How to have your teen cake and eat it. And then barf it all up

His frat documentary was banned. So director Todd Phillips made a frat flick instead.
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The Independent Culture

Todd Phillips has now directed two films about American university life. First was a compelling documentary exposing the absurdly gruelling, ultimately dan- gerous "hazing" rituals freshman students put themselves through in the hope of joining traditional college fraternities. Next came a raucous teen comedy whose action highlights include videotaped congress in the dorm room, the theft of a bus from a blind school and the hitherto under-publicised sexual practice of "milking the prostate" (one rubber glove and a plastic cup required). Very different items indeed, but even greater is the contrast in the fortunes which have befallen each of them. After winning the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, Frat House was reckoned such a controversial item it was shelved indefinitely by US cable TV channel Home Box Office - now the only way to see it is if Phillips himself slips you a copy on video. Road Trip, on the other hand, arrives on general release in UK cinema

Todd Phillips has now directed two films about American university life. First was a compelling documentary exposing the absurdly gruelling, ultimately dan- gerous "hazing" rituals freshman students put themselves through in the hope of joining traditional college fraternities. Next came a raucous teen comedy whose action highlights include videotaped congress in the dorm room, the theft of a bus from a blind school and the hitherto under-publicised sexual practice of "milking the prostate" (one rubber glove and a plastic cup required). Very different items indeed, but even greater is the contrast in the fortunes which have befallen each of them. After winning the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, Frat House was reckoned such a controversial item it was shelved indefinitely by US cable TV channel Home Box Office - now the only way to see it is if Phillips himself slips you a copy on video. Road Trip, on the other hand, arrives on general release in UK cinemas next Friday, having made a tidy $70m at the American box office, another "sleeper" hit following in the lucrative pastry-flecked footsteps of last year's high-school gross-out flick American Pie.

Another textbook example of the Hollywood mainstream enshrining rollicking entertainment, while keeping the uncomfortable reality firmly out of view? It isn't as simple as that. For one thing, it was Sundance exposure for Frat House which got Road Trip up and running - Ivan Reitman, big-wheel producer of the milestone college farce National Lampoon's Animal House just happened to be attending the independent showcase to see his son's first feature. "It was ironic, because Frat House started out as a sort of documentary tribute to Animal House, but we just happened to stumble on this crazy, dark truth of what these kids put themselves through," recalls Phillips, a graduate of New York University's film school who'd concentrated on documentaries until his Hollywood break with Road Trip.

In person, Phillips certainly has a robust sense of humour - success means "more whores, better drugs" he jokes - and that filters through on to the big screen. Road Trip for the most part works off a sound comic premise (his illicit amorous activities captured on tape, our hero plus sundry pals drive across country in an effort to intercept the evidence he has inadvertently posted to his girlfriend), and delivers some grandstanding moments (MTV comedian Tom Green dangling a live mouse into his mouth for reasons which still defy description). Beside Frat House, though, it's very much University of Lite.

Conflating footage that Phillips and his crew shot in various unidentified college towns, Frat House is the only time that cameras have been allowed in on the secretive "pledging" process by which prospective entrants prove their worth for fraternity membership. While the female "pledges" set about learning the sorority song, for instance, the menfolk have to demonstrate physical and psychological fortitude in a whole opening term of menial slave-driving and outright humiliation. At least five students die each year as a result of their exertions, and although the material Phillips has captured looks demanding enough, there was much worse that he couldn't get permission to film. "They locked four guys in a bathroom with a keg of beer and a pitcher, which they had to finish before they were let out again," recalls the director, who ended up gamely participating in the hazing rituals as a bargaining chip for being allowed to take his camera in. "The catch was that if they threw up, and they did, they had to throw up into the pitcher and the other guys had to carry on drinking from it. For what? To be part of some stupid group, and it's not like there's anything so great on the other side."

It's tempting to connect such behaviour to the strain of flagrant grossness and macho braggadocio which has run through the Hollywood comedy machine from the days of Animal House and Porky's right through to American Pie. But as an expert witness out in the field, as it were, Phillips sees it very differently. "Are there toga parties on colleges right across America because of Animal House? Yes. But where does the rest of it come from? Well, in Europe it seems like you celebrate individuality in a good way, in America it's somewhat different. If you can't be defined as a type then it's very disturbing to other people, so when you arrive at college the pressure is on for you to join one of the fraternities, otherwise you're an individual who can't be labelled. And that's confusing to people. So, 80 per cent of corporate America was in a fraternity at college."

That "corporate America" unfortunately included the top brass at HBO, who fought shy of potential legal action from rich parents ready to claim (falsely, so Phillips strongly contends) that their sons were drunk or on drugs when they signed the film's release forms. Given that HBO hold the copyright on Frat House, the one-hour documentary has been dead in the water ever since, never transmitted and withheld from foreign television sales (don't expect to see it on C4).

For his part too, Phillips has had to move on. Having spent much of our interview time chatting about Frat House, he finds himself bringing the subject back round to the new movie he's here in Britain to promote. "I know you think Frat House is a better movie, and I can see there are many reasons why that's so. You don't want to get too lofty about these things, but . . . I'm pleased that I've been able to bring some level of reality to Road Trip. At the same time, it's still about finding a way to get in some nudity in a fresh, funny and creative way. I remember being 15 and seeing Phoebe Cates take her top off in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It changed my life, and I really owe that experience to today's 15-year-olds."

'Road Trip' (15) is released on Friday

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