‘The Hangover’s’ Todd Phillips: Living in an R-Rated World

When Todd Phillips told me that he had read my piece on his latest film The Hangover, I was surprised that it had found his eyes. “Of course,” he explained. “There is this big machine at Warner Bros., where they send you these media alerts. Even if some fucking fat kid in Tampa writes on his blog, it somehow gets across your desk. It can be very depressing.” But Phillips has no reason to feel down. His raunchy, R-rated comedy is getting the kind of positive press that no Hollywood publicity machine can buy, and rightfully so.

The Hangover is a deliriously naughty trip into the bowels of Vegas bachelor party hedonism, after three friends wake up from a wild night, only to find that they’re missing the groom. Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifiankis are already being hailed as breakout stars, before the film has even hit theatres, and Phillips—who directed Old School and Roadtrip, but stumbled with School for Scoundrels—is once again one of Hollywood’s hottest harbingers of comedic swagger.

The movie is being referred to as the sleeper hit of the summer, even before it’s released. Does that put a lot of pressure on you? No, I think it puts a lot of pressure on the studio. They know they have a movie that works, and that’s good—I think that’s probably why you see ads for it every two seconds. But the best ad we have for the movie is the movie. That’s why we keep showing it. We’ve had 300 screenings just showing people, because there’s no better commercial for the movie than the movie itself. When movies work, they work because of word of mouth, because a guy like you will go back to the office and tell everyone they have to watch it. Then they’ll go, because they trust you more than a commercial.

Are you expecting the movie to open big? We don’t expect this movie to open big, honestly. It still doesn’t have Jack Black on the movie poster, or Tom Hanks, or whatever. But we just think we can stick around this summer a little bit. We feel like we are pretty clear up until Bruno. We can really play for a while.

You left Borat because of creative differences with its star. Do you think if things had gone better on the set of Borat, you might have been the director of Bruno right now? Maybe, although I don’t think I would have ever done another one. The thing with Borat is, it’s not a very director-driven film, and I really am a filmmaker, and I think part of our tensions on that movie were very much—and again I’ll take the blame for it—but you want to put your voice on something, but this is something that this genius has already created and inhabited. It’s a very difficult thing to do so, had even I done that I couldn’t imagine I would go do another one.

Is there a part of you that hopes you guys beat Bruno? No, honestly part of me hopes we beat every movie. I hope we beat Land of the Lost, because they open against us. To be honest with you, Bruno doing well just helps me in the long run. It helps everyone who’s directing comedies. Those movies doing well just helps the business. The more movies without those huge stars that can get made and cut through, the better it is for the business.

And then it’s movies like this that make the huge stars. It’s true, it’s like this cannibalizing thing, because then they become big stars, and then you need to get three new guys.

I called Zach Galifiankis “Jack Black with demons.” Does he have the potential to become that kind of marquee name, or is he too much on the fringe? No, because if you remember, Jack was on the fringe. I mean, I saw Tenacious D at the Viper Room a few years ago. You couldn’t be more on the fringe than Jack. Now he’s doing family movies like Kung Fu Panda, so no, I don’t think you’re ever too much on the fringe for Hollywood to take you and water you down into submission.

Have you seen Zach’s Between Two Ferns with Bradley Cooper? Of course, I was there because they were shooting in Vegas. I mean, Zach is one of the most unique comic voices, I think I’ve ever met. By the way, he reminds me of Sacha. They are very different in what they do, but it’s like, “Whoa, this is a true comic voice I am meeting now.” And Zach just continues to blow my mind.

How do you write a character for someone like that? Did he come in and make it his own? We wrote it with Zach in mind. I just thought, okay what is Zach? He’s left- footed, he doesn’t belong, he is an outsider, so let’s make this character a left footed outsider that he can inhabit. That’s why he crushes it so badly. This role is hand-crafted for him from the Franklin Mint.

What about Bradley and Ed? How would you describe their styles of comedy? I think Bradley, for the first time in a movie, really looks like a man. And I also always felt like he’s like a boy in other movies, because he’s kind of playing the spineless, put-upon asshole in the movie. Here he really takes the stage, and he runs shit, and he’s really alpha male. His comedy comes from an alpha male who keeps fucking up. And Ed, his comedy comes from being this henpecked, stuffed-into-a-box kind of guy.

You don’t hold back in this movie. There are holocaust and 9/11 jokes. Were there ever times when you said “Okay, this is too far”? Honestly, you can talk to any of these guys, I think I’m darker than any of them. So there are times when I am like, “Okay, we’re going to jerk off this baby now.” And Zach goes, “We can’t do that. I don’t even know if that’s legal.” By the way, it was Zach’s idea, he did it with a doll as a joke, and I was like, “Oh my god, we have to put that in the movie!” I do a lot of movies that involve a lot of mayhem, and when you’re doing a movie which embraces mayhem, you have to embrace mayhem while making the movie. You can’t be reigning anything in. You come to the set of my movie and you’ll think this is a very disorganized mess, and everybody seems high, and what’s going on? There is a baby over there and he’s not even in a baby seat. But it’s all organized chaos.

A friend of mine saw the movie, and he called it repulsively misogynistic and cited the two female characters as a “ball-cutting bitch and a hooker.” How would you respond to him? The Hangover is The Hangover.

I’m going to tell him this, by the way. He’s probably smarter than me. But what do you mean, repulsively misogynistic? That’s the character! Are you saying that there aren’t characters like that in the world, that there aren’t women like that? That’s who we chose to make the movie about. Does every movie have to have every representation represented? It does not pretend to be a movie about wonderful women and wonderful men. It’s a movie about fucked up shit. Talk about being a ball-cutter, have your friend get some fucking balls. It’s so hard to defend because there is no defense. That’s the movie.

What about Ken Jeong, who plays a villain? Ken is a mad man. He’s one of those guys who’s just fearless. And all you can ask for in a comedy is to work with fearless actors. Your last directorial effort School For Scoundrels was a box office disappointment. Did the old Hollywood adage that ‘you’re only as good as your last film’ trouble you? I certainly hoped it would do better. You’re right, it was a box office disappointment. I don’t think that if you work in Hollywood, that that’s particularly true. Maybe in certain peoples mind you’re only as good, but your career doesn’t end over a movie, and I knew that going in. I learned a lot from that film, like trying to make an edgy comedy PG-13 just doesn’t work. I was born to be a balls-out R-rated person.

There are only a few other directors out there who are doing mainstream R-rated comedies, like Judd Apatow and Adam McKay. Do you feel a kindred spirit with them? Yeah, we’re all friends, we all see each other in movies, and we screen them for each other sometimes.

Why did you choose Caesar’s Palace as the main location for your film? It’s a great hotel, it’s real old school, which is what I like about it for the movie. We wanted the guys to have a real gentleman vibe going to Vegas, not a bunch of twenty year olds going to Planet Hollywood or something.

Where else did you guys shoot in Vegas? We shot all over Vegas. What I love about the movie is that so much of it takes place in the daytime. You don’t really see Vegas a lot during the daytime, because it’s not really that attractive. We went to Pure, and shot there, The Bank at the Bellagio, Spearmint Rhino, all those kinds of establishments.

Could this movie have happened in any other city? No, I think Vegas has something about it. It’s about making bad decisions. You get off the plane and you immediately start making bad decisions. This movie could have been called Bad Decisions. It’s not about a bachelor party. It’s about reconciling the bad decisions you made.

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