IT FEELS LIKE not THAT LONG AGO that I when you’re shooting a movie like the hangover in some back alley in las vegas at two o’clock in the morning, you’re not thinking, i can’t wait to see what the hollywood foreign press thinks about this . . .Todd Phillips
Todd Phillips has directed nine feature films, the majority of which are funny, a handful of which are funnier, and two of which-2003’s Old School and last year’s Golden Globe-winning post-bachelor party epic, The Hangover-are among the funniest that anyone has directed in the first decade of this century. The popular take on the 39-year-old Phillips’s oeuvre is that his movies revolve around the burdens and anxieties of a certain kind of archetypal married, ex officio fraternity pledge master now encumbered by the chains of adulthood (see Vince Vaughn in Old School, Bradley Cooper in The Hangover), and his equally representative well-meaning best friend who accidentally drinks too much and makes bad decisions at parties he’s not allowed to attend (see Will Ferrell in Old School, Ed Helms in The Hangover). But, in actuality, Phillips is a much more complicated-and much more crafty-director than that thumbnail would illustrate. He grew up on Long Island and began his filmmaking career while still an undergrad at NYU with Hated (1994), a documentary about rocker GG Allin, the late-and legendarily antisocial-drug-addled punk extremist who spent his life bouncing in and out of jail and liked to strip naked and smear himself with his own feces during performances. In his next film, another doc called Frat House (1998), Phillips and his filmmaking partner at the time, Andrew Gurland, attempted to delve into the beer- and vomit-stained world of fraternity hazing, which resulted in Gurland being hospitalized and a memorably aggro frat brother named Blossom repeatedly threatening Phillips with physical violence. Frat House won the Grand Jury prize for documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998, however, HBO, who co-produced the project, refused to air it amid allegations that some of the frat brothers featured in the film were asked to sign releases while they were drunk or on drugs and that certain scenes were staged. Nevertheless, the very public controversy surrounding the film opened the door for Phillips to a narrative filmmaking career, which, beginning with Road Trip (2000), has been marked by an informal study of youth and young manhood-and what it means to get older, have responsibilities, make commitments, bond with other men, and even be a man.
Phillips’s latest film, Due Date, which hits theaters this month, is framed by another formative moment in a man’s life-becoming a father-but, in many ways, it’s really about learning how to stop being a son. The film stars Robert Downey Jr. and The Hangover‘s Zach Galifianakis as a pair of strangers who meet at an airport and become unlikely travel-mates when a convoluted set of circumstances forces them to drive together from Atlanta to Los Angeles after they’re both placed on the no-fly list. Downey Jr.’s character is a straight-laced architect who is rushing back to L.A. because his wife is scheduled to give birth to their first child later in the week; Galifianakis plays a fledgling actor named Ethan Tremblay who spends most of the film decked out in tight jeans, jazz shoes, a scarf, and a Lilith Fair T-shirt and is heading for Hollywood in search of stardom.
When we spoke, Phillips was in Bangkok, Thailand, preparing to begin shooting The Hangover 2.
STEPHEN MOOALLEM: I recently went back and watched Frat House, and there’s something that you say very early in the narration that I think is very interesting in light of some of the films you’ve made since. You say that you wanted to make a documentary about frat life because you were “always interested in the lengths that men will go to in order to belong.” That idea is one that seems to run through a lot of your films-along with this tension that comes from the notion of being constantly torn between what you think is expected of you and what you really want.
TODD PHILLIPS: Well, all of my films, forever, have been about guys and their relationships. I mean, I don’t like to get too heady about it, but I grew up raised by my mom and my two sisters, so I never had a real male influence in my life. I never really understood heterosexual male relationships. It’s like, what do you get out of that relationship? I never understood that bonding that happens. It’s something that I’ve always been fascinated with because there’s such an awkwardness to most heterosexual male relationships. You see women who are friends, and they kiss each other good-bye, and they’re just so much warmer with each other. But there’s this thing with guys where, even between best friends, there’s a standoffishness. There’s still this tension to contact. I also think when I said that thing in Frat House, it was partially because of the fact that my mother raised me with the idea that you should always do everything you can to not fit in, to be an individual. I was taught that you didn’t want to be part of the group-that it was better to do your own thing.
MOOALLEM: How did you go from that to making a documentary about GG Allin?
PHILLIPS: I really got into filmmaking through photography. I used to take photos of my friends from high school doing fucked-up things, like taking drugs, doing vandalism. I did this whole series that I submitted to NYU, which was really a kind of photojournalistic document, and that led to the idea of making documentaries. I remember that when I got to NYU, everyone was writing scripts. But I was 18 at the time, and when you write a script, so much of it is about what you pull from life, and this sounds sort of cheesy, but I felt like I didn’t have enough life experience at that point to write a movie. So I saw documentaries as a way to kind of live in fast-forward through the filmmaking process, which led me to make Hated and travel around with GG Allin for a year, which was completely intense and ridiculous.
MOOALLEM: GG Allin is lost in history a little bit now, but for people who don’t know, he was probably one of the most extreme figures to come out of the ’70s and ’80s punk-rock scene. In fact, I’d hesitate to say that he came out of a scene-part of the reason he’s lost in history is that he was so extreme, even the other extreme people never fully embraced him.
PHILLIPS: He was so extreme. There was nothing cute or easy about him. It wasn’t even like Marilyn Manson, where it felt gimmicky. GG was truly a schizophrenic, bipolar maniac who didn’t give a fuck about anything. I remember taking the train into the city when I was 16 or 17 and seeing GG at the Lismar Lounge, which used to be on First Avenue. To get to the stage, you had to walk past a bar and down a set of stairs. So I walked in and GG was sitting there at the bar shooting heroin, which is something I’d never seen in my life. Eventually he got up and turned around and just tumbled down the stairs and had a violent fit, and that was it. There was no show-that was the show. So when I was looking for documentary subjects at NYU, I thought of him. He was in and out of jail all the time, and at that time he was in prison in Michigan, so I wrote him a letter, and that was how it started. We began this relationship through letters. I was retarded. [laughs] But he was legitimately crazy and not somebody to have a relationship with.
MOOALLEM: So, objectively speaking, who was scarier: GG Allin or Blossom, the frat guy who threatens to kill you in Frat House?
PHILLIPS: [laughs] I’d have to say Blossom. In a very weird way, I could relate to GG on some level, through music, the world of punk rock, and, quote-unquote, art. With Blossom, there was zero connection-it was just all anger, all the time. Just so much fear comes to me with that name. The best part about it is that his name is Blossom.
MOOALLEM: You never really explain that in Frat House-why he’s called Blossom.
PHILLIPS: That was his pledge name when he was rushing the fraternity. The other guys thought he looked and dressed like Joey Lawrence from the TV show Blossom.
MOOALLEM: Not to harp on Frat House, but parts of it are not all that far away from what you see on Jersey Shore. Watching them back-to-back is almost like a study in the cumulative effects of more than a decade of reality television on the general populace.
PHILLIPS: When we did Frat House, the power of the camera was still not fully understood by regular civilians. There wasn’t that innate understanding of the impact of reality television, where they’d be like, “Wait a minute. This guy holding the camera and this guy in the corner holding the microphone: they could change my life-and not necessarily in a good way.” Reality television hasn’t killed documentaries, because there are so many great documentaries still being made, but it certainly has changed the landscape. There is this breed of gimmicky documentary that is basically a reality show. You know, “I’m gonna eat nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days”-that’s kind of a television-show concept. But I think the form has changed so much because it’s very difficult to just be a fly on the wall anymore. Everyone understands the power of the camera now, so when the Jersey Shore crew is out there filming Ronnie-who I love-he is, in a sense, performing. But if I think back to when we made Frat House in 1997, that awareness just hadn’t permeated fully.
MOOALLEM: So many of the problems that HBO had with Frat House seem almost quaint in comparison to what goes on now. A lot of what was offered as critique back then-rightly or wrongly-is now sort of built into the mechanics.
PHILLIPS: How else are you supposed to make this shit? Of course, you get kids to sign releases when they’re drunk. They’re gonna sign one when they’re drunk. When they’re not drunk, they’re gonna fax it to their dads-and, you know, that’s a whole other issue. But we thought we got around it. I thought it was brilliant-I thought we were being geniuses. Then I found out it was illegal.
MOOALLEM: You kind of stumbled onto something that everyone else discovered later on.
PHILLIPS: Yeah. I was a pioneer. [laughs]
MOOALLEM: Let’s talk about Due Date. How did this one come together?
PHILLIPS: I make decisions to do movies based on the cast. I’d just been working with Zach [Galifianakis] on The Hangover, and I was thinking, I’ve got to find something to do with this guy immediately. As a director, you’ve always got five or six scripts in development. So with Due Date it was like, “This would be great for Zach.” And then I said to myself, “If I can get Robert Downey Jr. in the other role . . .” Because Downey is probably one of the greatest actors alive, and just thinking about the kind of clashing styles that he and Zach have got my mind going-I mean, they couldn’t be more different guys. So it was much less about the road trip in my mind than the coming together of these two giant personalities.
MOOALLEM: Had Robert and Zach met before?
PHILLIPS: Well, I’d met Robert a few times. I knew that he’d seen The Hangover-he’d gone to a screening, but the movie hadn’t even come out yet. I’d sent him the script for Due Date, and he was interested, so we arranged for Zach and I to go over to his house for dinner, which was a nightmare experience. We were going over to Robert’s house-he was living up in this canyon in the Palisades at the time-and for whatever reason, Zach decided to ride his bike there from Venice. Now, Zach is not Lance Armstrong. He turns up 30 minutes late, covered in sweat, and kind of barrels into Robert’s house. So we sit down, and one of the first remarks Zach makes is about a woman who is a famous personality. It was a very funny, ridiculous joke, but he didn’t realize Robert had dated this woman in the past, and Robert said, “Well, you know, I used to date her.” I was like, “This has not started well.” [both laugh] But it is intimidating to be around Robert on every level-in a very good way. He’s just very challenging, and I think that’s why he’s such a good actor.
MOOALLEM: You’ve always been good with casting. A lot of people forget that before Old School, Vince Vaughn was doing sort of darker movies like Domestic Disturbance (2001), and your movie opened up this entire other career for him. There was a similar sort of new understanding to what Bradley Cooper and Zach were capable of after The Hangover.
PHILLIPS: With Vince-and he would confirm this–it was a fight to even get him in Old School. Dreamworks didn’t understand–“You’re making a comedy with this guy who does movies like Domestic Disturbance and Clay Pigeons ?” I knew, though, just how naturally funny he is. Vince just looked so good in Old School in a very different way than he did in Swingers -he’s a little bit lived in–which is why I think he brings so much to that movie. Bradley Cooper is another guy like that. I love confidence in a guy. I don’t have it, but there’s nothing sexier, and Bradley just projects such a tremendous amount of it on screen. He’s not like that as a person, but there’s this swagger that he seems to have that I think was important for his character in The Hangover, so we kind of built it around that. Zach is an example of someone who doesn’t have swagger. But he does have this sweetness in his eyes that you just can’t act–I’ve worked with a lot of funny people, but the only other guy I can think of who has that quality is Will Ferrell. It’s this sweetness that allows them to get away with a lot. Funnily enough, Zach came in and read for a part in Road Trip. So I’ve known him now for more than a decade. He’d obviously been in movies before The Hangover, but he’d be the first to tell you that he was never really used right. It was like no matter what he did, he would somehow always seem to disappear into the background. So when we were talking about The Hangover, I kept saying to him, “You know, if you do this part, you really need to take center stage. You can’t disappear.” But he’s so not that person. I just feel like he needed a part that kind of showcased what he could do in the correct way and really captured his sensibility. Now it seems like he could be unstoppable. But it’s always interesting to watch the choices that people make after something like that happens-particularly as a director. It’s just interesting to watch careers.
MOOALLEM: The idea of The Hangover 2 taking place in Thailand . . . I’m sure it will get people’s imaginations wandering. Is there anything you want to say about it?
PHILLIPS: Well, it’s funny, because when you do a sequel, people always have this assumption of, “Oh, they’re doing this because everybody just wants to make money.” But the truth is, we had the greatest time making The Hangover, and, while, yes, those guys are going to get paid more this time around, we’re doing it because we truly want to make a movie that lives up to the first one. I understand what The Hangover means to people-people love that movie. So I’m not delusional. I know what people think and expect. I mean, we won a Golden Globe for The Hangover. I would never have expected that. I’m not saying that I didn’t want it, but it’s not something that’s in your mind. When you’re shooting a movie like The Hangover in some back alley in Las Vegas at two o’clock in the morning, you’re not thinking, Well, I can’t wait to see what the Hollywood Foreign Press thinks about this . . .” [both laugh] But I think we wrote a really funny script for Hangover 2, and it’s got a structure to it where we can keep the surprises at a maximum. And then there’s Bangkok . . .
MOOALLEM: So what kind of trouble can you get into in Thailand?
PHILLIPS: Oh, my god-it’s crazy. It’s just packed with people. It’s so hot here right now-Plus, it’s weird. You know how sometimes you go somewhere and you feel like, “Okay, this is where I’m supposed to be”? I kind of felt like that when I was living in Caesars Palace for three months while we were shooting The Hangover. I’d go downstairs for a cigarette at midnight after a long day of shooting and wind up sitting in my pajamas at a blackjack table and gambling until 3 o’clock in the morning. All that time I just had the sense of, “Oh, I belong here. This is where I belong.” Then I came to Bangkok and everything shifted. It’s like The Matrix-everything just shifted. If I don’t come home in a body bag after Hangover 2, I’ll be unstoppable. We’re going to be here for three months and that should be the end of me. I don’t think I’ll ever die if I don’t die here.
Stephen Mooallem is the Editor in Chief of Interview.
Grooming products: Chanel, including Purete Ideale T-mat Shine Control. Styling: Patrick Mackie. Hair: Andre Gunn/The Wall Group. Makeup: Benjamin Puckey/See Management. Set Design: Jeff Everett. Special Thanks: Pier 59 Studios.