Nicholas Stoller is very clean-cut.
We’re seated across from one another sipping lattes in the “lobby” of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, a 35th-floor lounge offering expansive views of Central Park, and he’s dressed neatly in a blue sports jacket and button-down shirt. With his parted hairdo, bushy eyebrows, and wide, oft-smiling mouth, he resembles a younger, handsomer Aaron Sorkin; a far cry from his schlubby mentor, comedy god Judd Apatow.
But make no mistake about it: Stoller is an absolute force in the comedy world.
He’s directed the hits Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, and The Five-Year Engagement, as well as written and produced both of the revamped Muppets films. The 38-year-old’s latest is Neighbors—a hilariously insane comedy about a couple with a newborn baby (Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne) who are pulled into a chaotic turf war when a hard-partying fraternity house, led by Zac Efron and Dave Franco, move in next door.
The film is going to be a huge critical and commercial hit, vaulting Stoller into the upper echelon of Hollywood comedy directors. And his follow-up, Black and White, a violent buddy cop comedy with Seth Rogen and Kevin Hart, should only elevate his stature further.
In a wide-ranging, anecdote-packed discussion, Stoller opened up about Neighbors, his road to the comedy A-list, and much more.
As far as Zac Efron goes, while I thought he was very good in 17 Again, his R-rated comedy chops were largely unproven. Why did you decide to cast him as the devilish frat boy?
In 17 Again he was so charismatic, and you kind of get an instinct that someone is going to be able to pull it off. He had to be kind of scary and, to me, there’s nothing scarier than a guy who’s saying in a really positive voice, “I’m going to kill you.” It’s like Chucky or Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and Zac is really sunny, so I thought there’s got to be some darkness behind that sunniness because no one is that sunny. Plus, he’s a big, strong physical presence, so there’s a Cape Fear aspect to it, too.
The action starts with that great bonding moment between Seth and Zac where they party all night, do Batman impressions, and cross streams while pissing in a fountain.
When we shot the crossing streams pissing scene I told my DP, “I want this to look like a Terrence Malick film.” So he kept lighting it more and more like magic hour, and then when we did the color timing for the movie I was like, “It’s not magic hour enough,” so we kept turning the yellows up to make it look more beautiful. So, the most beautiful shot of the fucking movie is two guys pissing in a fountain.
Seth and Zac have such great chemistry in that sequence. They need to really sell that initial bonding scene, because all the subsequent tension in the film goes back to that sequence.
There is a bit of a wish-fulfillment aspect of this movie where you’re like my age and get to party with a bunch of cool frat guys, but there also needs to be more of a problem then just that the frat’s being loud, so they have to make a mistake, and their mistake is going to party with them. The audience subconsciously is like, “That’s a mistake!” and it makes the war more interesting. But I don’t like villains in my movies—it’s boring—and Seth and Zac were bonding the whole time we were shooting. We kept shooting them talking about generational differences and it was cute but it didn’t work. Zac kept walking around the set doing Bane impersonations—“I was born in the dark!”—he’s weirdly good at it. They started to do Batman impersonations and I was like, “That’s it!”
There were a lot of rumblings about Zac during filming that some days he’d show up late to set—or wouldn’t show up at all—and right after shooting he checked into rehab for cocaine.
Oh, no. I didn’t know I heard later—and the world heard—that he was going through shit and I thought, “Oh, that’s a surprise.” But no, he was great and professional. If anything, whatever darkness he was going through he channeled it into the movie. He was channeling something dark and whatever he was doing really helped the performance. Later, he had a lunch with me, Seth, and Evan, and he spoke about what he had been going through and said, “I was going through some dark shit…”—he’s a very open dude—“…and I just wanted to apologize if I brought any weirdness.” But I said, “I’m just glad you’re figuring it out,” because he’s a great guy, but I also told him, “Whatever was happening that you were channeling in the movie, don’t do that again! You’re a good enough actor and you don’t need to do that again.”
Whatever he was doing really did seem to help the performance, because he’s great in the film.
That scene where he and Dave have a stand-off and Dave says, “It looks like you’re really villaining-out here,” is funny but it’s also a really dramatic scene because Zac is wielding a baseball bat and you think, “Is he gonna fucking hit him with that bat? What the fuck is happening?” And during the fight with Dave, Zac broke his hand punching a mantel and he goes up to me and whispers, “Don’t tell anyone but I’m pretty sure I just broke my hand but I want to keep shooting this scene.” He’s kind of a badass. And he had a removable cast on his hand for the rest of the shoot. And in the scene with Seth when they’re fighting at the end, Seth was like, “I’m a little nervous he’s going to punch me!” because he’s so intense.
Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s character is blessed with a gigantic penis, but it isn’t shown in the film. Was it cut for rating purposes?
We shot his dong so much it was crazy. That prosthetic was very expensive. A realistic penis prosthetic is literally thousands of dollars, and I’d never given more penis notes in my life. It’s weird because a creature effects company is making it and you’re like, “I think we need more veins.” We were constantly Google imaging pictures of penises to get it just right and would be like, “No, see, the crown needs a little more red.” We shot a lot of stuff we cut out of the movie. The same thing happened in Sarah Marshall, where I had whole scenes where his penis was out, and you end up cutting it down because the audience gets sick of it pretty fast. You get about 10 frames of dick in a movie. We had a whole thing where [Mintz-Plasse] is in the first frat meeting and they ask him, “Do you know what time it is?” and he’s sitting there with his penis wrapped around his wrist and goes, “It’s two o’cock!” Shit like that, but the test audience didn’t like it. Too much dick. We also had a whole sequence where they make the frat pledges shoot fireworks out of their asses and they blow up their frat house. We tested it and the audience thought putting stuff in the pledges’ butts was a little bit rapey.
There’s that great sequence where Rose’s breasts have become filled with milk and Seth has to milk her. Where did you come up with that sequence?
Brendan O’Brien, one of the writers, has a friend who was a breastfeeding mom at Bonnaroo and her pump broke, and her husband had to milk her. That was a story that we’d all heard. And Seth was like, “Wait… we should put this into the script. I should have to milk Rose.” And it was a no-brainer. It’s also not a gratuitous sequence. They made the mistake—they partied—and now they have to deal with the repercussions.
The party scenes are lit in surreal neons, almost like a Gaspar Noe film.
My DP Brandon Trost and I are obsessed with Enter the Void, so that was a huge touchstone for us for that sequence—Spring Breakers, too. In Enter the Void, you start out thinking, “Tokyo is so cool,” and by the end of it you’re thinking, “Get me the fuck out of Tokyo!” Weirdly, there’s a sequence in Collateral in a Koreatown club—that was also a reference. And in Ocean’s Eleven, there’s a lot of dumb heist stuff so I took notes on that as well.
The frat in the film is even more homoerotic than your typical frat. This isn’t the Duke lacrosse team’s frat. It’s a more likable one.
I wanted the frat to be more like the Delta’s in Animal House, where you just love these guys. And we already had a really handsome dude at the center, Zac, and when Dave Franco came onboard we had two—not to say that the rest of the guys aren’t handsome, but those guys are insane. They’re from a different planet of handsome. They’re from “Planet Handsome.”
What was it like to work with Seth Rogen? He’s someone in the Apatow gang whom you’ve never worked with before.
We’re really old friends. We actually were officemates on Undeclared and wrote scripts together on that show. I loved working with him. For literally no reason when the show ended, we didn’t work together again for a while. Then, Seth and his producing partner Evan [Goldberg] called me for this, and instantly I was like, “Yes! I’ll do it.”
The Emotional Story Must Be Rock-Solid
The big rewriting process is finding that central emotional idea. Usually the best emotional ideas are also relatable so we’re just constantly boiling it down and boiling it down. It’s really important to have the character say the emotional problem at some point and shoot them doing that. Even if you don’t end up using it, because it’s a little on-the-nose or whatever, it forces you as a writer or director to know what the problem is. I’ve done that every time so far--and it's always made it in.
Pre-Sell The Movie By Filming “Trailer Moments”
The audience needs a compelling reason to go see a movie in a theater. So what you can do with an R-rated comedy is shock people and promise to make them laugh hard. I like nothing more than sitting with a big audience and laughing my ass off, and you have to have set pieces to get them there. On this movie, I did something I’d never done before that I’ll probably do from now on--I talked to the head of marketing at Universal, when we were in pre-production, and I said, “What do you need me to shoot for the trailer? I’ll shoot it and we won’t even necessarily put it in the movie. What does this movie need to make the message more marketable?” I wouldn’t do anything to make the movie marketable that made it worse, but I think the marriage of those two things can make a great movie.
Cast a Deep Bench
Every character should score; there shouldn’t be any dead weight. We’re given millions of dollars to make these movies, so we shouldn’t waste any of the audience’s time. I love to cast a deep bench. Liz Cackowski is the realtor in Neighbors and she’s hysterical; Jason Mantzoukas has literally one line and it destroys, and with a different actor, it wouldn’t be as funny. I’ve made the mistake before where you’re in, like, Michigan, and to save money on the budget, you get day-players. And I’ve ended up reshooting stuff because it’s not funny in the way it needs to be.
Keep The Honesty In The Comedy
It’s all about getting to the truth of the scene. The reason I think Zac is funny in the movie is because he’s always really present and really honest in the scene--even in his improvs--whether they be funny improvs or not. Sometimes people want to be really jokey and that’s when it falls apart. You have to keep them true to the scene.
If Someone Has To Be Naked, It Should Be a Guy
I don’t like gratuitous boobs. I don’t like it in a comedy or even any movie when a woman is naked for no reason. So I decided we could do female nudity in the party scenes of Neighbors if it feels organic to the scene. But I do think male nudity is naturally funny. Unless, it’s Zac Efron shirtless, because that’s less funny.
Use TV As a Model To Amp Up Dialogue Energy
In TV, you only have 22 minutes, so you really need to cover yourself. When I was filming a pilot for CBS, I was literally timing scenes so that I’d have a version that could play for 10 seconds and one that could play for 20, and it actually helped my movies because sometimes you won’t notice actors are speaking slowly. They’ll just be speaking normally, but when you’re watching in a theater, it seems slow. A lot of times on the TV pilot, I’d be like, speak faster, speak faster, and I brought that to the movie, and it actually helps bring up the energy sometimes.
Bank Alternate Jokes For Every Scene
I have an open-source approach to joke-making. I’d rather have a ton of extra input. Earlier in my career, I wrote a script for a movie and I went to set just to try and pitch jokes, and for whatever reason, the director wasn’t interested so they didn’t have anything banked. Then when you test the movie and a scene fails, you don’t have another joke to go to. So I try to get a lot of extra stuff. For Neighbors, I had the writers on set pitching jokes--Seth and his producing partner Evan Goldberg were there, even when Seth wasn’t in a scene. And it takes a while to comb through all this material, but it makes it so the audience doesn’t stop laughing.
No Unsympathetic Villains
I think movies get funnier and funnier the more relatable they are. There are no real villains in real life, and the more your main character is a good person making mistakes, the funnier movie it is. It’s fun to watch Seth and Rose make huge mistakes in the movie. It’s fun to watch Zac make big mistakes, and if you understand emotionally why they’re doing it, it’s even more relatable. If Zac had played just like a villainous frat guy, it would have been boring, but if you understand that he’s attacking this couple because he’s scared of graduating, you suddenly feel sympathy for him and you understand why he’s doing all this crazy shit and you’re rooting for him to learn his lesson by the end. In every movie, you want to see someone who has a problem figure it out. There’s something satisfying about that.
/Film: First up, I want thank you for casting Zac Efron in something big and different. I’m a huge fan. He’s always done these Nicholas Sparks movies so I was happy when I saw that you cast him and even happier when I saw the movie, because he’s so raw and crazy. Can you talk about what the idea was to cast him, if there was any push back based on his Disney stigma?
Nicholas Stoller: Oh yeah. We, well I didn’t see High School Musical until like a month ago. With my daughter. And he’s like very charismatic. I was like ‘Oh I see why everyone has had him on a movie star list for a while.’ But he was involved with the project before I came aboard.
Andrew Cohen and Brendan O’Brien wrote the script and they pitched the idea to Seth. And Seth, Evan and they were like ‘We want Zac Efron for this other part.’ And then they attached Zac Efron. And then they wrote a draft and they called me about a year later and Evan called me and said, ‘Eo you wanna direct this?’ And told me the idea and I was like ‘That’s amazing.’ And so then I came aboard and started kind of rewriting it with everyone and, you know, and yeah, and that’s how it happened.
So you weren’t worried about his previous work and baggage?
I’ve started to trust my casting instincts and stuff and I’d seen him in 17 Again. And he was very charismatic and I was like ‘There’s something really funny about a guy who, with a smile, is like I’m gonna kill you.’ Like that to me is the secret to him with his whole thing. Like that he’s so happy. He’s so like positive, he has such a positive energy that that turning dark I knew could be amazing.
And it is. Now marketing comedy can be tough. A lot of times, if I can avoid watching comedy trailers, I do because it ruins all the jokes. Neighbors has done a very good job at keeping secrets but, for example, if I had seen the the airbag scene in the theater, it would have been much better. Can you talk about that. Like I know most directors don’t have much influence over the marketing, but talk about what it’s like to sort of pick and choose how you’re gonna market the laughs and hold back the best stuff.
You know, it’s really mercenary. There have been all kinds of, it’s not studies, but basically it doesn’t matter if you blow jokes in trailers. I hate it. I hate it. Like I just hate it. But honestly you put a joke in a trailer, you show your movie, the audience laughs. You put a joke in a trailer, release the trailer, the audience laughs harder when they see the joke they’re familiar with. And I don’t know why. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I personally would prefer to put nothing out there. But yeah. It’s proven again and again, it just doesn’t matter.
Wow, you know what, that oddly is true.
That’s my short mercenary… It sucks. Like on this one I was like ‘Do we really have to use the airbag?’ And everyone was like ‘Yes, we do.’ And I was like ‘Okay.’
I mean, it’s such a great exclamation point on the trailers.
Yeah. Fortunately the jokes, some of the hardest, the biggest laughs in the movie are the Ike’s N word joke and Ike’s rape joke. We literally can’t put those in trailers. And they even tried to put one of them in a trailer and I was like ‘You cannot get that in a trailer.’ I am not fielding calls from Jezebel. Just not interested. So that, to me, was we have some trailer proof jokes in there.
Yeah, definitely. Another thing I liked about the marketing is that Zac and Seth have gone out and done all these like weird sort of off the cuff things. Like Aaron Rodgers and Workaholics, which is a tie-in to the movie, but have you had anything to do with that?
Universal’s just done a kickass job. I think that they arranged that Aaron Rodgers thing and I was out there on the day to help out, pitch jokes and stuff. But that was all them. That had nothing to do with me.
And, you know, we’ve all pitched ideas and stuff for the for marketing, but Universal’s just really kicking ass on this. Josh Goldstein’s their new head of marketing. He’s really doing great and the whole [team], all the people who are there are have understood what this movie could be.
This movie has so much energy. At times it just sort of break into a party for a couple minutes and then brings it back in. What were some of the things that you were influenced by with that?
Well the kind of emotional stuff was always my approach first and foremost. My secondary thing is I wanted this movie to feel like a party. That if you are a kid, you’re going to this and it’s like the best party you’ve been to and if you’re an adult, like my age, you’re paying a babysitter so you can go to the party. So that was like really important to me. So I watched Enter the Void with my D.P. Brandon Trost. We watched Enter the Void, Spring Breakers, Project X is another one. I mean, the whole Todd Phillips oeuvre, like Hangover. His movies feel like parties and so I wanted that element to it. Collateral, the sequence in the Koreatown nightclub. So a lot of that is the lighting. And, in a frat, you can get away with crazy lighting. Gaspar Noe’s movies have these crazy lighting when they’re moving in and out of different light sources. And there isn’t like this kind of light where it’s all just, you know? And so that was a big part of it. And then using a lot of different cameras to make it feel more epic, so we handed out…
Yeah, there’s a lot of this found footage stuff.
Found footage, which I’ve realized you don’t need to explain to an audience anymore. They get it.
Oh, no, it’s great. Now that and this are R rated movies. Working in comedy, do you find when you’re working on these movies you get the sort of pushed towards PG-13? Do you see that as a trend generally?
I would say the opposite. Which is when you look at the list of top comedies and you take out animated movies, ’cause I think that’s a different genre, you know.
R rated comedies make as much money as PG-13. And I think the audiences wanna be shocked. Especially with comedy. It’s kind of like with action movies. Spectacle is what it is, so when you see a crazy Marvel thing, you like wanna see what’s gonna happen. I think with comedy it’s being shocked and shock value. On a certain level. Like ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe they just did that!’ And the perfect example is Bridesmaids where you had these rolling laughs because you couldn’t believe how crazy it got, whether it be dirty or not. And you can really only achieve that in an R rated movie. So I think studios have become hip to that. Especially at a lower budget. As soon as you involve effects, forget it, PG-13.
Okay, that’s a good point. Now the other two roles that are great in this movie are Rose [Byrne] and Dave [Franco]. I wanna talk about each real quick. Dave Franco, he’s great, but did he have a leg up because of Seth and James’ relationship?
No, I don’t think so. We all just thought he was so funny. And I was just so glad he wanted to do it, because he’s a little bit bigger in his career. A little bit beyond the friend, you know? But he was really psyched and he’s the best guy to work with. He brought this amazing comedy thing to the movie. So yeah, I was just so psyched. And the last thing we kind of really developed in the movie was his Zac and his friendship, so important to the movie, you know?
But it was like kind of one of the last things. That’s the way it works. You kind of figure everything out [later]. So yeah. But he was great, he was really fun to work with.
And then last thing, Rose Byrne’s character is so important to this movie and so great, because usually in a comedy like this, it’s a guy thing. But she’s a badass, she’s sexy, but she’s also emotional and motherly. Did you guys go out to her specifically or did you find on a list of people?
I worked with her on Get Him To The Greek and I love her. She’s just so funny. And she’s kind of a genius. Very early on, in the very first drafts of the movie, it was kind of a different movie. It was like three guys attack, three older friends. It was called Townies.
So it was three friends. It was almost like an Old School take, try and take down a frat. And Seth’s character’s married, but the wife was a smaller part. And I read the script and I was like ‘I’m interested in guy-girl relationship. That’s my primary interest.’ And I was like she needs to be a big part of this. And so from that point on, we were like ‘It needs to be Rose.’ And then and I was like,’She should do an Australian accent,’ because her actual accent, first of all, I think that’s kind of a badass accent, but I think it makes actors a little looser when they don’t have to think about accent work. And so yeah. She had great notes on the script too. We kept stripping out anything that was nagging wife and to make her part of the plot.
Yeah, she’s totally there and she’s almost one of the dudes.
She’s part of the thing. And that goes back to it’s a story about Zac having a nervous breakdown graduating. And Seth and Rose are having one by having their first kid. And when my wife and I had our first kid, it wasn’t I was the one having a breakdown and she wasn’t. We were both like having meltdowns about having a kid. And so it seemed like Rose should be a part of this.
Slashfilm on the jokes:
/Film: There are a few specific things in the movie I want to talk about. One is the Batman thing, which is such a perfect way to distinguish the two generations. Was that the original screenwriters, or was that you — can you talk about how that sort of came about?
Nicholas Stoller: That wasn’t in the script. We found it that night. We made a list of stuff of cultural things that were different. So they’re riffing on music and we were shooting and shooting and shooting and then I was like ‘There’s nothing funny here really.’ And then the somehow we landed on the Batman thing. And Zac does a lot of Batman impressions. He’s really obsessed with Batman. Like a lot of people.So he started doing the impression and then Seth did and we just shot that and I was like ‘This is amazing.’ And I was like ‘This is the scene.’ So we kind of found it through improv. And then we actually shot a whole thing of them doing Joker’s back and forth. Like Seth did Jack Nicholson’s Joker and and Zac did Heath Ledger’s Joker. But then it started to feel… we actually had that in the movie, but then it started to feel riffy. It didn’t feel like a real thing.
If it was improv, what about the when joke comes back at the end?
That was a reshoot. So yeah, we put it in the movie and then I always do like two or three days of reshoots. And it was a pretty short shoot for a studio comedy, not for like an indie where you need a lot of time, but it was a 38 day shoot. So we did the fight, originally, just outside of Zac’s room. They kind of punch each other once and then Zac runs at Seth and smashes through the door. That’s all it was. And we wanted to punch up the fight in a reshoot. So we added that whole thing.
Another thing is the Robert De Niro party. Again, a great idea showing how kids today interact with pop culture. And also it’s really funny. Again, tell me how that sort of came about. And is that something you have to clear?
No. That was… we were sitting around and we were like ‘We need a party.’ And I was like what if they do a Robert De Niro party? Sometimes things just come to you. And I was like ‘What if it’s a Robert De Niro party and they’re all dressed like Robert De Niro?’ And there’s a pause and everyone’s like ‘Yeah, we should do that.’
And then what was so funny about that day is that that previous weekend, Dave Franco worked on his Meet the Parents Focker impression all weekend. So he came in that day and had this incredible impression. And he was doing it, first, you know, you shoot different sides for all various reasons. So we shot Seth and Rose’s side first. And Franco was super committed to his Robert De Niro off-camera. And then we flipped around to shoot Zac and Dave, but Dave had been doing this for so long, he actually was having trouble doing it. ‘Cause his muscles were worn, his face muscles were worn out. It was pretty funny.
Also the music in this is really good. It’s, again, a balance between sort of ’90s, late and now. I’d like to know about achieving that sort balance, picking the music and that kind of stuff.
Well I’m working with this great music supervisor named Manish Raval. He does Girls. He does Jack Kasdan’s movies. And I worked with him on a pilot that didn’t happen. But he was just really great. And so he found a lot of awesome music. I mean, I gotta just hand it to him. He did just a great job. And then Michael Andrews is the composer and I’ve worked with him now twice and he’s awesome. He’s just a really good composer.
But the huge find, Manish found this Flo Rida song that hasn’t been released yet that is during the black light party. That has this kind of driving energy that makes that sequence exciting besides just funny. Which was my whole goal. That that whole sequence should be like a dumb heist. I kept calling it “The dumb heist.” And from the beginning I was like “We need a drive, a song that builds in energy and gets crazier and crazier and crazier.” And he got the song that hasn’t been released yet. That’s an awesome song. [Note: It's called "Freaking Out."]
The flashbacks you have are also really funny because there Lonely Island and Workaholics cameos. Is that written in, that they were sort of mini cameos?
That sequence wasn’t in [the original draft]. Seth and Evan pitched that idea of the historical frat stuff. And then we were all like “We have to get famous people to do it.” So we called all those guys up and everyone was really psyched to do it, which was really awesome of them. And it was just really fun. We shot a lot of different stuff with those guys. But it was fun. And for that sequence, I really was inspired by all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies. A constantly moving camera.
Yes, it’s very Magnolia.
Yeah, it’s all Magnolia. I like watched Magnolia and I was like “How are they doing this?” Like and I just took it apart. And then created the dumbest montage of all time.
That’s great. And one more scene that I really love is the bros before hos scene. How much of that was improv, how much was writing, was that just going back and forth?
I thought it would be funny. I just was like “We have to do a 10 minute bros before hos sequence.” It’s like we were pushing like almost an Adam McKay movie or something. You know, who’s like the comedy genius. So we shot so much. And those guys, Zac and Dave, wrote a ton of them. And then I wrote a ton of them. Andrew and Brendan and Seth and Evan wrote a bunch of them. And on the day we just were yelling them out and we shot. That scene could easily be like 25 minutes long. Just going back. The one that I don’t think is in there, but is really funny but it hurt the rhythm was “LeBron before his Mom.”
That’s stupid, but it’s so funny.
It’s so stupid.
Bad Ass Digest:
I was shocked to see how great Zac Efron is in this movie. I'm not sure I ever expected him to show such immense chops.
I feel very lucky that I got to work with him on his first R-rated comedy. He’s so funny, but he also has such a menacing presence. I remember after the premiere my wife turned to me and said, “Zac’s kind of scary in this movie.” I think that’s why it works, there’s a Cape Fear aspect to his performance - as well as being funny and being the most handsome man on Earth, there’s that element too. And it’s totally awesome.
When you’re working with him on the comedy what kind of performer is he as a comedian? Does he need a lot of direction or is he coming in with his own ideas?
I think he isn’t used to improv. He hasn’t done much of it. He was a little nervous, but he was good at it. And what he did - what I really appreciated - is that instead of improving jokes, he would respond with how a person would actually respond. Which sounds basic, but I think a lot of time when people don’t have improv experience they try to play a joke too much, and he just tried to find the truth in the scene. That’s all I’m trying to do as a director, finding the truth of the story or of the scene, and in the end that makes everything funnier. He was great to work with in that way.
He was really fun to collaborate with; we’re all nerdy Jews and he’s Zac Efron, and he brought the idea that he wanted frat guys to actually like it. He was a reality check on that aspect, which makes it a better movie than if just Jewish nerds made it.
The frat stuff in this movie is interesting, because you expect a movie with the ‘frat vs family’ concept to take a dismal view of the frat boys. But they’re real human beings.
I wasn’t in a frat, but I went through the emotional experiences they do. For me it’s a movie about college students going through their emotional journey versus a young couple with a baby going through their emotional journey. It’s more about that than it is about a frat. A lot of the super-intense melodramatic scenes Zac and Dave Franco have? I had those in college, with my roommate. I think “frat” is a great placeholder for being young and kind of dumb and wanting to party and having intense friendships.
When I first saw the trailer it gave me anxiety. This concept - wanting peace and quiet in your home while also not wanting to be the lame older guy telling the kids to keep it down - is so specific and true.
That’s all the writers, Andrew Cohen and Brendan O’Brien. And it is brutal watching Seth and Rose trying to be cool. It’s like a horror movie. It’s scarier than Insidious.
A lot of modern comedies have a shagginess that’s enjoyable, but Neighbors has a very tight story, and it escalates nicely. Can you talk about the script you started with and how it relates to what you ended up with?
I always overshoot everything. I like to have a lot of material to work with. I like to cover myself, so that if we cut something we have extra scenes and extra lines to get us from Point A to Point B. This movie is no different; the shooting draft we went in with was about 130 pages. Judd Apatow, my mentor, told me that the script isn’t the movie, it’s the pieces from which the movie is made.
This story is paper thin, and I think if I had allowed it to get any longer than its length suddenly people would notice that it made no sense. That was very intentional. I also like to try different things each time I make a movie, and I wanted to cut this one to the bone. Any joke that got a medium laugh I cut out. I just wanted it to fly. And I wanted there to be a tension to it; a war movie can get a little repetitive, so I wanted it to escalate and I wanted it to be suspenseful and tense. To achieve that you can’t do the longer scenes. I think romantic comedy is a genre that I want to relax into, and I want to spend time with the couple, and I like it to be shaggier. But with this I wanted it to fly.
This is your most cinematic movie. There are a lot of scenes in this that are really nicely put together, and the party scenes in particular are wonderfully put together. It’s rare to see that in comedies - can you talk about your approach to the visuals and design?
I like to stretch every time as a filmmaker. I’m trying to push myself. I wanted the movie to feel like a party, and I wanted the audience to feel like they went to a party. I wanted it to be cool, but I’m not cool, so I had to study a lot of movies that are cool. My DP Brandon Trost and my editor Zene Baker are so talented, and that helps. Brandon does a lot of horror movies, and he does a lot of beautiful and moody horror movies like the Rob Zombie stuff, which is really cool looking. Zene Baker cut George Washington, he worked with David Gordon Green. They both brought a lot of style to the movie.
The visual references I was interested in included the movie Enter The Void. The movie has a dumb heist element, so I looked at Ocean’s Eleven to see how Soderbergh puts together a heist. And we did a dumb version of that. But the lighting, especially in the frat, you can go all the way. Frats do have insane lighting. I wanted the the lighting to constantly be changing. In the black light party the characters are always walking in and out of light and I didn’t care if you could see their faces or eyes, I just wanted it to feel like you were in that party.
Also you get confident as a director, and people always say, “You have to be able to hear what they’re saying,” and I didn’t care - I turned up the music so loud you couldn’t hear every word. Which I think creates the feeling for the audience to feel like they’re at the party.
I’m so glad you mentioned Enter the Void because I thought of that movie and I wondered if I was totally over-reading what I saw on screen. I especially got that feeling during the freak out scene when Zac is walking in the hallway, drunk and upset about his girlfriend.
We wanted to capture the moment when you’re at a party and you’re suddenly like, ‘I have to leave this party, it’s horrible.’ That scene in particular, my production designer Julie Berghoff, had this material that’s amazing but creates a camera strobe, which is horrible. Brandon was like, “We can’t use it, it makes the camera strobe.” And I said, “Wait a minute, let’s cover an entire hallway with it and make it horrible.” And Brandon was like, “And if I add a strobe it’ll make it even worse!” So we made it a nightmare for Zac.
Gender roles in this movie are interesting. We live in the entertainment world where the schlubby guy and the beautiful woman are common, but I feel like you guys sell that here by having a relationship that is complete. And by giving Rose something more to do than being the disapproving sidekick to the husband.
I love strong female characters and I want every character to score and get laughs. When I had my first baby and had a meltdown about it, my wife was having a meltdown right next to me. Our first child temporarily destroyed our lives. We both reacted in really weird ways, so it seemed funny to bring that into the movie. We have photos of us at our friends’ wedding with a week-old baby. Why didn’t we just stay home? It would have been better! It wasn’t just me out trying to go to parties, it was both of us trying to keep living the way we lived. That’s more truthful, and it makes it funnier.
With Rose - I was dying to work with Rose again after Get Him To The Greek - and it was important to Rose that she get to score as well. I hate the character of the nagging wife. It’s not true to my life, and I also think you’re wasting an opportunity to get laughs. No one in this movie is smart, everyone’s dumb. That’s a comedy thing I’ve learned - never have a smart character in your movie. Even Rose is dumb. Dave Franco is maybe the smartest of the dumb guys. But everyone else is pretty dumb.
A lot of the dumbest stuff in the movie is engineered by Rose. And it’s a lot of fun, women should get to make as many mistakes as the guys.
What techniques did you use to make the parties feel authentic?
NICHOLAS STOLLER: I learned a lot of about shooting parties [while directing] Get Him to the Greek. You have to keep the camera low—that’s a big thing. We went really dark during [the parties] so it looks like an actual party. I also played around with the sound design. At times you can’t even hear what the characters are saying like at a real party. And you have to have actors that are really good at acting drunk.
What was the chemistry like between Rogen and Efron?
NS: It was great. Zac is obsessed with all of Seth’s comedies. He was, in an adorable way, kind of nervous around Seth. Zac is really funny, but he’s primarily an actor. And Seth is a great actor, but he’s more of a comedian and a writer. When you put them on screen together, they have this amazing chemistry.
Also you can check out the Rotten Tomatoes Podcast with Nick here and the AMC Movie Talk with Nick and Ike here.