“The Hangover Part III” reunites Phillips with his original cast, led by Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis and Justin Bartha. This time, there’s no wedding. No bachelor party. What could go wrong, right? But when the Wolfpack hits the road, all bets are off.
Question: When did it occur to you to make a third Hangover movie and, conceptually, where did you want to take it?
Todd Phillips: Well, I think it occurred to us on the second movie that we wanted to make a third movie because, honestly, we just love doing them so much. And people can be cynical and say it’s a money thing or it’s a studio thing, but if you talk to these guys, we love hanging out and doing this movie. We wake up every day and the goal is just to make each other laugh. And we just feel very privileged and lucky that we get to do this. That said, it was very much a goal to make a film that was a departure from the other two and, at the same time, was still aggressively funny and unapologetic in its tone.
That was kind of the goal, and the other goal was to make a movie that felt like part of a trilogy, that tied up the other two movies, and justifies why the other two movies exist. In other words, it doesn’t pretend that the other two movies didn’t happen; it’s because the other two movies happened, if that makes sense.
Q: Were there any sorts of broad themes or issues you wanted to hit?
Phillips: Well, yeah. I think that, ultimately, the first two movies have been about Stu. The first movie was about him getting control of his life and sort of growing, like becoming a man and standing up to that woman he was with and actually realizing he doesn’t have to be defined by this relationship.
This movie is very much about Alan, who in the second film described himself as a stay-at-home son. Alan is really the one who’s been flat-lined this whole time in that he causes all the trouble, he screws everything up and never changes at the end of it. You know, he takes no responsibility because he’s unaware. And in this movie, it’s about Alan finally being able to become a man and Alan finally taking some responsibility in his life. He was the loose end that this movie ties up. So it’s Alan’s story, and it’s about our guys who try to help Alan finally “get better,” and about how Chow comes into that and screws it up because there’s always somebody who’s got to do that.
Q: When you sat down to write the script with Craig Mazin, what is your process?
Phillips: We try to make each other laugh. [Laughs] But even before that—because we know that the funny stuff will come—it’s really about setting up a plot that will keep people interested and hold its own weight. We do this thing where we say, ‘Does this plot work if we do no jokes?’ In other words, will this movie work with zero jokes in it as a story? And if we get that story tight enough, which we hopefully do and did on this, we then go, ‘Okay, now how do we make it ridiculous, make it funny and all that?’
But it’s very much first about how the story works and we’re a little bit of logic police on ourselves, going, ‘Well, wait, why would that happen if this and this?’ And, again, when you watch this movie, you go back and there are things that were planted in The Hangover that are explained in The Hangover Part III, things that happened in The Hangover Part II that become clear in this film, so it all kind of ties together. And it’s pretty fun because it was kind of like backwards engineering a project. Because, obviously, we didn’t really set out to make a trilogy when we first made it, so the goal was to make it all feel like a giant story.
Q: And how much have the guys inhabiting these roles inspired you in writing this film?
Phillips: So much. I mean, in a sense, I jokingly say—although Craig Mazin would have a heart attack—that the movies write themselves. They don’t, but because when you put these guys in a situation, we’re so familiar with their characters, you kind of know what Alan would say or how he’d behave or how Phil would react here. And that’s a big head start.
Q: Can you talk about getting these four actors [Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Justin Bartha and Zach Galifianakis] back together and how their chemistry works. Is it always there in them?
Phillips: It does seem to be always there in them. I’ve talked to other directors—whether it’s Steven Soderbergh on his Oceans movies or Jay Roach with his three Austin Powers movies or Brett Ratner with the Rush Hour movies—and everyone talks about a shorthand. There really is a shorthand when you go to a third movie on that side of the camera. Bradley knows his character almost better than I know his character, and I’ve written it. But Bradley’s inhabited it and made it his own over the years. So we don’t have to discuss those things anymore. It’s very much about the machinations of the plot and about how to amplify the comedy or pull off the moment. But it’s never about the character. That stuff gets so filled in, and that’s such a credit to the actors on any of these movies because even though you write the part in the beginning, the actors create the part when they step into the clothes and fill it all in. So it’s an interesting process.
Q: You talked about centering on Alan’s story, but can you talk a bit about the film and where these characters go?
Phillips: Well, like I said, Alan started going through this crisis in his life because of the death of his father and, at the same time, he’s sort of been off his medication, so to speak. And he’s having a moment. Meanwhile, over in Bangkok, Mr. Chow has broken out of prison and he’s headed to the West Coast, not for anything to do with our boys. He is going to recruit Alan to help him get revenge on something that was planted in the first Hangover. So, as our boys are trying to get Alan to get better, at the same time, Mr. Chow has come in and is messing up his life. It’s very much about them trying to deal with that and allow Alan to sort of be healed.
Q: And it takes you back to Vegas. What was it like returning to Vegas?
Phillips: It was fantastic. I mean, all the places there really rolled out the red carpet for us on The Hangover Part III. I mean, The Hangover was very different. It’s kind of an interesting thing because casinos are very much like movie studios. It’s not like Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal and Fox would all work together on one thing.
And when we went there, we were seeking five different properties to all work together on a sequence in our movie. And that’s like getting five movie studios to work together. But they did, because The Hangover means so much to Las Vegas. It was the summer of 2009 when the first one came out, and the country was going into a recession, probably still is, but I got calls from the CEOs of different casinos thanking us for The Hangover and what it did to bring young people back to Vegas. So those five properties all said, ‘Okay, let’s work together on this thing because it’s The Hangover.’ It was amazing. So, yes, they rolled out the red carpet; they all cooperated. I literally had a button at one point in my hand. If I pushed it, the Belllagio Fountains would go off.
Q: You also have new additions to the cast in this film in John Goodman and Melissa McCarthy. Can you talk about what it was like to bring them into the Hangover fold?
Phillips: Well, it’s always fun bringing sort of ‘outsiders’ into this insane traveling circus that we have, and Melissa McCarthy obviously fits in almost too perfectly. It’s weird. John Goodman can go into any movie and kill it for whatever you ask him to do. He’s just like nobody else. It’s kind of amazing to watch. So they were two great additions.
John Goodman plays a character who is introduced. His name’s Marshal’ and he’s actually talked about, if you watch The Hangover. We never see him, obviously, in The Hangover, but he’s brought up. We even flash back to that in The Hangover. You see when he’s mentioned and you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s Marshall?’ That’s who we’ve been talking about, this John Goodman guy. It’s pretty interesting.
Q: Was that a Eureka moment when you guys were working on the script, just like, ‘Marshall!’
Phillips: Yeah, it kind of was. It was like, ‘Wait, who is that? I know who it is. Let’s make it that guy!’ So that’s exactly what it was.
Q: You’re also working with Heather Graham again. What was that like?
Phillips: Heather has always, for me, represented a sort of ray of light, like sunshine, particularly in the bleak landscape that has been these Hangover movies. We had to bring Heather back because if we’re going to Vegas, we have to visit this beacon, which she is, always. She’s just this ray of light. And that was fun. We also brought back her kid from the first movie—that baby.
We got the same actor, who was six months old then, who’s now four-and-a-half, named Grant. He has the same cheeks as he had in the first movie, so we called up his mom, and she was like, ‘I don’t know if he can do this. He’s obviously not an actor. He was a six-month-old baby then.’ And I said, ‘Well, bring him in and let’s just hang out and see how he is.’ And he was so adorable that we couldn’t not try it, and he was great. And he has a really big moment in the movie with Zach. It’s so cute.
Q: That is so great. Does he have any conception of what he is a part of?
Phillips: No. He has no clue.
Q: Having worked with these actors for five years, what has it been like to watch the development of their careers, especially with Bradley Cooper’s recent accolades for Silver Linings Playbook?
Phillips: It’s amazing. I mean, literally Bradley’s one of my best friends, so to see that happen, for all of us and Bradley, it’s just been so astounding. But, you know, it’s always been there. The guy’s just a great actor and sometimes they just need to get that shot and I think The Hangover put him on a stage that enabled people to say, ‘Okay, who is this guy?’ And ‘Look how good-looking this guy is and how much confidence he has in these movies. Maybe he could do this.’ And he’s gone on and killed it.
And with Zach, as a comic actor, I’ve worked with a lot of funny people over the years, having done now eight or nine movies. Zach’s the funniest. I feel like Bradley would have been discovered with or without The Hangover, quite honestly. I feel Zach is somebody that, by using his talent so appropriately—because he had shots in other comedies, but he would sort of disappear in the movies—by really knowing how to showcase his talents, I feel, in a weird way, more ‘ownership’ over Zach, in that I feel like we really put him out there. Like, here’s a highlight reel of why Zach is the funniest guy on the planet. I think, ultimately, people were going to find Bradley because he just looks like a movie star.
Q: I was also thinking about Ken Jeong [as Chow] because he’s so funny in these movies.
Phillips: Yeah, Ken owes me everything. [Laughs] No. He’s so freaking funny and so randomly funny—he’s all of our favorite guy. It’s a weird kind of funny.
Q: One last question, the beautiful cinematic look that your movies have, are you and [director of photography] Lawrence Sher continuing that in this film?
Phillips: This one, I think, is the most beautiful, really. They’ve always had a look to them, I think, and I’m glad you say that, but with this one we even had a little more time. I really wanted it to feel epic in certain ways and it really does. There are a couple of things in this movie I’m really proud of, just look-wise, and I don’t think ninety percent of the audience notices it, or I think if they do it’s subconscious, like there might be something different about this than other comedies that they’re used to seeing. So, with this one, I’m really happy with where it ends up and I think The Hangover, the three movies in general, just have this very specific look to them, and I think it’s really beautiful.
(A presentation of Warner Bros. Pictures, in association with Legendary Pictures, “The Hangover Part III” opens in Philippine theaters on May 29, 2013.)