Unlike most movie sequels that are patched together with reckless speed, The Hangover Part II (opening this Thursday, May 26) is the product of more than two years’ worth of preparation. In fact, the comedy follow-up received the green light from its backers, Warner Bros. Pictures, two months before its predecessor even hit theaters. A wise move on the studio’s part, since The Hangover went on to make $277 million domestically, turn the once-fringe comedian Zach Galifianakis into a full-fledged movie star, give unfunny people tons of quotables to reference amongst friends, and solidify itself as the biggest R-rated comedy of all time.
When Warner Bros. approved a Hangover sequel, the film’s director, Todd Phillips (Road Trip, Old School, Starsky & Hutch), called upon a pair of veteran comedy screenwriters for assistance: Scot Armstrong and Craig Mazin. For Phillips, working with Armstrong was a no-brainer; prior to The Hangover Part II, Armstrong co-wrote four of the director’s flicks along with Phillips himself, including the aforementioned Road Trip and Old School, and, on his own, the Chicago native penned the script for Will Ferrell’s 2008 basketball comedy Semi-Pro.
The Hangover Part II comes at the perfect pre-blow-up time for Armstrong; later this year, he’ll begin production on his first directorial effort, the Mexico-set comedy Road To Nardo, while NBC recently picked up the sitcom BFF, which will be produced under Armstrong’s American Work Inc. banner and begin airing this fall. As all of the Wolfpack’s ardent fans know, however, it’s all about The Hangover Part II these days. Complex recently caught up with Armstrong to talk about the pressures surrounding what’s quite possibly the most anticipated comedy sequel of all time, how the seedy locale of Bangkok dictated the movie’s beats, the scene-stealing monkey sidekick, and his and Phillips’ pivotal roles in the careers of Ferrell and Vince Vaughn.
Complex: Before The Hangover even came out, a sequel was already announced. Were you brought onto The Hangover Part II before you were able to see the first movie, or was the process slower than that?
Scot Armstrong: Well, this is my fifth movie with Todd, and, when he asked me to do it, it just seemed like a huge opportunity. I was a huge fan of the first movie. Also, it was an opportunity for me to work with Craig Mazin at the same time; I hadn’t really worked within a three-person writing team before, so I felt like it’d be really interesting to approach a movie in that way.
For us, the process was to sit in a room and really just invent the whole movie, while constantly trying to make each other laugh. Doing it together with Todd and Craig was probably my favorite part of the whole process; it was one of my favorite things that I’ve ever done in my career.
Did you guys know from jump that you wanted to set the movie in Thailand?
Scot Armstrong: Yeah, that was Todd Phillips’ idea from the beginning. For me, I just think there’s something special about Bangkok. It’s notorious for having one of the wildest nightlife scenes on Earth, and it’s a city that reminds you of nothing else. It’s just the most exotic location, and when these characters wake up there, it’s a huge mountain to climb to try and save themselves.
Were you able to spend time in Bangkok prior to writing, in order to better familiarize yourself with the culture and scene?
Scot Armstrong: I want to say that I went over there and did all of this amazing research that informed all of these great in-the-know jokes, but the reality is, we did a lot of research online. [Laughs.] I read a lot about Bangkok and Thailand; I read a bunch of novels that are set there. Screenwriting is always guess work, but I think we had a pretty good success rate. When we got there and saw all of our locations and started shooting, everything seemed to match up pretty well with what we had planned.
Going into the writing stage, did you guys make a conscious decision to make this one much darker than the first movie? Because The Hangover Part II goes to some pretty wild and rough places, both setting wise and thematically.
One of the ways to sort of up the stakes is to make a darker film. We always wanted to make a much darker film, a film that went further. No one wants to come to a movie that pulls back. You don’t want to see a great movie and then see a sequel that’s less challenging to you.
The movie’s dark tone caught me off guard, especially how some of the crazier moments are played, such as the scene in the strip club, where Stu (Ed Helms) finds out about a particularly disturbing sexual experience. I’ll leave it at that, to avoid spoiling anything. But, needless to say, you just feel bad for the guy.
Scot Armstrong: [Laughs.] A lot of that comes from Todd Phillips’ attitude. Going into a movie, he knows the tone he wants to create, and he knows the voices. He knows exactly how far he wants to push things; in this movie, our goal from the very beginning was to be unapologetic. I think a lot of comedies these days pull punches—they’ll be outrageous at the beginning, but in the end everyone learns a really sweet lesson and everything ties up well with a nice red bow. In this one, though, we go out even more outrageously than when we started.
Was there a concern, while writing the script, that you guys could go too far and too dark and lose the original movie’s fans in ways?
Scot Armstrong: Yeah, definitely, and hopefully we did maintain a good amount of what made people love the first one. The thing that’s true about the second one as much as the first one is that the chemistry between the actors is so great. The thing that changes up a little bit in this one is you get to see them a little bit more three-dimensionally.
In the first movie, you get little snippets of who these guys are, but then they’re launched into this adventure together and they don’t know each other quite that well. In this one, they know each other so well, and at the beginning you get to catch up with their lives. You get to see Ed Helms working as a dentist in his dentist’s office; you get to see where Zach’s character lives, in his bedroom. And it’s really fun to sort of blow out who these guys are, and see their worlds and catch up to where they are.
We definitely felt that everyone would be rooting for these guys to get back together. There’s something really special about these actors; they’re all so talented and so funny in their own ways, but, when they get together, I think they have a special chemistry that is sort of unmatched. Even though the movie is darker, I think there’s something about them together that enables them to get away with just about anything.
I’d imagine that there’s a certain comfort level in writing a sequel to a movie as big as The Hangover, in terms of having the first movie available as a reference for the characters’ voices and personalities.
Scot Armstrong: Oh, it was incredible. The screenwriters on the first one, [Jon] Lucas and [Scott] Moore, and Todd Phillips and Jeremy Garelick—who did some writing on the first one—they created such an incredible movie. For us to be able to step in and take these voices, and these characters, that had been invented was such a gift, and such a blast.
But also, a lot of pressure. You know everyone is rooting for this movie and wanting to see this movie, so you just don’t want to be the guy who fumbles the football. You want to make sure you take care of what everyone cares about so much, and do it justice. So, we felt that, from the very beginning, we needed to try our best to make sure we stayed true to who these characters are, and just put them through more mayhem.
Speaking of the mayhem, a lot of the things that happen in The Hangover Part II are similar to what happened in the first one, right down to each character’s craziest moments to the film’s structure as a whole. What made you guys want to follow the first one’s formula so closely?
Scot Armstrong: There’s something unique about The Hangover that makes it The Hangover, and there’s something special about the sequel that makes it the sequel, and we didn’t want to lose what’s special about that—the way they wake up and have to solve the mystery. The mystery structure is the same, in some ways, but everything that happens in the movie is completely different.
Such as the monkey, which was my favorite thing about the movie. Where’d the idea come from to have a chain-smoking, drug-running monkey that wears a Rolling Stones jean jacket?
Scot Armstrong: When you think about someone putting a monkey in a movie, I think that sometimes people might see that as an easy move, or a simple basic joke. But I think we push the monkey to such a degree that it becomes something else entirely. I don’t think many people expect you to make a monkey part of the drug syndicate. [Laughs.] Smoke cigarettes, get shot, and be part of this posse, you know?
We had to get the rights to the Rolling Stones logo. I remember how Todd had to explain to Mick Jagger, to get the rights, that this will be the most badass monkey in the world. [Laughs.] After he heard that, he was like, “OK, you can use the logo.”
At one point, we see the monkey in the middle of its drug selling hustle, climbing around on telephone wires and delivering little packages to guys in parked cars. Was it difficult to get the monkey to perform all of that?
Scot Armstrong: Yeah, that was a shout-out to [Martin] Scorsese. The monkey is incredible. Working with animals always slows you down, but not this time. The monkey’s name is Crystal; it’s actually a female. She, thank god, was so fast and so good. She’s a cutie.
Similar to how well Las Vegas was used in the first movie, the city of Bangkok becomes its own antagonistic character in The Hangover Part II. Being that you all filmed in the actual city, which is really gritty and tough, were there any dangerous moments while shooting?
Scot Armstrong: That’s what makes this movie seem different than most comedies. You just don’t usually see things that feel so gritty and so real in mainstream comedies, being placed in such a wild, fascinating, complicated city. And we actually just weren’t in Bangkok; we were in Chinatown, too, which is one step further than Bangkok. Shooting there, the city itself really does become one of the main antagonists in the movie. When they wake up, they don’t even know where they are; they just know it’s Bangkok, but they know nothing about Bangkok. We just love that there’s that much pressure on these guys.
The wake-up scene was probably the scene that took us the longest to figure out and to talk about and write. Because in that wake-up scene, not only do you want it to be surprising and funny, but, also, every single thing in there is a clue, and part of the map that will help them save themselves. So, not only do you have to understand what the whole movie is going to be while you’re writing that scene, you also have to understand why that scene is funny. I think our first pass was a lot of pages, and eventually we got it down to exactly what you need to launch the movie, and at the same time make you laugh.
Stepping back a little bit, how’d you and Todd Phillips first connect?
Scot Armstrong: Back in 1998, I was working in advertising, and I was a huge fan of his documentary Hated, and I hired him to direct a Miller Genuine Draft commercial. We met together in Milwaukee, and, I don’t know what it was about us, we just hit it off immediately. We got along great. I just thought he was so funny.
At the same time, Todd had been asked to pitch an “Animal House on the road” type of movie to Ivan Reitman. I called in sick at work, flew to Los Angeles, and met him at the Universal Studios lot. We ended up selling the pitch for what ended up being the movie Road Trip, and that was Todd’s first comedy. From there, we kept working together, and now we’re on this fifth movie that we’ve written together.
My advice to people out there is that if you want to get into this business as a screenwriter, have someone who just won an award at the Sundance Film Festival ask you to be their writing partner. [Laughs.]
What do you think it is about Todd Phillips’ movies that make them work so well as comedies?
Scot Armstrong: Todd loves to edit things tight. He’s not afraid to let people laugh over the beginning of the next scenes, which sometimes makes the audience miss out on parts of scenes, so they have to watch the movie again to catch something that they might have been laughing through the first time. Some people edit movies so that they’re spaced for laughter, but Todd just lets everything kind of fold forward, which is pretty unique and ballsy.
Another thing that makes Todd special is his ability to see how good someone can be in a movie; he’s great at casting. To decide to put Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell in Old School—that’s really the first breakout movie for both of those guys as comic actors. Vince had been in Swingers, but after Swingers he was in Clay Pigeons and a remake of Psycho, stuff that didn’t really capture how genius he is as a comedian.
And Will Ferrell had done Saturday Night Live and Night At The Roxbury, but he never really got a shot at a big comedy that captured exactly what he could do. Todd was able to see that and capitalize on it. Then, in Starsky & Hutch, he put Jason Bateman in his first big comedy role. And then obviously in The Hangover, Todd had the vision to realize that Zach Galifianakis was going to be a big movie star.
You’re actually getting ready to start shooting your first movie as a director, Road To Nardo. How are you feeling about that?
Scot Armstrong: Man, I’m terrified! [Laughs.] But also, I feel like it’s time for me to take a shot at bringing some of my own writing to life. In pitch meetings, they always want you to talk about two movies that it’s like, and if I was going to pitch this movie, I’d say that it’s like Traffic mixed with Superbad. It’s about young guys getting sucked into some bad news down in Mexico. It’s a script that was already written and I’ve taken it myself and done a big rewrite on it. We just got the green-light this weekend from Sony to go shoot in the fall, so I start prep in mid-June, and I’m really excited.
Have you done any directing prior to this on a smaller scale?
Scot Armstrong: No, because, really, you’ve either directed a big-budget movie before or you haven’t, and I haven’t. Everyone’s first movie is always an intense experience, and I’m sure it’ll be a challenge, but I couldn’t be more excited. The idea for me is to not work with big movie stars necessarily on this movie, and to instead try to launch some younger guys. I feel like a lot of the popular comic actors out there have done a lot of stuff, and I’d like to find some new guys. There’s a whole new generation of undiscovered talent that I’d love to bring to the screen.