Two years ago, The Hangover hit theaters and exploded. Coming after a long run of successful Judd Apatow comedies, Todd Phillip’s production was a completely different comic world, and turned Zach Galifianakis into a movie star. For the follow up the pressure was on from the get-go to make a film that equaled the first film. For co-screenwriter Scot Armstrong, that meant locking himself in a room with the two other writer, and being on set. We talked about the making of the film, and the headaches involved with following the most successful R rated comedy of all time. Check it out…
Warner Brother talked about doing a sequel before the first film came out, were you on then?
Scot Armstrong: Todd (Phillips) went to do Due Date, so writing didn’t start until the three of us were together.
This film is tracking huge, was there any pressure from being an unknown, an underdog, to that expectation, was that in your head?
That was what was fun – you know you’re going to have to be in the league of the first film, or you’re going to be a complete failure. It was fun to share that anxiety with Craig (Mazin) and Todd, and as we cracked the story it became more and more fun.
What was the thing that made you feel like you cracked the script?
There’s two. One was Todd wanting to do it in Bangkok. I couldn’t picture a sequel until he said that. I think Bangkok is one of the most unique cities in the world, and it’s known for the nightlife that’s completely insane, and not the kind of place you want to be dropped into with no tools, and be able to find your way home. The other big moment for us was turning in the first 67 pages to the actors to get some feedback and they said they were really happy, and that was a huge shot in the arm for us.
As a sequel you have to exceed expectations, and with Bangkok, you’re taking things in a slightly darker direction, was there anything that went too far?
I think everything made the cut. We did set out to make a darker film, and there really were no limits in what we could do. I think in the brainstorming sessions you will go to some places that have no business being in a comedy of any sort, but there’s always a kernel of something interesting, and if you dial it back and find what’s funny about it, you can build a set piece around things.
Was there anything that was too soft?
That’s the stuff we’d adjust or re-write, the first one set such a high standard that you can’t get away with soft. It really was a challenge to get things to work for this one. I know that when Todd and Craig and I started brainstorming – I mean, the first one is the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time – we allowed ourselves to sit there and panic for a second, and process that we were going to have to come up with a story and an hour and half of comedy that compared. But I think every time you write a comedy and you start with a page one blank page, you’re always jumping off a cliff. But this time it was the biggest cliff of all time.
Is your writing process the three of you in a room?
Yeah, we sit in a room together, try to make each other laugh, help each other push the story, and figuring the mystery. We ended up working on the wake up scene the most. I think it’s a microcosm for the entire movie. It’s funny, it’s surprising, it’s heightened stakes, it’s darker, but it’s also all the clue they need to save themselves and their friends and get home. It’s their lifeline. Our first pass was 22 pages, and then once we started figuring out the whole movie, and got it down to a reasonable shape.
With the three of you in the room, do you write for specific characters, do you feel you have a specific strength?
We all work together, so we write for all the characters. Sometimes we’ll break off into different spaces and we’ll write pages and email them to each other. Allan is the trickiest character to write because he’s so innocent but filled with such rage – he stopped growing up around age twelve. There’s something funny about him, how he’s spoiled, and obsessive compulsive. Todd and Zach (Galifianakis ) hold a key to what’s going on in his mind, and those two guys really understood what he’d say in different situations. Craig and I would pitch ideas, and they’d say “I don’t know if that’s what Alan would do.” We’d debate him more than any other character. He’s our MacBeth.
Did you do any “research”? Did you go to Bangkok?
We got away with faking it a little, we did a lot research on the internet, getting a feel for it without actually going, and I think we did pretty well. When we went there to shoot, most of the stuff matched up pretty well. It worked out, but that was part of being a writer in Thailand – adjusting things to the culture. But I have to say we weren’t that far off.
So were on set?
We shot in LA for our interiors, and then in Bangkok. It was amazing to be in Bangkok, and see it come to life, I feel like the city is one of the antagonists. This comedy feels gritty and real and dark, and even though it’s fun, I haven’t seen anything like it.
One of the great things about Todd Phillips is that he moves the camera, especially in comparison to the more Judd Apatow approach, I think audiences reacted to the first partly because it was so well put together.
Todd’s a great director, on top of being a good comedy writer and improviser. His background in documentary work plays into making things look real. I think he enjoys that when you have a car chase, it should be a great car chase. The comedy’s not just limited to comedy. He’s not afraid to make it an exciting, terrifying adventure, I think the way he shot the movie, you believe these guys might die.
You’ve worked with Todd for over ten years now, how has that relationship evolved?
I’ve seen him become such an amazing filmmaker, this movie feels like genre-bending in a weird way. I think one thing we’ve learned over the years is really putting effort into story, and the efficiency of story, so you can get the set pieces as quickly and as organically as possible. You go back and some of the stuff we did was real loose sometimes. We’ve gotten tighter in a good way.
You’re about to direct your first feature, Road to Nardo, being on set were you paying more attention this time?
I’ve been on set consistently since 1999 when we shot Road Trip, so I feel like I have a lot of being on set, but now that we’re about to go, I feel like I should have paid more attention on set to what Todd was doing in Bangkok. But I’m so lucky to work with the people I’ve worked with, and I’m sure I’ll have a little Todd in my brain when I’m directing, and using all the things he might say. And all the other people I’ve worked with.
What can you tell me about Road to Nardo?
I think we got over $20 Million from Sony, and when you pitch movies you always compare two movies, it’s kind of like Traffic meets Superbad. It’s about two young guys who get into the drug trade in Mexico to save their friend.
With the $20 Million budget, do you feel you have freedom?
Well, luckily everyone I work with at Sony and my producers have a lot of faith in me, and a lot of trust to bring my vision to life. And that’s incredible for a first time director, it’s a big deal, but I think it’s because I’ve had so many great experiences on the movies I’ve made.
Is there anyone you’re trying to emulate, is there a voice you’re looking up to?
I’ve worked with Todd a long time, and I look up to him, but I’m going to do my own thing. I’m not a cinephile kind of movie nerd who goes through tons of films and picks out the exact influence. Everything comes from me, and the story at hand. Everything is simple in terms of how to shoot it and who to cast. My instincts come out naturally.
I ask because you just hosted a night at the New Beverly (he showed The Blues Brothers and Raising Arizona).
Those movies had the most influence on me. The Blues Brothers? They blew up a gas station near me when I was eight years old. I was on set, and John Belushi was from my home town. It’s the first rated R movie my father ever took me to, and to me The Blues Brothers is the greatest action-comedy-musical of all time. There’s something very Chicago about the film. John Landis nailed it, but that’s different from what I’m doing. Comedy goes through fashion cycles if you will, and The Blues Brothers was a little bit stylized, but with what I’m working on there’s a bit more of a real dynamic between real characters we’ve known in life. Everything’s grounded in my film,
There’s something about Belushi, my dad would let me watch those movies at probably a much too young age.
There’s an innocence to John Belushi. I would draw a parallel to Zach Galifianakis, that innocence to what he’s doing, even though it’s a rated R movie, you can relate to that movie, and how they can get away with things. Todd says it’s in the eyes, you can see if they can get away with bad choices and you don’t hate them for it – you love them for having remorse.
You’ve got BFF’s going on television…
We got picked up! I’m executive producer on it. The reason why I started my company is to give young comedians from the Upright Citizen’s Brigade and other places a chance. I was getting frustrated watching young raw talent being led astray by the wrong people. So I started my company, and I’ve taken a select few under my wing to start their own shows to do it, and I really believe in Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair.
As someone who’s mostly worked in movies, how do you feel about television, which has evolved so much over the last ten years where it almost seems to offer more creative opportunities?
Yeah. I always love the collaboration, I love being in a writer’s room, I love watching people invent things. I think on TV, they do 22 episodes a year, and it really does become a family. And you can watch characters go through so much without having a definite ending.
Do you think comedy works best with a lot of people doing the writing?
As long as you have a strong leader, yes. If someone listening to too much, then no. That’s one thing I’ve learned from improv. Make sure you listen to the person on stage, you listen, and when there’s a big idea, you follow it.
How do you feel as a writer working as a producer? Have you understood the rougher decisions of your career, or
The whole point was to give people with raw talent a shot. Ivan Reitman gave me a big break with Road Trip, and helping build a movie out of our raw ideas. I saw it as an incredible act of kindness, but I also saw how he liked working with young people who needed guidance, and I now see how much fun he was having with us now that I’m working with younger people myself.
Todd mentioned a third film, have you started throwing ideas around?
We just finished three weeks ago. There’s a chance for a trilogy, but it’s too soon.
The Hangover Part II opens Thursday May 26. Check it out.