Hangover Part 3: Interview with Director Phillips

In 2009, writer-director Todd Phillips threw a bachelor party the likes of which had never been seen before, and invited the whole world to bond with a group of guys now universally known as the Wolfpack. In 2011, he raised the stakes to show us how far they could be pushed without completely losing it.

By asking—and then answering—the diabolically simple question, What could go wrong?, both “The Hangover” and “The Hangover Part II” not only shattered boundaries and box office records, entertaining millions around the globe, but made an indelible mark on pop culture. Mr. Chow’s deranged catch phrases still ring from the most unlikely mouths, and fans from Baltimore to Bosnia sidle up daily to the front desk at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas to crack themselves up by requesting “the Hangover suite” or quoting Alan’s clueless query, “Is this the real Caesar’s palace?”

What they thought happened in Vegas was only the half of it, which they are about to discover in ways that the filmmakers believe should surprise audiences as much as it surprises the guys. “There’s a lot of action and comedy, a heist, a road trip, and an element of mystery, too, as we touch on certain things that weren’t explored before but were always part of the undercurrent of the two previous films,” Phillips continues. “It brings everything together and wraps it up with an ending that follows its own logic.”

Screenwriter Craig Mazin, who first collaborated with Phillips on the script for “The Hangover Part II,” recounts how they reached back to the two prior outings to prime that logic. “We uncovered a chain of unfinished business that arcs through all three movies for a final story that doesn’t just end on its own, but ends all three. Something happened in the beginning, although few caught its significance, and that thing is going to come back to haunt the guys and start them down a path of what will be, in many ways, their most difficult and challenging journey of all.”

Designed more as a quest than the forensic investigations that went before, “The Hangover Part III” shakes up the morning-after structure of its predecessors while still delivering plenty of laugh-out-loud and what-the-hell moments to keep moviegoers on the edge of their seats.

Rather than memory loss, the final chapter hinges on clarity, and things coming into full focus. It’s not about a specific hangover this time but harkens back to the original—that mother-of-all hangovers, triggered by Alan, which set all of this into motion six years ago in ways they couldn’t imagine.

Bradley Cooper, returning as high school English teacher and unofficial pack leader Phil, says, “There are little story points we maybe glanced by in the original that become pivotal pieces in the larger whole. Speaking as a fan, myself, watching these movies, the best part—and certainly the funniest—is putting it all together.”

Part III does not shy away from the dark side, either, the better to give its humor a sharper edge, Phillips feels. “With us it always starts with darkness, because that heightens the comedy. Plus, it just gets more interesting and more real as we bring them into darker places and amp up the tension. It’s essentially a fish-out-of-water story for these guys who don’t belong in the situation they’ve been thrown into, so the fun is in watching them struggle and trip their way through it.”

“Todd is our captain. We just follow him into battle,” says Ed Helms, reprising his role as the perpetually panicked dentist, Stu. “At this point, it’s safe to say these characters have been to hell and back…but in a good way. There are some scars. Stu, literally, has one from a regrettable tattoo, not to mention a tooth he’ll never get back. But I love these stories and these guys and I was excited to read the script for ‘The Hangover Part III,’ to see what was in store for them. I kept turning pages and thinking, ‘No way, are you kidding me? Where did that come from?'”

Similarly, audiences know these characters well enough now to follow them into any situation and trust that they will somehow prevail. Or have a phenomenally good time trying. “Bottom line: the amount of funny that comes out of these movies is unbelievable,” attests Ken Jeong, returning as bad-luck charm Chow. “And this one answers all the questions. You want to know what happened to Chow? You’ll get that answer, real quick, and in spectacular fashion.”

At the same time, part of what makes “The Hangover Part III” a satisfying conclusion to all the madness is how it copes with the one member of the group who has, thus far, eluded anything resembling growth or self-awareness. Who has ostensibly, throughout all the trauma and drama and near-death experiences, never learned anything and never changed.

In other words…”This one is Alan’s story,” says Phillips.

“It’s kind of bittersweet knowing that, after this, I won’t be able to play Alan ever again. It was a nice run, though,” Zach Galifianakis remarks, considering the persona that has earned a worldwide following and made a significant impact on his own life and career.

Knowing that “people come to these movies not to be enlightened, but to laugh and be entertained,” Mazin adds, “I think we laugh more when we care, and Todd and I care very much about these characters so we wanted to finish this in a meaningful way, and that meant dealing with Alan.”

Consequently, “The Hangover Part III” nudges Alan onto an inner journey he desperately needs, that runs parallel to the story’s main action. “I hate to suggest he grows up because I don’t know how possible that would be, but something definitely starts to change in him, at a cellular level,” offers Dan Goldberg, Phillips’ longtime producing partner.

“This allowed us to mine comedy from the deeper aspects of the characters,” Goldberg continues. “We couldn’t rely on the same things that worked before, either in character or story. Alan has given us a lot of laughs, and this movie is no exception, but there comes a time when you think, he can’t go on like this. What if he was your friend? One element that comes across so well in these movies is that no matter how insane things get, the friendship feels real. You believe these guys truly care about each other. So the question eventually becomes, how could they allow one of their own to continue on such a self-destructive path?”

Phillips concurs, emphasizing that the Wolfpack dynamic has always been key. “From the beginning, I think these movies work because of the characters and the casting. If we had, say, three Alans, apart from that being impossible, it would be tapping the same vein. These actors are not only funny in their own right, but each one comes from such a different place, comedically, that it makes for an extraordinary chemistry.

“When you watch a movie, you usually identify with a certain character,” he further notes. “I think a lot of people see things through Stu’s eyes, because he’s the one who seems most normal. Confident audience members see through Phil’s eyes and some people, if they’re completely unhinged, see things through Alan’s eyes, but ultimately it’s the group they’re responding to, and that’s a real testament to the actors. Beyond the comedy, beyond the plot, no matter where they wake up or whatever harebrained heist they have to accomplish to get out of trouble, I think people are just happy to get back together with these guys and go along for one last ride.”