Writer Craig Mazin takes us through the joys and difficulties of bringing the Wolf Pack back for their second adventure, in theaters today
Making its debut last night at Midnight for the Memorial Day weekend holiday is director Todd Phillips's much-anticipated comedy sequel The Hangover Part II, which reunites the Wolf Pack (Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, and Ed Helms) for a second adventure in Bangkok.
Early reviews are raving that it's as good as its predecessor, which it is. If you liked The Hangover, you will enjoy The Hangover Part II at equal measure. The main criticism being aimed at the movie is that it's simply a remake of the first film in every way. It's a loose Xerox copy that follows a strict formula, never deviating from that path. That makes it both frustrating and fascinating. Is it high art? A cash grab? Or is the story merely a vessel used to spend time with a handful of beloved characters?
The Hangover Part II seems to be all of that, and more. We recently caught up with writer Craig Mazin, who penned this sequel with partner Scot Armstrong and director Todd Phillips, and he took us through the joys and difficulties of bringing the Wolf Pack back to the big screen for another memory lapse. He also opened up about how The Hangover Part II is the important bridge of a trilogy that will end with The Hangover Part III.
Here is our conversation.
Are you excited to finally see the movie in theaters this weekend?
Craig Mazin: Yes. I did see it during the testing process. I had seen the movie a bunch of times with audiences, which is always nerve racking. But those were the best test screenings I have ever been involved in. It has played through the roof. The premier screening was terrific as well, but it's not quite the same as seeing it with a real, paying audience. I am going to take a couple of my friends to see it this weekend.
How much did the movie change from those test screenings to what we are seeing now?
Craig Mazin: Not much. Much less than most movies change. I mean, the movie really worked. It was really a question of going through and tightening, and adjusting a few moments that were cut too short. There were moments when things went on too long. Todd Phillips is really good at making sure things don't go on too long; he doesn't want to bore people. There was one section that we were really struggling with. We couldn't figure out how to make it work. Finally, we found a great way to do that. If you were one of the people that saw the first test screening, and then you went to the last test screening, you wouldn't notice much of a difference at all.
Your role as a screenwriter goes past jotting lines down on a page and handing it over. Your involvement is much deeper, it sounds like...
Craig Mazin: Yeah. Todd Phillips really did treat me like a creative partner on this movie. He is the captain of the ship, but he really kept me involved. From the first scout out in Bangkok, so that we could see the location together...We would head back to the hotel and mesh the locations to fit the descriptions. We shot here in Los Angeles, and then flew out there to Thailand. I was also in the editing room a lot. That speaks to his confidence. That he doesn't mind having some other people near him, to bounce stuff off of. In the end, he is the boss. One of the best things about working for him is that the guy knows what he wants.
While you were in Bangkok, did you immerse yourself in that culture, to give yourself an idea of what might become of these three guys? Did you experience anything that eventually made it into the script?
Craig Mazin: Hell no! I don't want anything to do with that. Maybe there are method writers out there who need to go and get punched in the face to write a good fight scene. But what these three guys went through in this movie? Forget that. I don't want to go anywhere near that. Honestly, the actors themselves...This was a very demanding thing for them. It was hot, and sweaty. I got to sit in the shade the whole time. These guys are under the roasting sun. They are doing fight scenes, they are doing stunts. Poor Ed Helms got violently ill at one point. This was a difficult thing. Making a movie is hard. Making it in your living room is hard. You do it halfway around the world away from your family and friends...The last thing on my mind was trying to get involved in my own set of troubles.
What about creating the story for this second movie? You guys don't deviate from the formula of the first film at all. But in doing a third movie, you guys are going to move to something completely different. How does that whole process work, and what are the benefits of keeping this so close to the vest of the original?
Craig Mazin: We made a real conscious decision early on that we wanted to tell The Hangover story again. Todd Phillips had a great analogy. He said, "Look, when you see Law & Order, there is a crime, then they catch a suspect, they interview him, and they put him on trial, then there is a verdict." That's the way it is with this movie series. I am a big James Bond fan, and James Bond has a formula. You start with that big set piece, you go to that great theme song, then you have the movie, and the gadgets, and no one ever complains about that. (Laughs) I think he was right. This is a good formula. I like this formula. People aren't coming to this movie because they want a new formula, or because they want a new story. They just love seeing these characters go through a difficult situation. Our challenge was to figure out how to do another episode of that series, as it were. But make it bigger. Make it darker. Make it epic. And keep it funny. Look, I don't have to think about it, because in the end, the audience will tell us, and they've told us they love it. I was very excited about that. The third one, if there is going to be a third one, we all feel, especially the guys, that the characters...They have experienced...I cannot image a worse hangover than the one they experience in Bangkok. That's it. No more. The third one really has to be about something that gets them off of this cycle. Every time these three guys get together, something terrible happens. Maybe the third one is about saving them from a life of agony.
I kind of equate it to watching the Die Hard movies. John McClain has that great line in part 2, "How can the same thing happen to the same guy on Christmas twice?" Its that kind of mentality. People complain about it. But then you deviate in the third chapter, and people are like, "What the fuck?" Then, part 4 goes back to the formula. It happened with Halloween 3. Its seems to be the curse of 3s, and it proves that audiences sometimes don't know what they want.
Craig Mazin: You are right. Sometimes you are caught between a rock and a hard place. Sometimes, people are going to ding you for being too similar. They are going to ding you for straying. If it ain't broke, why fix it? This isn't really about responding to internal criticism. For the third one, I think it's really about what makes sense for the characters. When you are making an action movie, the action star is really an avatar for you to go through that situation. Its about the plot and action. This really isn't about the plot. It's about these guys going through some sort of horrendous growth experience. If we are going to end it...This isn't James Bond. We're not going to do The Hangover 20...There will be another one, and it will be the hangover to end all hangovers. And in a sense, it has to go to another level, again. The Hangover Part II goes to another level in terms of how dark and insane it gets. The Hangover Part III will go to another level for the guys.
Can you give off a whiff of what it is you have in store for the Wolf Pack?
Craig Mazin: No. (Laughs) God. Its not that I mean to be withholding it. Its not that I, or Todd Phillips, or anyone involved with the movie think its so precious to keep this big secret. Things are just funnier when you don't know what's coming. It kills me when I look at all the marketing for The Hangover Part II. On the one hand, I am so appreciative of Warner Bros., and how they have blanketed the planet with trailers, and clips, and commercials. On the other hand, I wish that none of it were there. That people knew nothing. That they were walking in blind. Without pre-considering what the movie will be. So, for now, I will say nothing.
Can you at least tell me yes or no...Will you guys ever consider a marriage for Alan?
Craig Mazin: I don't think that Alan would ever get married. I can't say either way, but Alan is really a child. He doesn't understand what men and women do. There is that great line in the first movie, "Don't let the beard fool you. He is just a child." If Alan got married, I don't think he would understand what is going on.
Now, I am with you on one thing. I think most audience members want to go into this movie fresh. They don't need all of the jokes given away in the trailer. The first trailer was perfect. The Wolf Pack walking down the street. That is all I need to see to know I am going to see this movie...
Craig Mazin: It was perfect. Todd Phillips cut that together himself. It was a teaser trailer. Believe me, when I tell you, if it had of just been that teaser trailer and the billboards, I would have been overjoyed. But we don't live in that world. I get it. This is a business. And Warner Bros. is the best at this business. Their goal is to get people to see the movie. And they have done it. People are going to go see this movie. It's just me being neurotic. A movie is always more interesting when you don't know what is coming.
I don't think studios give audiences enough credit when it comes to that. I am out in the middle of nowhere Arkansas during Christmas break, and I am listening to a couple of nurses in a hospital talk about the first movie. Its obvious that they would see the sequel no matter what you showed them before hand...
Craig Mazin: Right.
As it stands now, I saw the film for the first time the other day, and I knew half the dialogue in the movie. It's like knowing the handful of hit singles when you finally get that full record, and the rest is filler songs.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. And it's a bummer. How funny can it be? You already know the punchline. I am with you one hundred percent. (Sighs) It's hard to argue with success, on one level. That is why the first movie will always be so special. I saw it the way you saw it. As an audience member. I saw it as a real audience member, where as you probably got a press tour.
Yes. I was on the set of the first movie. I saw a lot of the scenes as they were being filmed. But even then, Todd was highly secretive. And we weren't offered anything beyond the premise. And the scenes we watched being filmed were out of context. So it was still a surprise when we saw it.
Craig Mazin: Right. I knew nothing except what the basic concept was. Everything was fresh and funny. It came out of nowhere for me. I knew nothing but the main concept. It's always better. But then again, we have to be honest. We are making a sequel. They already now what those characters sound like. They know what their issues are. They know parts about their lives. So, it's already hard to keep things under wraps. The one saving grace is that this is rated R. They can't show everything, even if Warner Bros. wants to.
It is a double-edged sword, because some audience members enjoy knowing all the lines when they sit down to watch a movie for the first time. They are comfortable with it. It isn't scary for them.
Craig Mazin: I know. I always fall on the side that it's bad. I love hearing a great song for the first time without hearing snippets of it first. I hope people really enjoy this, who have come to watch it in that repeat way, because there is some sick stuff in this movie. I hope they come to see it two times, or three times. That it does become that hit song, in a way.
I've found that I do like the first one better each time I watch it. Its like the Big Lebowski, it plays to repeat viewings. And I like The Hangover Part II as much as the first one. I think it's an equal film. I think II has a repetitive value to it that will pay off the more times you see it.
Craig Mazin: Wow. Thank you. I love that you are saying that. That was our intentions with this one. We set out to make a good movie. Todd Phillips is a very hard worker. I think some people read our use of the formula from the first in the second one as some kind of laziness. It is very hard, frankly, to work within the boundaries of that formula, and find new ways to torture these characters. To have something interesting come out of it at the end. I think we did that. I love the fact that you liked this new one as much as the first one, because the first one has become a classic. I can't think of higher praise for a sequel. We all know that sequels, especially comedy sequels, rarely hold up to the first one. I give Todd Phillips a lot of credit. This is the first sequel that he ever did, and he approached it the way he approaches a unique movie.
Most comedy sequels are bad. Mannequin 2? The Vacation movies are enjoyable, but you look at something like Caddyshack 2, and its atrocious. Ghostbusters II is always a movie I wanted to like, but when I go back to it, it always seems worse than the last time I watched it. With The Hangover Part II, though it's almost a slight remake of the first film, it's as enjoyable as the first as well. It's a great looking, well made, funny movie. What is your take on comedy sequels in general? Do you consider any of them to be good?
Craig Mazin: I don't think...Look, I have written some comedy sequels. The spoof sequels I did really weren't sequels, because they were literally like new movies, because they were spoofing other new movies. They weren't true sequels. In terms of true comedy sequels, like this one? No. I don't think anyone has ever done a really good one. Ghostbusters? I am the biggest fan of Ghostbusters. But any love we have for Ghostbusters 2 is residually because we liked seeing those guys in the suits. But it didn't work. Caddyshack II, unfortunately, is an abomination. When I was a kid, I went to see Meatballs III: Summer Job. That didn't turn out so well.
What is Meatballs 3? I have only seen 1, 2, and 4.
Craig Mazin: You missed Meatballs III? They bring in an alien, so you really missed something special there.
4 has that crazy entrance by Corey Feldman, where he jumps out of a biplane via parachute with water skis on and a boom box around his neck. Might just be the best character introduction of all time.
Craig Mazin: At least that sounds more ambitious than Meatballs III, which has an alien in it. Let me say this one more time: Meatballs III has an alien!
I have never seen that on DVD, or VHS...Maybe Laserdisc?
Craig Mazin: It won't imprint on DVD. The movie is so bad...
It just jumps right off the disc...That's horrible! But in talking about Ghostbusters, there is a sequel that tried desperately to stick to the formula of the first movie. They have the Statue of Liberty at the end instead of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. It just doesn't work. In some ways, it makes you mad to look at it. It's iterating more than anything else. You guys faced a similar challenge here with the black out. How challenging was it to come up with something new? That made sense, and wasn't necessarily a straight rip-off of the first movie. Which, in a way, it does nod back to the first one...Also, is it possible to use what you guys describe in the movie, and get those same results?
Craig Mazin: (Laughs) It was incredibly difficult. For a month, mostly what we talked about was this scene you are describing. We had to put aside any idea of what a comedy should be. We talked mostly about how you would construct another episode of this procedural show. This is an investigation. First we have to come up with the crime. What is the crime? Someone is missing. Who is missing? Why are they missing? Why are they where they are? How does any of that make sense? You have to find some logic. Talking about Ghostbusters 2, maybe the problem with Ghostbusters 2 is that when the movie begins, it seems like the characters forgot the first movie even existed. They saved New York from Ghosts. Everyone saw that. How could they not be heroes? And how could anyone still not believe in ghosts? There was a lot of discussion here about how our characters had to acknowledge that the first movie did happen. Then, yeah, it was, "What happened? What is in the room? What are the clues? What is the solution?" Ultimately, this is the big one, what does it all mean? What is the object lesson of this movie, and for which character? The plot point you are talking about...The specifics of the substances involved changed, literally, the night before we shot. We were all sitting in the hotel in Bangkok. Todd Phillips, and I, and Zach Galifianakis, and I think Ed Helms...We were talking about what our initial theory was. And, maybe, it seemed a little too crazy. We decided that it should be something that was Alan-ish. It had to be something that Alan had with him, that no one would ever bat an eye...Of course he has those things, and he has misused them. It was a good change that we made, and it was changed the night before we shot it.
(Off the record, Craig Mazin explains the initial concept, which can't be revealed here...)
Wow, that seems very malicious.
Craig Mazin: It's malicious anyway. Look, Alan is a malicious guy. That part never bothered me. Alan is a dark, dangerous guy...
The marshmallows make it almost cuddly in a way. Friendly and innocent...
Craig Mazin: It is. In a way, a drug-tainted marshmallow is the perfect object analogy for Alan Garner. It's this sweet cuddly thing that you want to like, but then there is something horrible inside of it. It will knock you out and get you raped!
***END OF SPOILER***
Now, I heard Zach talking about his lack of profanity usage in these movies. And how Alan always tries to come up with old timey sayings all the time. He claims, as a comedian, that swearing is hackish, and too easy. Which is a slight at anyone who uses vulgar language for a cheap laugh in a movie. Before Alan even shows up, we have two scenes with Bradley Cooper, and this guy is throwing around the F word like nobody's business. Is that intentionally in the script, to set up some of Alan's jokes later on, and to amplify the hackishness that Zach is describing, and to find a balance between those two characters of Alan and Phil?
Craig Mazin: It is one hundred percent intentional. Every single one of those F bombs is scripted, and meted out. We even argue sometimes that we have too many. That we need to be careful. Bradley Cooper's character...It's a funny thing. Movies always magnify language. A neighbor came up to me the other day and said, "It's not necessary to have all of those F bombs in a movie." I said, "There is nothing necessary in a movie. You don't have to have anything in a movie." Movies are not necessary. They are not food or medicine. We use them as an expression of character. But lets be honest, the movie magnifies this. In the course of a day, I probably say Fuck a thousand times. It's not that big of a deal. One of the things I really like about Todd Phillips, and the way he directs, is that he captures what's true about men. Bradley himself is a complete gentlemen. He is incredibly gentle. He has to become that guy. He is not Phil at all. If anybody is that guy, its Todd Phillips. Phil is really like Todd Phillips. On the surface he is really harsh and dismissive. He's like, "What the fuck is this? What the fuck is going on?" Of course, then, the character of Phil is also a very descent human being. The character of Alan? He is a child. He doesn't curse, because that's not what children should do. He's in the reverse. At first he seems so innocuous. And naive. And innocent. But Alan is actually the darkest and most dangerous one of them all.
He certainly is. And when you have him intentionally not swearing, it amplifies what Phil is doing...
Craig Mazin: Exactly. Phil is a lot of bluster. A lot of bravado. And he is a cool guy. There is no question. Maybe he is a guy who can pull some unethical choices here and there, but they are always locked in the alpha-male, mainstream mindset. But Phil would never do anything that was dangerous or cruel. Alan is like that kid, who is sitting in the back of the class with his own aid, because he is not quite right. And the other kids tease him, until one day he just breaks one of their necks. He is a dangerous cat. You can't screw with Alan.
Now, I will end this conversation by going back to the very beginning of the movie. When you sit down to watch the Hangover Part II, you want to get to the hangover as soon as possible. How did you orchestrate the opening we see here, which leads into the mystery?
Craig Mazin: Just going through it in a chronological fashion, we wanted to open the movie in that James Bond way. We wanted to say, "We are doing it again!" But have the characters acknowledge that it is happening again. Todd had a great point. He felt that people would just want to catch up with these guys. To see a little bit into their lives. We see into the dentist's office. We see Doug driving around Tracy, and she is pregnant now. Time has passed. There is that moment when the three guys get together, and the biggest challenge of them all is explaining the Alan question. Because very early on, we all agreed, that after the events of the first one, there was no way in hell these guys would want to keep hanging out with Alan. He sings, "We're the three best friends that anyone ever had." And it all worked out great. But once that weekend is over, you leave that guy behind. We wanted to make sure people knew why Alan was being involved at all. We had to reintroduce him back into the movie. Once that happened, it was about establishing the emotional stakes in the movie. What the movie is ultimately about is that Stu is getting married. And he doesn't quite except part of who he is. And his father in-law isn't too thrilled with him. He has to go against whom he thinks he is to earn that man's respect. Everything builds so that it can unfold the way it's supposed to unfold. Sometimes movies need a little bit of that context of the ending to fully enjoy what happens at the beginning of it. I remember the first time I saw Fight Club, I really didn't get it. Then a year went by. It was on cable. So I watched it again, knowing the twist. Once you know the twist of that movie, it's the greatest movie of all time. It truly is. Now, it is one of my top ten movies of all time. It's just a funny thing. Sometimes you need to see the end before you truly enjoy it a second time around.
Are you hinting that, in the third movie, we will discover that Doug is actually the Wolf Pack? That he has been the embodiment of these three characters, and he has unleashed them in his own way.
Craig Mazin: Not a bad ending. Kind of like Newhart. It was all Doug the whole time. The last shot reveals that he has been in a VA hospital. He is a sixty-nine year old Vet, he only has one leg...}
He is having these weird flashbacks. It's like Jacob's Ladder, almost...
Craig Mazin: Yeah. It's a little bit like Jacob's Ladder. He is actually a killer. He has killed a lot of people. Its like Angel Heart, where we go back through, and we see that it was him the whole time. That is a great idea. You have saved me a lot of time. (Laughs)
I think it would blow a lot of people's minds, and then make even more people angry and upset.
Craig Mazin: Yup. Right. Right. It probably would.