The good thing about playing poker in Caesar’s Palace in Vegas at a special table set up by Warner Bros: I didn’t lose a penny.



The bad thing: I didn’t win a cent.



Well, I could have won some money (there was a cash prize for whoever ended up with the most chips, as well as second place. Third place was you’re fired), but I’m just shit at poker. In fact,
my visit to the set of The Hangover marked the second occasion in my
whole life where I played the game. My first was in Sundance in 2008,
and the stakes were equally tiny. Maybe I need to have the fear of
losing real money to make me play well. God knows it works at the black
jack tables.



I feel I should be up front and say that Caesar’s Palace treated me
well while I was in Vegas. Besides a special poker table just for us
visiting journos (that makes us sound more British!) we also were
treated to a terrific spread of food – seriously a decadently good
dinner. We were joined at dinner by Alyssa A. Bushey, Caesar’s head of
public relations, and she’s pretty great at her job. Funny and
gorgeous, she had more than one journalist all but eating out of her
hand*.



Which is funny because the woman I most associate with Caesar’s Palace
is my grandmother. She and my late grandfather used to take regular
trips to the casino in Atlantic City, where – like most old people –
they would play the slots**. We saw a lot of slots being played while at
Caesar’s for the visit, and the view is always the same: old people,
looking a little jaundiced, sit in front of the machines mechanically
feeding coins and pressing buttons. Most of them don’t even perk up
when they win; the dozens of dollars they’re taking in is nothing
compared to the hundreds they’ve fed in. I’ve been to a lot of casinos,
and I’ve played my share of slots, but I never quite got the appeal
(especially since they’re all electronic and you don’t even get the
satisfaction of pulling a lever that’s actually attached to anything.
On one of my first casino trips – twenty years ago! Jesus I’m old –
they still had the old machines, and when you pulled that lever you
could feel the cogs and bits and parts moving. That was nice). I like
to spend my time at black jack, which is the meth of casino games.
Slots are the heroin.



This trip to Vegas was almost totally contained inside Caesar’s for me,
since that’s where The Hangover was shooting that day. The film had
actually been there for a while, and the casino had been essentially
bending over backwards for the production. On the day I was there they
gave over one of their main entrances and driveways to the film crew,
and they allowed a mattress to be hung from one of the Caesarean
statues that line the roof. Why was that mattress there? I can’t tell
you.



The Hangover, it turned out, was a very secretive set. I’ve been on the
sets of major summer blockbusters that were less worried about spoilers
than these folks in Vegas. It’s strange because usually comedies are
the hardest movies to spoil unless you’re giving out every single joke
in advance. Let’s put it this way: if it’s a romantic comedy they end
up together, and you know that walking in (and if they don’t end up
together, like 500 Days of Summer, you also know that walking in). But
much of what I saw is off limits, and I will try to let you keep as
much freshness on this one as the filmmakers want.



The filmmaker in this case is Old School‘s Todd Phillips. We spoke to
him briefly in the driveway of Caesar’s (look for that interview this
week), and I have to say that I wish we had more time. Phillips, even
as busy as he was (and he was busy. And obviously pressed for time),
was a very accomodating, friendly interview.



Phillips was pressed for time at least partially because the scene we
were watching was being done again and again. The reason? A baby in the
scene. No, the baby wasn’t being loud, or crying or in any way being
difficult. In fact, it was so well behaved I thought it was fake at
first. Instead the baby kept cracking up Ed Helms and Zach
Galifianakis. The two comics were bouncing lines off of one another
that kept making those of us in the viewing gallery die laughing (I
suspect we fucked up one take, in fact), but it wasn’t the verbiage
that broke these two. It would be just a simple glance from the baby.



They were doing comedic business with the baby while Bradley Cooper was
trying to hail a cab. I can’t give too much away but the basics of the
situation are thus: Cooper, Galifianakis and Helms are the best friends
of Justin Bartha, who is about to get married to Heather Graham. They
take their buddy to Vegas for a bachelor party… and when they wake up
in the morning they have no memory of what happened the night before,
Bartha is gone, Helms is missing a tooth and Galifianakis has come into
possession of a baby. The friends have to retrace the steps of their
black out drunk night to try and find their buddy and get him to his
wedding on time. As Warner Bros has already greenlit The Hangover 2, I
think it’s safe to surmise most of these people make it out of the
movie alive (unless the franchise is envisioned as an anthology series,
in which different groups of revelers come to Caesar’s Palace and meet
terrible fates).



Watching a comedy is fun, but making a comedy can be tough. It was a
hot day in Vegas, and the sun was brutal. On top of that it was an
early morning, and most of the cast had been up late the night before
(Galifianakis had gone to a Nick Cannon/Mariah Carrey party in
Caesar’s, mostly for the laughs. More on that in the interview with
him). Your intrepid journalists had also been up late, and the Hangover
of the title was pretty concrete for many of us. The cast was made up to look a mess – we’re talking dirt, ripped clothes, blood stains – but you got the impression that even with the make-up gone these guys might be looking a little rough. Standing out in that
driveway wasn’t fun for anybody, but Phillips wanted to make sure that
he got his scene just right. What was fascinating was watching
Galifianakis and Helms as they started with broad improv and slowly
found the best lines and started honing those into killer jokes. While
both actors were getting the giggles from that baby, they were each
able to still focus on finding the lines that worked the best. Some
people think that improv on a film set is just saying whatever comes to
mind, but it’s not; it can be a long process of exploration, looking
for just the funniest delivery and word choice. It’s very much writing
on your feet.



Over the next couple of days I’ll be bringing you interviews from the
set, including Helms and Galifiniakis, as well as Todd Phillips. Look
for The Hangover in theaters on June 5th.


* not me! I swear. I understand my league.


* and I associate that Caesar profile logo with the big cups of coins
with which she would return. My brother and I would get our cut; my
whole family was run like a reverse Mafia, giving the kids a taste of
whatever the elders came into.