Hangover Director Todd Phillips: 'Apparently You Can't Give Kids Weed and Film Them!'
Weeks before its release this Friday, industry observers were sizing up The Hangover as the sleeper hit of the summer. Either way, director Todd Phillips has reached his peak here, corralling Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and, in a true breakthrough performance, Zach Galifianakis as a mismatched trio attempting to find their friend the morning after a spectacularly debauched Vegas bachelor party.
Continuing his interest in the more freakish sides of male bonding, the Old School director leans slightly darker in his hilarious new effort; compulsion, violence and self-destruction add intriguing shades to the off-color material. And don't expect a tidy ending, either, with a group of changed souls apologizing for the depravity wrought over the preceding 90 minutes. It's a welcome, enduring effort following his 2006 misstep School For Scoundrels, and Phillips spoke with Movieline last week about the allure of tough subjects, tough cities and how too much reality can be a bad thing.
You've got some extraordinary buzz on The Hangover right now. Was there ever that moment on the set where you thought, "Wow, this smells good. We've really got something here"?
Not really. I think as a director, certainly when you're doing comedies, you never know what you have until you show it to an audience. You always feel like, "This isn't working; this doesn't make sense." Even in editing, you're like, "I wonder if this makes any sense at all." And then once you start showing it to audiences, and you hear 400 people in a room all laughing at one time, you're like, "OK." You start feeling confident. And the movie really has, oddly, been building a good buzz. There's no real stars. It's just one of those films. We'll see what happens.
There's a legend going around about that very first test screening that was just off the charts.
Yeah, you go to all those test screenings, and they all played pretty well. But I think the one you're referring to is the one we do for the studio, which is really the second or third time we screened the film. I did another movie called Old School, and these screenings harken back to that in that it plays like a rock concert. When there's 400 people in a theater and they're ready to laugh, it plays like a rock concert. There's a really good vibe to it.
Speaking of Old School, and pretty much all of the narrative films you've made, you're basically a filmmaker who makes movies about guys -- how guys behave together, or relationships between men. When you got the script for The Hangover, was there ever a time when you said, "I've kind of done this?"
Well, what I liked about this script was not so much that. What I liked about it was doing a movie about an event without ever seeing the event. In a weird way, this movie's about a bachelor party, but you never see the bachelor party. And I liked the idea of telling a story that's almost like a detective story; it starts at the end of the story, structurally, and little clues lead you into what happened. And that was part of the appeal. Yes, I do movies about guys, and that's another thing I've been wrestling with my whole life. But it's more of the structure and the storytelling part of it that's appealing.
Did you ever have any bachelor party experiences of your own that informed what happens here?
No. I mean, all my movies tend to be about guys, and these sort of weird male rituals of bonding, whether it's Old School and fraternities, or I did a movie called Road Trip before that. And it's more because I grew up with women only; I didn't have a dad, and I grew up with three women. I never really understood fully men's relationships to each other. And I also always found it uniquely awkward the relationship between heterosexual guys. There's never the intimacy that women have in their relationships, and when there is, it's really awkward. So it's just something I find as a good starting point for comedy.
But there are more and more of these types of films coming out. There's the Apatow brand, and the "bromance" thing in general. What do you make of the advancement and expansion of that genre?
I don't think it's a new thing. If you look back at Animal House and Stripes and Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters and all those movies, they're the same thing: they're kind of bromance, men-on-a-mission kinds of movies. I mean, the Apatow stuff, which I love, to me, can be a little more sentimental than my movies. They're more ironic. I don't really do irony, either. It's like Memento -- I don't get it. It goes over my head. This stuff is just sort of plain funny. But I do think that I Love You, Man -- which was not an Apatow movie -- was one of those really well-done bromance things. So I don't know, I guess things just go in cycles.
Let's talk about the casting, especially Zach Galifianakis. You're a fan, you get the script. Did you know right away this was a character for him?
In the script, there wasn't this character. There wasn't even the brother-in-law. You get a script and you just sort of rework it and tailor it for actors. And that's when I feel like movies really start to get written: When you start attaching actors and start shaping it more for them. With this one, there wasn't a brother-in-law -- we made that character when I said, "I'm gonna get Zach to do this." That came from Warner Bros. allowing us to. Another little movie thing is that if you can make a movie for a certain price, if you can hit a certain number, you can do whatever you want. So I sort of manage, with movies, to stay at that number. And they go, "You can cast whomever you want, you can make it R-rated. We'll see you at the first test screening -- just go." So that's very important to me.
This is potentially a breakout film for Ed Helms [above, with Phillips], too.
I lived in New York forever, up until about four years ago. And there's the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater, and Ed used to do a lot of improv at that theater. So I'd seen him also for years and years and been a fan. He's of course on The Office now. We do a lot of improvisation in these movies, and I knew Ed could hold his own with Zach. When you're doing an ensemble comedy, it's so important that the styles all come from a different place. In other words, they're all funny, but they're funny in very different ways. Zach and Ed couldn't be more different. But they're both hysterical. And the point is, I think, that a lot of times in comedies people are casting where they're tapping the same nerve over and over. Like, two people are playing the same angle. And I feel like it never works for me, and that's where chemistry doesn't happen.
Obviously you shot the film on location in Vegas, which, over the course of making a feature, has to be the source of a lot of wear-and-tear on you and the actors and the whole crew in general.
The crew had a hard time with it more. Vegas is a city of temptation and distractions, and we lost a few crew members to the city. It's true. You know how there are gateway drugs? Vegas is a gateway city, and it just all leads to bad decisions. We literally would say, "Hey, where's the electrician?" "Oh, we've got a new guy." The wife had flown in and put him in rehab. Not literally the electrician, by the way -- I'm making that up. But we lost a couple guys like that. It's like the tagline of the movie: "Some guys just can't handle Vegas." It really is true. I happened to have a great time. I was ready to go back a week later. But for some people three months is a long time.
Plus you guys shot mostly during the day.
Yeah, it's The Hangover. It's the morning after. You see Vegas in a very different way in this movie; you're so used to seeing it at night, and all the lights and all the darkness of night block out all the in-between stuff. And you realize that it's a very ugly, sort of desperate city sometimes.
Did you want to tell a story about Vegas?
I think Vegas is a big character in the film, but it's not so much that I wanted to tell a story about Vegas. I think Vegas, like I said, is a place where people go to make bad decisions. In Vegas, it's just a million alter egos walking around. Nobody actually goes to Vegas and behaves like themselves. Everybody goes and gets off the plane, and they're going to be that other guy they can't really be at home. So it's a bunch of alter egos sort of bumping into each other, and I feel like it's just kind of fascinating in that way.
You started in documentary, of course. What ever happened to Frat House [Phillips's Sundance-winning 1998 documentary]?
It was never released. We made it for HBO; there were some legal issues with it. Apparently you can't give kids weed and then film them! I didn't know that.
Lesson learned! So yeah, things like that.
Will we ever see it released?
You can find Frat House on the Internet. People have posted it, and I'm really proud of the movie. But apparently we went about things the wrong way. I was 25 when I made that movie, and we just didn't do it the right way. I don't want to sound flippant about it, but it's funny to me. The kids all sued; they said they all signed releases, but they only signed releases when they were drunk or stoned. Which is true -- because that was the best way to get them to sign releases! I didn't know that was wrong. I know better now, but it was a shame.
Your first film, Hated, covered GG Allin, who was obviously extreme. And today, with The Hangover, you push the R-rating about as far as I've seen it pushed. How does that temptation to find extremes and cross the line appeal to you?
You never really think of a line or think about pushing it. You just sort of think about what's funny to you. It's never a conscious effort to say, "Oooh, this is going to shock people." I really don't like that kind of humor myself, believe it or not. I always get bummed out when people describe it as a "gross-out" -- this really isn't a gross movie. But there is a spirit to this movie. GG Allin was really an extreme kind of punk-rock guy, and I always feel like the attitude and the spirit of the movies have a little bit of a punk-rock feel to them in that respect. Maybe it's just because of how I grew up. But it's more that aggressive, kind of obnoxious style of comedy. I never think of it as gross-out or pushing the envelope or whatever. ♦
[This is an edited version of our May 29 discussion at the Apple Store SoHo; a full podcast will follow this week.]