Todd Phillips: Enjoying his 'Hangover'
When Todd Phillips checked in yesterday, calling from London, the director of "The Hangover" was sounding somewhere between ebullient and ecstatic. And why not? His film is the surprise hit of the summer, winning last weekend's box-office derby with a potent $45-million opening. In an even more amazing development for a raunchy comedy populated with actors who are virtually unknown outside of the U.S., "The Hangover" is getting a giddy reception in the old country -- at least in England and Ireland, which is where Phillips has been for the past few days.
"The screenings have been through the roof," he enthused, sounding like a guy who's enjoying the moment. "When I did 'Old School,' it didn't really do any foreign business, because it was about fraternities, which is a very American concept. But this movie is about getting drunk, having hangovers and doing Las Vegas -- that makes total sense to everyone. We had a screening in Dublin last night where we got a standing ovation, although I guess with a movie called 'The Hangover,' if you're ever going to get a standing ovation, it would definitely be in Ireland."
Phillips is a student of comedy, having grown up worshiping films like "The Jerk" and "The Blues Brothers." So I asked him why he thought "The Hangover" caught such a wave with audiences. "I think people are responding to the movie because it's unapologetically funny," he said. "It doesn't spend the last 10 minutes apologizing for its bad behavior. It has a real punk-rock spirit to it."
Phillips says the original spec script, penned by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, was a PG-13 type of bachelor-party movie. "It was a genius concept, because it tells the story of an event from the vantage point of characters who didn't remember what actually happened," he says. Phillips and Jeremy Garelick (who co-wrote "The Break-Up") did an uncredited rewrite in which "we really pushed the limits and turned it into an R comedy."
Once Phillips agreed to make the film for a price -- roughly $35 million -- he says Warners' Jeff Robinov gave him full autonomy. "They are a real filmmaker-driven studio, so they were great about letting us take some chances. There was no pressure to put in any better-known actors at all."
So why does the ensemble of Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis and Bradley Cooper have such great chemistry? "It's all about casting guys who are on different comedy planes from each other," Phillips says. "Zach has the most innocent face and eyes, so he can get away with the most [messed-up] things because you know his intentions are totally good. He can say things that if you heard Ben Stiller say them, you'd go, 'Oh, that's pretty weird.' On the other hand, Ed Helms has that henpecked Steve Carell kind of vibe, so they can really play off each other."
One of the big delights of the movie is a cameo appearance by Mike Tyson, who shows up in the guys' hotel room, crooning a Phil Collins song as he tries to find his missing pet tiger. "I thought it would be tougher to get Tyson, but he was really into doing it -- I think he liked it that we weren't [messing] with him but [messing] with the perception people have of him. It turns out he was a real fan of 'Old School.' "
Phillips laughs. "Mike could quote lines of dialogue from the movie far better than most 15-year-olds that I've heard do it."
I asked Phillips if it bothered him how little respect comedy gets from the Hollywood establishment, which has roundly ignored great comedy performances and filmmaking during awards season. "It doesn't bug me at all," he says. "I didn't grow up caring about what the academy judges as greatness. For me, it's all about the audience. When I show a movie to a test screening of 400 people in the Valley and I can hear them laughing, that's the only reward -- or award -- I need."
Photo: "The Hangover's" Heather Graham with director Todd Phillips. Credit: Matt Sayles / Associated Press.