Interview – Hangover II Writer Scot Armstrong
Scot Armstrong is a longtime collaborator with writer/director Todd Phillips, going back to Road Trip and hits like Old School. He did not work on The Hangover, but Phillips brought him back in to write The Hangover II with him and Craig Mazin. We chatted with Armstrong about the highly anticipated sequel, his work with Phillips and some upcoming solo projects on TV and film.
Crave Online: I’m a lifelong Road Trip fan. It reminds me of my college road trips, and I actually went to Ithaca College.
Scot Armstrong: No way. Funny enough, Ivan Reitman gave me and Todd our first big break. We will always owe him for that. Throughout his career he’s had an incredible ability to find raw talent and give them a shot at doing something great. But his daughter went to Ithaca College so we threw that in there.
Crave Online: But it had to be University of Ithaca in the movie.
Scot Armstrong: Yeah, you can’t do a real college. I think I saved one of the sweatshirts from that shoot.
Crave Online: With The Hangover II, what is it like to inherit a property with a given structure and massive expectations?
Scot Armstrong: I think these characters were such an incredible gift. The character of Alan, Bradley Cooper’s character Phil and the character Ed Helms plays, Stu. Of course Dr. Ken playing Mr. Chow. I really feel like these are classic comedy characters that we were just given this incredible gift to be able to take and play with. One of my favorite parts about working on the film is finding out where they are now. At the beginning of the movie, it’s like you get to visit Ed Helms where he works at his dentist office. You get to see the inside of Alan’s bedroom. You can kind of blow out the characters a little bit more than the small amount you saw before they were on the mission to save themselves in the first one.
Crave Online: How much could you comment on “how could this happen again?”
Scot Armstrong: It’s done by design. We talked a lot about it. We let ourselves at the beginning of the process sort of panic and realize what a mountain we had to climb together as Todd and [Craig] Mazin and I sat in the room together trying to crack the story and invent what the sequel really should be. I think ultimately we found the right balance with what worked in the first one, what makes these three guys special and what makes the concept and the fun of this movie, what makes it special. Using what works structurally and then making it completely different within that context.
Crave Online: Why did you want to leave Justin Bartha at the resort?
Scot Armstrong: There’s something special about the chemistry between Zach and Ed and Bradley that just seems special. I’m a huge fan of Justin’s. I think he’s incredibly funny and I thought it was just kind of a funny story twist that we had one guy who actually could from the outside help these guys. In the first one, there’s nobody on the outside giving them clues, doing work for them. Justin is responsible for discovering that they left somebody at the police station. He’s able to call in and give clues and also manage things on the wedding site. We needed somebody to do that and he’s great.
Crave Online: Where’s Barry, Todd’s cameo character, in this?
Scot Armstrong: Oh yeah, Mr. Creepy. We call him Mr. Creepy. He didn’t make it into this one. I don’t know why. At one point we threw out some ideas but ultimately I think Todd had enough on his hands making sure he could direct this correctly in Bangkok.
Crave Online: Even the characters who don’t return are still referred to. Is Heather Graham’s legacy that she got Stu into a healthy relationship eventually?
Scot Armstrong: Yeah, the character that Ed Helms, in the first one you’re kind of just rooting for him to break up with this horrible person and move on with his life. In the second one, there’s much more of a story there where I feel like he needs to prove his worth to his fiance’s father. His soon to be father-in-law thinks he’s just milquetoast and doesn’t have much of a spine and doesn’t have balls. I think in this movie we discover over the course of the movie all these horrendous things that they’ve done. Ultimately, Stu embraces that he does have a dark side and he isn’t just a boring dentist.
Crave Online: Was the monkey intended to replace the baby from the first movie?
Scot Armstrong: Well, the baby never deals drugs. The baby never smokes cigarettes. That was one of the fun things. Usually when you hear someone put a monkey in a movie, you think, “Oh, that seems like a simple, easy, broad move to put a monkey in something and have fun with that.” But I’m truly proud of the way we used the monkey and Todd was so great about inventing scenarios and making it look real, the fact that we could have him literally part of this crime syndicate in Bangkok. To have him getting shot and surviving, smoking a cigarette, I love that montage, the Pusherman montage, the Curtis Mayfield song, and you see the still shots of him in sort of an homage to Scorsese. You’ve never seen a monkey in a movie used in such a fashion.
Crave Online: Does Todd ever call from set saying, “Why did we write that? This is so hard to film!”
Scot Armstrong: It has happened where things get completely challenging for sure. We’ll be on set looking around and things don’t always go perfectly, especially when you’re shutting down all the traffic in Chinatown of Bangkok. It’s not always the easiest place to shoot but that’s what blew me away about Todd on this movie. When you’re shooting a movie, it’s all about controlling your environment, controlling how much space you have to shoot, how much time you have to shoot and how quiet you keep people. Bangkok obviously just makes everything impossible all the time but Bangkok’s a big part of the movie. I feel like it’s one of the antagonists of the movie in a way.
Crave Online: Where did “Bangkok has them now” come from?
Scot Armstrong: It’s something we just stumbled on. After the first one when there was first talk of a sequel, the only place we could think of doing the movie was Bangkok. There’s no other city like it. Bangkok reminds you of no other place. It’s just famous for having such an insane nightlife and a wildness to it. When they wake up in Vegas, they’re able to go downstairs and have breakfast and talk about what’s going on. In Bangkok, right off the bat they hit the ground running. They don’t have time to do anything. The stakes are much higher in the second one. In Bangkok you can go to a storefront and be like, “Do you live here? Is this a restaurant? Is this a small factory of some kind? Are you guys eating lunch on your lunch break or is this your kitchen?” It can be completely confusing and we dropped them into one of the toughest places.
Crave Online: Could this format be funny indefinitely, as long as you find funny things to reveal?
Scot Armstrong: I don’t think it’s the format necessarily that’s this funny but there is something really great about pursuing a mystery. The one thing I would say is funny is these guys are horrified at themselves when they discover what they did the night before. That is fun. That is a game and a format that I think is fun to watch, to have these guys constantly discover what they did the night before and are horrified at themselves at the dark side that they have.
Crave Online: But it would still be funny to see different guys get into this situation in different places, or women! Even these guys don’t have to stop at three, they could go on for five.
Scot Armstrong: Let’s do five more movies! Hopefully. We’re doing it twice. Hopefully this one works.
Crave Online: Hangover I was the only movie you didn’t write with Todd.
Scot Armstrong: Yeah, I was working on a movie that I’m going to direct in the fall. It’s called Road to Nardo for Sony Pictures. I’m also this summer working on a TV show for NBC that I’m executive producing called BFFs starring Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham.
Crave Online: What will that show be like?
Scot Armstrong: It lives in the same world as The Office, 30 Rock and Parks and Rec, those kinds of shows on NBC.
Crave Online: What is the balance between things you do with Todd and things you branch out on your own for?
Scot Armstrong: Well, Todd is a director. Once a screenplay is cracked and we start to shoot and I’m on set, once that ends and he goes into his big post production period, it’s such a gigantic mountain to climb to direct and post-produce a film. There’s always time for me to work on my own work. I enjoy writing my own things.
Crave Online: How did you end up on board with Hangover II and not the original writers?
Scot Armstrong: I’ve been partners with Todd for such a long time, he asked me to do it and I saw it as a big challenge but a great opportunity.
Crave Online: What is the process of doing a TV show for you?
Scot Armstrong: I’m executive producing with my partner Ravi Nandan. We’re in the middle of hiring a show runner, we’ve got a writing staff of six people. We’ve got the two stars who are also writers so it’s completely different. It’s more you’re a part of a bigger team that can all contribute and write. For me it’s more fun. Sometimes a screenplay, when you’re pumping out scenes or working in the writer’s room, when me and Todd and Mazin sit together and write, it’s so much fun. It is hard to crack story in that way, whereas in TV, you have 22 episodes to fill a year. You can follow these characters into all sorts of different directions. It’s just a different medium, and you have to be funny in 22 minutes. It doesn’t have to be so much of a story that’s going to take you through two hours of comedy. It’s just a different animal.
Crave Online: How did the upfronts go?
Scot Armstrong: It was really fun. It was different. I’d never been there before but it was fun to be in the greenroom, at our table and the table next to us is the Office table. Next to us is the 30 Rock table, next to us is the Parks and Rec table. I’ve been associated with the Upright Citizens Brigade theater for a long time and a lot of those guys come from that background. I’m just really proud of Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham especially. They’ve been great comedians, underrated comedians for a long time.
Crave Online: How do you and Todd look back on films like School for Scoundrels?
Scot Armstrong: Well, the thing we learned on School for Scoundrels was we shouldn’t be doing PG-13 films. You always learn something important. I feel like on that one, I think we could have really nailed that movie if we’d had a little more freedom.
Crave Online: What about Starsky and Hutch? That still plays on cable all the time.
Scot Armstrong: That’s another incredible thing Todd Philips does is finding raw talent. Like when we were casting Old School, Vince Vaughn had not been in a comedy since Swingers. Todd gave him a shot to be in a big comedy. At the same time, Will Ferrell had not been a comedy besides SNL, Night at the Roxbury. I felt that movie really launched Will Ferrell’s movie career in the same way. Starsky and Hutch was Jason Bateman’s first big comedy role in a while. Then for The Hangover, Zach and Ed truly were not household names yet at all. Putting them with Bradley was so smart, so I think Todd Phillips has an incredible vision of seeing how good actors can be and how great the cast can be together as an ensemble.