Warner Bros. knows how to make a hangover. I can’t say for certain yet if this skill translates into filmmaking (though, I’m increasingly of the suspicion that it probably does), but in the physical, alcohol sense, they have their technique down pat, perfectly blending late-night adventuring with never-ending cocktails. What’s more, they do it in Las Vegas, home of the world’s greatest hangovers.
Last October, I had the pleasure of joining a half dozen of my colleagues on a visit to the production on Todd Phillips’ The Hangover, shot in and around Caesar’s Palace and firmly tied to Sin City’s grand mystique of lost nights and blurry mornings. Phillips, best known for Old School, pulls together an unlikely comedy quartet in the form of Justin Bartha, Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms, who, together, play four close friends who travel to Vegas to celebrate one friend’s (Bartha’s) bachelor party. Awakening in a hotel room the day before the wedding, the group finds that the groom has vanished and that the night before–now a complete blackout–is a mysterious tangle of high-end antics that has to be unraveled against a ticking clock.
Like the characters in the film, I stayed overnight at Caesar’s Palace in a room so fantastically opulent, I quickly became convinced that the next morning’s 7am call time was someone’s idea of a cruel joke. That night, the whole group of us was wined and dined at one of the hotel’s restaurants, Rao’s, which supplied a ridiculous amount of courses that just kept finding their way to our table. (Many thanks to the casino’s wonderful PR Director, Alyssa Bushey, who bent over backwards to accommodate us). Following dinner, our intrepid group was invited to participate in a private poker tournament in the casino. Sadly, most of my hands ended with me grinning sheepishly at the dealer and asking, “Is this good?”
When morning hit, we all regrouped in the Caesar’s Palace lobby where, outside, the stage had already been set for a scene with Zach, Ed and Bradley at the hotel’s valet. As Zach and Ed try to reclaim their car, they find, instead, a cop car that they apparently acquired at some point during the night.
Most of the banter was back and forth between Zach and Ed (Bradley’s character came into the scene at the very end) and, hilariously, occurred alongside a fourth actor, a infant strapped to Zach’s chest; another mystery acquisition from the night before. Seeing both actors do take after take (including blowing quite a few by failing to stifle their laughter), it was pretty clear that improv comedy is going to play a pretty big role in the final cut and that each actor is bringing along their own comedic sensibilities.
Though I’ve been sworn to secrecy on a lot of the little details (they seem dead-set on as many jokes, plot-twists and cameos remaining secret until the film’s release, but seem to promise all three in abundance), there were quite a few gags already revealed by the trailer at play in the scene, including the baby, the cop car and Ed’s missing tooth.
Zach (sans baby) was the first interview and, of the group, the one closet to a hangover himself, having crashed Mariah Carey’s birthday party for Nick Cannon in the hotel the night before.
Q: We caught you laughing a lot during takes outside. Has it been hard to keep a straight face during shooting?
Zach Galifianakis: Well, Ed was laughing and when someone laughs it makes me laugh. Just the reveal of the baby was making Ed laugh. He’s just stupid. He just got giggly and I got giggly. That’s what we were laughing at. And then it just got funnier because Todd, the director, got upset at us. And when someone gets upset at you laughing, it only makes it worse. It makes it so much funnier. So he was getting angry, which reminded me of my father in church when I would laugh. Then my father getting mad only made it better. So that’s why we were giggling.
Q: What’s it like working with an infant?
Galifianakis: There’s a baby doll that’s a stand-in who looks like a real baby and the other day I was acting like the baby was masturbating himself and Todd goes, “Oh, we’ve got to put that in the movie!” So Todd had to ask the parents, “Do you mind if a grown man is acting like he’s jerking off your baby?”
Q: And the parents were fine with it?
Galifianakis: I wasn’t there for that. I would be too embarrassed. If they had said no, I would have been too embarrassed. There’s no way I could have watched that. But people pimp their babies out.
Q: Is it a rule that you have to show up hung over to the set every day?
Galifianakis: Do I look hung over? I went out last night. I shouldn’t have done it. I got in at four. We went to a nightclub. I shouldn’t have gone. But yeah. Today I’m playing the part for sure. I’m aching. It’s just research. Just research.
Q: I hear you got to go swimming in the fountain.
Galifianakis: Yeah, I went swimming in the Caesar’s fountain. For the movie. I wasn’t doing it on my own. It was tempting to get in that thing. It was nice. I went freestyle around and I haven’t swam in a fountain in a couple of weeks so it was nice. Really nice.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your character?
Galifianakis: The guy’s name is Alan and he’s a guy who went to raves ten years ago and was probably affected by some of the substances he took at raves and he’s still wearing the same clothes he wore at raves but he’s gained like 25 pounds. He just hasn’t bought anything new. That’s basically the character. He’s really kind of misplaced. He’s hanging out with these guys but they really don’t want him around because he’s a weirdo.
Q: Are you having fun playing around with the R rating?
Galifianakis: Yeah, they wanted it to be G until I jerked a baby off. It was going to be a Pixar film… But this has a lot more elements to it than just cursing for the sake of being R. I think it’s a little bit more clever than that. I mean, it’s dirty. There’s some dirty parts in it. There’s male nudity!
Q: Were you given that characterization or did you come up with it on your own?
Galifianakis: I came up with it when I was trying to figure out the wardrobe. I just told them I wanted tight clothes as if he had not bought. I also came up with that he runs a fan site for the Pet Shop Boys. Either that or the Jonas Brothers. We’re not sure which one we’re going to use. So he’s just this older guy that’s kind of creepy. It’s a bit autobiographical I think. But you just start putting pieces together and imagining what he was and then, with that memory, you just kind of act with what you’ve given that character as history. I think that’s the best way to try and do it.
Q: So is the baby in a lot of the film?
Galifianakis: The baby’s in several scenes. I think there’s four sets of twins that they just keep rotating. Three or four. I think there’s four rotating in and out.
Q: Can you tell the difference?
Galifianakis: Yeah. That was Grant. And Grant has a sister named Avery. Then there’s Mikala. I can’t remember right now. I’ve only worked with four or five of them. Grant was the best. That baby hardly talked. That was a great baby. I love kids. I love babies. I love them. But not when you’re hung over.
Q: How much opportunity do you have to include your own comedy?
Galifianakis: Well Todd lets you–I mean, any actor can go vomit lines out–but coming from a comic background, he lets you do whatever. You can just make stuff up. We do the script and then he lets us kind of play around, you know? A lot of breathing room which is really, really nice. Really, really gracious of him.
Q: We heard improvising at the start of the scene. Does that stay or does that just help you get in the mood?
Galifianakis: Well, we do it and then Todd can cut around it. He just lets us do it and then he cuts around it if he wants to. Like the conversation beforehand, it’s not in the script. We were just playing around. He can cut into that. He might not use it. I don’t know. I might be cut out of the whole film.
Q: What are the pros and cons of shooting in Vegas?
Galifianakis: The pros are that you can get prostitutes at the food court. That’s also a con. No, the pros are that there is this energy that’s just constant and, actually, shooting in the casinos is great because they pump so much oxygen in here and I really do think that that’s kind of keeping me going. I haven’t really slept but you just go off the energy of the casinos and the life here. And the big con is that there’s very, very little sleep because of that energy. I just can’t get any rest.
Q: How do you know when the improvisation works and when it doesn’t?
Galifianakis: Well, as long as you’re doing improvisation within the realm of the character, you can’t just do it for the sake of the joke. I’ve done it a couple of times where, after, I realized that my character would never say it so I’ll give it to one of the other characters and vice versa. “You should say that.” If it doesn’t feel right in improvisation, Todd will come up and say, “That’s something you wouldn’t say,” and I’ll agree with it. You just kind of keep that in check. You can’t just do it for the sake of a joke. It has to be right. It has to fit the character, I think.
Q: Did you Ed and Bradley have a lot of time to get to know each other before shooting started?
Galifianakis: I knew both Ed and Bradley before this. Ed and I actually did a house swap and then Bradley I’ve just known. We haven’t really rehearsed, but we have gone to many dinners where we’ll talk about stuff. You just kind of jump into these things. There’s not a lot of rehearsal involved in anything I’ve worked on. You just kind of go into it. But we do hang out constantly and it’s very, very helpful. We’ll go out at night and drink and eat. Or, those guys eat and they watch me drink. All that process really helps. It was really a quick gelling on this set. There’s a good vibe right away, I think. They probably don’t think so.
Q: What’s your criteria for choosing to take on a certain film?
Galifianakis: The money? (laughs) I don’t know. I just sort of take what comes up. I wish I could sit back and say, “Oh, I’m gonna wait for a Merchant-Ivory film to come my way. Or Ivory-Merchant. Whatever it’s called. But you just take what’s given and then, hopefully, down the road you can be more choosy and only do, say, Wayans brothers movies. (laughs). That’s my goal: to be more Merchant-Ivory-Wayans.
Q: You’re also doing some indie films, though. You’ve got “Visioneers” coming out. What’s the status on that?
Galifianakis: It’s playing the festivals, but I don’t know. Maybe someone will pick it up. It’s a very odd little movie, but I like it a lot. It’s really good. But on that movie I asked the PAs how much they were getting paid and they were getting paid more a day than I was.
Q: Are your scenes with Justin Bartha all flashbacks or how does that work out?
Galifianakis: I have a number of scenes with Justin, yeah. But the whole movie, chronologically, I don’t think you would call it flashbacks. We drive to Vegas together, but I guess some of it is rewinding and trying to figure that stuff out. There is that. Absolutely. But we all have scenes with Justin.
Q: Of the four of you, who’s the party guy and who’s the quiet one? What are the different personality types? What kind of instrument do you play in “Rock Band”?
Galifianakis: The recorder. You know, I don’t think anybody is wild and crazy. Bradley doesn’t drink. (pretends to snore). Ed just talks about “The Office” all the time. No, I mean they’re all gentleman. I guess maybe I’m the crazy one because I drink in my bathtub in my room and then call the front desk and ask them to remove the bible. But yeah. We go to dinner. We sit down and drink wine and talk politics. Even though last night, I did go out.
Q: Did you go to the Mariah Carey birthday?
Galifianakis: (Laughs) It was Nick Cannon. He’s one of my best friends (sarcastically, laughing). It was so weird. He had all these people there that clearly didn’t know him. It’s so odd. And I didn’t even realize that they’re married. But yeah. I went to that. Shamefully.
Q: Did you actually go up and wish him a happy birthday?
Galifianakis: No. I was just staring at people. I don’t know how to behave in those clubs. It’s just fun to watch the cheesiest people in the world. But there was free vodka, so…
Q: Did you wear any of your rave costume?
Galifianakis: No, no. I was in a Brooks Brothers shirt. No rave clothes. Though that would be funny to go out in character. I did that once. I played a doctor on this TV show. I didn’t know any of the other actors, but I had to wear doctor garb. They went out to eat and they didn’t invite me so I kept my costume on and hung out at the bar where I knew they were eating. I wanted them to think, “What a fucking nerd. He’s dressing up so that he hopes he gets recognized from the show.” And nobody liked it. Nobody laughed. They all thought I was weird. It was so embarrassing.
Q: At this point, are you more interested in doing standup or acting?
Galifianakis: I don’t know. I just kind of go with it. I get burned out on standup. But I like acting. I do like it. But sometimes you just feel like a monkey. You just feel like a complete tool. But I like it. I do like it. Stand-up is just more free. A lot more freedom because you just do what you want to do.
Q: A lot of comedians are getting noticed by doing short films on the internet. Do you see that as something that’s going to be the wave of the future?
Galifianakis: Certainly, yeah. You don’t have to go pay your dues as much, I think, as on stage. But if you have that background, it’s helpful. It’s always helpful to have that background. You can just throw something on and sometimes it sticks. People get TV deals by doing something in their grandmother’s basement. It is definitely the wave. Everybody is trying to do all that stuff. I mean, the internet is the only reason that I’ve gotten work is because I’ve somehow created a line and people have seen it. And then I’ve been asked to auditions. So yeah, for sure. Absolutely.
Next, we were joined by Ed Helms who, costumed in glasses and a blood-stained polo shirt, plays a more straight-laced member of the group.
Q: You’ve been running back and forth between Vegas for this and L.A. for “The Office” and we hear you’ve been annoying everyone on set. Is that true?
Ed Helms: I’m very ornery. But, first of all, Zach is a compulsive liar. You can’t believe anything he says. But it is true that I’ve been back and forth to “The Office” two days a week and here five days a week. The funny thing is that I hate talking about “The Office” but Zach won’t stop asking me about it. He’s obsessed with having a threesome with cast members. It’s a little creepy.
Q: Does he specify which cast members?
Helms: No. He said any three.
Q: So what’s the experience like working a seven-day week?
Helms: I feel like I have a constant hangover, which is perfect for the movie. Actually, I found that, as long as I drink enough water and sleep enough every night, then I’m fine. It’s really kind of crazy. I may have a complete meltdown in a few days but every day has its ins and outs of focus. I don’t know. I feel like I’m holding up pretty good. It certainly helps that both “The Office” and this are insanely fun. That makes a huge difference. I think that if I were a little bummed out, I would probably fade away.
Q: So you didn’t go to Nick Cannon’s birthday party last night?
Helms: No, I’m not tight with Nick Cannon the way Zach is (laughs). Zach and Nick go way back. I think Nick is one of Zach’s biggest comedy influences. Plus, there’s a lot of tension. I had a really rough breakup with Mariah Carey. Awkward.
Q: Could you talk about your character in this?
Helms: I think of these three guys as three, like… if you want a grossly simplify it. Obviously we’re very complex characters and very accomplished actors playing these characters – you have basically the slickster, the weirdo and the nerd. And I’m the nerd. Which seems to be what my career is being built on. I’m just sort of a little more reserved and a little more anal retentive. Maybe a little less likely to do crazy things which makes my involvement in some of the things that do happen that much more crazy. And then my character has a little bit more of a turn in the movie. But yeah. Kind of the nerdier, more complainy, little bit scared I think.
Q: Is this what you’re like in real life?
Helms: You know what? Yeah. I think I’m pretty nerdy in real life. I’ve had glasses since second grade.
Q: What is Justin’s character like?
Helms: Justin is–we’re all sort of these types–Justin is like the tentpole of equanimity. Like the calm eye of the storm. He’s really chill. He’s unflappable. Our friendship is based on him sort of managing all of us. So when he disappears, we all have a meltdown together.
Q: Is there any indication that Justin’s character may not actually want to get married?
Helms: Oh, no! That’s not even an issue. That’s never really an issue. He and his bride are clearly, like, tight. My character has a horrible fiancée. Or, no, a horrible girlfriend that I divulge I’m about to propose to and my buddies are like, “Oh my god. Don’t do that. She’s a witch.” But I’m like, “I don’t know. I think she’s the right one. Blah, blah blah.” So then that’s part of my sort of turn over the course of the night. Crazy sh*t happens. Like ridiculous sh*t.
Helms: Yes, there are stunts. We shot a big one the other night and it was super cool and fun.
Q: Did you get to do it yourself?
Helms: It was very funny, I think it’s not too big a deal to tell you that it’s a car crash and they use dummies when they actually hit the car but then the car gets T-boned. We’re in this Mercedes and it gets T-boned by an Escalade and slides laterally like 40 feet. It’s a serious hit. So then they did this awesome shot where the three of us are in the car, like facing one way and they put the car on a dolly going another and a camera on a dolly going that way too. So it’s like the sliding shot directly on impact and we’re just like, “Ahhhhh!” and it’s this really quick insert right after the impact. It’s very, very funny. It was very fun to do. It was also fun, too, just to see giant cars smash into each other at high velocity.
Q: Do you find it hard to jump back and forth between this character and your character of Andy on “The Office”?
Helms: I mean, “The Office” set is so specific and it’s such a place that is very comfortable and homey for me and I just snap right into it. When I’m in there, there’s not much of a process involved. And Vegas has become that on this movie. They’re such different places. When I’m on the strip, I’m just thinking about this movie. And also, none of the same people are around me. And Todd–the director, Todd Phillips–sort of centers me into this character. I don’t think either character is too far off from me in real life anyway. It’s not like I’m playing a big, broad Austin Powers or anything like that. I might start inserting catch from one of the other characters. Throw some Andy homages in.
Q: What’s it like working with a baby?
Helms: Actually, we’ve done it a lot on “The Office” too. Wow, I’ve got to stop talking about “The Office”. It’s both the most delightful thing, because babies are just little kernels of joy–sort of like little joy pillows. Little puffy, cuddly balls of joy–and it brightens your day just to be around a baby but they’re so unpredictable that it’s also just a colossal pain in the ass logistically. So it’s kind of both things. But I like having babies around. I love ‘em. I just like babies. I like being happy. I’m sorry.
Q: There were a couple of times out there where the baby made you break out laughing.
Helms: Did you see that? Oh my god. You couldn’t see what the baby was doing. And neither could Todd, that’s the thing. We did the playback and you couldn’t see in the monitors. Hopefully you’ll be able to see on film, but you couldn’t see well enough in the monitors. They aren’t that good. But Zach has these blue blocker glasses. They’re actually his glasses that his character wears. Do you know what that is, blue blocker? If you’ve ever looked through them, it’s like the world’s a happier place. They’re really awesome and there’s zero glare. It’s just sort of like everything’s brighter and happier. When he puts them on the baby, the first few times the baby would go [wide eyed]. So on the first take, he froze and was staring right into my eyes. And of course Zach is mashing the glasses against his face and the baby knows he’s squishing them around and I just couldn’t deal. It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. That baby. It has these white, zombie-like eyes. The craziest, most-intense eyes I’ve ever seen. It just wrecked me.
Q: How do you take the cracking up on-set? Is it a badge of honor to make someone crack up?
Helms: It’s not a badge of honor to make me crack up because I laugh very easily. I laugh too much. It keeps it fun, but the problem is that you sort of get the giggles and then Zack, for some reason, he and I just have this feedback loop. It starts to happen and it’s happened a few times where we just can’t stop laughing. I mean, he genuinely cracks me up. Zack just makes me laugh walking around, talking. And then his character is really funny. It’s such a perfect character for him. One of the best things about his character is that he doesn’t really get anything. He never catches onto it. Like a joke. So he always has a very innocent response to something. There’s this one exchange where I say something really sarcastic to him and he’s just delightfully oblivious and it just cracks me up.
Q: So when you’re running back and forth to L.A. does that mean that you go weeks on end without a day off?
Helms: It means that the weeks where that’s happening – it’s a little bit of a mixed back. I mean, I’m doing a full week next week on “The Office” because the company is moving back to Los Angeles. But basically it just means that the two days that I’m there they’ve compressed all my work into those two days. Of course it depends on how much I’m in that particular episode anyway. If it’s a light episode for Andy, it may not be that bad.