Todd Phillips, by his own admission or at least acceptance, is the comedy world's A-list anti-Apatow: where the writer-director of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up bathes his characters in sweetness and sentiment, Phillips wrings his dry, leaving only the odd, awkward and undeniable punch of their punch lines. His latest film, The Hangover, follows a group of guys who awaken from an all-night bachelor party in Vegas to discover that the groom is missing, there's a tiger in the bathroom of their suite, and they are now in possession of a baby. No lessons are learned, no constitutions tested and no hearts wrenched, and that's just the way Phillips – and the audience of his films, from Road Trip to Old School to Starsky and Hutch – prefers it.
Cinematical recently sat down with Phillips, in Vegas, no less, to discuss The Hangover. In addition to talking about his particular and preferred brand of comedy, Phillips talked about a few of the films that inspired him as a young man, and mused about the future of both The Hangover and Old School.
Cinematical: What I liked most about The Hangover is that no one learns any profound life lessons. It seems like filmmakers feel obligated to shoehorn in those kinds of morals.
Phillips: I think comedy directors tend to feel a need to justify the bad behavior, and I just never think that. I like bad behavior, I've always liked bad behavior, I'm a fan of bad behavior, and I don't think you have to justify bad behavior (laughs).
Cinematical: The screenwriters said that the original script did have some of those elements in it, and you were instrumental in shaping the tone. What was important to you?
Phillips: Well, I think the script that they had written, the first draft, was a PG-13 movie or something, and it didn't have the tiger in it, didn't have the baby in it, didn't have Mike Tyson in it. It didn't have the police car in it. I wanted it to be a night of mayhem, and a bachelor party in Vegas cannot be PG-13. For me it was just you take a script sometimes and you just shake it up and you loosen the tie on it and you f*cking mess up its hair and you just f*ck with it, and really that's what we did with the script. I think we just made it crazy and we wanted it to just feel like a night of mayhem, and changed the tone of it a little bit, and be unapologetic and be unironic and be unsentimental, all of the things that I think comedies do nowadays, a lot of them. I love those comedies, but it's just sort of not my thing.
Cinematical: Having made several films with this tone, do you think at all about what your oeuvre or just directorial sensibility is?
Phillips: Well I certainly think that you can look at the movies and see that I certainly explore male relationships. That's something I'm always fascinated with, the awkwardness of a heterosexual male relationship and why are we so awkward with each other and why can't we just be like – like girls have such an elegance to the way they are with their friends, I always think. So that's inherently funny to me, but again, I think as far as a style, there's a little bit of darkness to the movies that I do, I think, certainly to The Hangover. There's a little bit of, basically like I said, just not ironic, not trying to be cleverer than you and show you how clever I am, but more just what it is. It's hard to explain (laughs). I love Judd Apatow movies, I love them, and I just read a piece that they showed me, and it said, the most un-Apatow or anti-Apatow or something to that effect, and I know what he means. What he means is that non-sentimental version of that.
Cinematical: I think you also do a good job humanizing the humor – meaning as outlandish as the set pieces are, they all seem at least vaguely realistic, and moreover, that these guys laugh at one another as buddies would. For whatever reason, many comedic filmmakers expect that since the audience will laugh, the characters don't need to.
Phillips: I know, I know! That's a good point, actually. I mean, I've never consciously even done that, but you're right – that's a really good point. I don't know what the question is, but...
Cinematical: I was just going to ask if there was a deliberate effort to do that.
Phillips: The deliberate effort is always play it against reality, or make it feel as real as possible. So I do think that sometimes a guy will laugh or do something like that and that will end up being the take in the movie because it feels like what would happen, like why are we all laughing and no one else is? So you're right, but for me it's always been about reality, and I never thought of it consciously that way but that's cool.
Cinematical: Did you have a summer movie experience that was formative or seminal to you?
Phillips: Always. I think it was the middle of summer when I snuck into, Jesus, I think we bought tickets to Ice Pirates and snuck into Star 80, which really shaped me. When I was younger I was obsessed with Star 80, and it's just a great movie – I think I saw it three times in the theater. You're going to go look it up on the internet and maybe it wasn't the summer, but I just remember that being a movie [I was obsessed with]. [Editor's Note: Star 80 was released Nov. 10, 1983.] I'm trying to think of the big movies that affected me as a kid...
Cinematical: Were there any benchmark comedies you can remember?
Phillips: Star 80. The Jerk was probably the biggest benchmark comedy for me, The Jerk and The Blues Brothers and Stripes, those were comedies that really [inspired me]. But again, Star 80 (laughs).
Cinematical: Is it meaningful to have your film released in the middle of summer? People have been discussing The Hangover as counterprogramming to the summer blockbusters.
Phillips: Yeah, it shows a certain level of confidence by the studio – or ignorance (laughs).
Cinematical: I have loved Zach Galifianakis for a long time, but do you make a deliberate effort to "discover" guys like him as you have in this film? Or is it just kind of catching lightning in a bottle?
Phillips: I keep an eye on guys like Zach and I've been paying attention to Zach for ten years, I think. I mean, if you live in L.A. and you like comedy, he's the king, he's the sh*t. I've always been thinking, God, I want to make a movie with this guy, I want to find the right thing and I want to use him correctly in a movie, because what he does on stage is hard to translate. He's so funny, and I just hope this movie kind of brings him out. But the conscious thing, I definitely like sort of discovering or helping discovering certain guys, but it's not a conscious thing except that I really wanted this movie to feel as real as possible and I really feel like we've been seeing the same ten faces in a lot of movies, not just comedies but movies, and I just thought let's shake it up.
Cinematical: How tough or easy is it to mold that comedic style into something, if not conventional, then more digestible?
Phillips: I think Zach and I stumbled on this character of Alan. We talked about it a lot, talked about certain characteristics of Alan that would really speak to Zach's talents and speak to what Zach does well. So I think we really figured him out together, and then I think Zach took it and ran with it and just killed beyond my expectations. So in a weird way, it does capture Zach, even though he's clearly playing a character. And I think with Zach, I don't think anyone has it expect maybe Will Ferrell doing comedies right now, is the sweetest, most innocent eyes and face, so he can get away with so much. So much of the comedians we all love, Jack Black, Ben Stiller, there's a darkness to them, which is what we love about them, but you look at Will's eyes and there is no darkness in Will, and there is no darkness in Zach. It's just sweetness, so they get to get away with sh*t that no one else can get away with.
Cinematical: When you're thinking about these movies, do you think about the sort of multidimensionality of what people could come away with after watching them? It often seems like an ignoble goal "just" to make people laugh, but that seems much harder than trying to convey a theme or explore some lesson or idea?
Phillips: Here's the thing: I like going to work every day and trying to crack each other up and make funny movies. I can't believe I get paid to show up and work on a script and work with guys like Zach where every day we just try each other laugh. Are there themes in this that I think apply to the world? Is the world right now in a "hangover" for whatever reason? That's not why we set out to make the movie, and I know you don't mean that. But really, it's to make a balls-out funny movie; all a director is is a point of view, and all a director really has is the tone, and is a purveyor of tone and all of those things. To keep pushing these movies tonally and keep f*cking with tone, and I think The Hangover is different that Old School and ultimately why I think it's a better film than Old School is it has a more complicated tone in a weird way. There's a darkness under The Hangover because ultimately there's a missing person and it's not really that funny. There's a sort of darkness under it that I love, and still people are laughing as hard if not harder than they did in Old School. So my thing as a filmmaker that I like to play with is tone, and that's sort of why it's different. It's not, and maybe it's nuanced and maybe it's my own thing, but it's what I find to be the challenge.
Cinematical: Speaking of Old School, has a sequel gotten back on track?
Phillips: No, it's not on track right now. Dreamworks had a thing and they sold it to Paramount, but all of that business stuff aside, right now we're not making Old School 2. We have no plans to make Old School 2 right now.
Cinematical: During the roundtables you said you didn't want to talk too much about The Hangover 2, but the screenwriters suggested that blueprinting the first film and doing a second would probably be a mistake. At the risk of asking something you don't want to answer, would you want to take a sequel in a very different direction if you had the chance?
Phillips: I think what we have with this movie is great characters, and I want to see these characters do anything. So that's really kind of how we're thinking about that. And again, because I can see the people writing, "they're a little presumptuous!" We're not doing anything with Hangover 2 yet.