And Then Everything Went Black: Visiting The Set Of The Hangover Part III

Next month will see the one of the most popular and successful comedy franchises come to an close. Since the first Hangover movie was released back in the summer of 2009, we’ve laughed and enjoyed watching Zach Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms party hard, suffer serious memory loss, and explore the darkness that resides in places like Las Vegas, Nevada and Bangkok, Thailand. As the tagline for the movie reads, however, it all ends with The Hangover Part III, and late last year I had the chance to witness the conclusion first hand.

Right before the Thanksgiving holiday of 2012, myself and a small group of other film journalists took a trip out to the Warner Bros. Studio lot in Burbank, California to visit the set of the highly anticipated comedy, and in addition to getting detailed interviews with the cast and crew, also got to watch them film a scene from the new movie.

Scripted by Phillips and Craig Mazin, the sequel picks up two years after the last movie and finds Alan (Galifianakis) in a bad state, off his medication and mourning the death of his father (Jeffrey Tambor). After gathering for an intervention, Stu (Helms), Phil (Cooper) and Doug (Justin Bartha) get their fellow Wolf Pack member to agree to go to a rehabilitation facility – but those plans go horribly awry when they are run off the road and accosted by a man (John Goodman) who is on the hunt for Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) and believes that they are the only ones who can find him. With Doug taken as insurance that the friends will carry out the mission, Alan, Stu and Phil set out on another dark adventure from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Tijuana, Mexico looking for the psychotic Asian gangster.

In the scene we got to watch them shoot – which can actually be seen in bits and pieces in the most recent theatrical trailer – Alan, Stu and Phil have located Chow and are with him in a dank, disgusting Tijana hotel room. Alan backs up and tries to take a seat on what he thinks is a blanket-covered box, but instead it’s actually a crate full of roosters that Chow has been using for cock fighting. The birds fly out and go absolutely nuts, one flying straight for Phil’s face and knocking him to the ground. In an act of sheer stupidity, Chow goes to the nightstand, grabs a gun, and wildly starts firing at the bird attacking Cooper’s character. Horrified, Phil screams, “What are you doing, Chow?!” to which the snake-skin vest sporting crazy man yells back, “Stay still! I’m trying to help!”

If you couldn’t already tell from the cockfighting, gun-play, and dank hotel locale, a big part of The Hangover Part III is that Phillips is once again taking the story to a darker place – which is quite the achievement when you think about how dark Part II got at times. And that was not only he mission statement for this project, but how he prefers to let his film operate in general.

“I think it's a testament to the three actors more than anything,” Phillips told us during an interview between shots. “They're just such a believable group of friends that we can put them through whatever paces we want and people will go along for the ride. I do think that number two got a little bit darker than the first one, and I think it was appropriate where we wanted to take it, and I think people went along for the ride. So with this one, it's not so much darkness for darkness' sake, it's like the stakes get amped up a little bit. So when the stakes get amped up, things tend to go a little darker.”

Part of that darkness stems from the fact that Part III will be, in Phillips’s words, “Alan’s story.” Since the beginning we’ve known him as a deranged, somewhat-sociopathic weirdo who has been a true cause of pain for his friends and family – and that will be further explored in the second sequel - but Galifianakis also sees the new movie partially as a chance for the character to grow, and perhaps even show a bit of atonement.

“I think in all the movies, the character Alan is the catalyst for things to go wrong,” Galifianakis told us in an interview. “And this movie is Alan coping with the things that he's done wrong and coming to grips with that. So there's the other side of it, not just the mishaps of the character, it's also him trying to improve himself, which is kind of fun to do.”

Alan being Alan, however, obviously has repercussions for the people that he feels he is closest to, namely Stu and Phil. As established in Part II, Helms’ character doesn’t have a tremendous amount of trust to give to his bearded “friend,” and while he would rather just live a quiet life with his new wife and dental practice, the relationship constantly pulls him into more and more trouble.

“I don't know that Stu needs any of it. He would be so happy to have a boring life…if Alan would just let him have a boring life,” Helms said when asked if Stu actively goes looking for trouble hanging out with Alan. “I always see Stu as the reluctant guy that just gets sucked in. He's sort of like Pacino in the last Godfather. He's just trying to get out, but gets sucked back in. And it makes him a richer, more complex person, because he probably would be pretty boring otherwise. That said, I think Stu would be perfectly happy to be boring. But it wouldn't make a very good movie.”

Phil, on the other hand, is a different story entirely. There has always been a certain level of hostility between Stu and Alan – and who could blame him, given that the relationship has led to a lost tooth and a Mike Tyson face tattoo – Galifianakis’ character has always looked up to Cooper’s, their relationship similar to the nerd who tries to become best friends with the captain of the football team. Phil has always been a bit more forgiving of Alan’s transgressions, but in The Hangover Part III there will be a few more ups and downs.

“All the guys have been through so much in the last two movies, and I think that has bonded them and it also has instilled animosity as well,” Cooper said. “In the relationship between Phil and Alan, I'd say they're probably closer, but it has its peaks and valleys in this movie. That's one of the things we loved that happened in the first movie. Zach and I sort of created this thing and then it's kind of worked its way through the three movies, which is fun.”

The film certainly digs further into the relationship between Alan, Phil and Stu, but another important element is the increased presence Ken Jeong’s Chow, who became a breakout and oft-quoted star thanks to his small part in the first Hangover movie. That role expanded in Part II, but in the new film he will be an integral part of the plot. And with that increase in screen times comes more details about the character.

“In this movie you're going to see different layers of Chow,” Jeong told us shortly after his performance firing away at some crazy chickens. “It's become a fully realized and layered character. And Todd Phillips and Craig Mazin…have just taken great lengths to give it a lot of depth, and it's really been wonderful. I just can't even believe they're giving Chow so much depth, and I love it. Honestly, this is everything I ever wanted. Everything I ever wanted is in this movie. That's about as blunt as I can put it. This is just one of the happiest moments of my career.”

And while the movie may not be following the same “bachelor party/forgotten night” premise seen in the first two installments, that doesn’t mean there won’t be elements that tie it back to the other stories. In addition to traveling back to Las Vegas, there are even actors, like Heather Graham, who come back, and plot elements that were previously ignored that get explored.

“We liked the idea that lightning had struck twice in these poor guys, and we knew that the third one was going to be a true conclusion, a true finish,” Mazin told us. “What was unfinished business and what needed to be fixed and solved for these three people to move on with their lives?”

Added Helms, “There are ways that both of the first two movies weave into a narrative that you didn't see coming. I loved the show Lost, in part because the writers were so nimble in how they would take things from previous episodes, that probably weren't created with any intent towards a larger narrative, and they would get woven into narratives in a really elegant and exciting way. And that's what this story is [for] Hangover III. It pulls things from One and Two that you didn't know may have been part of a larger narrative, but actually, in Three, it is, and it's really cool and surprising.”

This is only the beginning of our Hangover Part III set visit. The rest of this week we’ll be posting our interviews with the stars and filmmakers behind the anticipated comedy blockbuster, so stay tuned!

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

NJ native who calls LA home and lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran who is endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.