Are Those Two Fools At It Again?
By Various Folks
Todd Phillips, 28, and Andrew Gurland, 27, met at the NYU film school in 1991. Phillips' senior thesis, HATED, a 1993 documentary on the legendary punk band GG Allin & The Murder Junkies, was released to critical acclaim both in the US and Europe, winning numerous awards. HATED is NYU's highest grossing undergraduate film ever. Phillips later started Stranger Than Fiction films, a documentary production company stationed in New York City. Meanwhile, Gurland was awarded a fellowship at Walt Disney Studios, where he produced television spots for such Disney films as BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and THE ROCKETEER. Together, these two aspiring young filmmakers co-produced SCREWED a 1995 documentary on porn publisher Al Goldstein.
Despite some initial success, Phillips and Gurland met with disappointment in the festival frontier. Spurred on by these rejections, they started the groundbreaking New York Underground Film Festival (with which they are no longer associated - in fact, they've been banned from the premises of the Anthology Film Archives).
In the fall of 1996, they pitched a documentary film idea about the darker side of the fraternity system to Sheila Nevins, HBO's senior VP of original. Phillips and Gurland had worked with Nevins before on the acclaimed HBO series, Taxicab Confessions. Nevins secured partial funding for the film and FRAT HOUSE went into production. FRAT HOUSE was completed and shown at the 1998 Sundance Film.
Largely on the strength of its ferocious, shocking scenes of hazing abuses, FRAT HOUSE shared a Grand Jury documentary prize at 1998's Sundance Film Festival last January. Judges and festivalgoers were amazed at the lengths to which FRAT HOUSE's co-directors had gone to demonstrate how hazing thrives on college campuses despite being illegal in most states. To gain full access to the secret excesses of pledge "lineups" and Hell Night, the filmmakers agreed to "pledge" and are shown doing push-ups in a pukeish substance; Phillips is pelted with beer, tobacco spit, and cigarette ashes while confined in a dog cage.
In the weeks and months after Sundance, the filmmakers' evident capacity for punishment paid off big time. Phillips jumped into directing TV spots for Virgin Cola and Miller Beer, among other clients, got hired to do the rock & roll documentary Phish vs. The World, and landed a production deal with Ivan Reitman; Gurland, on the other hand, is said to be working on several comedy screenplays (which sounds like he's not doing much of anything, really).
HBO also basked in the post-Sundance glow, showing its prizewinner to the press at a luncheon and making plans for an August debut. But as midsummer approached, it quietly yanked the film from its schedule, offering little explanation as to why. Not until December 22 did HBO reps finally drop this bombshell: They said their own execs have been struggling to disprove a welter of post-Sundance allegations about fakery from students involved in the film, as well as from national fraternity groups outraged at what these students did on camera.
The most serious charge? That the humiliated "pledges" shown in a countdown to Hell Night in the film's final third were actually full-fledged brothers of the Alpha Tau Omega house at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.
Ironically, it was FRAT HOUSE's Sundance splash-and accounts of Phillips and Gurland's heroics-which brought it to the attention of officers at ATO National, one of the country's largest fraternity organizations. With lawyers in tow, ATO National personnel descended on the Muhlenberg campus in May and took depositions from a number of students. The undergrads told "very consistent" stories of staged events and scenes retaken, according to ATO executive director Wynn Smiley. ATO then joined forces with officers of the National Interfraternity Conference, which represents 67 Greek organizations, to tell HBO that FRAT HOUSE couldn't be called a documentary about hazing because it didn't involve a real pledge class. ATO reps also contend the frat brothers thought they were acting in some sort of fictional comedy, and that the filmmakers never mentioned their HBO funding.
"Producing [documentaries] really involves relationship building. You can't just show up and say 'action' and start filming. [We] hung out... and got to know these guys... I don't know if it's trust, but it's about forming a bond.' In the HBO press kit, Phillips says, "FRAT HOUSE is totally a traditional documentary." Gurland adds, "We documented the experience of making the film, much like Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield before us - the journey is just as important as the destination."
Regarding the journey, Todd said, "We approached the fraternity [The Alpha Iota Chapter of Alpha Tau Omega, Muhlenberg College] as filmmakers and explained what we wanted to do. It seemed that if Andrew and I were willing to endure the process, they were more comfortable with us filming it." Gurland adds, "And we were treated just like the other pledges." David Boelker, the president of Alpha Tau Omega and a sophomore at Muhlenberg at the time FRAT HOUSE was shot, has one thing to say in response: "What other pledges?"
"[The film was shot] in the spring of my sophomore year," David Boelker recalls. "We don't have pledges in the spring semester. You rush in the fall. We have sophomore deferment [at Muhlenberg]... [Phillips and Gurland] approached the house...They wanted to see if we'd participate in the filming... They offered us $1500 dollars for the chapter to participate at all. They offered the 'pledges' $50 each." However, the pledges shown are not pledges at all, but brothers in the house eager to make $50. "The pledge master, 'Dragon,' was a junior while doing it...There were three or four guys in that fake pledge class that were older than him. One guy was from his class...One of the guys wasn't even in the house. He was a house friend...It was not close to a real pledge class."
Boelker goes on to describe the initial meetings with Phillips and Gurland. "They approached us and said they were making this documentary about two guys going from school to school, not really letting the time frame be known. They were trying to get into fraternities and failing miserably. 'It's a comedy,' they said...They said they were trying to make the '90s ANIMAL HOUSE. We didn't know they were funded by HBO. They were just two independent filmmakers. Everyone kind of had the idea that [the film] wasn't going anywhere. For all I knew, it was for a class... Maybe they got a grant from school or something. They said they were from NYU."
"Phillips and Gurland came to our house and they wanted to film there. They said to us, 'We have a budget, is there anything we can do for you guys.' They bought us a disco ball for our party, and a couple of kegs. The two of them were always walking around town hitting on girls... They would say to girls stuff like, 'if you suck my dick I'll put you on TV,'" says Eric Stringer, now vice president of Sigma Alpha Mu at Oneonta.
"There were a couple of objectors in the house," Boelker adds, "but they didn't participate. Those that did had to sign release forms so that their image could be used." "Before filming began, Phillips and Gurland signed a form themselves with witnesses saying that they wouldn't include the name of the school or fraternity or use any identifying marks. The form also said that the events were staged and in no way reflect the behavior nor are they representative of our brotherhood or any single brother. The form wasn't notarized, so it isn't necessarily legally binding, however it does show intent."
In the portion of the film shot at Muhlenberg, Phillips and Gurland supposedly join a pledge class and spend roughly a semester finding out what it is really like to be pledge.
According to Boelker, "[Phillips and Gurland] filmed for roughly three weeks. Someone would say, 'The film guys are going to be here Tuesday and Wednesday. Make sure you're down at the house.' Phillips and Gurland had their own ideas about what they wanted to see...They would say, 'Can you do this? We've heard that some people do that. Can you do that and we'll film it?'...How is that a documentary? They asked us to make it as shocking as we could. No one realized the implications of what could happen."
Gurland and Phillips strenuously deny the allegations. "We stand by the accuracy of the movie," Phillips says. Both contend that HBO is looking for "excuses" not to air the film and challenge the credibility of their fraternity critics. "These kids...will say whatever they have to say to get themselves off the hook," says Phillips, speaking in a conference call with Gurland. "We understand why, because...if I was them I'd do the same thing."
But when pressed on the issue of the pledges' true status at ATO during filming, the filmmakers concede these students were not actual pledges. Says Phillips, "That came to light after filming... We didn't ask enough questions [because] we were happy to get the access we got."
As for the issue of staging scenes, Phillips and Gurland will not get into specifics. While categorically denying scenes were coached, they point to the works of such controversial impresarios as Nick Broomfield and Michael Moore, saying "many" documentaries include reenactments. "So if we did it," Phillips retorts, "we'd be fine to say that." In the opinion of Jonathan Stack, codirector of THE FARM (which shared the documentary prize with FRAT HOUSE), every "nonfiction" filmmaker wrestles with the question in every shot. He asks: "Is it staging if I've asked a subject to move from the first cell to the third cell because the lighting is better, otherwise I can't capture it on tape? I guess there's all levels of degrees."
Ultimately, Gurland and Phillips insist that these are minor objections that should not detract from the film, which they consider an honest depiction of the hazing ritual. "You should talk to people who've seen the movie and been in a fraternity and ask, 'Is this inaccurate in any fuckin' way?'" says Phillips.
What happens next? Sundance officials say they're "too busy" to comment on whether they would rescind FRAT HOUSE's award. Should it be proven that the scenes in FRAT HOUSE were staged, the repercussions are staggering. This would be the first documentary in the history of the Sundance Film Festival to be found fraudulent in nature, according to R.J. Millard, media executive manager for the festival. "As for ramifications, there simply isn't any protocol." According to Millard, Sundance does not confirm the authenticity of the films before competition. "There would most likely be a statement from the festival," he added. However, he could not speculate on any kind of punishment or retribution.
HBO says it was stunned to hear that Gurland and Phillips could be on factually shaky ground. Says Nevins; "I never questioned it until it was questioned." For one thing, she'd "just seen" IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, and figured "this must be how men behave... I've never, ever dealt with anything like this before. Not in 349 films. Where I couldn't trust my producers, never. My producers are my stallions."
In June, following months of phone calls, ATO National and IFC officers held a summit meeting with Nevins and a few other HBO senior personnel in New York and presented what they considered conclusive evidence that the "pledges" in the Muhlenberg footage were anything but. Shortly after this meeting, HBO nixed the August airdate and stepped up its own investigation. Interns logged all outtakes, which Phillips and Gurland turned over in April at HBO's request-an unusual procedure. The directors had meetings with Nevins and others and were asked to account for several discrepancies.
The auteurs insist their movie is fixable-and that HBO hasn't given them a proper chance to amend it. "So, okay, we'll change the voice-over," Phillips argues. "Tell us what you want, we want the movie to air. Nothing is big enough that it negates the veracity of the film. Trust us." Among their plans, they propose buying FRAT HOUSE back from HBO (Nevins flatly says that won't happen), incorporating changes into it-including all IFC and ATO objections-and releasing it as a feature.
Unable to sort out the accusations conclusively, HBO execs say they have no choice but to leave the prizewinning film in limbo. "Our reputation is at stake," says Nevins. "It would be great if all the questions went away and we could run this film. But it doesn't look like that will happen... It's beyond RASHOMON. There are not three or four stories at odds. There's a hundred and five."
"It gets cloudier rather than clearer," Nevins says dejectedly. She feels that Phillips and Gurland "find all this funny. To them it's publicity, and all publicity is good. I find it so sad that they were so close to a truth, and had they tried, they probably could have gotten it by admitting what they were doing to the audience. But they couldn't be honest."
Reprinted from "Burning Down The House", by Mickey Rapkin, Cornell Daily Sun, 10/15/98 & "Hazed & Confused" by Steve Daly with additional reporting by Matt Haber and Michael Rapkin, Entertainment Weekly, 1/8/99, edited by Mike White