If you've been paying attention to the career trajectory of director Todd Phillips, you've probably noticed a certain pattern in his work -- with his early movies being much lighter than his darker more recent work. On the surface, Road Trip and War Dogs look like they were made by completely different filmmakers. Aware of this tonal change, I recently asked Phillips if his sensibilities have evolved, but that's not the case. Instead, it's more about the writer/director at this point in his career having the freedom to make films the way he wants to make them.
With Todd Phillips currently promoting his new movie War Dogs, I had the pleasure of talking with the director over the phone earlier this month. His new film being darker and much more dramatic than any of his other studio work prompted me to ask about his approach to certain material as my first question in the interview, and he explained what's really going on:
You know, it's funny, my sensibilities really haven't changed. If you look at my very first movie, it was a documentary about GG Allin, which is really kind of authentically who I am, and those were dark movies. When you start making movies in Hollywood, you've got to make the movies that are going to get you out there and work. But as you gain more and more freedom, you start being able to sort of quote-unquote 'be yourself' a little more. So, I would say the Hangover movies, Due Date, and this film are a little bit closer representation of at least my beginnings.
Essentially, the tone present in Todd Phillips' last five movies is more consistent with the tone that he really wishes to strike in his films. Of course, this does not at all mean that he looks down on his earlier work, as he went on to explain:
Not to say I'm not proud of Road Trip or Old School, but they were very much me being a commercial comedy director than what I'm doing right now. But even Old School, quite frankly, once I had a little freedom, we still have Black Flag music and Killdozer. We have weird things happening in that movie.
So why are Todd Phillips tonal sensibilities more in line with the darker elements of The Hangover, Due Date and War Dogs? Using his most recent film, which is based on a true story, to illustrate his point, he noted that his interests lie in telling real, grounded stories -- with comedic and dramatic elements comingling to create a particular type of experience. Said Phillips,
I think that when you're doing something based on a true story, you really want it to mimic real life as much as possible. And I don't know about you, but I've never had a day that was entirely dramatic and I've never had a day that was entirely comedic. I think that when movies really work that are based on something real and you're really doing a real story, it has elements of both.