Hangover, The: Las Vegas in Light of Day

“The Hangover,” directed by Todd Phillips and starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis, is being released June 5, 2009 by Warner Bros.

“The Hangover” was filmed at numerous practical locations in and around Las Vegas and in Southern California. Says Phillips, “For me, the key to doing a movie like this is to make it as real as possible. The humor is in the juxtaposition of every outrageous action against the very normal settings we have all experienced. If we’re going to Vegas, let’s shoot in the lobby and elevators and hallways of Caesars Palace.”

Production did exactly that, capturing a significant amount of footage at the famed hotel, an enduring and evolving Las Vegas landmark since the 1960s. Caesars shots include the rooftop toast and the poolside morning-after breakfast scene.

At the north end of The Strip, another Vegas icon, The Riviera, provided casino interiors, complete with thousands of fake chips the prop department created to outfit the fifteen surrounding blackjack tables visible in a key gambling sequence.

Cast and crew soon learned that their presence made little difference to casino patrons, many of whom appear on screen as extras. Recalls Bradley Cooper, “No one seemed to care we were shooting a movie. Everyone was focused on their own playing and partying. We had to work around the screams of people at the roulette table. One guy was up $5,000 and then lost it all. Even our crew was cheering him on.”

The downside to filming in Sin City for more than a month was that, as Phillips acknowledges, “It’s hard to wind down and get to sleep after work.”

While sampling from the buffet of blackjack, craps, roulette, Baccarat, slots and Pai Gow as many of his compatriots did during their downtime, Justin Bartha shared Phillips’ interest in Texas Hold’Em, and says, “For our filming kick-off party, Todd hosted a poker tournament for the cast and crew. He hustled all of us.”

“After five weeks, you realize Vegas is a place where people go to make terrible decisions,” says Ed Helms, who goes on with mock delight: “Here’s a bad decision. Oh, here’s another one. And hey, here’s something you can do that could ruin your entire life! The city is set up brilliantly for that and our movie is its ultimate expression.”

Additional Nevada locations included the Fremont Street area in downtown Las Vegas, and a gas station and dry lake bed in nearby city Jean, where sandy wind gusts commonly reach 50mph, as they did on the days of shooting.

The fictitious Best Little Chapel was on Las Vegas Boulevard several blocks south of The Strip. Though appearing to have been part of the neighborhood for years, it was actually built on an empty lot to allow maximum control of the space around it for exterior action shots.

Returning to the Los Angeles area, the production used the old Rampart detectives’ headquarters at Union and Third Streets to stand in for the Las Vegas Metro Police Station, relying upon its strict blue and gray palette and serious air to contrast with the distinctly crazier atmosphere that Phil, Stu and Alan have been experiencing. But the most striking contrast was between the Las Vegas chaos and the country club wedding that awaits Doug and his would-be groomsmen back home.

“We wanted to set up polar opposites. In Vegas, it’s a visual nightmare: loud, bright, grating, without a bit of softness. Meanwhile, on the other end of the phone in L.A. where Tracy is preparing for the ceremony, we have beauty and serenity, soft music, attractively dressed people and a garden with roses and hydrangeas,” says production designer Bill Brzeski.

Film fans may recognize the wedding reception entertainers as irreverent singer Dan Finnerty and his Dan Band, previously featured in Phillips’ “Old School” and “Starsky & Hutch.”

Brzeski and his team created one set from scratch on Stage 15 at Warner Bros. Studios, the lavish–and then lavishly trashed–hotel suite. Working from a template of existing rooms at Caesars Palace and comparable hotels, Brzeski designed a look “rich in red and brown tones, with wood paneling, marble and beautiful fabrics, to reflect the sensual and luxurious side of Vegas, as experienced by a certain echelon of high-rollers.”

Addressing the decision to construct the space, the designer asserts, “We didn’t want to wreck a real hotel suite,” and adds that there was another special consideration: “You can’t get a tiger into a real hotel room.”

Well, maybe you can, but you shouldn’t.

Four tigers were trained for different and specific tasks on screen, while the film’s cast and crew were similarly trained to a strict protocol about sharing space with them. “Tame or not, working with wild animals is serious business and tigers, in particular, don’t like surprises. The facility was fully locked down whenever they were present and non-vital personnel were kept off the set,” says Brzeski. Those remaining were cautioned to avoid sudden movements or hiding themselves from view.

For certain actions, it was necessary to use a life-size animatronic tiger provided by the Jim Henson Creature Shop, requiring two puppeteers to operate. Thirty tiny intricate servo motors controlled the model’s realistic facial movements, while a concoction made from K-Y Jelly served as saliva on its impressive fangs.

Brzeski also learned a bit of big cat trivia: tigers prefer to walk on firm surfaces. Therefore, in scenes that called for them to be inside the back seat of the guys’ Mercedes, seat cushions were removed and replaced with hard, solid material. “Hey, we wanted the tigers to be as comfortable as possible,” he jokes.

The car itself was a work of art: a vintage 1969 soft-top convertible Mercedes Benz, graciously lent to Doug by his future father-in-law, Sid, for this trip. A total of five identical models were collected and used by the production to illustrate the various ways in which the car gets wrecked and battered. Says Brzeski, “We couldn’t take just one car and put it through the process because we were shooting out of sequence. We even had to cut one in half and put it on a trailer. It was one of the movie’s running jokes: every time you let your kid borrow the car, something is going to happen.”

Of course, the reason Sid offered the car was in keeping with his philosophy that Doug should have a good time in style before the wedding–a point of view not shared by the actor playing Sid. “I’m the exact opposite of this guy. He says you’ve got to sow you
r wild oats, stir up some trouble before your wedding. That’s him. Me, I say take a hot bath, have some yogurt, maybe a Xanax and go to bed because it’s going to be a big day. That would be better,” Jeffrey Tambor suggests.

Todd Phillips acknowledges that they pushed the envelope on “The Hangover” for the sake of comedy, but remains convinced that there are real bachelor party stories out there that could make any one of these elements pale by comparison. With that in mind, he offers this sage advice to potential grooms or brides embarking on their own boys’ or girls’ night out. “Use the buddy system. Everyone in the party is responsible for one other person. Use name tags if you have to.”