Like the comedy in his movies, Todd Phillips is unapologetic.
The director of Thursday’s “The Hangover Part II” and its preceding blockbuster has made a mint at the box office by leading his characters to the cliffs of irredeemable iniquity, dangling them over the precipice, then reeling them back to safety just before they plunge into the abyss.
The men in Phillips’ movies have trafficked with hookers, consumed perilous quantities of drugs and alcohol, placed children in peril — and along the way attracted a broad swath of the moviegoing public, not simply the young males who storm theaters showing R-rated raunch.
“Grandmothers came to ‘The Hangover,’” Phillips says of his 2009 breakout, among the most successful comedies of all time, with a worldwide gross of more than $467 million.
The 40-year-old Phillips calls himself a gambler, and he’s made several big bets with his “Hangover” sequel, including a graphic scene involving a transgendered prostitute and a piece of casting that has already backfired: asking Mel Gibson to play an expatriate tattoo artist.
In the original film, Phillips — who successfully thrust the unproven Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis into starring roles — gave former boxer and convicted rapist Mike Tyson a critical cameo that raised few objections. However, the reaction was swift and strong when he selected Gibson in October.
The sequel’s performers and crew threatened not to work with the troubled actor, well before he had pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor spousal battery charge, and Phillips was forced to recast Gibson’s part. (Liam Neeson took over, but for scheduling reasons was then replaced by director Nick Cassavetes.) “I underestimated people’s lack of empathy for somebody struggling with alcoholism or whatever it is he’s struggling with,” the director said of Gibson.
It’s an unusual misreading, because Phillips’ films have succeeded precisely thanks to the empathy his characters generate, even though they behave so badly that the ratings board must certainly ponder the idea of stamping their adventures with an NC-17 rating.
The quest film
Although “The Hangover” is by far Phillips’ most popular and critically acclaimed film, he has made several other well-received movies about lovable losers, all of whom inevitably embark on some kind of quest. In 2000’s “Road Trip,” four guys set out to retrieve a pornographic video; in 2003’s “Old School,” three guys set out to reclaim their youth; and in last year’s “Due Date,” two guys set out across the country.
The director’s misfires, 2006’s “School for Scoundrels” and, to a lesser extent, 2004’s “Starsky & Hutch,” were PG-13 comedies that felt geographically and scatologically constrained. “I’m an R-rated person,” Phillips said. “It’s in my blood.”
The $32-million “Hangover” — in which Phil (Cooper), Stu (Helms) and Alan (Galifianakis) tried to piece together what happened during a catastrophic bachelor party — is in many ways the template for the new film. “I think you have to re-create the experience without remaking the movie,” Phillips said. “I think that’s the key to any sequel.”
The $78-million sequel follows the contours of its predecessor quite closely, as Phil, Stu and Alan attempt to figure out exactly what transpired after they landed in Thailand for Stu’s wedding. The trio’s last memory before regaining consciousness in a squalid Bangkok hotel room was attending an innocent beach bonfire.
When they wake up, they can’t find any trace of Stu’s future brother-in-law, the teenage Teddy (Mason Lee), aside from his severed finger. A drug-dealing, cigarette-smoking monkey is running through their room, Stu has a fresh tattoo etched on his face, and his wedding is hours (and hundreds of miles) away. While the story is analogous to the original hit, “The Hangover Part II” is materially more dangerous — and sexually more graphic — than the first film.
“I think tonally it’s a much darker movie,” Phillips said. “The stakes are much higher.”
From the beginning, Phillips has been drawn to aberrational behavior.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Long Island, the single and never married Phillips attended but did not graduate from the NYU Film School, where he made his first documentary, “Hated,” about the self-mutilating punk rocker GG Allin. He financed the film by selling movie posters created for it and autographed by serial killer John Wayne Gacy while on death row. After he couldn’t get festivals to play “Hated,” Phillips in 1994 formed the New York Underground Film Festival, which made waves by hosting the premiere of “Chicken Hawk: Men Who Love Boys,” a movie about the North American Man/Boy Love Assn.
Early in his career, Phillips directed commercials, including some for Miller beer, ESPN and Pepsi, and served as a field producer (and even as a cabbie) in the late 1990s in “Taxicab Confessions.” The documentary “Frat House,” in which Phillips and codirector Andrew Gurland personally went through a fraternity hazing, tied for the grand jury documentary prize at 1998’s Sundance Film Festival.
Phillips said he’s not had three consecutive days off in the last three years, during which he prepared, shot and edited “The Hangover,” “Due Date” and “The Hangover Part II.” “I can’t think of another director who in success has fit so much into such a short period of time. He loves the impossible, including me,” said Robert Downey Jr., who starred opposite Galifianakis in “Due Date.” “Maybe more than confidence, he has a deep respect for what it takes and how hard you have to work.”
In person, Phillips is brash, someone who relishes his own success and can’t stomach mediocrity in others.
He admits he can be tough on actors, recalling how he once told Galifianakis during shooting of the sequel, “OK, we’re getting 70% of Zach today. Can we get 100%?” Phillips also parted ways with Sacha Baron Cohen in the middle of production on “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” in part because Cohen feared for his safety after the director asked him to do multiple takes of a particularly dangerous stunt. (Phillips was replaced by Larry Charles.)
Cooper said that while Phillips’ voice is “deeply, deeply demented,” he is nevertheless able to make his characters’ transgressions affecting. “It’s almost as if you’re watching a therapist or a psychologist tell these stories,” the actor said. “He is able to unearth these characters’ flaws and you still love them. He’s not afraid of finding comedy in every situation.”
Even if Phillips has explicit ideas about what is — and is not — funny, he’s “willing to give up his ideas if there’s a better one,” Cooper said. “But he’ll say, ‘Don’t tell me you don’t like it. Come up with something better.’”
Warner Bros. asked Phillips to start work on “The Hangover Part II” the minute the initial test screening of the first film ended; there already are plans for a third film but no script or start date.
“There’s this huge expectation, and generally, Parts 2 [of film franchises] aren’t successful, except maybe with ‘The Godfather: Part II,’” said Dan Goldberg, Phillips’ producing partner. “The downside was, ‘Can we live up to this?’”
Given his background in nonfiction filmmaking, the director said he’s constantly focused on ensuring that as improbable as his cinematic situations might be, they feel genuine. “We probably talk about [reality] every half-hour,” said screenwriter Scot Armstrong. “Would that really happen? Would he really say that?”
The larger reality is that “The Hangover Part II” will likely take Phillips’ career worldwide grosses past $1.5 billion and bring Warner Bros. a true comedy franchise.
“Is it a little edgier? For sure,” studio chief Jeff Robinov said of the sequel. “But it’s all tied to character. It’s not just for shock value. It’s easy to dismiss Todd’s movies. But they really have a lot of layers to them.”