For director Todd Phillips, the Hangover is over — but his mission to subvert Hollywood continues.
“I’ve got my feet up and I’m relaxed,” says filmmaker Todd Phillips, taking a break from an international press event promoting The Hangover Part III in order to talk to Geek. “What do you guys mostly write about, like Star Trek?” he asks, noting one of the magazine’s most recent covers before admitting that giving interviews isn’t a favorite pastime yet a small price to pay “for having this incredible career and situation, which I’m really grateful for. But this isn’t really an interview, right? I feel more like I’m talking to an old friend.”
If you’re on the planet long enough, you sometimes get to watch a promising young talent blow up overnight — most often as the result of unsung years of hard work. And Phillips is an example of the latter.
I first met him in 1993, when he was freshly dropped out of New York University Film School and promoting his now-infamous documentary Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies — a breathtakingly candid look at the self-destructive punk rocker who died soon after the film’s completion. With little hesitation, I offered to sell his movie through the tiny video distribution company I ran at the time and we were soon in business together. And it was fun while it lasted, with me having the distinct pleasure of writing a check for what I believe was the first money he ever made as a filmmaker.
It was pretty clear the ambitious and smart Brooklyn native would make something of himself, and within a few short years, Phillips parlayed his talent for wry humor and subversive themes into his first feature, the raunchy 2000 hit Road Trip. And, with that, the die was cast: Here was Hollywood’s hot new comedy director with a deft touch for making absurd and vulgar characters and situations seem strangely endearing and entertaining.
After a couple more box-office hits (Old School, Starsky & Hutch) and a miss (School for Scoundrels), Phillips found his sweet spot with the 2009 bachelor party juggernaut The Hangover, which famously made the filmmaker a rich man after he presciently made a gamble by giving up his directing fee in exchange for a piece of the film’s worldwide box-office action. The Hangover Part II quickly ensued and crushed it, as did the hits Due Date and Project X (which he produced), cementing his status as one of the most successful comedy filmmakers of all time.
Geek spoke to Phillips just before the opening of The Hangover Part III, which he absolutely promised would be his last Hangover film ever. (Ever.)
GEEK: You’ve finished the last film in the series, completing your Hangover trilogy, so what do you think of the rumor about a Hangover prequel trilogy being made, starring much younger actors in the same roles?
Phillips: Oh, yeah, that Warner Bros. will make without me? I’m excited to see that.
Possibly involving roofie-spiked punch at a junior prom?
Well, I don’t know, you tell me. A 7th-grade version of The Hangover I’d see for sure, if that’s what you’re asking. I hadn’t heard this rumor before but I would definitely see that. Where did you hear about this?
Well, I’m starting the rumor right now.
[Laughs] Ha: I got it, I got it.
You’re following up two monster Hangover hits. Audience expectations: benefit or hazard?
Always a benefit. I remember making the first Hangover, shooting in Las Vegas at 5 a.m. in some dirty alley, sitting there thinking, “Wow, this is really funny — is anybody going to go see this movie?” Well, that’s a lot harder than dealing with, “Everybody wants to see this movie, so I hope they like it.” It takes a lot of the heat off. It’s an uptown problem to have. I mean, you can really worry that you’ve worked for a year and a half on a movie and not know if anybody is going to go see it. That happens all the time. And it sometimes has nothing to do with whether a movie is good or not or funny or not. Sometimes, you just don’t connect. And you work just as hard on those films as you do the hits, so that’s a tough thing to take. I’ll take this situation any time. At least I know there’s an audience.
Your first success as a filmmaker was all about capitalizing on controversy and capturing outrageousness. How do you perceive those days now, 20 years later?
I don’t think I’ve changed much. My movies are still all about outrageous behavior and bad decisions — granted on a different scale and they’re a little more palatable than say, GG Allin, but for studio movies, they’re still pretty out there with respect to the field we’re operating in. I mean, I understand the difference between The Hangover and The Master. We’re not making that kind of cutting-edge stuff, but for a movie being released by Time Warner Inc., we’re doing some crazy shit.
It’s interesting that the success of these films elevates them in a way. If The Hangover wasn’t making hundreds of millions of dollars, people would just write it off as being this lowbrow comedy. But the success has put it into this totally different category.
I agree. People get sort of turned on by the unapologetic nature of these movies. They’re surprised because in most “studio comedies” there will be bad behavior but then the last 20 minutes are spent rehabilitating the characters and apologizing for it. And we don’t do that. The movie just stops. [Laughs] And then the credits roll and we say goodbye. And I think people respond to that aggressive, balls-to-the-wall comedy.
Imagine yourself 20 years ago. Which of your movies would that younger you enjoy the most?
Of the films I’ve made in the studio system, probably Due Date, with Hangover II in second place. I don’t think Due Date got the respect it deserves — and I’m not trying to be immodest — but Robert [Downey Jr.] and Zach [Galifianakis] just killed it. They’re so funny together, and there are some really bizarre, subversively funny moments in that movie that just went over some people’s heads. I mean, the movie made $220 million worldwide, so I’m not saying it was underappreciated, but I think most people missed those moments, maybe because they were enjoying the movie at some other level. I just know that, for me, those moments are what make me laugh and think, “Wow, there’s some fucked-up shit in this movie that I don’t even think people noticed.”
So what’s the bar for “this is funny” when you’re writing this stuff?
I don’t think it’s really a “bar,” but I’ve made four movies now with Zach Galifianakis and I now think of him as this litmus test for comedy. If I send him a script or even just some pages, and I get a text back from him that responds to it, like him pointing out a certain scene and saying, “Oh my god,” or, “I fell off my chair,” then I know I’m going in the right direction. He’s a great comedy barometer because he’s literally the funniest guy I’ve ever met or worked with. It’s not about trying to shock the audience or anything, just to make each other laugh however we can. I mean, everybody in the movies is great, but doing four in a row with Zach has really been great because we totally connect.
How is the Thai transsexual scene in Hangover II an example of that?
Well, that is a good example. Because sometimes Zach will read the script and ask, “Really? We’re really going to do this? Is this funny?” And there’s a scene in Hangover III that really trumps that scene, but Zach was very skeptical about it. But you have to try things. I’ve got a lot of experience at this point with making movies and learning how an audience responds to things, and going with my gut, but you have to try things and see if they work, if they’re funny. Sometimes they’re not. There are so many things we shoot that never end up in the movies because they cross some line or just don’t connect. But it’s tough to not try. And there’s a freedom to fail that you get after working with the same people over and over again. I’m not afraid to pitch an idea that might not work or shoot a scene that’s not funny. And they know I’m going to protect them in the editing room, so they aren’t afraid either.
What’s the funniest thing you’ve left on the cutting room floor?
Oh, in Due Date, Zach is on this mission to take his father’s ashes to the Grand Canyon, so there’s this emotional moment when he spreads the ashes out and Robert is actually being human to him. Zach is basically crying. And in the original cut of the scene, Robert asks, “Your dad sounds like he was a great guy. How did he die?” And Zach just looks at him and says very matter of factly, “Sharing needles. He had a major heroin habit.” [Laughs] Zach had been talking about how great his father was and this line is just totally disarming. So I kept that joke in there throughout every test screening and nobody laughed. I just couldn’t figure it out. I thought it was so funny, but had to cut it.
Your Hangover cast is now much more famous than they were when you made the first film. How does that color the perception of what they’re doing onscreen or what you can have them do?
I don’t think so, because they were playing these characters before they became so well-known and have established them well enough that I don’t think anybody is going to go see Hangover III and only see the guy from Silver Linings Playbook, even though that was a huge breakthrough role for Bradley [Cooper]. But if he was in another comedy, not a Hangover movie, that might be more of an issue. So I don’t know if that fame is coloring anything, and I don’t even know if it would be a bad thing, but I understand what you mean. Audiences do come in with the baggage of the actor you cast in a role, so casting is incredibly important. Sometimes an actor has to work very hard to get past that barrier, but some other actors, like Will Ferrell and Zach, are just immediately welcomed by the audience with open arms.
How has YouTube and Internet culture made it harder — or just different — to make comedy and how was Project X sort of a reaction to changing times?
Project X was a reaction to that to some extent, but I don’t know that Internet humor has made it harder to be funny. That said, I’m a little old school. It’s very different to watch something on Funny or Die on your computer for a quick laugh than it is to go to a theater and sit in a huge theater on a Friday night with a crowd of strangers and — hopefully — laugh at something. I mean, we’ve heard for years that the [theatrical] movie business is dying but it consistently makes $10 billion a year, so people are still enjoying that experience. It’s not like the record business. You listen to music genuinely alone in your car or your room. When was the last time you listened to music sitting there with four people? You go to movies with an audience. Live music is still a huge business because it’s also a shared-experience event. Movies, especially comedies, will always be better with 500 people around you. To that end, I think YouTube and a lot of the Internet stuff just help create an appetite for good comedy, because most of that stuff is awful. Project X was intentionally made to look like a YouTube video, but we weren’t making it that way to cater to those viewers. We were trying to give it this layer of authenticity by using that style. But, to be honest, I’m a little out of touch with Internet culture. I don’t know it that well. I’m always the guy who sends somebody a link to a video that I think is cool and they say, “That’s three months old.” So I’m behind, probably because I’m working. I don’t really use Facebook much and I don’t Twitter — I’m not up on social media.
But after Project X came out and you started taking some critical hits, you posted on Facebook, “We didn’t set out to make ‘the most dangerous American movie for teens in the last 20 years.’ Seriously. Stop with the hate email.” Were you really getting hate email?
We got a lot of bullshit for that movie, but it’s from this vocal minority, and it happens to every movie. The problem is that there were a lot of copycat parties, with kids trying to re-create what they’d seen in the movie. I think the criticism was that intense because the movie was about high school kids, not adults.
I was having a discussion the other day about well-known creative people who don’t use social media, like Quentin Tarantino. Well, he already has an outlet for his thoughts and personality: his movies.
Exactly! But some people just like to be patted on the back all the time. I like to be patted on the back about every year and a half, when I make a movie. But that’s me. And I’m not a performer. For people who are performers, Twitter is amazing, because it puts you right in touch with your audience. There must be something fun about sending a Tweet out there, unedited. Also, I’m an insanely private person and only talk about myself when I have to, like when a movie comes out.
So you probably know that Project X was the most illegally downloaded movie of 2012?
Yeah, and I take some pride in that, just as I do in the fact that The Hangover II was one of the most illegally downloaded movies of 2011. But that’s because we’re gearing these movies toward an age group that’s very computer-savvy and prone to doing illegal downloads.
You faced some pretty tough criticism of some of your films. How does that make you feel?
I was being interviewed by some guy today who actually said to me, “Hangover II merely cut and pasted the plot of the first Hangover — how do you respond?” How do I respond that you’re calling Hangover II a lazy movie? That guy never created anything that made 100 million people laugh. Yes, it has the same structure, but anybody who would say it’s the same movie just thinks like a robot. It’s such a dismissive way of looking at the film. And lazy? Try getting up at 5 a.m. every day for 75 days straight and working 16-hour days while hundreds of people on a crew are working for you. Imagine what it takes to get 100 million people to leave their homes, get into their cars, drive to a theater, buy a ticket and go sit there for two hours. It’s not laziness.
You’ve established a reputation at the poker table — with $288K in major tournament winnings since 2005 — so how did that interest play into this remake project of The Gambler that I heard about?
In all seriousness, I’m a gambler. Not that I’ve got a gambling problem. [Laughs] James Toback wrote the original  movie The Gambler, and it was one of those movies I saw in film school that really left an impression, in part because James came to my class to screen it. That blew my mind. So we’re talking about developing this remake. If you know anything about the behind-the-scenes drama behind making The Hangover, you know that I’m a gambler. If you knew the specifics, you might think it was the biggest bet ever placed. It was a fucking crazy bet, but I won.
Well, gambling is never a problem if you’re winning.
[Laughs] That’s true.
- What are you a geek about?
“Movies and gambling. [Laughs] No, really, just movies. I’m doing some work at my house now to redo my home theater setup and I try to see everything I can and meet as many other directors as I can, which I don’t think many of them do. I just think I still have a lot to learn, and I’m in this incredible position to really meet so many people I respect so much. As a director, you never work with other directors. It’s a very solitary job. So it’s nice to get to do that. The very first movie set I was ever on was Road Trip. I didn’t grow up in the business, I didn’t have access like that, so I’m trying to enjoy this as much as I can.”
- When you’re sad and blue, where do you turn for a laugh?
“Oh, Zach. He’ll send me links or jokes or whatever and never fails to make me laugh.”
- Best comedic actor you’ve never worked with?
- Most underrated comedic performer?
- The sacred cow you most want to slaughter?
“Awww, come on, I don’t do that kind of stuff!”