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July 2014
Issue: June 1, 2011

Director's Chair: Todd Phillips - 'The Hangover II'

By: Iain Blair

HOLLYWOOD — Forget the old saw about comedy not getting any respect — Todd Phillips single-handedly demolished that perception with his blockbuster The Hangover, which grossed a staggering $468 million worldwide, making it the most successful R-rated comedy of all time. Now Phillips is back with The Hangover Part II, which he co-wrote and which once again stars Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianikis (as well as a scene-stealing, drug-dealing monkey), who this time travel to Bangkok for Helms’ character’s wedding. Predictably, more mayhem ensues.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Phillips, whose credits include Due Date, Road Trip and Old School, talks about the challenges of following up the first film, his love of post and visual effects, and the truth about the chain-smoking monkey.

POST: Were you surprised at how big The Hangover was?

TODD PHILLIPS: “Of course. You always hope people will love your film, but it was pretty amazing how it took off. But I also honestly feel that Hangover was a better movie than you expected based on the line, ‘Guys go to Vegas for a bachelor party.’ And a lot of women went to see The Hangover. They like to laugh as much as men and I think it connected with so many people because it’s unapologetically funny. No one apologizes for all the bad behavior. Most Hollywood movies always tidy it up at the end and apologize. We don’t do that.”

POST: Successful comedy sequels are notoriously tricky to pull off. So how did you approach this project?

PHILLIPS: “I liked the idea of the challenge, but you’re right — comedy sequels seem particularly difficult. But I knew I’d have this great cast again who are willing to try anything I come up with, so why not give it a shot?”

POST: Vegas was the perfect setting for the first one, and almost like another character. What made you choose Bangkok?

PHILLIPS: “When you say ‘Vegas,’ it sounds like trouble to most people. And if you say ‘New York,’ it sounds like a lot of different things to different people. But ‘Bangkok’ to me means, there’s going to be a lot of bad decisions made. So it felt like natural progression — or digression.”

POST: Once you were there in the heat and sweat, did you think, ‘What the hell have I done?’

PHILLIPS: “I did! I’d been there three times tech scouting and so on, and quickly realized it was going to be far more difficult than I’d imagined. And it was. But all that added so much to the DNA of the movie, that you really feel it.”

POST: What were the biggest challenges facing you shooting this in Thailand?

PHILLIPS: “Logistically you obviously have the language barrier, but they have good crews and we have interpreters and all that. There were no real technical issues. The biggest problem is you’re dealing with a culture where they never say ‘No.’ It’s the land of 1,000 smiles because they’re always saying yes, even when it’s a, ‘no.’ So when you say, we need an 18K on this building to do a wash when the sun goes down, they say ‘Yes, no problem,’ and only later find they never even had one on the truck. So you learn to adapt.”

POST: Where did you shoot?

PHILLIPS: “We scouted a lot and shot in Chinatown in Bangkok, in alleys and so on, as well as in nicer areas, and then at a luxury resort in Krabi. We shot 35mm but also used the new Arri Alexa for all our night exteriors, because that way we could use available light and move fast. I loved the Alexa! You can’t tell the difference between it and 35mm, that’s how good it is. The biggest impact on post was just getting dailies and getting the stuff back from Thailand, but shooting on Alexa didn’t affect post in any way. But we did add grain to the Alexa footage, so it would match our film grain.”

POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?

PHILLIPS: “We did it all on the lot at Warners and we had a very fast schedule. Normally you have 23 weeks on a comedy — we had just 17 to do everything, even the mix, because the release date was firm. We were still shooting at the start of this year. After we got back, I had my first cut done in six weeks, screened it, and started fine tuning right away. I had an amazing visual effects supervisor, Robert Stadd — he did Public Enemies and Collateral — who got way ahead of the game for us in Bangkok with a lot of the greenscreen footage we shot of the monkey leaning out of the car and grabbing stuff.”

POST: Do you like post?

PHILLIPS: “I love it and view it as a writer, since I also write my own movies. So for me it’s the final draft. I see it as a writing exercise and your last shot at the script. Of course, as a writer you always go, ‘If only I’d shot that!’ But after seven studio films I’ve gotten much better at covering my ass in shooting and getting the right coverage. It’s funny, but with comedy people assume you just improvise a lot, but we don’t do that. I try to shoot it cinematically and make it look like a movie. I think a lot of comedies just look like TV shows.”

POST: You re-teamed with editor Debra Neil-Fisher, who cut the first Hangover and Due Date, and also used Mike Sale who did Bridesmaids and Superbad. Tell us about the editing process? 

PHILLIPS: “I’d never used two editors before, but I did here because of the short post schedule. They’re both great with comedy rhythms and we just divided up the reels and I went back and forth between them. They didn’t come on location, but they started cutting right away and sent me scenes and I’d email back notes, because the 16-hour time difference was pretty brutal. We cut on Avid (Media Composer 4 with and HD workflow). I cut my first film, Hated, a documentary, on film but I’d never go back. I understand why certain directors still love to cut film, but I was a student of digital editing, so that’s my world. I even bought an Avid on my second documentary Frat House, and taught myself how to use it.”

POST: How many VFX shots are there? 

PHILLIPS: “There’s only about150 shots, and most of them are removal and clean up. Hammerhead and Invisible Effects did them all, and Robert Stadd set all that up and they were great.”

POST: You heard that PETA are very upset because the monkey smokes heavily in the movie?

PHILLIPS: (Laughs) “I know, but the cigarettes are fake and all the smoke is digital. I joked that the hardest thing in the shoot was teaching the monkey to smoke, and they freaked out.”

POST: The old Hollywood cliché is, never ever work with kids or animals. You obviously don’t give a damn.

PHILLIPS: (Laughs) “You’re right, I do it all the time, and I don’t agree with that. I find that they bring so much when you can play against them and not treat them the way you’d normally treat them in the real world. My favorite scene is when they drop the monkey off at the vet hospital.”

POST: What was that the most difficult effects shot to pull off?

PHILLIPS: “It’s always some of the basic stuff, like sky replacement, because it was cloudy one day. We kept going back to some of those shots, which can be very tricky, and they ended up looking really digital, so we’d try it again. Some of the driving stuff was basic greenscreen, but we did as much as possible as practical effects. We used quite a bit of in-camera timelapse photography for the opening credits and some of the flashback stuff.”

POST: You collaborated again with composer Christophe Beck, who did Hangover, Due Date and School for Scoundrels. How important are sound and music to you?

PHILLIPS: “It’s so important to me, and music in particular is one of those tools that a director has with which to paint a scene. It’s so effective and one great music cue can sometimes do the job of five pages of dialogue. Tone is really what a director’s main job is. You’re the purveyor of tone, and nothing helps you more with tone than a great music track, so from the start the music tells you this is a fucked-up comedy. It’s going to get dark. We did the whole mix at Warners with a great crew — sound designer Cameron Frankley, sound mixer Petur Hiddal — and I’m picky about the mix, but only to a point. You can easily start to get dead ears and over-analyze it all. The very short schedule benefited us. We couldn’t go on and on.”

POST: Did you do a DI?

PHILLIPS: “Yes, at Technicolor (with Jill Bogdanowicz on Resolve). I only began DIs on the first Hangover. Before that we did normal color timing, which I love. The great thing about a DI is that you can go in and surgically fix anything, and if you have a great DP like I do — Larry Sher, who shot the first one and Due Date for me — you don’t get lost in the maze of possibilities and end up having it all look too fake. Sometimes I see these full-DI movies and I’m like, ‘What?’ They got totally carried away in the DI of it all. Everything with me is about having all the comedy play off reality so I try to make it all look as real as possible, including the DI process.”

POST: Any interest in shooting 3D? 

PHILLIPS: “I have an issue with 3D — in comedies. It’s so much about the audience experience, the room environment, hitting your friend’s elbow and so on. But I find with 3D and the glasses it becomes a very singular experience for me. I don’t turn to my friend and we’re laughing at the same thing. Suddenly I’m watching it alone. Now that works for a movie like Avatar. I loved getting immersed in that whole world and experience, but comedy is different. Jackass was a 3D movie, which worked, but generally I don’t think it suits comedy.”

POST: You also produced this under your Green Hat Films banner. Do you like producing?

PHILLIPS: “I like doing my own films, but I don’t love producing. It’s not a goal of mine to put out five movies a year. Green Hat really exists as a development company for my own projects. 

“I am also producing this movie Project X right now, with another director, but I have no real interest in spreading myself too thin with outside projects. Writing and directing are my main things.”

POST: What’s next? 

PHILLIPS: “For the first time, I honestly don’t know yet. I did both Hangovers and Due Date in barely two and a half years. I’m exhausted. So I really need time off to recharge.”