Q&A: Todd Phillips

This year's Just for Laughs Festival honoree talks about his 'Hangover'

Todd Phillips has worked with comic royalty. In 2003, the director took audiences back to college in "Old School," starring Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson. Then, in 2004, he helmed Ben Stiller's "Starsky & Hutch" before contributing as a writer to Sacha Baron Cohen's "Borat" (2006). But Phillips' most successful film to date is "The Hangover," which so far has grossed more than $180 million at the domestic boxoffice. This year's honoree at the Just for Laughs Festival, Phillips sat down with The Hollywood Reporter's Fabio Periera to discuss the art of comedy.

The Hollywood Reporter: What makes something funny?

Todd Phillips: I really respond to danger in comedy. The essence of great comedy is danger, and guys like Zach Galifianakis have that. It's the feeling that anything can happen. That's why Sacha Baron Cohen is great, and that's what makes Will Ferrell great. When you (saw) him on "Saturday Night Live," you watch (because) anything can happen.

THR: You mean, comics who are in bathrooms with tigers, like Galifianakis in "The Hangover"?

Phillips: (Laughs) No, just people who push the boundaries a little bit. If you've ever seen Zach and what he does in his stand-up act -- if you can even call it stand-up -- he brings an energy and an element of danger to it where I just feel, "Wait a minute, where is this guy gonna go next?" And that's what makes (him) so exciting, because so much about comedy is surprise.

THR: Is that what makes "The Hangover" work?

Phillips: When comedies work, it's not so much about the direction and the cinematography as it is about the chemistry. "The Hangover" just exudes chemistry and that's why people connect with it.

THR: Did you think it would resonate this much with audiences?

Phillips: When you're making a comedy, the only thing you think is: "This is not funny!" Most people in the comedy gig have that attitude, that "Oh my God, this is only funny to me." You never know what you have until you put it up in front of 400 people in Burbank. I don't think we knew what we had until our first test screening and then I thought, "OK, this is working. Here we go."

THR: How will you make "The Hangover 2" work?

Phillips: It's going to be crazy. It's going to be bigger and better but it's also going to stay true to what it is -- a fucked-up character comedy.

THR: So are the guys going back to Vegas?

Phillips: We don't want to put that out there just yet, but we have some good plans for them, some good obstacles. I mean, in "The Hangover" we threw a bunch of obstacles their way and it was fun to see people that felt like your buddies going through the worst shit ever. So it's a little bit more of that.

THR: Apart from "The Hangover" sequel, what other projects do you have in the works?

Phillips: I'm currently developing this project called "Due Date," but we don't have a start date for that yet.

THR: What happened to the "Old School" sequel?

Phillips: I don't know about "Old School 2." We had it ready a year and a half ago and quite honestly I'm not sure whether we will ever put that together. Just to (align the) schedules of all three of those guys is way more difficult than I would have imagined. Just like I wouldn't make "The Hangover 2" without the same guys, you'd never make "Old School 2" without all three guys, you know?

THR: When you want to watch something funny, what do you watch?

Phillips: I'm such a fan of comedies in general, I can't think of one that I don't go see. "Year One" I saw and cracked up. I mean, I just I love comedies. I love to see funny people doing fucked up shit. I'm just a huge fan of all comedies (and) I always have been. It's like I'm a student of it.

THR: Will you go to the premiere of Judd Apatow's "Funny People" at Just for Laughs?

Phillips: Yeah. I'm really looking forward to it. As a director, the thing that attracts you to scripts and to movies is tone, and as a director you are sort of the purveyor of tone. What Judd is attempting in "Funny People" (has) a very complicated tone to balance and it (will be) really exciting to see what he does with it.

THR: There is definitely a similarity in tone between your films and Apatow's, who was last year's honoree.

Phillips: Thank you. I couldn't be following in bigger shoes than Judd's and that's why (being this year's Just for Laughs honoree) is a huge honor.