You hear the roosters first. Since we're on the set of The Hangover III—the final movie in a franchise known for angry tigers, chain-smoking monkeys, and disaster—the crowing doesn't sound farm-friendly and jolly. It's ominous. Today on the Warner Brothers lot, Zach Galfianakis, Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper and Ken Jeong are going to spend an entire day wrestling with birds. Make that cockfighting Tijuana roosters. And with live roosters mixed into a handful of animatronic hens, anything could happen.
Our group of journalists is in Burbank, but the scene is supposed to be a Mexican flophouse where the boys have hunted down Chow (Jeong) on a mysterious mission that no one is willing to tell us. As director Todd Phillips yells action, Galifianakis stumbles backwards onto a crate. It splinters apart and a rooster flies straight to Bradley Cooper's face, and he flails about like John Hurt getting suction-attacked in Alien.
What happens next changes from take to take—the improvisational challenge of acting with real birds. Sometimes Cooper does a backflip off a bed, landing painfully on his skull. "I cracked my head good," he moans to Phillips. Sometimes Galifianakis runs across the room with a chicken piggybacking on his pullover. Sometimes Helms screams in the corner as four chickens cling to his arms. But every take ends with Jeong pulling out a gun.
"Death is in the air," says screenwriter Craig Mazin. "There is death in this movie. I will tell you, people die. Not everybody lives. We don't mess around." Wait, is he serious? Is The Hangover III committed to killing off a franchise that's already made over a billion dollars around the globe? "'This is the end, my beautiful friend,'" Mazin hums. "We really came at this story from that point of view. What was unfinished business and what needed to be fixed and solved for these three people to move on with their lives?"
"It was kind of scary, because we could have done anything, really, and sometimes that's the scariest thing of all," adds Mazin. "There's some unfinished business, it turns out—something that happened in the first movie that none of you picked up on." Appropriately for a series that's always been based on surprise, he won't give us any clues except one: John Goodman is the key. "John Goodman, in a way, has always been in the movies. And when you see the movie, you'll see what I mean," hints Mazin. "It's a dark presence that's been lingering."
"It is a fitting end to the trilogy," says Phillips. The chicken scene we're watching is in the first third of the film, he says, but instead of describing the rest of plot, he'd rather explain what's not in The Hangover III. Specifically: booze. "It's not a hangover, it's not a missing night," says Phillips. "There's no drinking in the movie—or excessive drinking, I should say." But one thing is for sure—it's going to be bleak. "All my movies, as I get the ability to do it, they tend to go a little darker."
Ed Helms agrees. Taking a breather in his trailer in the middle of his day-long bird attack ("I definitely had a little Hitchcock recollection there," he jokes, "I'm a little scratched up.") he opened up about how the trilogy has matured. "It's been really cool to see Todd's evolution as a director," says Helms "Todd's direction is informed by more Martin Scorsese than Mel Brooks....The demons are always there. The demons just sort of come out in surprising and fun different ways."
His own face shows The Hangover III's commitment to consequences. Lean in, and there's a faint trace of his Mike Tyson facial tattoo as though despite Stu's efforts to laser it off, he'll always carry scars from the boys misadventures in Bangkok. "No one seems to notice, but it adds an hour of makeup to my day," Helms sighs. He definitely won't escape pain-free here, either—playing around in the wardrobe closet, we found copies of his pink button-up shirt with varying amounts of holes and blood. But at least the shirt itself is stylin', and much more slick than what Stu would have worn in the first film.
"His wife has dressed him a little bit cooler," says Helms of Stu's married life with Lauren (Jamie Chung). "He has different glasses this time, they're a little bit cooler. And he wears these cool socks. Like, he never would've done that in the first two. But the wife has sort of, hopefully, made him look cool at the beginning, but then, of course, good old Stu comes out—huge, huge nerd."
"I know why I'm wearing horizontal stripes: because it makes you look fatter," grumbles Zach Galifianakis in the trailer next door. "I know Todd was disappointed because I'd lost some weight." Galifianakis, the Hangover's breakout star, is looking good. As proof, his slender stand-in who was stuck on the sides watching the actor repeatedly slam into a crate, is a total hunk. As secondary proof, all signs point to his character Alan taking an even bigger role in the film than colorful madman—arguably, The Hangover III sounds like it could be his story.
"Alan is the catalyst for things to go wrong. And this movie is Alan coping with the things that he's done wrong and coming to grips with that," explains Galifianakis. "It's hard to come of age when you're 43. The character's 43—I'm obviously 22 years old." The Hangover III will show more of Alan's home life than the brief glimpse audiences got in Hangover II, where we saw how pitifully dependent he was on his wealthy, overly indulgent parents. "You go a little deeper with that stuff in this one, I think. As deep as we can get," adds Galfianakis, before immediately joking, "I mean, I don't want to oversell it that we're doing a Merchant Ivory film here. More like Merchant Ivory Wayans."
The quest to understand Alan's psyche takes the boys on a road trip that veers from Los Angeles to Tijuana to—gulp—back to Las Vegas where Heather Graham is slated to appear. In the four years since the first Hangover made the land of casinos and buffets seem legitimately dangerous, the town has embraced the film, even selling The Hangover posters in the gift shops. It's fitting that the final film in the franchise returns to the place that turned everyone into pop culture icons—or did it?
"I was so excited to go back and go to Rao's and stay at Caesars, and all the things we did the first time. And we all felt like, 'Oh, my god, it's going to be different. We're going to get bombarded,'" recalls Bradley Cooper. Alas, no one batted an eye. "Nothing. Literally. It's like Vegas is completely indifferent to anything that happens there."
Like Galfianakis, Cooper has had a crazy four years since The Hangover made him a household name, including his first Oscar nomination for Silver Linings Playbook, and his equally prestigious lauding as People's Sexiest Man of the Year. "I think Zach and Ed bought it for me," says Cooper humbly, his hair still perfect despite a day getting literally battered and feathered. "We drew straws, who should be it from the Wolfpack—and I lost."
Of course, the Wolfpack wouldn't be complete without Ken Jeong, who during the shooting of the first Hangover was a 40-year-old doctor and Duke University graduate making only his fifth movie appearance. "I think I was only on set for maybe, like, four days," recalls Jeong. "To say that it changed my life is an understatement." Since then, Jeong has scored 13 more movies (including the upcoming Pain & Gain) plus appearances on 10 TV shows including a regular role on the quirky Community. Over the course of the series, both he and his character Mr. Chow have blossomed. "I think Chow's evolution has become from kind of an antagonist or villain in the first one into maybe a friend in the second one. In this movie you're going to see different layers of Chow—and it's become a fully realized and layered character," says Jeong. "I just can't even believe they're giving Chow so much depth, and I love it."
Now, everywhere Jeong goes, he hears fans yelling Hangover quotes. "I think my favorite ever was I was at an ATM and there was a middle-aged man in a convertible staring at me for the longest time. And as he drives away, he says, 'Toodle-oo, motherf--ker!' Nothing has topped that—he just stood there deadpan throughout: 'Toodle-oo, motherf--ker.'"
As goodbyes go, that's a fitting way to say farewell to The Hangover franchise—after, of course, it closes out with another massive multi-multi-millon dollar box office coup (er, coop?) when The Hangover III opens on May 24.