The Ultimate Cure by Nadine O’Regan
Just before this interview is due to finish up, a knock comes at the door. It’s Todd Phillips’ publicist. ‘‘We need five more minutes,” Phillips calls out. For once, the stop watch-wielding publicist isn’t bothered by the news that her interview schedule has gone awry.
“I have good news,” she says, smiling at Phillips. ‘‘You’re number one, 44.9.Congratulations.” She doesn’t need to explain anymore. Phillips’ new comedy, The Hangover — made for just $31 million dollars (€22 million), a paltry sum in film industry terms — has cruised to the number one spot in the American box office, netting nearly$4 5 million in ticket sales over the weekend.
Its main rival, Pixar’s Up, finished with a final figure of about $44.1 million. And the film everyone had initially expected would do well -Universal’s big-budget Land of the Lost, starring a one-time actor for Phillips, Will Ferrell – was the movie that bombed, netting just $18.7 million in ticket sales.
It’s a heady moment, being present with a director when he discovers that more people are viewing his film at the cineplexes than any other in the United States. But Phillips is a cool customer. There are no whoops, no fist-punching the air: he’s content merely to sit back in his interview suite at a Dublin hotel, albeit with a big smile on his face.
At just 38, Phillips has already directed several blockbusters, including Road Trip (which earned $69 million in the US) Starsky and Hutch ($88 million) and Old School ($76 million). In 2007, he was also nominated, alongside his co-writers, for a screenwriting Oscar for Borat.
Frankly, he’s learned to take this kind of thing in his stride – well, at least with a little assistance. What alleviates the pressure of being a big-time director? ‘‘Pot,” he says, with a grin. ‘‘I have a lot of anxiety. I self medicate.”
Tanned and balancing that distinctly Californian, Janus-faced enthusiasm for health and hedonism, Phillips looks like a more studious version of Robert Downey Jr, and talks a little like one of the characters in his own films. He’s upfront to an unnerving extent, amusingly flirtatious and extremely sharp-witted, despite his affinity for recreational drugs.
If, on paper, Phillips’ movie might sound like it’s constructed out of the most tired, already mined-for-laughs material imaginable – four guys go to Vegas for the bachelor party of their lives – the film, starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis, succeeds because it’s a lot cleverer than that.
‘‘My tastes don’t lie in the consciously grotesque,” says Phillips. ‘‘in The Hangover, the smartest thing about this movie is how not clichéd it is, even though you think you know what it is.”
Although the film promises initially to show the viewer a bachelor party in Las Vegas, the first real scenes begin the morning afterwards, when three of the four guys wake up in their opulent suite to discover that there’s a tiger in the bathroom, a baby in a cupboard, the groom has gone missing and – oh yeah – no one present can remember a thing about what happened the night before.
Can the boys resuscitate their fried brains, return the tiger, keep the baby alive, find the groom and race back home in their borrowed (and ruined) vintage 1969 soft-top convertible Mercedes, so they can get their man to his wedding on time?
The joy of this film is that, even as the events get wackier, Phillips keeps everything just about within the realms of plausibility- and because it feels so real, the laughs are properly earned. One of the best moments comes when a surprisingly hilarious Mike Tyson pops up to deliver a Phil Collins-soundtracked fist in the face to the character he believes has stolen his tiger. ‘‘Mike in real life is funny and goofy- and I think he saw the film as an opportunity to show another side of himself,” says Philips.
Admittedly, there are times when the directorial hand is too conspicuous in the work, attempting to milk the plot for more laughs, but mostly this is summer fare that succeeds on multiple levels; if it’s not quite as good as The Wedding Crashers, it comes close. The three lead characters follow distinct templates – Cooper is the heart-throb; Helms the nerdy, brainy one; and Galifianakis the comedic freak.
As for Phillips, he’s like a combination of all three of those guys – and yet none of them at the same time. Brought up in an all female home in Brooklyn, New York, Phillips writes about men’s relationships not because he really understands them, but because he wants to understand them. ‘‘Based on the movies I’ve done, people think I must be some kind of sports fraternity guy,” he says. ‘‘And I’m not that way at all. I never played sports because I only had sisters. My Dad left when I was four. I think I’ve been obsessed and voyeuristic with male rituals because I missed out on that.”
Is it a kind of wish fulfilment, then? ‘‘Not so much wish fulfilment as something interesting to explore for me.” In his personal life, Phillips doesn’t have much time for bachelor parties. To relax, he’d prefer to walk the beach with his golden Labrador, Tucker, play poker with friends, and holiday at his beach house in Malibu.
He’ll spend this summer writing his new screenplay. ‘‘I usually just smoke pot and write and figure it out,” he says. It all sounds pretty normal – and certainly nowhere close to the testosterone-fuelled nuttiness of his films. But although he might not be a jock, Phillips actually winces when I use the ‘n’ word – nerd. ‘‘I don’t like to use that word, but yeah, I really am,” he says, looking like he just swallowed a bug.
Realistically, though, that’s probably the reason The Hangover works: Phillips is a pretty sharp observer – this reporter has rarely felt as closely scrutinised in an interview – and while it might be a truism, the literary idea that outsiders make for better writers is well established for a good reason.
Rarely for an interviewee, Phillips is completely unexcited at the prospect of talking about himself – ‘‘No one would be interested. I don’t feel like there’s a fame aspect to directing unless you’re Steven Spielberg.”
He’s even less interested in talking about his background. Asked about his school reports, he replies simply: ‘‘They said I was a horrible student and that I must have had different parents because my sisters were so good.” His sisters have both become doctors. ‘‘They’re smart, wonderful women. And I was just a bad kid.”
Right now, they’re probably the most important women in his life. Phillips was engaged, but his engagement broke up six months ago. ‘‘She was French, that should explain it,” he says lightly. ‘‘French people are mean, don’t you think?”
A fan of John Landis and Paul Thomas Anderson, Phillips – then answering to his father’s surname of Bunzl – began his filmmaking career in documentaries: his student movie about punk figure GG Allin made it out of NYU filmschool and into the cinemas, a rare achievement for a film-maker still at college.
Phillips also directed a documentary called Frat House for HBO, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, but has never been released theatrically due to accusations of staged sequences.
In 2005, Phillips was hired to direct the Borat film, starring Sacha Baron Cohen, but he left the set over a dispute. ‘‘Creative differences are the best way to describe it,” he says, in the manner of one who knows he needs to tread carefully.
‘‘Sacha is still a friend. But the Borat film that we started on was different than how it ended up. I was upset it didn’t work out, but I wasn’t upset to have left it.”
After Borat, Phillips experienced a fallow period – at least by his standards. His next film, a 2006 remake of British comedy School for Scoundrels, misfired, netting less than $24 million worldwide. No surprises, then, that The Hangover became a crucial project for Phillips.
‘‘It was like giving birth doing this movie,” he says. ‘‘You’re carrying this thing for so long and it’s exhausting. It took ten months, with 15-hour days, and you’re constantly living with it. And you don’t know when you’re editing, directing and writing it if it’ll work. I’m a nervous wreck until we show it to an audience.”
The original screenplay, by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, was very different from the product that made it to cinema: Phillips didn’t just tweak, he revamped drastically.
‘‘Their idea of telling a story backwards – and having an event where you never see the event – is intact,” says Phillips. ‘‘But there wasn’t a baby. There wasn’t Mike Tyson. There wasn’t a tiger. It was a very different movie.”
It seems strange that Phillips didn’t get a co-writing credit on the film. ‘‘It was up for arbitration at the Writers’ Guild,” Phillips nods. ‘‘But the guild has bizarre rules about directors writing. It was a long story and it became a legal issue. But it wasn’t those guys’ fault.”
Like his contemporary Judd Apatow, Phillips is bringing home the big bucks for the studios – and you doubt he’ll face that screenwriting problem next time out. He has reportedly already signed up for a sequel to The Hangover – test audiences liked the film so much, he was offered a new contract before the film was even released.
After his publicist comes in to announce that The Hangover is America’s number one box office draw, Phillips takes a moment to reflect on his success. ‘‘I feel like I have a secret,” he muses. That secret, in a nutshell, is that directors are better off not having big stars in their films.
‘‘We’re able to keep the costs down by not using movie stars who make a ton of money,” Phillips says. ‘‘There’s a lot less pressure with a $30 million dollar movie than a $90 million dollar movie. I don’t need the pressure of having Will Smith in the movie and then being like, ‘If it doesn’t make a $100 million, it’ll be a failure’.
‘‘This is so much less pressure. The money doesn’t have to go up. A studio will always take a $30 million gamble on a movie like this because, relatively speaking, that’s a little bit of money.”
You’d think there might come a day, however, when Phillips would want to move on to something different – perhaps in another genre – that would require a bigger budget. Phillips debates the idea but, ultimately, he’s happy right where he is, making comedies.
‘‘It’s hard making a movie,” he says. ‘‘It would be too annoying to make one of those dramas where it’s hard and you’re not laughing. Making a comedy is the most fun you could ever have. We get paid to go to work and make each other laugh. I love it.”
The Hangover is in cinemas now.