DreamWorks and Red Hour Films, Stiller and Cornfeld’s production company, brought in producer Eric McLeod, who had recently served as executive producer on the back-to-back productions of “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.” The team knew McLeod would be up for the challenge of shooting a film largely on location. “This was bigger than any movie I’ve ever been involved with in terms of scale,” says Cornfeld. “Eric had experience mounting major productions and was well-versed with working in exotic locations and with state governments and handling major set construction and explosions without harming the existing environment. He was the key to working out the logistics of this production.”
With a script in place and the producing team assembled, the filmmakers recruited costume designer Marlene Stewart (“JFK,” “True Lies”) to manage regular wardrobe needs and to research and acquire accurate Vietnam-era military uniforms, as well as to design hip-hopper Alpa Chino’s clothing line. Stiller and Cornfeld also recruited award-winning cinematographer John Toll (“Braveheart,” “The Thin Red Line”) and production designer Jeff Mann (“TRANSFORMERS”) to help bring their vision to life.
“We initially considered shooting in Southern California to double for Vietnam and Burma/Myanmar in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle,” explains producer McLeod. “But all of us wanted a unique, lush, and different look to this film, and that’s what Kauai offered.”
A frequent destination for movie and television crews, the 32-mile wide island of Kauai has been utilized over the years for such notable films as “South Pacific” and the Costa Rica game preserve in Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.” Kauai’s various jungles, rivers, cliffs, waterfalls and other diverse terrains provided the crew of “Tropic Thunder” with multiple locations to mimic the film’s Southeast Asian locales and added an important realism factor that wouldn’t have been possible in California. In total days, scope of filming and manpower, “Tropic Thunder” is the largest production ever staged on the island.
Production designer Jeff Mann recalls that early in pre-production he and Stiller spent up to 25 hours over the course of six to eight weeks in a helicopter flying over the island looking for film locations, primarily the Hot LZ (“landing zone”) and the Flaming Dragon compound. ”We were looking for mountain ranges and environments that didn’t feel recognizably Hawaiian – without the red earth and vertical ridges of the Na Pali Coast,” Mann says. “We needed to discover someplace that felt more like the Golden Triangle.”
McLeod compares the film’s massive six-month pre-production process to “adult adventure camp.” He recalls, “As most of the movie was shot on Kauai, we scouted by helicopter, by boat, by ATV. We wanted unique locations, places that hadn’t been shot before. That required more work on our end, but in the end we found everything we needed and it was well worth the work.”
The movie’s exterior filming took place at seven locations primarily on Kauai’s northern and eastern sides before relocating back to Los Angeles for the Los Angeles locales and various interiors, which were primarily filmed on legendary Stage 12 at Universal Studios in Universal City, California (where, coincidentally, scenes from the Kauai-based production of “Jurassic Park” were also shot).
Starting with the first day of filming, Stiller led the cast and crew in filming a major battle scene for the fictional epic war film. Reminiscent of memorable war scenes in films from “Apocalypse Now” to “Saving Private Ryan,” this is where we first meet the heroes of the film-within-a-film.
The movie’s two major set pieces, the Hot LZ and Flaming Dragon Compound, were both shot on Kauai. The Hot LZ was situated on an expansive valley of tropical land, part of the privately-owned 40,000-acre Grove Farm property in Kauai’s county seat of Lihue. A few miles inland, across rocky, winding roads, was the Flaming Dragon Compound where the movie’s final action sequence takes place. The expansive set was built over several months at the edge of Mount Waialeale, a site that is noted for having 350 rainy days per year — more rain than any other place in the world.