Todd Phillips says he likes to stay under the radar, but with monster hits like Old School and The Hangover the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time it's hard to stay incognito. And though his latest movie, Due Date, takes a more mature tone than his previous efforts, it still includes those over-the-top scenes that are Phillips' trademarks. Of course, it also helps that the film stars Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis as accidental, dysfunctional road-trip buddies. Phillips spoke with TIME about bad heroin jokes and gender-specific comedy.
Take me back to the beginning. Was your idea to film the most insane stuff that could happen to you on a road trip?
No. Comedy comes in different forms. There are comedies like The Hangover, which I'm proud of and love, and then there are comedies like Due Date that have a different tonal spirit to them. It really wasn't the craziest things we could do; it was, How do you shift the tone in a comedy from one scene being maybe a little bit heartbreaking to another being more gaudy and ridiculous?
Just looking at the progression of your movies from Old School to The Hangover to Due Date, it looks like everyone's growing up a little bit.
Yeah, they seem to age as I age. I think it's not intentional, but subconscious. I like to do movies about people in my peer group, I think, so as I get older, they get older. And the nature of the story is that it's about fatherhood. Yes, it's a road-trip movie, and it has a linear structure like all road-trip movies, but ultimately the movie is about Robert about to be a father, and Zach struggling with the loss of his father.
Was Robert Downey Jr. the first person you envisioned in the lead role?
It was. Who is there before him? He is just such a world-class actor, he's so supremely talented. We thought it was a long shot just to get him, but he was happy to respond to me and Zach and the script.
What's your craziest road-trip experience?
I don't really ... I was kidnapped when I was 14, and that lasted about year. So there was that. [Pauses.] I'm kidding. [Laughs.] No, I don't really have any. I don't have an answer. I'm from New York [City]. I didn't even have a car until five years ago. I'm not really a road-trip kind of guy ... But yeah, kidnapped at age 14 by a close family friend. It was a woman.
What was the hardest scene for you to cut out of Due Date?
We didn't have to cut any scenes out, but there are moments that didn't work. For example, there was a joke after Zach says, "You would have loved my dad; he's just like me." Which is a funny line because Downey hates him. The part we cut out is where Downey goes, "I never asked you how he passed away." Zach says, "Sharing needles. He was real party animal," which is one of those jokes where, while it's funny to me and Zach, it's not funny to anybody else that his father died of a heroin overdose. We wanted to stick with the sadness rather than ruin the whole movie over a heroin joke.
With your upcoming movie The Hangover 2, I know you guys had some setbacks with casting (i.e., Mel Gibson). How did you work through that?
We worked through that very easily. People make a bigger deal of it than [it was] because there are blogs and things that write about these things, but it wasn't nearly as dramatic as it was made out to be. Sorry to report.
Which character that you've directed is closest to your own persona?
My own persona? I don't know. I would like to say Bradley Cooper in The Hangover because I think I'm cool and good-looking, but I'm not. Regrettably, I don't think any of them are.
What do you think it is about your films that speaks to both genders, even though they are all comedies about guys?
Women see them as a peek into a uniquely male world, especially The Hangover. Bachelor parties are not something that women are invited to unless they're working, so it's an interesting look at a uniquely male tradition. It's O.K. that it's a male-centric film which I think it is but women still have a sense of humor and can enjoy it. We try to just make people laugh. All I like is when somebody says, "I saw this movie and it put me in a good mood." That just makes me feel great.