Filmmaker Todd Phillips first started getting attention during the wave of raunchy R-Rated humor borne out of the success of American Pie and the movies of the Farrelly Brothers, which culminated with Old School, a popular hit comedy starring Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell.
From that unlikely trio, Phillips has assembled another one for his new movie The Hangover, following a trio played by Bradley Cooper (Wedding Crashers), Ed Helms (Andy from “The Office”), and stand-up comic Zack Galifianakis as they spend a day in Las Vegas trying to find their missing friend Doug (Justin Bartha), after a drunken night to celebrate Doug’s impending marriage, which none of them remember. Along the way, they encounter all sorts of odd characters that might help them solve the puzzle about what happened to them the night before and how they can find their friend in time to get him back for his wedding. The results are every bit as funny and raunchy as Old School, as the three guys face everything Vegas can throw at them–the police, tigers, angry nude Chinese mobsters, Mike Tyson–and barely survive.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down to talk about the movie with Phillips, and we were delighted to learn that he was just as cool and funny as you might expect from seeing his movies. He was also surprisingly benevolent to his movie’s main competition this weekend, Land of the Lost, maybe because it starred Will Ferrell, who appeared in two of Phillips’ earlier films.
ComingSoon.net: The guys who wrote this script, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, they did “Four Christmases” and “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” which I liked, because I thought they had a really interesting humor happening. You’ve written most of your own material, so how did their screenplay hit your table?
Todd Phillips: The screenplay came to me and it was really the idea. In all honesty, we did a pretty massive rewrite on the screenplay. They really had written this PG-13 version – you can talk to Scott and Jon and they’d be the first to tell you. In the original script, there was no tiger, there was no baby, there was no Mike Tyson, there was no cop car; it was very much a different movie, but because the story of it and their brilliant structuring of it, which was telling it backwards, that’s really what appealed to me. What appealed to me about it was, not even so much a bachelor party movie, but making a movie about an event you never see and that I have to say, they pulled off. That was the genius of that script I think and that was the thing where I thought, “Wow, this is an interesting approach.” How do you make that funny? How do you make the day after funny? That’s where we kinda took it and went from there. In fact, Jeremy Garelick (who wrote “The Break-Up”) and I, together kinda took off and just wrote based on their characters and their concept and just kinda spun into it more. I’m not trying to take away (from what they did); the guys did a phenomenal job and came up with a really solid idea, but this is a little edgier than “Ghosts of Girlfriends” or “Four Christmases.” I thought that “The Hangover” needed to be an R-rated, just go for it f*cked up, crazy movie.
CS: Yeah, I don’t think there’s anything really PG-13 about Vegas.
Phillips: Right, exactly.
CS: Though they did shoot “Witch Mountain” there and they somehow managed to create a PG version of Vegas.
Phillips: Right, right, that’s true.
CS: You have to admit that this is very high concept.
Phillips: That’s what I’m saying, they’re great at high concept, they really are.
CS: You’d think that by now someone would’ve done a movie about guys waking up with a hangover, not remembering what happened the night before.
Phillips: Well, I guess people say, “Oh, it’s like ‘Dude, Where’s My Car?'” I mean, in a way people have compared it to that, and there was a movie in the ’80s, but still, it goes to a place you don’t expect. It’s not “Dude, Where’s My Car?”
CS: Did you want to return to doing R-rated movies? For a little while, you were doing PG-13 movies.
Phillips: I did do two movies that are PG-13, “Starsky & Hutch” was PG-13 and should’ve been PG-13. “School for Scoundrels” shouldn’t have been PG-13, it should’ve been R-rated. At the last minute, Bob Weinstein said, “Oh, let’s make it PG-13.” We kind of fought on it a little bit and then just said, “F*ck it, let’s just go for it.” I think R-rated with comedy is really where you want to be if it’s not a movie like “Starsky & Hutch” or “Land of the Lost” where you’re going for this four-quadrant thing, I think you’ve got to deliver to the core audience these movies first and foremost.
CS: As far as being set in Vegas, there have been a lot of movies set there: “Swingers,” “Very Bad Things,” “Go”… did you want to explore some of the other sides of Vegas that hadn’t been covered already? Had you been to Vegas a lot yourself?
Phillips: I did, yeah, I’m definitely a denizen of Vegas. I think the idea that this movie takes place so much in the daytime, it makes it different. I mean, waking up in Vegas… Vegas is so much a city of night, and the night hides a lot of the crevices and the dirt. When you show Vegas in the day, it’s a very depressing, very bleak kind of environment. So just that aspect of it felt different to me, and I think we do things in this movie that people have never done in a Vegas movie, certain things that I think surprise people.
CS: Was anything in this based on any stories you had heard?
Phillips: Just the craziness of me and Jeremy trying to top each other and make each other laugh and sometimes just being high and trying to write. (Laughs)
CS: (laughs) Do you want me to edit that out?
Phillips: No, I don’t care. It’s no secret.
CS: The casting is really unconventional, and you’d think that when you’re doing a movie for Warner Bros., they’d immediately think, “Okay, can you get your friends Ben Stiller or Will Ferrell?”
Phillips: Yeah, they don’t think like that, because if you can make a movie for a certain price in this town… or in that town, in L.A., you can really have freedom. I’m doing my fifth film so I’ve proven that I can be responsible at least and bring a movie in on time and on budget and a movie that can be released. So you prove that part. Now I say to them, “What number can I make this for where I can just go and make it with whomever I want and make a crazy R-rated movie?” And they say, “If you can make if for this much, we’ll see you at the first test screening.” I said, “Great, goodbye.” I get Zach and… they’re amazing. Warner Brothers, you think it’s a big corporation, but think about it. F*cking “Observe and Report” and “Watchmen” are two of the ballsiest movies made by a studio in the last four years. Chris Nolan taking over “Dark Knight.” I mean, they give filmmakers movies, it’s interesting. They love filmmakers at Warner. Not every studio is like that.
CS: It’s absolutely true, and even cases like “The Fountain.”
Phillips: Yeah, they have balls!
CS: So when you started casting this, did you already know any of those guys?
Phillips: I knew all those guys. I knew Ed from here and UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade); I’m from New York. I knew Zach from just going to shows in L.A. and paying attention to comedy in L.A. If you know anything about comedy in L.A., you know that Zach is the f*cking sh*t out there and he’s just a killer and he’s the funniest. I’ve always watched him and thought, “How can we use this guy in a movie? How can we translate this?” What he does is so not standup–it’s like performance art, it’s so his own thing. Then this role came along where we started talking about this Alan character, which also wasn’t in the original script. It was like, “We should put a guy in there that doesn’t belong. We should put a guy in there that they don’t want there. We should put a left-footed guy in there,” which is all Zach does. Zach is a left-footed guy. That just helps with the tension. It’s like Will Ferrell in “Old School.” I always described him as a left-footed character. He didn’t walk in the same rhythm as his friends, and I always think that’s a great way to start with a comic character.
CS: It’s really funny when you have an R-rated movie and you have Zach playing a character that doesn’t like to swear. How did that come about? Was that just something you decided would make him a stranger character?
Phillips: Again, it’s just him not doing the thing you think he would be doing, you know what I mean? He’s just so not cool in every way (laughs) that he’s even, for some reason, offended by swearing. He’ll take drugs and he’ll drug his friends, but he doesn’t swear. You gotta draw the line somewhere. (Laughs)
CS: And he walks around naked.
Phillips: Yeah, I mean, he’s not shy. He just doesn’t like cursing. There’s no reason for it.
CS: Brad’s an interesting actor. He’s done a lot of these best friend roles, and he had more of a lead romantic role in “He’s Just Not That Into You.”
Phillips: Yeah, he did, and he was good in that, but in this, I think he really is a man for the first time I think. He really took stage in a way. I think he’s great in this movie and I think he’s gonna surprise people just in the way that he’s a real lead actor. I mean, you could look at him and say, “Yeah, he’s a leading man, he’s a gorgeous guy,” but then you realize what a good actor he is. All you can ask of an actor in a role like that is, “Take stage.” What that means is “Command the frame. Own it. Be the alpha male and run the frame,” and he does that in spades. I think that’s gonna help him a lot in other roles and sort of him taking off from it.
CS: He’s always been paired with someone like Jim Carrey or one of those guys.
Phillips: Yeah, he’s the sidekick or in “Wedding Crashers” he’s so spineless that you just don’t feel a manliness from a guy who’s spineless ever. I think this is a really perfect role for him to showcase how good he is.
CS: Had you ever spent time with those three guys together so that you knew that they’d work as a group?
Phillips: Yeah, I seem to remember that I did a read – through of the three of them together when I was deciding and then I realized, “Yeah, these guys are great.” But, I mean, the casting I do, it always happens at the same time. It’s not like one person was first. It’s like, “Boy, if I could have Zach do that, then who would be the other two faces, or three in this case?” You just start moving guys around. (he starts motioning his hands as if he is moving figures around on a gameboard) Not like there’s a hundred of them, but there’s a few that you’re settling in on, and of those five or six, you’re like, “Hmm,” you know what I mean?
CS: Brad and Justin did “Failure to Launch” together, and they were paired together for junkets and they were actually funnier in interviews than in the movie, but we don’t really see them together much in this one. How did Justin feel about being the guy who kinda has to sit out while everyone else is having fun?
Phillips: Well, he took the role. I mean, I explained it to him like, “Hey man, Matt Damon was Private Ryan in ‘Saving Private Ryan'” and that seemed to work. (laughs) No, you know, he wanted to be in a cool movie, and he loves Bradley and he loves Zach and he’s friends with me. I’ve known Justin for… he lived with me in L.A. six years ago for six months. I’ve just known him, so I called him up more as a friend and said, “Hey, would you do this? It’s not the lead part, but it’s kinda what the movie’s about.”
CS: I like the “Saving Private Ryan” comparison, that’s pretty good. Did you at least tell him that he might have a bigger role in the sequel?
Phillips: No, he got it. Look, he loves the movie. He’s not in it a ton, but he loves the parts he’s in, and he loves Zach and Bradley and the guys that are in it so much.
CS: The song that Ed played on piano, was that completely made-up on the spot? (You can hear the song we’re talking about here if you’re over 18 or here if you’re not.)
Phillips: It was improvised as in it was never in any script, but it wasn’t improvised like “Action,” and then he made it up on the spot. He wrote it that morning though. I said, “Do you know what would be funny?” ’cause he kept playing the piano on set in between takes. He’s a really good piano player and he has a good voice oddly. I said, “You know what would be funny? We should just do a song.” He’s like, “Where would that go in the movie?” I said, “Why don’t we put it in the scene while we’re killing time after we drug the tiger?” He’s like, “Great,” and we just threw out ideas of what that song would be about and settled on “What Do Tigers Dream Of,” and then he just went off and wrote it. It was great.
CS: When you were writing this with Jeremy, did you have any idea that you wanted to cast these guys?
Phillips: I kept talking about Zach to him and then once we got the guys we did another rewrite on it of course that really honed in on their voices.
CS: Most people go to Vegas for the sheer purpose of having a completely insane time, so can you actually go there with all these guys and concentrate on making a movie in that environment?
Phillips: I’m not gonna lie to you. Vegas is a city full of temptation and a city full of distraction. Like the movie poster says, “Some guys just can’t handle Vegas”? That could’ve been the motto for our crew. We lost crew members to Vegas. Vegas is gateway city and there’s something for everyone and we definitely lost some crew guys who suddenly their wives would show up and put them in rehab and we never saw them again.
CS: I heard something about that.
Phillips: Yeah, I mean it just happens. They’re all fine and they’re okay, but it’s a tough town to live in and have a day off in.
CS: I was curious about this because I go to Vegas a bit, and there’s this myth where people feel that if they go there, they’re expected to get drunk and have sex with strangers, so they just go out looking for it rather than that stuff just happening.
Phillips: Well, I know what you mean, but it happens. No, I’ve seen it happen. The thing is that Vegas to me is a town that was made for bad decisions. I literally think they should change their tagline, “Welcome to Vegas, where a bad decision is made every minute.” (laughs) Because it’s literally… I thought the movie could be called “Bad Decisions” because ultimately you get off the plane, and you start making bad decisions and that’s sort of what this town is about. Some people can either sort of handle that and some people can’t. It really separates the men from the boys.
CS: How do they feel about the movie? I think it’s going to bring even more people to Vegas, if that’s possible.
Phillips: By the way, Vegas loves the movie. It’s tough economic times so Vegas has been seeing a hard time, but they love the movie. When I say “they” I mean like Harrah’s Corporation, which had a big part in helping us with this film. They couldn’t be happier with it and I think it really does show Vegas in a great light. The guys f*ck up. Vegas doesn’t f*ck the guys, the guys f*ck the guys, you know what I mean? They don’t go there and get ripped off by a casino, they go there and they just f*ck up everything. (laughs)
CS: I think the police officers are the best characters because they have the job of…
Phillips: Yeah, dealing with these drunk ***holes who want to just become someone else. It’s a town full of alter egos because everyone goes there and tries to not be themselves.
CS: How was it shooting there? Were you able to shut things down or did you try to shoot at times where you didn’t have to do that?
Phillips: Both. We shut certain things down and the casinos were really helpful or we sometimes had to shoot at off times.
CS: Was it easier to do that, because you didn’t have big names like Stiller or Ferrell?
Phillips: You mean for crowds, because they walk by and they don’t see anybody? Yeah, probably, probably. I’ve had a lot of hard times shooting with Ben and Will for sure.
CS: One of the things which I guess is part of what sold you was the fact that you don’t really know what happened the night before and it kind of unveils over the course of the movie. So did you guys have all that mapped out for yourselves? Did you already know that story?
Phillips: No, but at some point of course we had it mapped out where Jeremy and I, we reconstructed it and you sort of take it apart, and you add things like a tiger and a baby and a cop car. It’s like, “Well, where did that tiger come from?” So it all just unfolds.
CS: Did it always start with the joke of, “Okay, let’s have them find a baby” and then go backwards from that?
Phillips: Yeah, exactly. Well, it did, you’re right. We would just be sitting around and I’d be like, “What’d be the worst f*cking thing to wake up to?” It’s like, “A f*cking baby that’s not yours. Like, ‘Okay, good, now where did it come from?'” You start unraveling things and a tiger is like, “Okay, whose tiger is that? Siegfried and Roy? No, that’s not funny. How about Mike Tyson?” You know, that kind of thing.
CS: The chicken really isn’t explained.
Phillips: Well, it is explained. To me, it’s very clear they stole the chicken to feed the tiger.
CS: Ohhhh… got it.
Phillips: It’s never explained, but I have a reason for everything. Why’d they steal the cop car? Because the cop car has a cage in the back, so they needed it to steal the tiger. Yeah, I got answers for all of it.
CS: I know you like to do a lot of improvisation. Did you do the usual thing where you kind of shot the script and then went off it and then figured out what was funniest in editing?
Phillips: Yeah, we shot the pages of the day and then we would also do free ones and f*ck around or come up with an idea, or Zach one day goes, “Hey Todd, check this out,” and he got the little stand-in baby–you know, they would have little dolls for stand-in–and he’s just masturbating the baby. I go, “Oh my God, we’re putting that in the movie.” He goes, “I’m not doing that in a movie. I think that’s illegal!” I’m like, “We’re doing it, we’re doing it” and I had to go talk to the real baby’s parents. So that’s like improv that’s created on the day, but it’s not really created on the moment. There’s different kinds of improv. People always think improv means you just let them do anything and you just roll, but really it’s like the vibe of coming up with sh*t on the day and then going, “Boy, that’s a neat idea. Let’s do that, but let’s work it in over here.” So it’s almost like writing improv.
CS: I also wanted to ask about the nudity part, because obviously Ken Jeong has a scene, I guess he and Bradley share that scene I should say.
Phillips: Yeah, Bradley got the bad end of that stick.
CS: Was that in the script and he said, “I’ll do it”?
Phillips: Again, that was in the script. In our draft, we put a guy coming out of the trunk, it was Mr. Chow, but in the script, we didn’t have him naked. Ken came up to me and said, “Do you think it would be funny if I did this naked?” I go, “Ken, you don’t gotta ask me twice.” I immediately had a nudity waiver slid under his door in his trailer and he’s like, “Woah, wait, I have to think about this.” (laughs almost hysterically remembering this.)
CS: I was curious about that, because between this and “Old School,” you’ve had a lot of male nudity, and I always ask filmmakers…
Phillips: We all think it’s funny ’cause we’re all 14 year old boys and we think it’s funny. I don’t know what’s wrong with us. We’re all like f*cked up retards.
CS: But it is funny… why is it so funny?
Phillips: I know. Why is it so funny? Because male bodies are just not attractive. You know how straight women go, “Well, I do find women’s bodies are beautiful”? Men don’t say that because they’re not beautiful. They’re awkward-looking so there’s something funny about awkwardness and that’s really the reason.
CS: I think Seinfeld nailed it when he did an episode that touched upon that. I’m sure you’re getting asked a lot about the sequel, but it is a strange idea that Warners would greenlight a sequel before the movie opens.
Phillips: They didn’t greelight a sequel. This is the problem with you internet people, you treat the internet like it’s the truth.
CS: Hey, it was in “The Hollywood Reporter.”
Phillips: No, it was “Variety,” you’re right, but they never greenlit it. They said they were talking about a sequel. In fact, in the “L.A. Times” yesterday, Jeff Robinoff at Warner Brothers addressed that. He said, “We didn’t greenlight a sequel. We’re talking that if the movie does work, we’d love to do something with Todd and the guys.” So we haven’t greenlit a sequel.
CS: I was curious whether you guys had an idea that you were throwing around.
Phillips: Even when we were shooting “The Hangover,” I would talk about where this would lead or what we could do with a second one, stuff like that.
CS: Looking at IMDb, which is also not a very reliable source…
Phillips: (laughs) There you go. People think IMDb is “The Wall Street Journal”: it’s not. Okay, here we go, let me look. (At this point, Phillips reaches across the table and takes the list printed out from IMDb away from me, pulls out a pen and starts crossing things off the list.)
CS: The fact that you have that many movies that you’re even attached to or possibly involved with, it’s insane.
Phillips: Yeah, I’m busy. I’m just going to say things that don’t even exist. I don’t know why they’re there, but they don’t exist. That exists, that exists Oh yeah, that doesn’t exist. (Crosses off “The Golden Tux.”)
CS: Really? That one sounded pretty good actually.
Phillips: Well, it’s just stuck at The Weinstein Company. It was a great idea, and it’s time has passed honestly. It was a great idea. But these do exist I will say, but you have to understand I also have a production deal at Warner Brothers so a lot of these things are just me as a producer and working like, “Hey, maybe Jody Hill will do that.” It’s about finding a guy that… nothing there, by the way. So that stuff in development is also as a production company.
CS: It’s funny, because the two things that sounded the most interesting were the ones you crossed off
Phillips: Which one was the other one?
CS: “The Golden Tux” and “The Fix-Up.” I was wondering about “Man-Witch” and “Psycho Funky Chimp” too, because those are some pretty crazy names.
Phillips: (laughs) Yeah, they are crazy names. “Psycho Funky Chimp” is the perfect example, that’s for a different director.
CS: What about yourself as a director? Do you have something else that you want to do? A sequel to “Old School” has been talked about for a while, and either you or Will have said “no” in the past.
Phillips: Yeah, for the planets all to align for that to work, it doesn’t look like it’s in the cards in the near future right now. Which is a bummer ’cause we wrote a great script and I love those guys so much, but it’s hard to wrangle that kind of star power into one movie and make it work and make it for a price, quite honestly.
CS: You really got Vince and Will at a great time for “Old School” before they were huge superstars.
Phillips: I know.
CS: A lot of the stuff that happened later, like “Wedding Crashers” might never have happened if not for that.
Phillips: Well, I didn’t say that.
CS: Okay. (Laughs)
Phillips: (imitating how quotes get taken out of context) “And then he took credit for ‘Wedding Crashers’ happening.”
CS: Are you producing Zach Helm’s movie still?
Phillips: Oh, that’s a great script and actually I’m still loosely involved with it. I’m trying to get him to direct that.
CS: He’s a great guy.
Phillips: I love Zack, yeah, he’s a f*cking genius.
CS: I’m going to talk to Brad Silberling next week and I wanted to ask you, why should people see your movie over “Land of the Lost”? If they’re over 17, of course?
Phillips: If you’re over 17, then… if you’re 12 years old, you should see “Land of the Lost.” Here’s the real answer. You should see both movies. I love Will Ferrell. I’m going to see it, I’ll check it out. I love Will. The fun thing about releasing a movie in the summer is it’s not a one-night option. If you look at summer box office, these movies are making five, six million dollars a night on a Monday. In other words, the Mondays become Fridays in the summer. I mean, not as big, but it has a life beyond just that opening night. Our movie, it’s a marathon for us, it’s not a sprint. Our movie plays, and it plays well and the best ad for our movie is our movie. We’ve done 300 screenings around the country to get the word out because we can’t cut a trailer as funny as the movie.
CS: There’s some things even in the commercials like the tiger in the elevator, that’s not in the movie anymore.
Phillips: Yeah, some of that stuff I’ve been cutting out and moved around, yeah you’re right, but, there’s also stuff that you never see in the trailers that are in the movie that’s gonna blow people’s minds. So it’s like, I just feel like the best ads for the movie’s the movie. It’s not a sprint it’s a marathon and I think when all is said and done, this movie’s going to hopefully have a good long run in the summer. But every weekend there’s movies. We are gonna have “Up” in its second weekend and that’s gonna be big. So I don’t know that it’s about seeing “The Hangover” over “Land of the Lost.” Now that said, I mean, if you’re a cool person and one of them obviously speaks to you more, it’s obviously going to be “The Hangover.”
CS: On Monday Jeff’s going to be sitting there going, “Okay, I gotta hit that button, that greenlight button.”
Phillips: Yeah, I have an email from a friend of mine, who is a big time writer in L.A., and he was talking about the movie, texting me back and forth going, “Hey, so how’s the thing going?” I go, “I’m doing press, da, da, da,” and he goes, “How’s it feel?” I go, “It’s good. We’re still going up against Will Ferrell, so we’re not going to be at number one, but da, da, da.” The writer writes back, he goes, “Oh please. That movie looks like an old lady’s ***hole.” That’s a writer for you. Not me. (laughs)
CS: Wow. You’ve had experience in the TV thing because of “Starsky & Hutch,” and the movie actually looks amazing compared to the actual original show.
Phillips: I know, I know, it looks great. That show was horrific, yeah. I don’t think he literally means the look. I think he was even just giving me a hard time being a guy. But really, first of all, I love Brad Silberling, but Will and Danny McBride. Danny’s one of my closest friends in L.A. so you can’t root against movies. Movies doing well are good for everybody in the movie business, it really is. It’s like, you can’t be a hater because the more everyone succeeds, the better it is for the movie business, the more movies get made and it’s just good. Honest to God, I never view it as a competition, but I don’t think most directors do. I think you get that a lot on the studio side, but filmmakers have this really weird fraternity. I saw Brad Silberling at this DGA event last week and we talked about it. Filmmakers have this really weird connection because it really comes down on your shoulders when it doesn’t work. You know the saying “In success, there are many authors, and in failure there’s one author”? In failure is one author and it’s the director, so directors know no one else is looking out for you when sh*t goes bad. I think there’s this very interesting kind of fraternity that’s formed and I think we all kind of root for each other.
The Hangover opens everywhere on Friday, June 5. Look for our interview with director Brad Silberling later this week.