Before he was directing the high-grossing The Hangover series and cult favorite Old School, Todd Phillips was making his way through New York University as a rising star in the documentary game.
His film Hated, a documentary about punk rock star GG Allin, became NYU’s highest grossing undergraduate film after its release. Four years later, Phillips and friend Andrew Gurland, also a student at NYU, completed Frat House for HBO – but it would never air.
The film was an inside look at the usually secretive conduct and behavior of an American fraternity once the parties were over. Phillips and Gurland were onto something special when they wormed their way inside SUNY Oneonta’s Beta Chi – ran by macho meat head Blossom.
Frat House begins with a clear mission: to capture the behavior associated with the brothers of a fraternity and the pledges who hope to join after their 10 weeks of hazing – culminating in a particularly terrible “hell night” – is a forgotten past. And for Phillips and Gurland, their documentary is on a clear path to success with the amazing access they were granted by Beta Chi. But halfway through the film things unravel. Their relationship with the fraternity disintegrates.
But before we talk about what went wrong – the dismantling relationship which leads to filmmakers struggling to fill a void – it should be necessary to talk about how on point Phillips and Gurland exactly were in the film’s beginning. At the outset the two begin to casually examine the psyche and mind of Blossom and other fraternity members. They’re pompous, outrageous and their egos know no boundaries. Their existence is their fraternity and from the way they talk and act pretend to have nothing else to live for.
“It’s not the way human society works,” Blossom, the intense face of Beta Chi tells the filmmakers about being able to tell a freshman pledge to do despicable and disgusting things. “Hazing is like having the power of a god or something.”
The interviews reveal a lot. It should be expected to see brothers yell and scream at the newcomers in the heat of the moment during hazing times. But when they actually sit down and are out of that vicious element and actually explain to the filmmakers what they get out of hazing and what they see themselves as – the king of the school – it’s chilling.
And so from the opening moment to the film’s halfway mark Phillips and Gurland are incredibly on track. They have a goal and they see it in their reach. That is until some brothers of Beta Chi disapprove of them being there. Blossom acts friendly with the filmmakers, saying they should track down the pledges for more content and can always talk to him. But once the filmmakers find their car trashed and the word “die” spray painted on the side window, it becomes increasingly more clear to them that their film is in jeopardy.
The two try to talk to Blossom, but he’s hostile – clearly his fellow brothers have swayed his perception of the filmmakers. A phone call between Phillips and Blossom is one of the film’s most incredible moments. Blossom, who earlier in the film bragged about biting a rat’s head off in a hazing ritual, is incensed at their attempts to get in touch with him. He threatens them and treats Phillips and Gurland – two private citizens – as his pledges. His words include threats of hazing the two. How absurd, no?
I’ve thought a lot about fraternities since hitting play on this film. Certainly not every fraternity in America is like this. There are extremes to both sides. Phillips and Gurland certainly weren’t out to paint a negative picture of every fraternity in existence, but they certainly found a good (or bad) one in Beta Chi. They were the roughest, toughest fraternity around, so they bragged. Where I went to school fraternities weren’t in existence. At best they were off campus entities that always seemed more focused in good will than the excitement gained from hazing a bunch of incoming freshman. But the stereotype still exists in popular culture and reports of deaths from hazing and other controversies are blasted from the speakers of major national news outlets.
That said, I find the people portrayed in this film to be completely misguided in life. I wouldn’t judge, ever, but their comments alone that trivialize women and cheapen relationships with other human beings is enough to put my decision on this particular group of people over the edge. Blossom’s phone call and the altercation between him and the filmmakers that follows is what sells the picture painted by Phillips and Gurland. Blossom confronts the two and hits Gurland before threatening them some more. You can also see how very important Beta Chi is to Blossom.
And with a relationship destroyed by a lack of trust between filmmakers and subject, Phillips and Gurland set out for another fraternity to let them in. And this is where it gets hairy. As the film tells you, they did find themselves another frat to give them unmitigated access – but with a catch. If they wanted access to the infamous hell night Phillips and Gurland themselves had to take part in weeks of hazing along with what was supposedly a new group of pledges. And that’s where the film unravels.
If you watch the film uneducated from the controversies it seems like an edgy, shocking and totally believable experience. The two are hounded by haze master ‘Dragon’ and obey his every command. It seems like the young Phillips and Gurland have found their golden ticket to success. And they did. The film ended up shaking ground at Sundance and landed the two gigs elsewhere. But that’s when the allegations that the final third of the film was completely staged.
Reports state that scenes in which Phillips and Gurland were paid for out of pocket and set up. Filmed at Muhlenberg College, those involved reportedly have given statements that they were approached and told different things than what Phillips and Gurland were actually doing. Nothing has actually been proven or settled from this controversy, but it certainly doesn’t land in the filmmakers favors and actually makes quite a bit of sense. Allegations include the fact that while the two filmmakers certainly went through a lot abuse similar to true hazing to complete their film, they did it alongside not pledges but brothers who were eager to make some quick cash. Muhlenberg College doesn’t rush new pledges in the spring, which is when Phillips and Gurland supposedly shot that portion of their film.
With that, the merits of Frat House take a hit. On one hand the first half of the film finds itself diving deep into the psyche of outlandish and real characters. But if the allegations about the film’s final third are true there’s not much to like from the film’s conclusion. If true, I would chalk it up to two worried filmmakers who wanted their first big HBO project to go as smoothly as it had started. But whether it’s true or not isn’t for me to decide.
What is true is that the two filmmakers did pose an interesting question. To join a fraternity like the ones portrayed in the film you have to go through a lot of mental and physical abuse. That is undisputed. Phillips then asks the greatest question the film poses: why are some so afraid of standing out that they are willing to do anything to fit in?
Unfortunately, I don’t think that question is ever answered. We don’t get enough honesty out of the film’s ending to figure that out. Instead of searching for an answer to a question that so badly needs to be answered, the filmmakers opt for a shocker of a documentary – that whether staged or not – falls short of its original intentions. You hope that all you see is real, but how can you be so sure?
Even so, I would recommend this to anyone interested in a lesson in documentary filmmaking – right and wrong – and anyone who wants an inside look at fraternity life, because it certainly does paint a bold picture of the mid 1990’s and all it had to offer incoming freshman.
The documentary is available for viewing on Youtube.