“My whole life, even now, I’m attracted to mayhem,” Todd Phillips is saying, feet resting on a spotless coffee table inside his spotless office on the Warner Bros. film-studio lot in Burbank, him having turned this lifelong attraction into so much money you can’t believe it.
Take the three Hangover movies, from 2009 to 2013, all of which Phillips directed and two of which he co-wrote. Altogether, they’ve raked in $1.4 billion, with lunacy galore, chain-smoking monkeys, unexpected face tattoos, roofie-puffed marshmallows and so forth, ad nauseam. Crazy stuff, none of which would have happened had Phillips not allowed his $8 million paycheck for the first installment to be cut to exactly $0.00 (“Yeah, zero dollars,” he says) to get it made at a price the studio would approve. He’d get a percentage of the movie’s take instead. It was a gamble for him. It could have led to personal financial mayhem. “I mean, there are a lot of great movies that don’t make a dollar,” he says, “and I’m not saying The Hangover is great, but, yes, it was a big bet.” A big bet that paid off, too: The Hangover became the then-biggest R-rated comedy of all time, and he wound up many tens of millions of dollars richer because of it.
And he looks it, too. At the age of 45, he could pass for 30. He’s thin, no pot to his belly, curly-haired, stubble-cheeked, with lively, sparkly eyes and a cast to his face of perpetual amusement no matter what, which can be a little unsettling.
Let’s say you bring up his short-lived teenage career as a shoplifter for hire, now 30 years in the past. He removes his feet from the table, leans forward, takes a drag on his e-cigarette and says, “It was a crew of three, and we called ourselves Cheap John’s. We would steal anything. Kids at school would put an order in on Friday, and on Monday they’d get it for 50 percent off retail. It was mostly CDs, comic books and then special orders like a Casio keyboard. I’m not proud of it, and I hope you don’t mention it.” He says the last six words with especially dark emphasis, and yet he’s half-smiling the entire time.
His latest movie is War Dogs. It’s about two real-life Miami stoner types, played by Jonah Hill and Miles Teller, who get in near-death trouble after scheming their way into the arms-dealing racket for the U.S. government during its chaotic involvement in Afghanistan circa 2007, and is based on a 2011 Rolling Stone story (and subsequent 2015 book Arms and the Dudes) by Guy Lawson. It’s got lots of laughs, lots of bullets and lots of bad decisions leading to even worse decisions leading to total mayhem, which is what drives his movies – and has also led to certain assumptions about the kind of guy Phillips must be.
“People have this idea of me, because of the movies I make, like, ‘Oh, he’s some bro, he’s like a frat boy.'” He shakes his head. “The truth is the opposite. I didn’t have a lot of male friends growing up. My parents divorced when I was eight. I was raised by my mom and sisters. I never played sports in my life. The first time I held a football, I was 26 years old. I couldn’t believe how hard it was.”
Right then, he sticks his arms out. “Feel my hands,” he says. They’re soft as a wet chamois and perfectly, astoundingly smooth, like they’ve never seen a minute’s worth of physical labor. But it isn’t the smoothness of his hands that’s really so astounding. It’s the fact that he proffered them for inspection at all and allowed them to be lingered over. Seriously. What kind of guy does that?
For one thing, he can be a fun, reckless guy who says fun, reckless stuff like, “Trump is a fucking shit show, but I kind of love him. At first, I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m all in with Trump because I like comedy more than I like America,’ but it’s gotten out of hand, so I can’t support anything he fucking stands for. But I do kind of like the goof of it all. He has made it possible you don’t have to be in the political system to run for office and have a shot – someone brilliant like Elon Musk could do it. That’s a positive effect of Trump. The negative is, the end of the world.”
That sort of skewed-cheerful nihilism is a theme he first explored more deeply in The Hangover Part III, which begins with death. He took hits for it, from critics and audiences: “Look, I have a darkness in me, so in that one I embraced the darkness more than the comedy, which I don’t think people really wanted, and I get it. But find me another comedy that did $350 million worldwide. Ghostbusters would be very happy if they did what Hangover III did.”
The only failure he’ll readily admit to is 2006’s School for Scoundrels, starring Billy Bob Thornton and Jon Heder, with Miramax chief Bob Weinstein co-producing. “I’m not blaming Bob, who is a good friend of mine,” says Phillips, “but it was supposed to be R-rated and he said he’d only make it if it was PG-13. I go, ‘Bob, I don’t do that. I don’t speak in PG-13. I’m an R-rated human being.’ He goes, ‘It’s gotta be PG-13.’ So that’s what we did, and it hurt the movie. After that, I said, ‘Let me do a movie with zero compromise. I mean, fuck it, man, just do your own thing.’ And then I did The Hangover.”
“At first, I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m all in with Trump because I like comedy more than I like America,’ but it’s gotten out of hand. You don’t have to be in the political system to run for office — that’s a positive effect of Trump. The negative is, the end of the world.”
These days, all he does is pretty much his own thing. He plays cards every Wednesday night with a group of “degenerate poker players” he met when he first came to L.A., at age 34, and says, “I’ve been a gambler my whole life.” Of his poker playing, his friend and producing partner Bradley Cooper says, “Put cards in the man’s hands and he becomes a completely different person who is just scary, thrilling and hilarious. He can’t help himself.” Perhaps to calm himself, he drinks two glasses of wine a night but more likely three and really likes his pot and his mushrooms, blissing out most often in the company of his longtime French girlfriend, Alexandra Kravetz, with whom he has a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Juliet – who, in fact, is the only one to have messed around with his life.
He used to start writing a movie around 11 p.m., fueling his progress with weed, stopping toward dawn, waking up in the early afternoon, drinking lots of coffee and doing it all again. No longer. “That was the old me,” he says. “Now I get up with the kid. Having a kid really changed me. I’m pretty happy. I was darker when I was younger. But I loved living a late life, and I can’t do that now, and I fucking hate it. And I fucking hate kids. I’ve always hated the idea of kids. I will never have another kid. Anybody that I know that doesn’t have kids, I tell them to not have kids. The old me would never hang out with the new me. I just hate the new me.”
It’s quite a rant and hard to tell how serious he is, especially given his constant half-smile.
So, then, has he had a vasectomy?
“No. We just don’t fuck anymore. I’m so against kids. Now I’m against fucking. That’s how much I don’t want kids.”
As a kid himself, when he and his buddies would get caught shoplifting, which was often “because that’s just the nature of the business . . . dumb suburban kid, white-boy mischief,” his mom would look at him and say, perhaps jokingly, “I think you were just born bad.” This was in the Long Island hamlet of Huntington. In high school, he liked taking pictures, especially of his juvenile-delinquent pals doing things like smoking dope, commandeering golf carts and spray-painting graffiti, and ended up assembling them into a portfolio, which he submitted as part of his 1989 application to New York University film school. Got in with a full financial-aid package but was no beret-wearing, high-minded cineaste aesthete. Instead, he set off to film a raucous documentary about GG Allin, the apocalyptic punk rocker who liked to smear feces on himself during performances, spent lots of time in jail, counted serial killer John Wayne Gacy among his friends. To help fund the film, Phillips wrote to Gacy in prison and asked him to make a poster. Gacy said he would but only if Phillips sent him a racy self-portrait photograph, which Phillips did (and today will only say that it was suitably “hawkish”). Whatever it took, he did it. The movie cost $14,000 and earned $1 million, a huge amount for a one-man self-distributed flick.
Next, he finagled an internship in HBO’s documentary division, where he wound up making a film about out-of-control frat boys called Frat House. It won the 1998 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, where he first met director Ivan Reitman, who would later executive-produce Phillips’ first two Hollywood movies, and become his mentor. Frat House never made it onto the air, however. Seems HBO found out that Phillips and co-director Andrew Gurland maybe staged some scenes and threw parties to get the guys drunk enough to sign the necessary releases, which Phillips now admits wasn’t totally kosher. “Acquiring those releases in a fucked-up way was a fucked-up thing to do,” he says. “That was awful shit.”
After Frat House, he moved to L.A. and started on his first big hit, the delightfully raunchy Road Trip, with the help of his new friend Reitman. “I had a good instinct about him,” says Reitman. “I said to him, ‘Your observations are both prescient and cruel enough to be funny.’ ” Three years later, Old School followed, and Phillips was on his way.
“I was definitely a hustler, always,” Phillips says. “The shoplifting was a business, but it was a hustle too. And it’s not about the money. Rich kids have hustle in them too. Like when I read the Rolling Stone article that became War Dogs, I was like, ‘Ah, this kid Efraim, he’s got fucking moxie.’ To me, the movie is just, ‘Look at these two awesome guys, what they were able to do.’ Honestly. If I was 20 years old in Miami and I found that loophole, I feel like I would have been a great partner for Efraim.”
The way Phillips talks, he makes it seem like his hustling days are all in the past tense, long gone and never to be revisited. Or maybe he’s just gotten better at it. At one point, apropos of nothing, really, he has a funny thought about offering strangers $500 for five minutes of complete access to their cellphone. “Yeah,” he says, getting all bubbly, perky. “Like, we should do that as, like, a game show on the street. You go up, especially to beautiful girls, and be like, ‘$500, and I get whatever I want, pictures, texts, whatever.’ That’d be fun.” And on he goes, spinning out this idea, sucking you into his orbit right from the start with his use of the collaborative word “we,” as if the two of you are soon going to become partners in some grand venture. It makes everything seem so intimate, inviting and warm. It’s great stuff. Plus, it gives you a little feeling for how he’s managed to come so far from his early days as a juvenile delinquent. Because it is a hustler’s move, and very subtle, soft even, just like his hands.