Ben Stiller Opens Up About The Death That Delayed Zoolander 2 Nearly 15 Years
Ben Stiller looks back on the moment he learned that the man who was responsible for the original Zoolander was dead.
BY ALEX THOMPSON | Mar 8, 2016 | Film & TV
On the eve of the premiere of Zoolander 2, Ben Stiller is looking back on the moment he learned that the man who was responsible for the original was dead.
It was 2004. He was at The Mercer Hotel in New York when he got a call. Comedian Drake Sather, co-writer of the 2001 fashion industry satire, who Stiller calls "the creator of Derek Zoolander," had shot himself. He was 44 years old. "I'd only seen him a few days before and I had no idea that he was in that place," Stiller recalls. "It was shocking for everybody."
Fifteen years after Zoolander performed poorly both at the box office and among critics, Sather's character has become an icon, celebrated not just by comedy fans but by the fashion world he so adroitly skewers. "I may've played the part," says Stiller, who dedicated the sequel to Sather, "but he's the guy who had the idea, came up with the name, and wrote the first sketches."
He died before YouTube, podcasts, and an online comedy culture emerged that could have better preserved his work. His name has remained obscure except to those in the tight world of L.A. comedy. To Hollywood, Sather left behind a beloved character whose popularity would only grow. To his grief-stricken friends and family, he left a wife, four children, and a promising career.
A COMEDIAN ENTERS
Born in 1959 in the Seattle suburbs, Sather moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s and, known for his wickedly subversive sense of humour, quickly rose in the stand-up scene. He was tall, handsome, and Stiller says "the coolest of the group" of comedians that also included Judd Apatow and Andy Dick.
Sather climbed quickly, appearing on Letterman three times in '86 and '87 and racking up writing credits at Saturday Night Live, The Dennis Miller Show, NewsRadio, and several others. "He was a go-to sort of guy. You trusted his instincts," says Stiller.
His stand-up routines would plough any firm ground people dug their heels into, whether it be charitable donations or marriage. "My wife thinks I'm too nosy, at least that's what she keeps scribbling in her diary," went one joke. When he married 21-year-old Australian Marnie Stroud in 1991, Merlin the magician presided over their Las Vegas ceremony.
"Drake had a really dark, strong act. A lot of it was very, very harsh one-liners that shocked a lot of the audience. He would just giggle on stage," says Apatow in a short documentary being produced for Zoolander 2's home video release. Talent manager Jimmy Miller, who, along with Ari Emanuel, represented Sather for most of his professional career, says, ""he really was a legend, one of those guys that comics would come into the back of the room to watch all the time.”
Sather pined for an era in comedy's past when it was "a more subversive art form" he told The Los Angeles Times in 1988. "I think a comedy club should be like this dark underground place, where people go to hear things that they can't hear in their normal life."
BUT WHY MALE MODELS?
The goofy "what is this, a centre for ants?" veneer of Stiller's Zoolander belied a trenchant commentary on the vain and famous that was Sather's signature. "He was never quite comfortable in the culture of abundance," says his wife, Marnie. Stiller echoes the point succinctly: "He enjoyed taking the piss out of celebrities."
It's not that Sather disliked fashion. In fact, Stiller says, "he loved the world of fashion and enjoyed its creativity." But what better world of excess to pillory? So Sather channeled his energy into the creation of the self-unaware Derek Zoolander, a character who, Apatow says, was "very Drake-like. It was a shark attack at something, it was very pointed. You could feel his vibe all over it."
These mischievous fingerprints are everywhere in the film. Will Ferrell's fashion mogul Mugatu, for example, takes the affluent absurdity of pre-ripped jeans to its inevitable conclusion by designing a fashion line inspired, he tells Zoolander, by the "homeless, the vagrants, the crack whores that make this wonderful city so unique." The clothes glamorise extreme poverty with everything from a feather boa of blown-up condoms to a legless, expensively clad peddler rolling himself down the runway on a dolly. Sather's 'Derelicte' satire, as the collection is called in the movie, was "very prescient," Stiller says. "Literally, people have done 'Derelicte' since then."
His particular brand of humour did not find many fans among critics. When Zoolander premiered two weeks after September 11, Roger Ebert said the film represented "Exhibit A" of why the "United States is so hated in some parts of the world." (Stiller says that Ebert apologised to him years later but noted that Ebert never published any retraction.)
But many of the trends Sather was loudly mocking have only gained momentum. Even Jerry Seinfeld, the Jimmy Stewart of American comedy, no longer performs at college campuses because of a "creepy PC culture." Most everyone has their own portfolio of filtered headshots, not just models and actors. In this world, Stiller says, "I think he would have enjoyed pushing the envelope even more because he saw the ridiculousness in how seriously people take themselves."
A LAUGHLESS EXIT
Sather was gone before he had the chance to see his influence. "He got tripped up in a bit of a mid-life crisis," says Marnie Sather who now lives in Australia and works as a therapist to create resources for people grieving from a suicide. "I think the saddest part is knowing that it didn't have to be that way. In life we have some bad moments in time.”
Marnie says Sather had been frustrated at work and at home. He felt he had sold out by writing for the ill-fated Mr. Ed revival, a show whose star was a talking horse. He'd also moved out of the house and he and Marnie were attending couples therapy. On March 3, 2004, one such session turned heated when Sather asked if he could move back home. He stormed out, Marnie says, and refused to return calls from her or the therapist.
Later that evening, a distraught Sather called Marnie and shot himself while she was still on the line. "Ten years later I feel okay about that. Because maybe he didn't want to be alone," she says as she begins to cry. "This is going to sound weird, but I feel almost honoured that I was there with him. I would prefer that than him being alone."
A COMEDIAN IS REMEMBERED
In many ways, the sequel has been a healing experience for Marnie and her children. Last month they attended the Sydney premiere of Zoolander 2 at which Stiller paid tribute to Sather. "So much of our children's memory of him is his final act"—Sather's suicide—"so to be there and celebrate their dad's comedic tendencies was really moving," Marnie says. After dinner with Stiller one evening, she and her kids watched Zoolander with Sather's commentary. It was the first time she had heard his voice since he died. "It was very tender for us to go to the premiere, but it ended up being a very positive and healing thing," she says.
Stiller's memory of Sather informed the sequel at every step of the way; he felt pressure to live up to the wit and vibrancy of the original. There are two scenes that Stiller is confident would please his late writing partner. One involves an orgy with Owen Wilson, Willie Nelson, Susan Sarandon, a chicken, and more. The other is the only time "fuck" is said. (We don't want to ruin the surprise.) "Doing the movie, I always sort of thought, What would Drake have thought of this?" Stiller says. "No matter what, I'll miss that his voice is not in the movie. There would've been jokes that only he could've thought of and that would have been hilarious."
Of course, if Sather knew all the fuss going on, he would likely repeat a joke he often made on stage. "People get so weird when celebrities die," he would start. "I was watching this documentary on Fred Astaire. They said 'Friends and family were shocked at the death of the 88-year-old.' Yeah, I was shocked, too: I thought he died 10 years ago." In Sather's case, it's been twelve years and he was never a celebrity. Instead, his art is.
From: Esquire US.