for that, but OK’, ” he says.
Fashion’s embrace of Zoolander was made official last year when Stiller and Wilson announced the sequel to the 2001 hit at Valentino’s Paris Fashion Week show. And last month Vogue magazine’s cover featured Stiller in character with co-star Penelope Cruz plus a lavish photo spread shot by Annie Leibovitz.
Stiller, who directs the sequel, is a little more diplomatic about the subject of his satire, pointing out they made the original film as outsiders and back then the fashion world was “probably suspicious, which I can understand”.
“It’s been great over the last 15 years how it’s been embraced by the fashion world,” he says. “And I think all those people really do have — most of them do have — a sense of humour about it, because it’s such a tough world and it’s a very stressful job to be a fashion designer, as you have to keep coming up with someone new every few months. And you have to sort of take yourself seriously to be taken seriously.
“But what I’ve learned is these designers have to commit to something, have to reinvent them every four months. That pressure never stops. That’s why it gets more and more outrageous. It is an art form for sure, but it’s easy to make fun of because they have to take themselves seriously.”
Theroux attributes the fashion world’s embrace to the fact there was “a lot of truth in the first one. So when we were researching the second one, doors flung open for us because people wanted to be involved.
“The fashion industry loves this movie because they think they’re not the joke. And to a certain extent they’re not. Take [Ferrell’s character] Mugatu.”
The outrageous fashion boss is not based on any individual in the industry — rather, “he is a sort of Frankenstein version of several people stitched together”, Theroux says.
Zoolander 2 is another impressive achievement in the 44-year-old’s growing resume. After beginning in the visual arts, he has carved a solid career as a gigging actor, with a long run in The District, his biggest role before his present run on screen in the impressive US series The Leftovers.
Theroux has also emerged as a strong comic writer for feature films, penning screenplays for Tropic Thunder, Iron Man 2 and Rock of Ages — and being responsible for some uncredited screenplay touch-ups — before his collaboration with Stiller, Nicholas Stoller and John Hamburg on Zoolander 2. And, for what it’s worth, he married Jennifer Aniston last year.
He considers himself a writer as well as an actor, “I guess by definition”, but does not feel the urge to touch up any scripts on The Leftovers because “drama is not something I really know how to touch up”.
“It’s not my ballpark to play in,” he says. “I just love an actor to be handed a script where all the sweat and coffee spills over it have already happened. And then I’m getting a nice pristine copy of a finished thing, so all I have to do is say the words and make some faces.”
Zoolander’s sequel has been some time coming, though that was not the intention. Theroux says the film has “gone through many iterations, which [does not mean] it was problematic”. But the original film opened wanly in the US after September 11, 2001, so there was little commercial incentive to make a sequel. Ultimately, however, an enormous appetite developed.
“I kind of said, ‘If everyone had come to the movie when it first came out, we would have made the sequel the next year’ — but nobody asked,” Stiller says, adding he tried writing a screenplay in 2005 before producing another one in 2010 with Theroux.
“Justin and I worked together on Tropic Thunder and have been friends for 20 years, so we had a really fun time working on this,” he says. “The guy who created the original with us, Drake, who is no longer alive, he was really the core impetus for the movie, it was his idea. So when Drake wasn’t around it was hard to think how to do it.”
Theroux recalls the writers taking their time trying to crack a central premise that justified Zoolander in the age of selfies, Instagram and insta-fame, as well as one that could also justify integration in the real fashion hubs of Paris, London or Rome. “We struck on an idea that we both thought was really funny,” he says. “Once we had that idea we thought there was actually a reason for this movie to get made because it feels bigger, feels as funny and feels like we could really blow the roof off it.
“Now it makes sense and it takes us to Europe and gets into a historical reason for this movie to be happening, and it provides us with all these, not just cameos, but fantastic opportunities for other characters to come in and out.”
Derek Zoolander and his seminal Blue Steel look are now back in a world that has changed in many ways. Yet in an odd way, Theroux says, the gradual discovery of Zoolander by audiences via the old-world DVD format “added to its specialness”.
“It’s like that thing when you go to a record store back in the day and [find] a great band and tell your friend and they tell their friends; it feels weirdly more special because you have ownership,” he says.
Even if some claiming ownership might not fully realise they’re the butt of Zoolander’s jokes.
Zoolander 2 is open nationally.
Ben Stiller, Penelope Cruz and Owen Wilson in
Zoolander 2; Stiller and Cruz on the cover of Vogue; co-writer Justin Theroux, below