Hollywood’s top comedy director talks to Marlow Stern about his failed attempt to cast Mel Gibson in The Hangover Part II: “There’s no truth to it being any singular person,” said Phillips about Zach Galifianakis’ alleged revolt. “The truth is, if it was one person it wouldn’t have gone down that way, and I can promise you that.” He also talked about his muse, Galifianakis, and whether there will ever be a sequel to Old School: “I think there’s a term limit on sequels in a weird way,” he said. “It’s probably tough to go back to that one.”
In the climactic scene of Frat House, a 1998 documentary exploring the dark underbelly of college fraternity life, a man is down on all fours inside a dog cage. He chuckles as the frat brothers cover him in beer and Hershey’s syrup, shouting profanities. However, the laughs soon turn to tears as the brothers douse the man with lighter fluid, spraying a flame dangerously close to their cowering victim, and instructing the man: “Move your left hand out! He needs an ashtray.” That man was Todd Phillips, who today is the top comedy director in Hollywood.
Prior to going through the act of pledging for the documentary, NYU film school dropout Phillips was a driver during the debut season of HBO’s Taxicab Confessions, coaxing revealing, oft-sexual tales from a revolving door of vulnerable passengers. Then Frat House won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for Best Documentary, and, though it later became the center of a scandal after the filmmakers were accused of staging scenes, it landed Phillips a production deal with Ivan Reitman (of Ghostbusters fame). The deal led Phillips to write and direct his first two features—the hit comedies Road Trip, about a group of college buds who drive across the country to retrieve a stolen sex tape, and Old School, about a group of middle-aged men who start a college fraternity, for Reitman’s Montecito Picture Company.
“You know all my movies, as bizarre as the situations are, we try to make them feel as real as possible,” said Phillips, in a telephone conversation. “I started my career doing documentaries and reality kind of stuff, and I feel like that reality finds its way into the films.” Phillips pauses, before adding, “I don’t know that what I learned on Taxicab made me learn to direct Robert Downey Jr.”
Due Date is Phillips’ latest comedy. It stars Downey Jr. as Peter Highman, a short-tempered expectant father who is forced to accompany oddball aspiring actor Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis) on a cross-country road trip from Atlanta to Los Angeles, so he can arrive in time to see his child’s birth. The film reunites the writer-director with Galifianakis, the pudgy, hirsute star of last year’s biggest comedy, The Hangover, and the Seth Rogen to Phillips’ Judd Apatow. “The thing is, truly, I get his humor,” said Phillips, adding, “but more than that, I think I know how to translate his humor into film.”
Phillips on the rift that occurred when Mel Gibson was cast in The Hangover 2: “When you have a rupture in this little family you create… you have to think about the big picture as much as a two-minute scene.”
Galifianakis’ appeal is hard to place. A fortysomething underground comedian plucked from the standup comedy world by Phillips, his characters are imbued with a certain élan. His character Alan in The Hangover sported a leather satchel and baby carrier, and in Due Date, Ethan flaunts a vest, Lilith Fair shirt, and this time, baby Carlos has been supplanted by a masturbating dog, Sonny.
“The way I would classify Zach’s humor is more like he just has this kind of left-footedness that I find very heartwarming and hysterical,” said Phillips. “He’s just out of step with the rest of the world, always—in life, in his comedy act, certainly in the characters we do in the movies—he’s out of rhythm, and I love that.”
Robert Downey Jr., on the other hand, is rarely out of rhythm these days, so pitting these two disparate forces against one another—in what Phillips attests is a Rain Man-like scenario—provides much of the film’s laughs.
“I always say it’s kind of an anti-chemistry and that’s what they have in real life, in a fun way,” said Phillips. “It came to them very easy because they’re not very similar in a lot of ways.”
These days, for instance, you’d never see Downey Jr. sparking up a joint on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, as Galifianakis recently did in an act of Prop 19-related defiance. “I thought it was very funny,” said Phillips with a laugh. “Listen, I think what makes all comics great, whether it’s Will Ferrell or Zach, is that there’s an element of danger or unpredictability to comedy.”
This element of unpredictability manifests itself in Phillips’ oeuvre in the form of cameo appearances—Seann William Scott as a redneck in Old School, Mike Tyson in The Hangover, the list goes on. Even Phillips himself regularly pops up in his films, in turns ranging from a foot-licking weirdo in Road Trip to the pothead boyfriend of Juliette Lewis’s character in Due Date. However, his recent casting of Mel Gibson as a tattoo artist in The Hangover 2 caused a rift on set with his cast—Galifianakis, in particular, is rumored to have spearheaded the campaign to have Gibson axed (he was replaced by Liam Neeson).
“There’s no truth to it being any singular person,” said Phillips. “The truth is, if it was one person it wouldn’t have gone down that way, and I can promise you that. But when you have a rupture in this little family you create—especially on a sequel with a lot of the same actors and 99 percent of the same crew—you have to think about the big picture as much as a two-minute scene.” Phillips’ tone then lightens, adding, “I think we’re on the verge of making something truly special and I’m really excited about that.”
Another sequel that fans are clamoring for is Old School Dos, the long-gestating sequel to the instant classic, starring Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, and Luke Wilson. Although a script for the film has been completed for quite some time, and Wilson has openly campaigned to get the film made, it seems like a pipe dream thanks to the continual commitments of Ferrell and Vaughn.
“I think there’s a term limit on sequels in a weird way,” said Phillips. “It’s probably tough to go back to that one. It’s been seven years. There was a moment when we were all really trying to make it but it’s like you hear with other sequels, it’s really tough to make it and to have all the planets realign.” Phillips added, “For Vince to want to do that, it might not be the same time Will wants to do that, and vice versa.”
The topic eventually switched to masturbation—a recurring element in many of Phillips’ films, from Seann William Scott’s anal stimulation in Road Trip to Galifianakis simulating baby Carlos wacking it at the table in The Hangover. Due Date, naturally, features its own memorable masturbation scene.
“I’m certainly not fascinated by masturbation, but what I think I’m most fascinated by is vulnerability and I guess people are at their most vulnerable at that moment,” said Phillips, no longer able to hold back the laughter, “or dogs.”
Marlow Stern works for The Daily Beast and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. He has served in the editorial department of Blender Magazine, as an editor at Amplifier Magazine, and, since 2007, editor of Manhattan Movie Magazine.