Since his earliest films, Todd Phillips’ name has been one synonymous with R-rated comedy. Now, following the unprecedented success of The Hangover in 2009, Phillips stands in a greater position than ever to take on a Hollywood blockbuster with his self-described “punk rock aesthetic.”
Bringing back the Wolfpack of Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis), The Hangover Part II moves the action from Las Vegas, Nevada to Bangkok, Thailand, upping the chances for a night on the town to go very, very wrong.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Phillips to talk about his return to the world of The Hangover and what it means returning not just for his first sequel, but having to follow up one of the most successful comedies of all time.
Please be aware, the below interview does contain some minor spoilers:
Comingsoon.net: Heading into this one, you don’t get to go for the same under-the-radar tactic. How does that change how you approach it?
Todd Phillips: It was a daunting experience, certainly. You’re right that, on the one hand, you’re going up against the legacy or the legend of the first film. But, at the same time, it’s really liberating because I’ve never made a movie that I really knew people were going to see. Usually when I’m making a movie, it’s about getting these moments that are really funny, but I’m still going, “Jesus, this is hilarious, but is anyone going to see this movie?” So, in a weird way, I found the pressure was actually taken off me in that respect. For the first time, we’re making a movie that a lot of people are actually anticipating. It sort of takes a lot of pressure off.
CS: It feels like Vegas was, in a way, a safety net for the characters in that there’s an “anything goes” attitude about the city. You screw up there and there’s sort of wink and all is forgiven. You screw up in Bangkok and you’re going to die.
Phillips: (laughs) Yeah, there’s a few reasons we chose Bangkok, but one of them is that we wanted to up the danger. We wanted to up the consequence and the stakes. It’s also a little bit more mysterious to these guys. It’s not that familiar and they don’t speak the language. There are all these elements that made it a little more of a scary proposition.
CS: Did you want to up the realism as well?
Phillips: Oh yeah. We try to infuse in these movies — even as absurd as our situations are with the characters — a sense of it being grounded in reality. That may sound funny because the movies are so absurd, but, underneath it all, there’s a foundation of very real feeling. We do that in the way we shoot and the sets and the clothing. We do that so we can play against that reality when the s–t hits the fan. But Bangkok was another place we chose just because it really sounds like trouble. You say “Las Vegas” and it just sounds like trouble. There’s only a few cities where you say the name of the city and it sounds like trouble. You say “Bangkok” and you go, “Oh boy. They’re going to make some bad, bad decisions there.” Bangkok, like Las Vegas, sounds like a place where you make bad decisions.
CS: Has the place always fascinated you? Weren’t there rumors, years ago, that an “Old School” sequel might go there?
Phillips: No, that was never rumor, was it? That certainly was never something we were exploring. Bangkok was, for me, a place that I hadn’t been. I obviously went a million times in researching this, but I hadn’t been before. But it is a place that always intrigued me, yeah.
CS: Can you talk about the soundtrack? This one had a lot of really great, off-the-beaten-path song choices.
Phillips: Thank you. I take it very seriously, music. I think it’s one of the tools that a director has with which to kind of paint. The right music can sometimes do five pages of scripted dialogue. In other words, we start this movie off with Glenn Danzig’s “Black Hell.” That tells you more about the tone than if I wrote a five-page scene. It just does so much of your work as a director when you treat it correctly. I just love doing it. It’s really my favorite part of making a movie. Figuring out the music is actually my favorite part.
CS: Quentin Tarantino has explained his theory about music where, once a film does a pop song and does it right, that song should be taken off the table for all future film use. So in a way, it’s neat to see you lay claim to something like “Black Hell.”
Phillips: Yeah, it’s true. And [Tarantino] does that as well so effectively. Scorsese, too with “Gimme Shelter.” Though he’s done for a few movies that claimed it. But Tarantino has done that so well.
CS: Well, there’s something about that with Bangkok itself. It’s a city that has been in plenty of other films but for mainstream American audiences, this is a film that is going to define pop perception of the city for a long time to come.
Phillips: It’s true. To be honest with you, since “Ocean’s 11,” “The Hangover” has become a movie that defines Vegas. Anybody in Vegas will tell you that and I’m proud of it. I love that. I think “Hangover” does Vegas right and I think that not only, as you said, it’s the top-grossing R-rated comedy of all-time, it’s also the top-grossing about Vegas or set in Vegas. Outside of the “Ocean’s” movies, it’s become the sort of quintessential Vegas movie. I’m glad about that and it’s kind of fun thing, but about that happening with Bangkok, I think you’re right. This might define it for a lot of people. I think that’s a good thing because, just like the first one, Bangkok doesn’t f–k these guys up. These guys f–k themselves up. They’re their own worst enemies. Vegas wasn’t the cause of their problems. They just happened to be in Vegas where, if you happen to be f–ked up, s–t can happen, but the blame isn’t on the city when you’re done with the movie.
CS: You’ve had a fascinating development as a director where, ever since films like “Frat House,” you’ve had a sort of distaste for the mainstream, studio setting. Now you’re incredibly successful commercially and the back and both sides of you end up making it onto the screen. It is a struggle keeping one side or another in check there?
Phillips: Certainly not as much as it used to be. It’s something that I’ve always done as a filmmaker, tonally, even before “Frat House” on my first movie about a punk rock singer called “Hated” and it was about this guy, GG Allin and his band, The Murder Junkies. That was my first movie and it always sort of informed me on that punk rock aesthetic. That DIY, do-it-yourself mentality and that aggressiveness that you still find in these movies and in the comedy. Even in the music. Using Danzig in a big Hollywood comedy is not something that most people do. We used Black Flag in “Old School.” A lot of people don’t do that. You always try to inject your footprints and your fingerprints in these things. Certain people like yourself notice it and I love when people do.
CS: Throughout the production there were a ton of rumors about cameos and appearances that would happen or wouldn’t happen. In the end, the surprises of the movie come in a very different form. Was the plan originally to have a lot of cameos or was that just something that got blown out of proportion?
Phillips: There was never any real cameos outside of the Mel Gibson one that everyone heard about. But we had Bill Clinton show up on-set in Bangkok and he did show up on set to visit. But somebody takes a cell phone picture and, all of sudden Bill Clinton is starring in “The Hangover Part II.” We can’t control that. That’s the internet. You know how the internet is with rumors. People will talk about it as long as that cycle lasts and then the next thing comes along. It was almost comical from where we were in Bangkok when all this stuff was being discussed. That’s one of the troubles with doing a movie that doesn’t go under-the-radar. I joked in the press conference that it’s kind of an Uptown problem. You hate it but it ultimately means that people are talking about it because they want to see it.
CS: It’s great to see your more experimental side breaking out in this one, too. There’s a dream sequence/flashback that is especially great.
Phillips: I loved that, too. It was really like making a movie within a movie. We had these little ten- to twelve-year-old kids making the movie with us in Bangkok. They were there with their parents for eight weeks just to do that little movie within a movie. It had to be shot around our schedule, not theirs. In other words, when we shot the bar scene, we’d bring in the little guys and redo it with them. We shot the dinner scene where Allen is giving the speech and then we redid it with the kids. It was very complicated, but these kids had the greatest trip of their lives. They got to hang out and do whatever. Six weeks is probably what it was for them. Six weeks in Bangkok in some resort. We only used them once or twice a week at best and most of the time was them traveling and going to museums with their parents. It was pretty cool.
CS: How do you even begin to explain to child actors what’s going in their scenes?
Phillips: Well, for instance with Mini-Chow — I called them all “Mini.” Mini-Doug, Mini-Chow, Mini-Phil — but with Mini-Chow, I would say, “Look, I need you to snort this powder here.” The powder is just some fake powdered milk thing. Dad and mom know why he’s snorting it, but he doesn’t know. It was really kind of bizarre.
CS: I also wanted to ask about “Project X” that’s coming up. I know you’re producing and not directing, but it really sounds like it’s sort of a throwback to your first films.
Phillips: Yeah, I’m producing it and Nima Nourizadeh is directing it. He’s a first time director. It’s really a new take and, I hope, an interesting take on something I haven’t seen before. A new take on the teen comedy. It came to me as a pitch and I really liked the idea. It wasn’t something for me to direct and we approached this guy, Nima, with the idea. We wrote a script and the whole thing and we’re in the process of editing it right now. But I never really think of anything as a return for me unless I’m directing it. I think producing is great and it’s not something I’m going to do a ton of. It’s not really a return to my roots because it’s not my movie. It’s Nima’s movie. I stand behind it and all that, but I really think a film is a director’s movie and not a producer’s movie.
The Hangover Part II hits theaters this Thursday, May 26th. Check back with ComingSoon.net for more interviews with the cast and crew this week!