Exclusive: Director Todd Phillips on The Hangover Part III’s Grand Franchise Finale

When Todd Phillips’ The Hangover hit theaters in 2009, no one was anticipating that a modestly-budgeted, R-rated comedy would wind up with a worldwide gross of more than $467 million. Two years later, The Hangover Part II did even better, grossing $586 million with Phillips promising, even before the sequel was released, that the franchise would be wrapped up with a third and final Wolf Pack adventure. This week, it all ends as The Hangover Part III reunites Phillips with leading men Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis (along with quite a few other returning cast members from both previous films).

ComingSoon.net sat down with Phillips in the place where it all began — Caesars Palace Las Vegas Hotel & Casino — to discuss the end of the series, what has changed for him and his cast these past few years and what it means to bring a definitive conclusion to the most successful comedy franchise of all time.

Please be aware that the following interview does contain minor spoilers surrounding the May 23 release.

CS: On the set visit last year, you and Craig Mazin teased that there was an unexplained element from the first film that led to the storyline for this grand finale. I found myself rewatching the first two films, looking for clues and I’m curious if that’s actually where you began yourself in coming up with the storyline.
Todd Phillips:
No, we just stumbled on that one thing and thought it would be an interesting thing to explore as far as what that meant and what it’s about. So we didn’t do it like that, but I do know the movies pretty well.

CS: The first two films are, in a lot of ways film noir-tinged mysteries. This one keeps that film noir element, but it’s almost more along the lines of something like “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Was that in any way an inspiration for the sort of adventure story twist to the narrative?
Phillips:
Maybe subconsciously. I mean, I love that movie. I don’t think we talked about that movie specifically. The idea was that these movies aren’t just straight-up comedies and they never have been… They’ve gotten darker and darker and they’ve always had this mystery element or, in this movie, a heist element or a thriller. I think that the layered-ness makes “The Hangover” what it is. We consciously do that, but that movie isn’t one that we consciously went after.

CS: The other two films that it reminded me of were two other final trilogy entries. There’s a level of heart present that reminded me, very loosely, of “Toy Story 3″ and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
Phillips:
That’s so funny that you say “Toy Story 3,” because I would never say that myself, but I know what you mean. “Toy Story 3″ is one of the great movies of all time. I would never say that, but I like that you’re saying it. That’s cool.

CS: It’s an interesting balance seeing how much you clearly care about these characters against knowing how dark you tend to go at times.
Phillips:
I know. What’s wrong with me?

CS: I was genuinely thinking going in, “Is this movie really going to depress me?”
Phillips:
Did it?

CS: No, I don’t want to say too much about the ending.
Phillips:
Go ahead! Who cares? I think that, when those guys are walking down the hall at the end and we cut to all those other shots of them walking in slow motion from the other three movies, I think it leaves you with a really good feeling. There’s something very emotional there. The movie really is an ode to friendship in a way. All the movies are. They’re about the love between friends and the loyalty between friends.

CS: It also reminded me of “Old School” in a way. You sort of see how these characters have now reached a point in their life where the characters in “Old School” sort of begin.
Phillips:
Right, right.

CS: How important was it to make sure that every character gets a complete arc?
Phillips:
To me, the key to this movie was that we wanted to tell Alan’s story… it really felt like Alan’s story was the loose end that needed to be tied up. That was the one person that we didn’t know was going to be okay until we realize that he has met somebody who shares his own left-footed way that he lives. We realize that he’s going to be alright and that’s why it’s the end. He is that loose thread.

CS: It feels like whenever you have a trio of characters like this, you can apply readings of id, ego and superego. There are various arguments for who’s who in the “Hangover” trilogy, but I’m curious to know if you’re hopefully that audience members see traits of themselves in each member of the Wolf Pack.
Phillips:
What kind of questions are these today? I like it. (laughs) I got way too drunk last night to answer something like that, but yeah, I suppose so. I suppose so.

CS: As far as bringing the franchise to a conclusion, was there any thought when you were making the first one that, if it was to get sequels, that you’d ideally like to do three and end it there?
Phillips:
No, no. Of course not. We never thought that’d we’d ever do three of these movies. After the first one did so well and so well all over the world, we’re like, “Okay, let’s think of doing a second.” When we were thinking of the second, we started thinking about a third and we knew it was going to be a trilogy. We started talking about various approaches. There were versions where we were going to do it again, meaning they f–ing woke up and now they’re here. But we knew we really had to kind of write a conclusion.

CS: You’re obviously a guy who knows exactly what kind of music you want any given film to have. Is that something that just comes to you naturally or is there a lot of experimentation to see what works?
Phillips:
Yeah, I love music. There are things in all three of these movies that, if you’ve watched them recently, you’ll pick up on. One of the best tools a director has in his sort of paint box is music, I think. Some directors use music beautifully — Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino — Some don’t give it that much thought. I tried to put a lot of thought into the music because I think it helps dictate the tone. If you watch the first ‘Hangover,’ we basically begin with the Glenn Danzig’s “Thirteen.” That song is really about bad luck and these movies all have an undercurrent of bad luck. If you watch the films closely, the number 13 appears probably 15 times over the course of the three movies. You’ll just keep seeing the number 13 if you really watch closely. Really, this is a f–ing tribute to bad luck. These guys are just unlucky and this is the town of bad luck. That first Danzig song really defined the whole thing for me so, to go back to music, I like putting a Danzig song in each movie. That voice, to me, has a darkness in it and a danger underneath it that I just think is necessary for these movies. We use Kanye West a lot. We use Wolfmother a lot. But music in general is a huge part of it. A huge part.

CS: There’s a tendency in a lot of franchises to hit a point with a sequel and then go meta with the narrative. Was that something that ever popped up as a potential route for “The Hangover”?
Phillips:
We went meta in “Hangover 2″ when Alan is having his flashback and you see those kid versions. It’s like, “What is that?!” We had written a scene for “Hangover 3″ where, when they’re walking down the hallway, we were going to cut to the four little kids walking down the hallway, because Alan still sees them as little kids. But I thought that people didn’t really get it in the other one anyway.

CS: Did that actually get shot? I kind of like that.
Phillips:
No, no. But I liked it, too! It was one of those weird moments where you realize that this is how Alan sees the world. He’s 12 years old. He’s got that Peter Pan syndrome where his best friends are 12-year-old boys. It’s sort of a both sweet and weird look inside the mind of Alan.

CS: I wanted to ask a question real quick about “Due Date.” I’m kind of fascinated by it as a sort of companion film to the “Hangover” trilogy. It feels like, in a lot of ways, Robert Downey Jr. is almost playing you.
Phillips:
He says that all the time.

CS: Then you have Zach playing a sort of heightened version of himself. There are times — and you can see it even on the commentary to the first “Hangover” — where you and Zach kind of butt heads at times. Obviously you’re also friends and fans of one another, but I’ve wondered if, knowing that that friction can exist at times, if “Due Date” wasn’t in some ways a kind of meta look at making “The Hangover.” There’s a sort of fictionalized version of you and a heightened version of Zach and the story sort of becomes the characters learning to appreciate one another.
Phillips:
That’s interesting! Maybe, again, subconsciously. That’s a really funny thing. In the writing of it, I probably brought up some things that were annoying about Zach to me. Nothing he does, obviously, in “Due Date” is something that Zach ever does in real life, but I definitely did consider ways in which he could be annoying. The one thing about Zach as a person and Ethan Tremblay from “Due Date,” is that both of them always have to have the last word. And, of course, it’s always funny and it’s also the greatest thing about them. He’ll always one-up you. He always wins that. He did it with Downey in “Due Date.” Downey always says he’s playing a version of me. I don’t find myself that dark, but maybe. (laughs)

CS: He even sort of looks like you in the film.
Phillips:
People have said that. They go, “You even made him look like you!” or “He’s playing you!” There are worse things. Robert is the greatest actor in the world and ended up being a really good friend of mine. I have a really special place in my heart for that film. It’s a weird film and I’m aware that people have issues with it, but I will always hold a special place in my heart for that movie.

CS: In your introduction at CinemaCon, it was noted that you’re the only person in Warner Bros. history who has special permission to bring their dog on the lot.
Phillips:
(laughs) Did they say that? I couldn’t hear the intro backstage.

CS: Do you feel that Warner Bros. is your home as a filmmaker?
Phillips:
For sure. As long as Jeff Robinov is there, which he is, he’s my guy. I love that studio but, just as a movie has a director that dictates a tone, studios have guys. Robinov, in the last ten years, has really established the tone of that studio with the likes of Ben Affleck and Chris Nolan and Zack Snyder and me. He’s very into trusting filmmakers. That’s why you have me and Affleck and Nolan and Snyder being fiercely loyal to that studio. If that changed, then whatever. But as long as Robinov is there, that’s my home for sure.

CS: One of the coolest things about having interviewed you and your “Hangover” cast these past few years is just the sense of how much you all enjoy being around one another.
Phillips:
Yeah, they’re all really, really good people. I mean, Bradley [Cooper] is one of my best friends in the world now. I didn’t know him before the first “Hangover.” We’ve all traveled the world together, doing press and, of course, going to Bangkok. We’ve spent so much time together. I said in one of the roundtables today, I’ve laughed more in the last five years than most people do in a lifetime because of these movies. I just feel so incredibly blessed that I get to laugh all day every day and be around Zach and these guys. We got lucky with this good batch of people. People go, “Has Bradley changed now that he’s been nominated for an Oscar” or “Has the fame changed Zach?” It sounds cliche, but it really hasn’t. The answer is that their lives have changed. No one will argue that. They are living different lives than they were when I met them on “Hangover 1.” They themselves haven’t changed at all.

CS: Is there anything that you hope people don’t take from the franchise? A message that you feel might be a perversion of what you intended?
Phillips:
I wouldn’t want people to take away that cruelty to animals is funny. No one loves animals more than me. Literally, my dog is my life. You talked about my dog always being on the lot. I’m obsessed with animals. I have gone to visit Crystal the monkey from “The Hangover 2″ in the past year. I find it funny to take something so precious and do something crazy with it in fiction like have a monkey smoking a cigarette. That’s because they’re such beautiful creatures and not because I don’t like animals. I’d hate for someone to take away from the trilogy that I have a thing against animals. In truth, it’s the opposite.

CS: There are number of subtle callbacks throughout the film. I think my favorite is when it flashes back to the first film and we see Alan actually purchasing the Skittles that wind up in his satchel.
Phillips:
(laughs) Exactly! That’s the kind of s–t that makes making movies so fun.

CS: It makes me want to watch them all back to back just to see how much of that stuff there is.
Phillips:
There is a lot. Like I said before with the number 13. In this one you see the kid who drives the van in “Hangover 1.” That’s Mike Vallely, who’s a professional skater who I grew up with. I loved Mike Vallely and, weirdly, in L.A. became friends with him. He has this great band, which was then called “Revolution Mother.” We used their music over the tuxedo van scene where he’s throwing the things. It’s all dumb s–t like that.

CS: You also get to appear as “Mr. Creepy” again in this one.
Phillips:
I didn’t think about that cameo too much. I always try to play the most sexually deviant person I can in any of the movies. That’s always my thing. They’re just really small moments. In “Hangover 2,” I had a great moment, but we didn’t end up doing it because it was too much. We were in Bangkok and, if you remember, they got in an elevator to go up to meet Paul Giamatti. All the boys get on and they start singing, “If I could save time in a bottle…” I was going to do a cameo at that part where I would get on with a nine-year-old Thai on my shoulders or just holding hands. I was going to pass them and go, “Don’t worry. I adopted her.” Then, as the elevator closed, I was going to go, “For the day.” (laughs) But everyone thought it was just too f–ed up.

CS: How often do you come up with jokes and go, “That’s a bit too far.”?
Phillips:
A lot! That was one we couldn’t even film. Sometimes we film them. That one didn’t even feel right to film. Literally, I was meeting with actresses and thought, “Maybe we shouldn’t do this.”

The Hangover Part III hits theaters this Thursday, May 23.

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