Somehow, up until this evening, when a friend shared a link by way of Facebook, I wasn’t aware of the controversy surrounding the 1998 HBO documentary Frat House. Apparently, the film, shot by Todd Phillips and Andrew Gurland, never aired on HBO, in spite of the fact that it won two Sundance Film Festival awards in 1998. It would seem the cable network scuttled the project after it became known that the filmmakers had staged hazing scenes, paying frat members $50 each to play pledges, and reenact events said to have happened during their own initiations. Phillips and Gurland, according to what I’ve read, were found out when someone familiar with Muhlenberg College, where much of the documentary was shot, realized that the hazing scenes couldn’t be real, as they were shot in the Spring, well before their pledge season. Phillips, who has gone on to have a successful career in Hollywood, writing and directing comedies like Old School and The Hangover, however, has a different take on HBO’s refusal to air Frat House. The following exchange took place between Phillips and writer Alex Godfrey ten years ago.
GODFREY: Can you talk about the release controversy?
PHILLIPS: The controversy stems from one thing. When you turn your cameras on the sons and daughters of rich white Americans, you’re going to get heat for it. HBO has made many award winning documentaries and they’ve all been about pimps and whores and strippers and crack and taxi-cab confessions and blah blah blah. They’ve been easy targets. They’ve made movies about skinheads and anti-abortion maniacs. Important movies, but movies about the fringe of society. The fringe, I feel, are easy targets, but Frat House is about upper-class white Americans whose parents are lawyers and doctors and politicians. It sounds like I’m spewing crazy paranoid controversy theory, but it’s true. And when you do that movie, these people, who have many resources, will threaten to sue. You’ll either fight that battle or not, and HBO has chosen not to fight that battle. That’s the controversy. It’s a shame–they own the copyright, they funded the entire movie, so I’ve no option.
Phillips, by the way, was one of the cab drivers in the first season of HBO’s series Taxicab Confessions, so he knows of what he speaks.
Anyway, the video is now on YouTube, and, against my better judgement, I think I’m going to watch it. While I have a great dislike for shit like this usually, this kind of intrigues me. Maybe it’s because Phillips is also the man behind the GG Allin docmentary Hated. Or, maybe there’s some small part of me that’s still bitter about having to actually find and make my own friends in college, instead of just buying my way into what’s essentially an alcohol-fueled arranged marriage. Probably, though, I’m just looking for an excuse not to read the news tonight and get even further depressed about the state of the world. If you’d like to watch along with me, here’s the video. Just hit “play” at 11:00 PM (EST), and it’ll be just like we’re snuggled up under a blanket, this cold winter night, watching it together.
note: How cool would it have been if they had dropped the documentary facade altogether and just let GG Allin loose in one of these frats, filming the results? I wouldn’t consider myself a huge fan of his music, but I think that he would have been a genius when it came to hazing. He would have raised it to an art form.