Mr. Beaks Recovers From THE HANGOVER With Todd Phillips!
Published at: June 5, 2009, 11:08 a.m. CST by mrbeaks
The trick to making a great Vegas comedy is that you have to outdo all of the awful, unbelievable stories your audience has experienced and/or collected throughout the years. After all, you don't have to work very hard, or stroll too far from your hotel, to see something outrageous and disgusting in that town. And simply going R-rated with your movie isn't going to be enough. Vegas is an NC-17 town.
And yet Todd Phillips's THE HANGOVER miraculously captures the wretched excess of the town Bugsy built while (just barely) working within the constraints of an R-rating. This is a big, rowdy, widescreen summer comedy - and it's the kind that perhaps only Phillips could deliver. Think about it. Is there a mainstream comedy director working today who can get away with a no-apologies depiction of a lost Vegas weekend? And by "no apologies", I mean that, when it's all said and done, no one emerges from this three-day desert crucible begging for forgiveness from their wife or girlfriend. As in OLD SCHOOL, Phillips's characters are actually stronger for having behaved badly. They've become better men by getting blackout drunk and acting like animals.
This is probably not a popular notion, but I've a feeling it's about to become a very profitable one for Phillips - who first knew he was sitting on a box office smash when he test-screened THE HANGOVER last January. This doesn't mean it's been an easy sell. Though Phillips obviously knew what he was doing creatively when he cast Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis in the lead roles, he also set a bit of a marketing challenge for himself by opting for three "unknown" box office commodities. So Phillips and the studio - mindful of their June 5th showdown with Will Ferrell in LAND OF THE LOST - began selling the film rather aggressively four months out. This is why you've seen so many trailers for the movie. This may also be why one physically unimpressive internet journalist was invited to see the movie early. Those wildly successful test screenings were going to be all for naught if they failed to build awareness.
When I communicated with Phillips last February, he was extremely anxious to get the film on people's radar. When I spoke with him over the phone last week, he was a little more relaxed. As a result, I got a very candid, wide-ranging interview out the Phillips, one that covers everything from the artist-friendly atmosphere at Warner Bros. to the not-so-artist-friendly philosophy of the Writers Guild of America (which denied Phillips and writer Jeremy Garelick credit for heavily reworking the original screenplay by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore). We also discuss the testing process, the pleasures of anamorphic comedy, the fearlessness of Ken Jeong, the importance of on-set mayhem and the durability of infants.
Mr. Beaks: I know that you can never tell how an audience is going to react, but when you invited me to that screening last February, you must've known that you had something.
Todd Phillips: Oh, yeah. But, in that same spirit, I would not have invited you to the first test screening. We'd had a test screening [in January], and it went really well. It was one of those "Oh, my god, was that an anomaly, or is it really that good?" It played really well. So then we made some tweaks, and we had that screening you came to. That was more friends of mine. We had that at Warners to get real notes and see what people thought. But you saw a really early cut. It's changed a little bit. I don't know you've seen it again. It's not like we went crazy, but it definitely got better and tighter all around.
That was an interesting screening you came to actually. Those ones at the studios are always weird. I hate screenings in general. I wish you could just make a movie, put it in a vault and never show anybody. And I know that's the antithesis of what filmmaking is. (Laughs)
Beaks: That's strange. You make comedies, which are the ultimate audience experience movies.
Phillips: I'm really mostly teasing. It's just a stressful process, and you wish you could skip that part of it. But it's such a key part to making a comedy - and by "part" I mean testing and showing it to people. You know it's not 100%, but you want to make sure the funny stuff is actually funny and that you're not just smoking too much pot. You want to make sure you have something. That part's just super stressful to me.
Beaks: Do you get so close to the movie that you're surprised people are actually laughing when you show it?
Phillips: Or sometimes not laughing? Sometimes you're like, "Oh, this is going to kill!" and the only sound you hear is people chewing popcorn. Or you throw something in that you think is a throwaway and it becomes a huge moment, so you start cutting around that moment in the next cut. I'm always surprised when... like, my agent says to me, "Hey, you know you can get final cut!" And I'm like, "I've had final cut on every movie. In comedy, the audience has final cut." There's not one thing that's been in any one of my movies that I had to fight for or that somebody told me to put in or not put in. Ultimately, with a comedy, if they laugh, it works, and you make the film work with it. And if they don't laugh, it's coming out. (Laughs)
I'm always surprised when a director tells me "Yeah, I don't screen my movies." And I'm talking about comedy directors; obviously, I understand that PTA doesn't need to do test screenings. But with comedies, when you really are trying to make 400 people laugh at the same time, it's an important part of the filmmaking process. And, by the way, I don't use cards. It's literally about feeling the rhythm of the film.
Beaks: That's the only reaction that matters in comedy. Doing cards on a comedy, you start getting particular, and then you run the risk of killing the jokes.
Phillips: It's not even that. The cards in comedy... I save all the cards. (Laughs) You should see some of them. Half of them are fifteen-year-old kids writing "Suck my dick!" across the paper. Even when they love it. Which is exactly what I would've done when I was fifteen, by the way.
Beaks: (Laughing) Yeah, I think I probably did stuff like that, too.
Phillips: Or they'll write "Scenes you like most: Boobies!!!" "Scenes you like least: No Boobies!!!" (Laughs) I had that one framed in my old office. I said, "This is my audience. This kid speaks to me."
Beaks: And you know what? He's going to be an executive one day.
Phillips: (Laughing) He's going to be the executive of my company!
Beaks: (Laughing) Did you get any resistance from the studio on your three leads? None of them were proven box-office draws, obviously.
Phillips: You know, the business is just changing dramatically all the time. When I sat down with Jeff Robinov, the head of Warners, he basically gave me a number and said, "If you can make the movie for this number, you can put whoever you want in it, you can do whatever you want in it. It can be R-rated, and I'll see you at the first test screening." I looked at the number, and I said, "Absolutely." And we went off and made it.
Warners has been doing such ballsy things with filmmakers over the last few years. I feel like people don't realize it because it's Warners, and they just think it's some giant machine. But if you look at Jody Hill's [OBSERVE AND REPORT], which I fucking loved, or you look at WATCHMEN, which I also loved, you see that they're working with real filmmakers and letting them do what they do. I think it's kind of amazing, actually. They're just like, "Hey, if you can responsible and bring it in [on budget], go make whatever you want." They didn't know who Zach Galifianakis was. They love him now, but they didn't know then. But they trusted that I was trying to bring some new faces into it.
Beaks: One of the things that first struck me about the movie was that it just feels like a big summer comedy. I think that's because you always shoot in widescreen. It just feels like something you can only get in the theater.
Phillips: I'm surprised more people don't do it. It's such a part of making a movie to me. It's like, "Wow, I'm a director and I can get all this equipment to go shoot a movie? Of course we're going to shoot in widescreen." It just feels like crazy not to. There have always been these weird rules in comedy. "Anamorphic doesn't work in comedy." I'm like, "What are you fucking talking about? Who made that fucking rule up?" I'm proud of the cinematic feel of this movie.
Beaks: I also love the way you've populated the film with so many talented, if lesser known comedic actors. I guess everybody's doing that nowadays, but the way you use Ken Jeong for instance... he's so fearless. Did he need any convincing to do that scene?
Phillips: (Laughs) No. In fact, I'll go one step further. In the pages we were shooting, he was supposed to be just in suit pants with no shirt or socks. And you were supposed to go, "Whoa, why's this guy jumping out [of the trunk]?" But Ken came to me the night before and asked, "Do you think we could do this where I come out naked?" He barely got the word "naked" out before I had the nudity waiver under his trailer door. (Laughs) You don't have to ask me twice. I'm like, "Yeah, let's do it!"
Beaks: You were probably like, "Why the fuck didn't I think of that in the first place?"
Phillips: Yeah, but that's Ken. Ken is somebody a lot of people don't know. I mean, I'm sure people at Ain't It Cool know him, but... he is exactly what you're looking for when you're directing a comedy. He's a fearless actor. So much of comedy is about being fearless. I think Zach is fearless, I think Will Ferrell is fearless, and Ken... though not on that level, approaches it with no fear. It's one of the most amazing things. You should see the takes. We're probably going to put them on the DVD. We would just run a mag on him, and he's just improvise for eleven minutes with some of the craziest shit. And then when the mag ran out, he'd turn back to the camera and say, "Was that okay, Todd? Did I go on too long?" (Laughs) It's the weirdest thing. He literally leaves his body and becomes somebody else. I couldn't be a bigger fan of his. I'm obsessed with him right now.
Beaks: Me, too. Another thing that I love about the film is how Bradley Cooper is, on one hand, the biggest asshole of the group, but, on the other, the only one who's happily married. And when we see him at the end of the movie, we also find out he's a good father.
Phillips: He's a good guy. I mean, he's a bit of an all-talk guy and an instigator; he's the alpha male, and he likes to get it going. But I think Bradley looks great in this role. It's just fun to watch him have a role where he can take the stage and run it. He's often been the best friend, or everybody knows him from WEDDING CRASHERS as a spineless guy. But in this, he's a man who runs it and tries to hold it together the whole time.
Beaks: I guess a guy like that needs that balance in his life. Though it's questionable as to how ethical a teacher he is--
Phillips: Aw, c'mon, man! Don't be such a pussy! He's at a private school! He should take their money!
Beaks: (Laughing) Look, I agree, but you've got to say these things. You've got to act like you've got some kind of moral compass. But that brings me to another point I wanted to bring up. This is a very un-PC comedy. It really goes for it in a way that a lot of films are too timid to do nowadays. I think back to the '70s, and wonder if we could get a movie like BLAZING SADDLES today. I just recently watched FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, and it's just the most--
Phillips: God, that's a great movie.
Beaks: And that could definitely never be made today. But in terms of really going for it, you can't think in terms of what's "over the line", can you?
Phillips: No. You can maybe think about the line when you're in the editing room, but I think you have to let your actors feel free to fuck around and go for it. Most of my movies have been about mayhem in some form or another, and when you're making a movie about mayhem, you need there to be mayhem on the set. You can't be laying down laws like, "Oh, we won't go there. That's going to offend so-and-so." And I'm not even talking about offensive, but shock, because I don't think there's a lot of offending stuff in the movie. But you never want to take a guy like Zach, fight for him, put him in the movie, and then rein him in. Then you're like, "Why did you hire Zach? Why didn't you get some other guy?"
Beaks: So what about the scene where you smack the baby with the car door? Was that scripted?
Phillips: Oh, no. That's something I literally came up with in the moment. We did a couple of takes of that, and I was like, "Hey, maybe it's funny if we hit the baby with the car door." We tried one, put it in the cut, and it played big. That's one that I honestly thought was a throwaway and kind of a cheap gag, but it played so big because you never see that with a four-month-old kid. It's just not what you do. (Laughs)
Beaks: No, not really.
Phillips: But kids... people are too tender with them. They're quite resilient at that age.
Beaks: (Laughing) Thinking back to OLD SCHOOL, once that movie really took off and became quotable, did it put pressure on you to deliver a hit of that magnitude again?
Phillips: Well, you always want to make a great movie again. Some work and some don't. But as far as OLD SCHOOL and how it permeated into the culture - you watch SportsCenter now, and someone will yell out "You're my boy, Blue!" You never think that's going to happen, and when it does, it's amazing. You can't always aim for that, but you at least try to aim to make a great comedy.
I don't feel the pressure to hit like OLD SCHOOL again. And, by the way, OLD SCHOOL didn't make a ton of money in the theater. It thrived on DVD and repeat viewings; that's when it really started to permeate into people's language. I think OLD SCHOOL made $80 million at the box office, which was great for that, but it wasn't like WEDDING CRASHERS or something like that.
Beaks: But I think it set everything up. It helped kick off that movement with Will and Vince and so on. It was the first out of the gate in that regard.
Phillips: The one thing I try to do with my films is be really aggressive with the comedy. And I do think a lot of these kinds of films - even lately - tend to be overly sentimental. They try to justify [the characters'] behavior in the end. And what I like about THE HANGOVER, or OLD SCHOOL for that matter, is that they're unapologetic in their aggressiveness. They're not overly sentimental, and they're not really ironic. A lot of stuff is very ironic, and I always feel like I'm not a part of [the movie] when it's ironic. I don't know. Maybe it's because I'm retarded and it goes over my head. I just like it when it's funny. (Laughs)
Beaks: When I was on the set of THE HANGOVER, I got a chance to talk to screenwriter Jeremy Garelick. I didn't realize at the time that he was working on the script, but I've since learned that you both did a good deal of rewriting. And yet neither of you got a writing credit.
Phillips: It's interesting, and this happens to everybody. Judd Apatow did a massive amount of rewriting on THE CABLE GUY, which a lot of people don't know about. A massive amount. There are weird rules in the Writers Guild, and I don't want to trash the Writers Guild. I certainly don't want to trash the original writers, because they came up with a great idea and a great concept. But if you look at the original script - and the only reason I'm saying this is because Jeremy Garelick is a phenomenal writer and he gave so much of himself. We sort of disappeared for four months and really rewrote this movie: Mike Tyson was not in the movie, there was no tiger, there was no baby, there was no cop car, there was no brother-in-law that came on the trip. We're not talking about "tweaks" to the script; we're talking about massive rewriting. But the Writers Guild has these insane rules that if you're also a director on the movie, you have to prove this insane amount of work - and they have very nebulous rules of what that work is. It actually went through an arbitration, and I don't know what happened. I'm not a big fan of the Writers Guild. The WGA. The Whiners Guild of America. (Laughs)
And you can't not be in it. You don't realize when you go into the film business... I mean, you don't go into filmmaking to be a part of groups and things. Then suddenly they're like, "You've got to join this union, and you've got to join that union." I don't even believe in the way they do this certain stuff. It's disappointing. But it's mostly disappointing for Jeremy. I'm still the director of the movie; my name's on the movie, and people who know my films can feel me in this movie. But Jeremy did a massive amount of work. And the fucked up part is it's not even the fault of the original writers. They even agreed. But they Writers Guild was like, "No, no, you're being pressured by the director, so we're not going to stand for this." It's just astounding.
Beaks: But for the sequel you'll be writing with Scot Armstrong again. I haven't heard that Jeremy will be involved with this at all. Why did you go back to Scot?
Phillips: That's funny, actually. Jeremy is now writing a movie for me on his own. He just wasn't available. I actually would've rewritten [THE HANGOVER] with Scot Armstrong, because I do all of my movies with Scot, but he wasn't available at the time. So I fell into this great thing with Jeremy, and I fell in love with Jeremy. And when we were done with this, he pitched me another idea, and I said, "That's fucking great, will you write that for me to direct?" So he's off doing that, and he's unavailable. But Scot is.
Beaks: How far along are you with THE HANGOVER sequel?
Phillips: It's not a greenlit project like people say on the internet. We're just knocking around ideas in case this thing works. We don't want to be in a position like with OLD SCHOOL 2, where, four or five years down the road, you're trying to mount it, and everyone's doing other things, and a lot of planets have to align to make that come to fruition. So we just jumped the gun and started knocking around ideas. We haven't even been hire to write anything officially yet.
Beaks: Because the big question is: "Would you go back to Vegas?"
Phillips: We have ideas, but I don't want to get into it. We have some great ideas for it.
Beaks: And then OLD SCHOOL 2 is definitely dead?
Phillips: Well, it suffered a little bit when DreamWorks got sold to Paramount, and then moved to Disney. It's a DreamWorks project, but then it ended up at Paramount. But the old executives who loved it aren't there anymore. The other thing is just trying to get Will and Vince to find the time to even sit down and talk about it and try to schedule it. It looks like it's probably not going to happen. We wrote a script, though.
(I thought our interview was over at this point, but we kept talking. Then Phillips started saying some interesting stuff about the "fraternity" of comedy directors, so I turned the recorder back on.
Phillips: In this business, people think it's so competitive. But I really think there's this fraternity with directors, for lack of a better word. We know how hard it is to get a movie made, let alone to make it good and get it to come out and be successful. There's not that [competitive] attitude among filmmakers. They all support each other because when a movie does well, it's good for everybody who makes movies. Period. The end. No matter what it is, it's good for everyone.
Beaks: Oftentimes, people try to turn it into a Judd Apatow vs. Todd Phillips vs. Jon Favreau type of thing. People try to gin up these rivalries, but do they really exist?
Phillips: They don't. They really don't. The week before we started shooting THE HANGOVER, I flew to another director's wedding with Judd, hanging out, talking about our movies, wishing each other luck on the movies we were about to make. People don't realize: if FUNNY PEOPLE is a success, or THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN or KNOCKED UP, that is so good for me as a comedy director. The fact that you can put Seth Rogen on a movie poster before he was Seth Rogen - and then it does well? That makes it so much more liberating to go and make THE HANGOVER with Zach Galifianakis. And, again, even on a selfish level, we just know how hard it is to make a movie and get everything to work. You don't need that extra high school attitude that does permeate a lot of things around the business, but is not really at the dead center of the business.
This interview could've easily gone on for another twenty minutes, but I was way over my time so I cut out here. Can't wait to do it again on the next one.
THE HANGOVER is out in theaters nationwide.