In the eleven years since Todd Phillips made his studio filmmaking debut, the one near-constant behind the scenes has been Scot Armstrong. A Chicago native with a strong improv-comedy background, Armstrong first hooked up with Phillips on the screenplay for the very funny ROAD TRIP. But the duo didn't truly establish their raucously unsentimental style of comedy until 2003 with OLD SCHOOL, a feel-good film in which grown men regress to the id-driven glory of their youth, and destroy several lives in the process. This is the key to a Phillips-Armstrong comedy: whereas the characters in most men-behaving-badly movies atone for their sins and learn something along the way, there's real, permanent wreckage in OLD SCHOOL (e.g. it's difficult to argue that Frank the Tank's life has changed for the better). And in THE HANGOVER PART II, no one gets away clean - at least, not the people who should know better.
Though Armstrong sat out THE HANGOVER (he was busy writing ROAD TO NARDO, which he'll direct later this year), the Phil/Stu/Alan dynamic was an obvious variation on the OLD SCHOOL trio, with Luke Wilson's Mitch swapped out for the alien life form that is Zach Galifianakis's Alan. So it feels right that he's reunited with Phillips for THE HANGOVER PART II (with Craig Mazin also in the mix), which retains the addled procedural structure of the first film while upping the nastiness in a number of surprising - and physically permanent - ways. Whereas the slate was largely wiped clean at the end of THE HANGOVER, there's no restoring the world in the sequel; Stu, in particular, will have to live with the scarring consequences of his misbehavior for the rest of his life. This cannily taps into the fear many of us experience when we rouse from a night of debauchery: "If I did what I think I did, I'm not who I think I am." THE HANGOVER PART II plays rough (I have no idea how they skated with an R rating). We might enjoy spending another two hours with these boys, but it's clear this time that we'd never, ever want to party with them.
THE HANGOVER PART II is hitting theaters at a particularly exciting time for Armstrong. His production company, American Work Inc., just released its first film (HESHER) and recently had its first TV show (BFF, starring the incredibly awesome Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham) picked up by NBC. And while Armstrong preps his aforementioned directorial debut, he'll still be turning up Friday nights at the UCB Theatre in Los Angeles for his comedy show, THE SOUNDTRACK. Having come up through the improv ranks, Armstrong is now interested in helping promising young comics make the perilous segue from the stage to the big/small screen. Considering that he'll largely be recruiting from the talent-stacked UCB pool, he could be on the verge of empire.
When I got on the phone with Amstrong last week, his beloved Chicago Bulls were just about to play Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals with the Miami Heat. After quickly bonding over our distaste for LeBron James, we jumped into the interview...
Mr. Beaks: So you grew up in Chicago?
Scot Armstrong: Grew up in Chicago, and did Second City and Improv Olympic there. I was at Improv Olympic at the same time as a lot of amazing people like Amy Poehler, Jack McBrayer, Adam McKay, Dave Koechner, Jon Favreau and Andy Dick. I remember going to shows, being in the audience, and seeing Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch on stage. I could go on and on. It truly was a moment in time in 1996 where there were only about 140 people in the theater, but such a huge percentage of those people went on to do some amazing things. And when the Upright Citizens Brigade started up in New York, that was around the same time I moved to the city. I performed at UCB in New York for ten years. That's where I first met Ed Helms, Rob Corddry, and Jessica St. Clair, who I'm doing the TV show with now. That's where I met Dr. Ken [Jeong]! (Laughs) It's just an amazing place that's gotten bigger and bigger. There were a lot of sharp people there developing their stuff.
Beaks: I got to New York City in '96, too. I was constantly going out to places like the Luna Lounge or seeing STELLA at The Fez. It was amazing. And it was fascinating to watch how the UCB - just the four of them - became the center of it.
Armstrong: The city needed it. They're brilliant themselves. They could do a show that would get word of mouth immediately, and have people sitting on the sidewalk outside of a rented theater. They could make that happen. So they were able to get students right off the bat. That's where I started studying. I still do shows every Friday night in Los Angeles, a show called THE SOUNDTRACK which I perform with Jessica St. Clair, Jason Mantzoukas, Zach Woods from THE OFFICE and Lennon Parham. It's a cool thing. There's less pressure. You can just have fun on stage and improvise.
Beaks: How has your improvisational training helped you as a writer?
Armstrong: It's absolutely essential. I don't think I could do it without it. Improvising completely helps my writing, and my writing completely helps my improvising. I think it makes you less precious about what you're doing; you realize that you can throw out ideas and build on them and see where it goes. Not everything you write has to be perfect off the bat. I think when I write I'm kind of improvising in my head; when you're writing dialogue, you're using the same tools you use on stage to invent what happens between these characters. It helps when you're on set, too. You can relate to what the actors are going through and speak the same pig latin. But, honestly, on set with Todd, he almost doesn't need anybody. He's such an awesome director on his own. When I'm together with Craig and Todd, we're there as more of a sounding board for Todd. He knows what he's doing. He always has a clear vision for what he's doing with the film. We're more of a backup.
Beaks: So you didn't write at all on THE HANGOVER?
Armstrong: You know, I really didn't. I was writing this other movie for myself, and it turns out I'm now going to shoot it in the fall. I just wasn't available. Had I known it was going to be what it was, I might've made a better effort to get on board. (Laughs) But Todd and I write whenever we get the chance. We've been writing partners for a long time. Somebody asked me about how we exchanged ideas, and if we emailed; I realized that when we started, email hadn't been invented yet. I was really depressed about that. We've known each other a long time, and I think we have a shorthand for how we work. I've seen him grow into the director that he is today, which really blows me away. I've learned so much from him, and I've been blessed that he's taken me along for this ride.
Beaks: How are your sensibilities different? How do you complement each other?
Armstrong: Writing with Mazin on this one, it was a different dynamic. It was so cool to have the three of us writing in the same room - just coming in every day, drinking a bunch of caffeine and trying to crack the story together, and just bond and hang out. Even the moments when there was panic at the beginning of the process, when we were like, "Okay, this is the biggest grossing R-rated comedy of all time, and we've got to do something that's in the same league as that," it was an amazing process to go through, and one of the most satisfying things I've done probably in my career. It was really just fun to be a part of the team.
As far as our different styles, I think most people expect me to say I do more of the sincere stuff, or the stuff that has a little more heart or story-drive to it. But the truth is when I click in with Todd, I end up writing a lot of the dark shit, more than I would normally think I do. I think he and I just ping-pong ideas and write in the same spirit.
Beaks: There's a lot of really dark shit in the pictures at the end. One of them... dear god, I haven't laughed harder at anything all year. How many of those did you come up with?
Armstrong: Mazin and I really did sit down and invent what a lot of those shots were going to be. And the way Todd works is he takes the shortlist of ideas we have for what can be funny, so everyone can be on the same page as far as the continuity. You have to figure out, "Where are they at this point of the night?" or "Would he be wearing that sweatshirt at that time?" It's amazing how much of a puzzle it really is. We spent so many days mapping out what happened: the chronological order, what do they find in the room, and how does that help them find everything. But as far as the pictures at the end, we make a list of some things that could work and be funny; there's definitely got to be stuff in there that's plot-driven. There's always unanswered questions, and that's part of the fun: getting questions answered in a funny way with those shots at the end. But Todd will take his point-and-shoot camera and take those pictures, and a ton of that stuff is improvised.
Beaks: You stick pretty close to the template established in the first film. How did you arrive at that decision, and where did you find room to invent your own stuff.
Armstrong: There's something special about THE HANGOVER. There's something completely unique about the idea of THE HANGOVER, and we didn't want to lose that in the sequel. We wanted to send these guys on another adventure where they had to figure out what happened. There's something really funny about these guys trying to figure out what happened to them, walking into a place, and everyone recognizing them and them not knowing anybody from the night before. I love when these guys are discovering what they did, and they're completely horrified by their own behavior. There are certain elements that are a bit the same, but it's only because it's a mystery in the same procedural sense. Everything besides that is completely different and completely new, and we build off that with all-new fresh humor and push things to a place that most movies won't go.
Beaks: Can you think of a moment that was too dark to incorporate?
Armstrong: I think they all made the cut. (Laughs)
Beaks: I was just curious if there are any no-go areas.
Armstrong: There's really no limit to what we were able to do. I guess when you're throwing around ideas, when it's the three of us together, and we're trying to invent what the fuck happened, sometimes you'll think of things that are a little too violent or wrong. But there's usually a kernel of something inspired in that, so then you'll peel it back until you find the right balance of what's funny about it. There's a dark side to these guys when they black out, and they're as horrified by it as we are.
Beaks: I want to talk about your new show BFF. How long have you been developing shows, and what took with this one?
Armstrong: I've started this production company called American Work Inc. The point of it is to give up-and-coming raw talent a shot to do the kinds of shows they want to do. I've seen so many people that have so much potential as they've come up in the theater get completely misled by people who don't understand how to use their talents. [BFF] is a good example of what I've tried to do. And Jessica... did you ever see MOTHER at the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York?
Armstrong: We used to improvise together with Mantzoukas and Jon Daly. She's someone who is just full of potential. Same with Lennon Parham. I've just always been a huge fan of theirs. I'm thrilled that we got a shot at NBC, and they picked up the show for six episodes. We're staffing now, and I'm going to give a lot of young writers from the Upright Citizens Brigade and the theater scene in both New York and L.A. a shot. It's something I've always been passionate about, giving these guys a chance to break out - the people who deserve it.
Beaks: That used to be the alternative comedy scene, and now it's getting more into the mainstream.
Armstrong: I went to the upfronts, and it was amazing. You look at the table for THE OFFICE, and so many of those people got their start at UCB. You look at PARKS AND REC and 30 ROCK... I was in a show with Jack McBrayer fourteen years ago at the Improv Olympic in Chicago, and so much of what everyone is doing comes from that longform improvisation scene. I run the company with Ravi Nandon, who's also an executive producer on BFF. We're also developing a lot of film; that's where ROAD TO NARDO came from. I did a big rewrite on that myself, but it's originally written by Mike Gagerman and Andrew Waller. It's got the greenlight from Sony, and I'm shooting that in the fall. We also just produced that movie HESHER which came out last Friday. It's funny how an independent movie can be as much work as a blockbuster movie sometimes.
Beaks: Do you feel like you're developing a particular style of comedy.
Armstrong: It depends on what I'm doing. If I'm directing a film, it's going to be truly my vision of what I think this movie should be; it's going to come from the story of what I'm doing. And when I'm working with Todd and Craig on the sequel to THE HANGOVER... you want to make the greatest version of that sequel that you can, so I'm not imposing my voice all the time. And when you're producing, you're trying to give the creators as much space to be themselves and do the best version of the show they can, and protect them from network notes and things like that. Hopefully BFF will live in the same world as THE OFFICE, 30 ROCK, PARKS AND REC and the shows I like on NBC.
Beaks: As you movie into directing, are there any filmmakers you look to for inspiration in terms of tone or visual style?
Armstrong: I'm not as much of a film geek as a lot of directors are. A lot of people will go through and list all of these directors that they want to take little parts from. I've been on the set of ten or eleven comedies, and I think I've learned a lot from watching different people work. The big influence on me is obviously Todd Phillips; the way he is a leader on set and is able to be so smart in every phase of filmmaking has been a complete education. I've been so blessed to go through all that training with him. At the same time, when I'm on set, I think I'll have a little Ivan Reitman on my brain and a little Farrelly Brothers on my brain - because I was able to collaborate with them. And even working on something like BAD SANTA for the short time that I did, you get to see how the Coen Brothers or Terry Zwigoff react to your pages... it's been pretty cool. Or Jon Favreau for the bit I did on ELF. Watching the way these guys work, you find what works for you and your voice. But the one thing I've seen all along is how exhausting and really, really tough directing a movie is. That's what kept me away from it for a while; it's tough to watch these guys go through so much. But now I feel I really am ready. I felt like it was time to stop servicing other people's movies and take a shot at bringing something to life myself. But I honestly love screenwriting, so I've never had to complain about any of it. It's the best job in the world, really.
Beaks: You brought up BAD SANTA. Can you say what you added to the script?
Armstrong: It's one of those things where the arbitration just doesn't go your way. That was one of those things that Bob Weinstein asked me to... eh, it's just one of those things where the credits don't go your way. And by the way, the original writers of BAD SANTA [Glenn Ficarra and John Requa] are fantastic. They wrote a great script, and the movie was great. I was just lucky to be able to contribute. Look for... when the kid walks through the doorway, he gets one year older at the end of the movie. The continuity's exactly the same: he's wearing the same t-shirt and carrying the same bucket, but he gets one year older. As soon as he gets older, that goes into some of the stuff we worked on.
THE HANGOVER PART II is currently in theaters - as is HESHER. BFF will either premiere this fall or in early 2012 on NBC.