Scot Armstrong is a screenwriter and improv comedian who has co-written some of the most popular comedies of the past decade, including Old School, Road Trip, and Starsky and Hutch among others. His newest writing project was tackling a sequel to the hugely successful movie The Hangover with long-time collaborator Todd Phillips.
Scot talks about how to write the narrative to a comedy film (and especially, fitting together the puzzle-form of a movie like The Hangover Part II) and writing for Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis.
JESSE THORN: It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Jesse Thorn. My guest, Scot Armstrong, is one of the most successful comedy screenwriters in America. He's written or co-written films, including but not limited to Old School, Semi-Pro, Starsky & Hutch, most recently The Hangover Part II. He's also contributed to including, but not limited to, Elf and Bad Santa.
Scot, welcome to The Sound of Young America.
SCOT ARMSTRONG: Hi. Glad to be here.
JESSE THORN: I want to start with a simple question, which is, I know you are an improviser and have been an improviser for a long time, but was being a writer, specifically a film writer, always an objective of yours?
SCOT ARMSTRONG: I always, from the beginning, I always wanted to get paid to write. I thought it would be fun. When I was in high school I went to a career day and I was able to meet a guy who worked in advertising and I kept asking him questions like, “But who buys the media and who has to do all the designing?” He's like, I just get paid to think of ideas, that's all I do. So from sophomore year of high school on, it was my goal to be a copywriter and then also perform, I started training at second city and Improv Olympic and that kind of stuff in Chicago. That's how I met Todd Phillips, actually. I was a huge fan of his documentary Hated: The GG Allen Story. Hired him as a director to direct these Miller Genuine Draft commercials, we met in Milwaukee. Right about that same time Ivan Reitman was asking him for an idea of an Animal House on-the-road type of movie. I ended up calling sick into work and flying down to Universal Studios and meeting Todd there and going in an pitching what became Road Trip, and that was our first movie.
JESSE THORN: When you pitched Road Trip how complete was the idea?
SCOT ARMSTRONG: Looking back on it we probably should have had everything worked out a lot more thoroughly. I think it's a lot more competitive these days when you go into a room to pitch. But also I think Ivan Reitman really did believe in us. I think he saw us as two funny guys, especially Todd. My advice to everyone out there that wants to become a screenwriter is to have someone that just won Sundance ask you to be their writing partner, that's what happened to me. I'll forever be indebted to Todd. We did work well together and this is our fifth collaboration, this movie.
JESSE THORN: Road Trip made more than $100 million dollars, it was a big big success.
SCOT ARMSTRONG: We only had a $16 million dollar budget, it was one of those small movies that took off.
JESSE THORN: I remember going to see it in the theater and I remember really enjoying it in the theater, and that led more or less directly to Old School. Old School has always struck me as a very performer-centric film. You have folks in this movie like Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn who have personas that are huge and powerful that you really have to write for, I imagine. Did you start with those guys in mind when you started working on that movie?
SCOT ARMSTRONG: The answer is yes. Vince had done Swingers, which I thought was a masterpiece. He's an incredible performer in that movie, just so funny. After that he did movies like Clay Pigeons and a shot for shot remake of Psycho, and just made some decisions and made some movies that didn't seem to be really tapping into his full potential as a comedian, so we were like, this is the funniest guy ever, we gotta write for him. That was definitely - - the part of Beanie was written for Vince, and that was one of our favorite voices ever to write in. Loved writing for Vince.
JESSE THORN: You get the feeling that he can sell anything, that he can throw this bizarre, over the top conviction into almost anything.
SCOT ARMSTRONG: He's the one that convinces everyone that starting a fraternity is a great idea, even though they're all ten years out of college.
JESSE THORN: Let's talk about Will Ferrell for a second. He was in Old School very early in his career, before he was the mega superstar we think of now when we think of Will Ferrell. Tell me a little bit about what's special about writing for him and his particular comic voice.
SCOT ARMSTRONG: He's just so funny. He's naturally funny. He's the kind of guy that - - I've heard other people say the same thing, but he can almost be trying to not be funny and he still makes you laugh. He's sweet, and he's able to get away with so much because he's sweet. I think there's a sincerity with him, too. You're just automatically rooting for him. He finds things that are funny with a scene that are not obvious a lot of the time which makes the filmmakers look smart.
He can run naked down the street, and that's funny to be streaking because he's too old to be streaking and it's kind of a cliché of college, but then when his wife catches him it's funny that he's not sure whether he should get in the car or not. He doesn't want to be rude because he thinks other people will be coming along after him. He just adds layers to things.
JESSE THORN: The thing in this movie, and also we've seen it in The Hangover and The Hangover II, you have to have these kind of performers who have something sweet about them in order for the audience to like them and want them to do more stuff when they do something really ill-advised and possibly immoral or bad.
SCOT ARMSTRONG: If you start at the beginning with making characters too - - I hear a lot of people talking about, well, the characters need to be likeable, or when you go into a meeting and they say, I'm not sure if this guy is likeable. Not every character needs to be likeable, the story is about people making decisions you don't agree with all the time. The best comedy actors can get away with stuff that nobody else can. There's something about it in their eyes and the way they do it, they make something that might be completely mean, cruel, violent, crazy, they can make choices like that but still get away with it with a wink. I look back at movies that Jon Belushi's in or Bill Murray, and those guys can just get away with murder. That's the key, I think, to a great comic actor.
JESSE THORN: You worked on movies like Starsky & Hutch that are based on something that had existed previously, but Starsky & Hutch was also, essentially, a spoof. Or in significant part, half and half, a spoof of that thing that had gone before.
SCOT ARMSTRONG: The wardrobe was a strict interpretation of the original TV series. The wardrobe was very accurate.
JESSE THORN: There were some very bold wardrobe choices in that film. I remember Patton Oswalt being in some things that I don't look forward to seeing Patton Oswalt in again in the future.
You've worked on projects like that that are interpretations. School for Scoundrels was also an adaptation.
SCOT ARMSTRONG: Kind of.
JESSE THORN: The Hangover II is a different kind of challenge, and that is that you have this thing in front you, The Hangover, that was extraordinarily successful, and it is also - - there are things about this thing that people love, I'm sure there are things about it that you love, and you have to figure out, what can we do to make this it's own thing, what can we do to make people happy that loved the first thing, what can we do, even simply - - I imagine in making The Hangover you have the challenge of, you have to get the audience to buy the fact that crazy stuff just went down again to the same people.
SCOT ARMSTRONG: You just laid out all the things I was thinking about when we first started working on it, the first day.
JESSE THORN: How did you start working on it the first day. I can't imagine there were plans for The Hangover II when The Hangover was conceived, it was more something that, it was so successful how could you not?
SCOT ARMSTRONG: Yeah, we had to decide - - the plot of the movie, I think this is something that happens to these three guys. We had to decide, do these three guys have that hangover moment again. Do they wake up somewhere, and once we decided to follow that same structure, and I think like you were saying, you don’t want them to do something completely different and go rob a bank together or something. The hangover is - - that is what happens to these guys. Just for some reason.
Once we decided to follow that structure, everything else is new about the thing. We got to invent an entirely new plot; they're in a new place, Bangkok, that is much more intense, and the movie is much darker, I think, than the first. Nothing will live up to the first, because it's always the first thing, but I think that hopefully we created something that lives in the same league as The Hangover.
JESSE THORN: It's interesting to me that you say, this is what happens to these guys. It strikes me that when you're creating a comedy world, it can be almost anything as long as it has rules and is coherent, and if the rules of this world are, this is what happens to these guys, then it's easy to say, yes, this is happened again to them.
SCOT ARMSTRONG: I think there's that rule in comedy where it's like - - you can ask the audience to accept one unusual thing, but as soon as you ask them to accept two unusual things then you're in a different genre.
JESSE THORN: The tone of the film is different from the tone of the first film.
SCOT ARMSTRONG: A lot of that was Todd. In the beginning - - he's always the master of the tone of the film. All the movies we've written together, he always has in his mind exactly the tone he's trying to create as a filmmaker and as a director. That's one of the cool things about being the writing partner of someone who's actually the director, and not just someone who's going to send it off to the director you don't have a relationship with. We can discuss tone before we start creating it, so when he's shooting it everything seems to be integrated and working.
JESSE THORN: The first Hangover film was like a buddy movie or a road movie, in that it was three charming characters discovering things along this path, including dangers and conflicts and so on, but it just happened to be that there path was heading backwards into the previous days events. This new film, the tone is almost like a Nicholas Cage suspense film, only instead of being a little bit funny just because Nicholas Cage is always a little bit funny - -
SCOT ARMSTRONG: We almost cast Nicholas Cage. No, I’m just kidding.
JESSE THORN: The stakes are occasionally pierced or twisted or amplified with comedy, instead of a brutal moment of violence or something like that.
SCOT ARMSTRONG: You definitely don't want to do a sequel to a movie like The Hangover and make the stakes less and do less. The fun of this was to really make them pay the price for what they did the night before. The movie was really really fun to work on together, and I think we just kept trying to one-up each other, and hopefully we delivered something that is going to be a heightening of the, you know.
JESSE THORN: The mythos?
SCOT ARMSTRONG: Yeah, exactly. It's a more intense movie, and we intended on doing that from the very beginning.
JESSE THORN: Let's talk about these three actors that you have in these three main roles in these films. First of all, Zach Galifianakis, who I don't think a lot of people knew of at all before the first Hangover film. He had a short lived show on VH1, and he was a successful stand up comic.
SCOT ARMSTRONG: He was a revered stand up comic, and he did a lot of stuff in East Village, New York.
JESSE THORN: Regular Sound of Young America listeners knew who he was, he had been a past guest on The Sound of Young America, but he was someone who exploded nationally as he was captured on this first film. What was it that was special about Zach, and I have to say that as monstrous a fan of Zach Galifianakis I was before this movie came out, and as delighted as I was to see that he was going to be starring in a movie, I thought, huh, I wonder if that is a thing that works. I was not 100% certain that Zach Galifianakis as the star of a movie would be something that would be great. It was, but what were the special qualities of him that as you looked at the first film you thought, this is what we need to harness to make this second film successful.
SCOT ARMSTRONG: Alan, the character that Zach Galifianakis plays, is probably the most debated character in the writers room when Todd and Craig and I were working together. He's someone who you're constantly saying, would he say that? Would he decide to do that? What's his motivation here? He's such a complicated character, but he gets away with so much because he's so innocent.
The real reason why he's so funny is that he can say cruel things or mean things that he thinks are true, but he doesn't understand why they'd be offensive to somebody. He can get away with saying just about anything. He's someone who has a real temper. He's a kid that's just spoiled. When you're setting up three characters to be funny, to have the one guy that really is just off the hook and can just say random stuff that makes you laugh or things that are coming from a completely different point of view with no logic, that is always a great set up for comedy.
JESSE THORN: It seems like he can do so much, in part because his motivation for almost everything that he does is his absolute, rock solid, core belief in this friendship. Even though it's unmerited, even though at the beginning of this film, he's not even going to be invited.
SCOT ARMSTRONG: He's a complete sociopath, and he's delusional, and he truly believes that the Wolf Pack must be together, which is just completely ridiculous. I also think that Todd and Zach have always held the key to what's inside Alan's brain. Those are the ones, like, when we would be debating what they would say, they really have the best grasp on exactly what was going on in Alan's mind. They hold the key to that sick brain.
JESSE THORN: Bradley Cooper in this film goes even further than he did in the first film towards darkness. He's no less committed to this friendship than Zach Galifianakis' character or Ed Helms' character is, he's very deeply connected ,but I was frankly surprised while watching this film of how much of a jerk you let this incredibly handsome man that all the women are coming to this movie to see be.
SCOT ARMSTRONG: I don't know if he's so much of a jerk as someone who's able to be a leader and sort of slap guys in the face and wake them up and say, look, we need to get this done. He's leading the pursuit of putting these clues together from the beginning. He's the guy that can charm somebody or sell somebody on the idea of what they need to get done next. He's the one who's constantly putting clues together and leading these guys. Stu Price, Ed Helms' character, has the ability to put gigantic puzzles together in his own way, too, but I think at the beginning Stu Price is overloaded and overwhelmed with what they've been hit with, and I think that it's Phil, Bradley's character, I think Phil really does lead these guys right off the bat do help them get them on the road to trying to save themselves.
JESSE THORN: The movie is really at its heart about a transformation in Ed Helms' character. What was it that you liked about Ed Helms as a performer?
SCOT ARMSTRONG: I think everybody is rooting for Ed all the time. He just kind of happens to represent the every man. He's got a sincerity about him that you kind of root for and love. He's put upon, he finds himself in situations in this movie where he's just called out for being a wuss and not good enough for the woman he's going to marry. A lot of things in this movie happen to Ed more than the other guys. We were constantly in this movie asking a lot of the character of Stu. He of all people kept getting nailed with stuff, and - - there was a moment actually - - there was a lot of improvisation in the film as well, of course, when you have great actors like Ed and Zach and Bradley you don't want to be like, only say these words. That's what's great about Todd as a director too, he's great at letting the guys go in the right direction as long as it's driven from a character point of view, not just finding some random turn of phrase for these guys to be funny in a weird way. It's always to drive the story forward, or funny reactions to what's going on.
JESSE THORN: The movie has so many complicated pieces to it. Everything has to feel perfectly natural following upon the last thing, and you can almost never rely upon, well, they just happen to stumble into this or stumble into that because you're building suspense throughout this film. It's a very, very funny suspense movie in some ways.
SCOT ARMSTRONG: It's a true mystery. It's a backwards - - I guess mystery is going forwards to try and solve the mystery, but they're trying to solve an entire night of events that they experienced but no one knows what happened.
JESSE THORN: When you're trying to think of these wonderful comic set pieces that make up this film because it mirrors the structure of The Hangover I, which also was made up of these wonderful comic set pieces. How does the fact that you are also trying to create pieces to a puzzle effect that?
SCOT ARMSTRONG: First of all I have to say, I have incredible respect for the writers Lucas and Moore, and also Jeremy Garelick and Todd Phillips who also contributed to the first Hangover. I hadn't fully grasped how complicated it can be to lay out a story like this, let alone making it funny. Making sure everything tracks. The first step is a combination. Sometimes you start working on the wake up scene, like, okay, what do they wake up with? First of all you've got to get them to where you've got to get them. Right in the first act I thought, right now is probably the most organic, free flowing moment in writing was writing about how they ended up going to the wedding in Thailand, but as soon as you hit the Bangkok part, then waking up, you've got to decide - - I think we discussed the wake up scene more than any other scene in the film. The first pass was 22 pages of the things they could have found or not found. We wanted it to be funny and surprising, but you also need every single thing in that room a lead and a clue that leads to something that is actually really important and a big funny set piece when you actually get there, so it has to be a ticket to a great scene later.
Once we got it sort of laid out it became a lot more - - it was satisfying to crack the puzzle and to crack the story and to realize, oh man, we seemed to have landed on something that seems to really work as a mystery story. The funnest part was obviously making up the set pieces. Set pieces are still set pieces, even though they're following a mystery, it's a mystery set up, all the things are big, funny moments. You get to find out what happens to them as they're trying to find the clues. What makes it sort of special and makes them able to get away with a lot is that they're as horrified with their behavior as everybody else when they discover things.
JESSE THORN: Are you now ready to write the next James Bond movie or something like that?
SCOT ARMSTRONG: No, but this was truly following - - I think comedy can be the hardest thing to write, and the reason is it has to work as a drama, or as a mystery, or as a true romance or whatever you're writing, it has to work solely on that level, purely as a drama. And then within that it has to be funny the whole time; you have to have both. The best comedies have been a great story combined with great comedy. I think that most comedy writers that have a good feel for how to make a great comedy could also write drama if they wanted to. It's a totally different thing, but I think structurally they would probably understand it. Who knows how comedy writers would do dramatic dialogue or whatever, but I think that structure-wise most comedy writers get that.
JESSE THORN: Scot, thank you so much for taking the time to be on The Sound of Young America.
SCOT ARMSTRONG: Hey, thank you!
JESSE THORN: Scot Armstrong has co-written basically every successful comedy film in the last ten years or so. His latest project was The Hangover Part II, it's in theaters now.
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