Here’s something only Zac Efron’s crew knows about him.
“A lot of people ask me what Zac Efron is like. And I tell them that he’s a really great freestyler," says Max Joseph, who directed Efron in his latest film, We Are Your Friends (in theaters Friday). "He can bust a rap off the top of his head that rhymes and is witty. It’s an amazing skill that I wish I had.”
So seriously, Efron could break into a rap at this very second, mid-interview?
He demurs. “The moment has to be organic,” says Efron, 27
Efron deals with discord of every kind in Friends, which has him playing an aspiring DJ while also navigating relationships he's had since high school.
He learned the craft for two weeks before shooting started.
“These guys look cool on stage. The good ones have a style to them. I went to a show with (DJ) Them Jeans. I wore a beanie. No one knew I was there,” says Efron. “I got to watch him spin.”
His own passions hit a different note. If the acting offers dried up, “I’d probably go and learn how to surf and chill in Hawaii for a little while,” says Efron. “I would want to be doing something with the outdoors. I’m really drawn toward nature. If you’re talking about a job, maybe photography, maybe shoot for National Geographic. I know a little bit about photography and I love being in the wild.”
What he’s less capable of is staying in touch.
"I found that as time goes on, I have less and less time that I’m not working. It’s really hard on friendships. I’m terrible at being on the phone,” says Efron. “I sort of lose touch. It’s the hardest with my parents.
For all intents and purposes, Zac Efron is the star of We Are Your Friends, playing a musician angling to break into the insular and highly competitive world of professional DJs.
In reality, says the actor, he’d rather be on the sidelines, not center stage. Not now. Not when he was younger.
“Amongst my group of friends, I was never the one out hustling or forcing us to go to the next party or hitting on girls aggressively. I also wasn’t a total geek,” says Efron. “I was somewhere in the middle. It was a unique spot.”
That’s why pulling on Cole Carter’s headphones appealed to Efron. “I like that aspect of Cole. He listens a lot. You’re just watching a normal person observe this craziness, this tragedy,” he says.
The drama, in theaters Friday, co-stars Wes Bentley as a professional musician who mentors Efron’s Cole and sultry Emily Ratajkowski as Sophie, the object of Cole’s desire. It’s directed by first-timer Max Joseph, 33, best known as the host of MTV series Catfish.
Efron, 27, emerged as a hunky, chiseled heartthrob after starring as studly Troy Bolton on the Disney Channel’s 2006 hit movie High School Musical. Since then, Efron has tried his hand with edgier roles — ogling Nicole Kidman in Lee Daniels’ seamy The Paperboy and partying with Seth Rogen in 2014’s potty-mouthed Neighbors. Next up is the comedy Dirty Grandpa, opposite Robert De Niro and expected in January.
“It was seeing Zac in Paperboy that really jumped out at me. He’s so natural," says Joseph, during an interview with Efron. "He doesn’t have to be loud or say much for your eye to go to him. Despite his good looks, he’s a great Everyman, to a certain degree.”
At the mention of his looks, Efron crinkles his nose and looks a bit embarrassed. He prefers to talk about all the prep he put into being believable behind the music.
“I got coached right off the bat. Max and a DJ named Them Jeans showed up at my house with brand new Pioneer decks and two huge monitor speakers. We set up and started playing around,” says Efron. “We had two weeks before we started shooting. I learned the basics of spinning.”
But all the technical wizardry aside, it was the plot that hit hardest. “Cole and I have a lot in common, and Cole and Zac have a lot in common," says Joseph. "A lot of times in films, the protagonist is either the leader of the group or the nerd of the group. I’ve never identified with either of those things.”
Adds Efron: “Max was very articulate with his characters. I recognized the similarities between your life experiences and Cole’s journey. Even the friends were accurate to my friends. The story was honest to me.”
Were you fans of electronic music before the film, or did you guys have a new appreciation for it afterward?
Zac Efron: I definitely have a newfound appreciation for it. Especially the production of music and how complicated those programs are. It really is magic what these guys do. It’s impressive.
Emily Ratajkowski: I knew it just from the, like, you know, Daft Punk, and Justice, that’s when I was in high school. And also electronic music is in every pop song now— look at the top 10 songs in the country.
Max Joseph: I was a big fan of electronic music since the ’90s. I’ve been a fan of it for a while, so it was kind of a dream come true to be able to make a movie that could use — I think we have over 50 songs in the movie, so it was awesome. I was like a kid in a candy store.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever experienced at a music festival?
ZE: Umm, one time, at Coachella… No, I don’t know. [laughs]
ER: I mean, look, you know that feeling of, like, running on the polo fields at Coachella, or South by Southwest — it’s like an amazing, exhilarating feeling, and we definitely tried to capture that in the movie.
MJ: I was at Coachella. I saw Arcade Fire perform the first time they were there—
ZE: Oh, I was there that time!
ER: I was there too. We didn’t even know, guys!
ZE: We were at the same Coachellas!
MJ: It was, I mean — they sung “Wake Up,” that was their first song, and when it got to the “uhh-uhh,” like everyone sung it at the same time, and it lifted… I don’t know, it was crazy, I think everyone had an eargasm or something.
What song do you think is *officially* the song of the summer?
MJ: Easy, Gryffin Remix of “Desire” by Years & Years.
ZE: Sweet. Good choice, man.
What song would you be found singing in the shower?
ZE: Some Michael Jackson song — I don’t know, Beach Boys.
ER: This is overwhelming me! Um, maybe, like, The Beatles.
How did you prep to be a DJ in this film?
ZE: I worked a lot with DJ Them Jeans — he was my coach and he taught me how to use the decks. We had so little time, [but] I technically learned how to do a whole set. I could transition and add effects and have fun and play around. But actually the part that I had the most fun doing was learning stylistically what these guys do to make it entertaining. Alesso showed me, like, how to really feel the music and get the crowed pumped up. You know when you transition tracks, he just jumps up in the air and throws his arms — just like, have fun, like you’re the show — and that shows the audience that you’re into it. Really on the deck it’s just a tiny twist, but he turns it into an event, and I thought that was really cool.
Did you get any equipment for home?
ZE: I did — I got brand-new Pioneer decks and two brand-new monitors and they are SO LOUD. Like, I was not prepared. Neither was Charlie Day, my neighbor. Speakers face his house, so, even on their lowest setting, my phone would start ringing and he was like, I have a baby, dude. But yes, that was it, I would sort of just sit and chill and I had a few full USBs from Jason and I would sit and kinda spend time going back and forth until I got so lost and tired that I would pass out. There’s a lot of math going on, matching BPMs.
What was it like DJing in front of that large crowd?
ZE: I was actually nervous. Like, legitimately nervous for that scene. We threw a real block party.
MJ: We had Nicky Romero and Dirty South headlining and then Dillon Francis showed up. But we couldn’t control the crowd, we were kind of at their mercy in terms of how they wanted to react to Zac, and we just kind of threw him up in front of the crowd for like two 20-minute segments, and for one of the those segments the generator in the whole block party died three times. The crowd was really patient and they hung in there, but we totally thought that they were gonna be, like, That’s it — like, they’re gonna walk away.
ER: And it was the last day of shooting, too, so the pressure was on.
MJ: Yeah, it’s like, we lose Zac after this, and that’s it. We won’t get that scene, oh well, it’s not like it’s the most important scene in the movie!
ZE: But to their credit they hung in there. Dillon Francis came on stage and we hyped them up and they stayed, and after that we had more cool people come out, but it was fun. I was genuinely nervous, though, to get out there and spin in front of people. It’s a crazy feeling — it’s like doing a play, that moment before you walk on stage. Butterflies.
Did you have any input in the soundtrack or the songs that were in the film?
ER: Some of it was already in the script, and also Max had made us a playlist after we got cast in the film, so when I was driving to work that was always what I listened to. And definitely a lot of the songs that were on the playlist and also in the script we listened to while we were shooting, which is pretty amazing. We listened to the actual songs you hear in the movie at the same time of filming those scenes, which is cool.
Zac learned how to DJ for the movie, but did you all come to this with some previous knowledge and appreciation of EDM?
Emily: I did not, but I also think a lot of EDM is in pop music now. In a lot of ways, we were familiar with it through bands like Daft Punk and all the super-famous DJs.
Zac: Max had the most experience with it. Max really got us all pumped on it. I was familiar with it; I love festivals, but it wasn’t the kind of music I listen to in the car. I couldn’t really name too many DJs. But after doing this movie I realize the brilliance of the music. It has woven its way into our lives without us knowing it.
The film makes the point that EDM plays at 128 beats per minutes, or the same as the beat of the human heart. I’d always heard that the 120 bpm of disco matched heartbeats. Who did the math on this?
Max: I did. Not all disco was at 120 bpm. A lot of Donna Summer’s music was actually at 128 bpm, such as “I Feel Love.” But the 128 thing is actually just a popular myth.
Zac: Isn’t it in utero (the fetal heart rate)? Isn’t that what it’s called?
Max: There are other urban myths associated with this, the fetal heartbeat being one of them. There were a lot of different numbers involved in it. It’s not an exact science. Just an urban myth.
How about the film’s plot-driving thesis that a DJ needs just one killer track to make a career? How grounded in reality is that?
Emily: It’s absolutely true. People aren’t putting out albums anymore, they’re putting out singles. A lot of people think that the record is dead. Beyoncé was the last innovative person to put out a record.
Zac: The search for one track also shows Cole’s mindset at the beginning of the film, and it changes toward the end. But what he’s really searching for is something much larger in himself.
Max: At the beginning of the film, Cole believes that if he just makes one track, that will be his ticket to the high life. And that’s obviously a little narrow-minded and naive, but it is true. You can have a one-hit wonder and rise overnight to success, but if you don’t have anything to back it up, and if you don’t figure out your art or your voice beyond that one thing, then you’re a flash in the pan. But I would hope that over the course of the film, Cole actually figures out where his art is coming from, which is his soul.
I love how the “killer track” is assembled in We Are Your Friends. I’ve never seen the birth of a tune presented so well, both visually and sonically.
Zac: It’s neat. When Cole learns to listen, he realizes that his life experiences — the places he’s been, the people he knew, everything that went wrong, everything that went right — have all led him to this specific moment. And he can use that to make a song, which gives him a sense of power beyond that. The journey is the destination.
How’s Chicago so far?
Emily Ratajkowski (ER): Great. We haven’t gotten to see a whole lot of it.
Zac Efron (ZE): We’re on a pretty insane schedule.
Jason Stewart/Them Jeans (TJ): I ate the Publican. That was pretty cool.
Max Joseph (MJ): Just FYI, this is Jason Stewart. He was our DJ consultant on the film. This is Them Jeans. He taught Zac everything there is to know about DJing.
ZE: Everything I know.
How is he as a student?
TJ: He’s an amazing student! He’s like a sponge.
TJ: A+. He has a lot of rhythm inside of his body that I just had to channel to the EDM world.
ZE: I learned a lot from watching him.
How did you get involved with the film?
TJ: A friend of mine was helping out music supervising for the film, and he suggested me to help train [Efron] for the movie. I lived down the street from them, coincidentally, so it worked out. I went over there, and the rest is history.
ZE: He carried in all the equipment with Max and I. Remember the first day? You’re like, “Film all of it.”
TJ: We did an unboxing video.
ZE: I took out the decks and plugged them all in for the first time. I remember the first time I saw the decks, it was like trying to read braille. It was so crazy.
TJ: Yeah, there’s like four million buttons.
ZE: By the end of the first day, I realized there’s actually… I had some sort of map and by the fourth or fifth day, I was transitioning tracks and adding effects.
TJ: It takes a day to learn, but a lifetime to master.
ZE: It does take a long time to master.
TJ: I feel like your brother was getting bummed out, maybe, towards the end just from hearing us DJ a million times.
ZE: My little brother lives with me at my house. We would have late-night sessions with those huge monitors that we bought, which were ridiculous. They were like “wake the neighbor” speakers, and I think my little brother was upset.
TJ: I just feel bad because he would be watching golf, then we’d be like *imitates loud bass drops*.
ZE: Yeah, we would be playing crazy trap music.
I saw the [Late Night with] Seth Myers piece where he read the poem your brother wrote.
ZE: Yeah, that’s my brother!
Max, the world of dance music can be a world of temptations and questionable morals. What message do you want to communicate to young people and fans of dance music as a result of making this film?
MJ: Whether it’s dance music or whether it’s writing a book or making a movie or painting a picture, I think that a lot of people search for inspiration and the answers to their insecurities and whatever outside of themselves. I think that, at least for my experience, it’s really drawing from your own experience for your artwork, whatever medium you’re working in. That is going to be your best bet to make something meaningful to yourself and then hopefully to other people, as well.
You show a dark side of dance music and that world, as well.
MJ: Yeah, I mean it’s a fun world, but all fun worlds have dark sides and light sides. The music is amazing and festivals are really funny and listening to music whether by yourself or with some friends is great, but of course there are excesses that are part of the world, whether it’s drugs or…
MJ: I think we just wanted to show a balanced view of it, not just show it as rosy and perfect, not just show it debauched.
I knew that Them Jeans was involved, and I think I read somewhere that Alesso might have done a little bit with the film. The Dillon Francis cameo, I thought, was really funny. What kind of feedback have you gotten from the community?
MJ: I’ll speak on it for a second, then I’ll throw it over to Jason. I think there was a lot of fear and trepidation about this movie from the community. Certainly when the trailers came out, I think people felt like this was Hollywood trying to co-op the dance music culture and sell it out and water it down. What I see happening, what I hope is happening – of course, it’s hard for me to tell because I’m the director, so not everyone is always up front with me about it – but when people see the movie, especially from the scene, it’s not quite what they expect, and I feel like they’re surprised by it. I think Jason can speak more to it.
TJ: The DJ friends of mine who have seen it have all been pleasantly surprised based on what they’ve seen in the trailer and myself included. It’s a very feel good movie, and all the DJ elements are very specific, and I think they’re all nailed correctly. Everyone that I know that’s seen it walked out with a stamp of approval.
MJ: Even musicians who worked on the movie were a little scared, you know, [like] “What could this be?” I think everyone who sees it…
TJ: I was never scared, but I could see how they could be scared.
What was it about electronic music or EDM that kind of inspired you to write this? And to you guys, Emily and Zac, what attracted you guys to the script?
MJ: I think the answers to those questions are probably the same, which is that… I’ll let these guys answer that.
ZE: Initially, what attracted me to the story was the sizzle reel. It was called The Untitled DJ Project. There’s so many different electronic music stories and scripts floating around, but nobody had nailed it yet. I think what Max did in the sizzle reel and, more importantly, in the script through execution was to make a really great coming of age story, which is just a classic… It’s just something I’d want to see. Even cooler than that, I could relate to it on a very specific level: I was interested in it, I enjoy EDM music, I lived in the [San Fernando] Valley for four years and had very similar friends to this – still have those friends -. I felt like if Max and I met in the middle, and he knew as much as he did in the world, I knew enough specifics, and if we could bring our strengths together in the mix, it would be great. I thought that was a great idea. It seemed fun.
ER: I think the important thing about this movie, because we’ve talked so much about there that many EDM movies, it is something important to remind – you guys, I think, just came from the film – that the EDM scene is really a backdrop for this coming of age story. It’s really appropriate, because [of what] disco was for Saturday Night Fever where you have this specific moment in time, this specific place that sort of allowed people to see these really big archetypes and ideas play out. Because it was so specific, it almost communicates better, which is a funny thing about storytelling and art. That’s what we wanted to do with We Are Your Friends, which is what I liked about it. I think it is about the millennial, post-recession generation dealing with technology, and EDM is the perfect art form that has come out of that world. I liked [her character] Sophie because she doesn’t really know what she wants, and by the end she still doesn’t know what she wants, which is I think is cool because it’s not realistic for all these movies to have characters with these “A-ha!” moments. You see a lot that in the world, people are trying to make the right steps to become adults and the people they want to be. I like that you see her shed and sacrifice things that were making her feel comfortable to just even hopefully take one step in the right direction.
How’s your view of the scene changed since making the movie? Has it changed at all, do you respect it more, or just look at it differently?
ZE: I’ve been working a lot since the film, so I haven’t…
MJ: Zac left the scene.
ZE: I have a lot more respect for it now.
EM: Oh my god. [in response to loud bass from The Mid’s performers]
ZE: I think the speakers have slowly been bumping over the room.
MJ: I think the scene has really… I felt this from afar, then it was validated by my experience, but it’s very community-driven, and it’s very supportive. In order to shoot that last scene in the movie, we threw our own block party, and the audience that showed up there, they showed up for free and they showed up to see Nicky Romero and all these guys performing, and we surprised them by bringing Zac up. They totally played along. Even now, they’re so proud of having been part of the movie. I think that that spirit of friendship and friends and coming together at festivals and stuff is amazing. It has existed in other music movements before, but there’s obviously something more relevant now about getting together now in big groups and being positive and supportive.
On a lighter note, if each of you were DJs – I know some have stage names and personas – what would yours be? And if you had to re-name yours [Them Jeans].
That was pretty good. You were waiting for that question.
ER: I have, yeah.
*chatter about the band Ratatat*
ZE: You could open for them.
ER: No… no. Ratatatata is very different than Ratatat.
TJ: It’s 100% different.
TJ: Like Missy Elliot style?
ZE: Max and I came up with mine just based on where we shot. You know Ventura Boulevard? It’s the intersecting street between money and the Valley. We decided on Bass Ventura.
MJ: I don’t have a great answer for this…
What would he be, guys?
ER: I don’t know if I should answer this.
ZE: Max Volume? Max… Max… something Max.
MJ: What about 2 Da Max? Mad Max, although it’s a sampled name.
ER: How about Bar Mitzvah Max? There’s this ongoing joke that Max has been celebrating his Bar Mitzvah.
TJ: DJ Bar Mitzvah DJ.
MJ: No, Bar Mitzvah will be the bar where I have my residency.
MJ: Why isn’t there a Bar Mitzvah, right?
TJ: That’s your next project after the film.
MJ: I’m opening a bar, Bar Mitzvah. It’s gonna be a really raging bar in LA where we do good deeds all the time and boys become men.
Zac and Emily, how did you prepare for your roles? How broad was your experience with the world of dance music prior to this film, and what were some of the things you learned while making this film that you weren’t aware of or surprised?
ZE: I worked with [Them Jeans] on the decks for weeks prior to filming, watched a lot of videos online, started running a lot because [his character] Cole is a runner.
Did you not run before?
ZE: You know, I really was more of just a walker. It was sort of like that scene in Forrest Gump [where] the braces just came off. It was hard at times, but I got through it. On camera, it looks like I’m running really fast. It’s funny because Cole’s pace is just like an all-out sprint. I was like sprinting through the Valley.
MJ: I think it was me who watched the movie and was like, “He’s ready to run a marathon. Zac’s running really fast. Can you keep that pace up,” and they were like, “Oh yeah, 100%.”
ZE: The first day of filming was all running shots. It was like 100 degrees out.
MJ: Zac was like, “Is it going to be like this for the whole movie?”
ZE: After the whole day, I felt great, but by the end of the movie, every time there was a running shot, I was just deteriorating. […] Now I’m following a golf cart, and this was a longer shot. It was fun.
The way the trailer positions the movie, it was a movie about EDM, but I honestly thought it was a personal story about Cole. What did you set out to make: a movie about electronic music, or a movie about this person who just happens to be in that scene.
MJ: We’ve always wanted to make the movie that we made, and that’s hard to do. It’s hard to end up where you think in the beginning you want to end up. That was always the intention, to tell a coming of age story against the backdrop of electronic dance music. I think trailers can be very deceiving, or they can only show a portion of it. I actually oddly find that my favorites movies, the trailers didn’t always give a clear… I loved The Social Network, but when I saw the trailer of it, I wasn’t quite sure what it was going to be. Same thing with Birdman. I saw the trailer for Birdman – I love Iñarritu, but I was like, “What is this movie?” And then I heard everybody talking about how it was good. I don’t know, trailers are funny things.
"We had a very small crew," Joseph says of the Las Vegas filming. "Essentially, it was myself, the (director of photography) and Zac and Emily, just, like, running through Vegas for a couple of hours. Those are my favorite shots in the whole movie, the running through the casino at the Paris hotel. I just love the way that turned out."
The Vegas production was so small, there was a very real chance onlookers were texting their friends saying, "I think Zac Efron's just been catfished."
"The crew size was definitely more akin to 'Catfish' than a normal feature film," Joseph admits. "A lot of that was dictated by our budget, but a lot of that was dictated by the fact that, until this movie, I'd never made a film that had more than a $50,000 budget. … I'm only used to and comfortable with small crews and doing things kind of DIY and low-fi."
"We didn't have a lot of money for this movie, either," he continues. "But I thought that that would work, because we're used to seeing Zac especially in very glossy, slickly shot films. And to kind of watch him in a more documentary-style, with not as much lighting and gauzy slickness, I think adds a level of gritty reality to him."
It also adds a gritty reality to the Strip.
"I've never seen Vegas shot that way." Joseph says. "I've only seen it mostly with gliding shots over the city and that amazing stock shot of the Bellagio fountains. I wanted to do something much more low-fi in that city."
That DIY ethos also was evident during the scenes at what was supposed to be EDC. Despite being set in the world of electronic music, festival organizers wouldn't let the "We Are Your Friends" crew shoot there. So Joseph staged his own concert, instead.
"That was because we wanted to show the boys taking drugs into the festival and taking drugs at the festival, and no festival would allow that. And I understand that," he explains. "And so it became a question of, well, do we want to take that element out of the movie, or do we want to keep that element and remain authentic to, you know, what most people's experiences are at festivals. … Of course, not everyone does that. But these guys would certainly do that. So we decided to be authentic to the characters."
Max, We Are Your Friends is your first feature film. How was that?
Max: It was really fun, it was super intense and stressful and all those things, but we all had a good time. It's a dream come true to me.
Zac: Max really set the tone. There was such an enthusiasm behind what he was doing; he was like, 'I know we're rushing, I know we're stressed, I know we're behind, but we can do it.' We had a bunch of really, really hardworking soldier-like actors who were up for trying anything. During lunch breaks, instead of eating food, me and Max would shoot a scene that wasn't even in the script. We broke like every rule.
Emily: Don't let the Union know!
It looked so fun to make, I left the cinema wanting to get high, go dancing and sleep with somebody. What was it like creating such a free-spirited environment?
Zac: It was great, definitely so fun to make. It was exactly what you said.
Emily, you play Zac's love interest, Sophie. What attracted you to the role?
Emily: I love Sophie because there are not many female roles in Hollywood who aren't just an idea that men have of women, like "oh she's the nerdy girl" or "she's the hot girl" or whatever. I liked Sophie because she was all those things at the same time. I was excited to play the role of someone you might actually meet rather than a Hollywood idea of a female.
What about you, Zac?
Zac: I loved going on Cole's journey because I could personally relate to it on many levels. His friends reminded me of my friends. I lived a slightly younger portion of my life in the Valley with some young actors -- not necessarily club promoters -- who were trying to hustle in and get by before I truly honed it in and found my calling, I guess. There was an authenticity to it and it was exciting to play Cole.
I know it's your job to act a certain way, but your DJing skills were very impressive. How much research did you put into it?
Zac: Well Max handed me a book that was about 800 pages long and was about the entire history of DJing… I didn't read it.
Just looked at the pictures, right?
Max: Exactly! But no, I read it, and Zac really worked tirelessly for three months with a DJ in LA. I remember even when we came back to Vegas, we had these two big scenes to film and everyone was just exhausted, but to Zac's credit, he gave up sleeping time to rehearse the final climax of performing scenes. Those are really complex and complicated movements. We didn't want just general knob twists, because it's very easy to fake it; we wanted to make sure that everything he did, you'd see the effect of it.
Zac: The fun parts were nailing the specific moments of authenticity with the DJing. You actually have the right notes being hit on the keyboard or the right effect being turned and transitioning happening at all the right times. We really nailed that.
I thought the visuals were really cool and original, especially during the house party scene where Zac is tripping out. Did you know what the movie would look like in your head before you started filming?
Max: To a certain degree, yeah, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted. But for some scenes, I just wanted a lot of footage to cut between. The energy of the Vegas scene, I wanted it to feel very documentary and free and shaky, we're just voyeuristically watching them go and dance and run through Vegas. I knew that through the photography and all the really cool angles we were getting that something would come out of it with the right energy. I'm really proud of that sequence, it's my favorite.
Ok, last question, what are you all working on next?
Emily: I'm not supposed to talk about it…
Zac: I'm starting Neighbors II.
Max: I'm starting another series of Catfish.
Zac: That show is just getting nuts, dude.
Max: It's a bizarre odyssey into humanity. A lot of the film came out of Catfish, though, because we see a lot of young kids in their early twenties and all their different life experiences.
“I got a crash course – DJ 101,” said Efron, who was coached for the role by famed DJ and producer Them Jeans. “I learned how to use the decks, and then I learned the style to make it cool. It’s not just twisting knobs, it’s actually like, BOOM! Really twisting knobs, and it became really fun. You could say I’m proficient at it, I’m good at acting it. I wouldn’t call myself a DJ yet!”
For acting veteran Efron, We Are Your Friends provided him the opportunity to work alongside rookie leading lady Ratajkowski and first time director Joseph.
“We shot really quickly, and it was so fun to watch Max navigate his first go directing a feature film,” said Efron.
Max is best known for hosting and filming the popular MTV reality show Catfish.
“Directing was a skill I think I may have learned because of this movie,” he joked.
“It was fun to be with him through that experience and see him filming because it’s really hard to do and takes a lot of effort on behalf of everybody,” said Efron, whose admiration for his director was evident. “We had a killer crew, hair and makeup, the grips and everybody. We banded together to make a movie, in a short period of time, in the sweltering heat.”
The trio explained how getting the film onto the big screen was no easy feat.
“I don’t think people realize how little money or time we had. We started off with very few resources and it was just a small little cult film that kind of grew and grew,” said Joseph. “We didn’t have a lot of time and these guys were great, we could only do a few takes and then we’d have to move on. So every day was a challenge.”
Despite the obstacles in its creation, We Are Your Friends manages to tell a very honest story about relationships: between Cole and himself, his mentor, Sophie, and most importantly, with the music.
“The biggest challenge was the song at the end of the film,” said Joseph, referring to Cole’s big finale performance. “We reached out to a bunch of different producers, and there was one in particular I really liked, his name was Pyramid. He was kind of like the French version of Cole, slightly introverted, up and coming, and just really wanted this. After going back and forth for like a year on the song we finally sat down and made it. It was really hard to do but he pulled it off, so hats off to Pyramid.”
We Are Your Friends poses the question, is one incredible hit all a DJ needs to make it big?
“I think that it’s an idea that’s presented and then sort of contradicted,” said Ratajkowski. “It’s a step to finding yourself in the creative process.”
“I think, from Cole’s perspective, getting that one hit is your ticket,” explained Joseph. “You can tour the world on it, but it means nothing if you don’t understand why it resonated with people. It’s almost a shallow goal for Cole at the beginning of the film, and at the end of the film…”
“…it comes from a place of honesty,” continued Efron. “If it always comes from an original place then everything’s authentic.”
When asked what success for the film meant for them, the group proudly reflected on how far they’ve already come.
“This already is success for me,” said Joseph. “I was psyched that I was even paid to write a script, let alone that it got put into production, we got these amazing movie stars, it got picked up by Warner Bros. and now it’s coming out worldwide.”
“I would like for our generation to identify with the film in the way that I did,” said Efron. “I hope it means something to a lot of people. I know it will to anyone like me.”
“I don’t like saying that I hope the movie delivers a message, because I think art is up to interpretation,” said Ratajkowski. “We just want to start a dialogue, which I think we already have. So in a way I’m already really happy about the reaction we’ve gotten.”
“If people come out of the theatre and say that they got chills at a certain point, or that they received energy from it, or that they experienced any form of catharsis, that to me is success,” said Joseph. “That to me means the movie connected with people, and I think that is the coolest thing you can do.”
This is a movie about people figuring out who they are, and realizing they don’t have to be empty and vapid. But they have to start by being those things. Did you have any trouble finding your way into the characters?
EMILY RATAJKOWSKI Doesn’t everyone ruin their lives constantly and do things that are good and bad? I guess that’s why they’re likeable. They’re real people you can relate to.
ZAC EFRON It’s fascinating to watch characters who are put under immense pressure and make selfless choices. I think that’s Cole’s journey. To find himself, he’s forced to stop following his friends and really search for who he is and what he wants.
MAX JOSEPH One thing that Zac and I talked a lot about, especially in regards to his character, was sampling. DJ music obviously has a lot of sampling in it, and I think one thing all the characters in the movie are doing, especially all the younger characters, is sampling different lives for themselves. Over the course of the film, they discover who they are and what their own voices are telling them.
We Are Your Friends is being compared to Saturday Night Fever, and in a good way, so maybe it's the drama that will establish Efron's escape from teen idol status in ways that The Lucky One, say, or Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy could not.
"I don't like to think of it in terms of escaping anything," Efron says, good-natured as always during a recent promo stop in Toronto.
"I think I'm on a path, on a journey, and I know that I'm very lucky because I'm working with people who are fantastic. I get to learn and grow with every part. I just feel as if I'm in a different place."
And all those screaming fans?
No problem. Efron says he's playful with it.
"I find my favourite way to think about that is, 'How can I flip it on its head? How can I use it to my advantage, to make it make fun of itself, to play into it, to make people think differently about it?'"
Max Joseph, the director of We Are Your Friends, says of his lead, "Zac's characters are generally very extroverted, and Zac is a great entertainer. On the page, his character in this movie is very undefined, and because he's so charismatic, it allowed him to say the least and yet still own the scene. Not a lot of actors can do that.
"I think a lot of people will be surprised by that when they see the film."
To some extent, Efron was probably blindsided by his own success. He was busy making other plans when the Disney movies altered his career trajectory forever.
"I had aspirations to go to college," he says. "I got accepted at UCLA and USC for their respective theatre and film programs. I knew I wanted to do film in some capacity. And then I did a different thing. I started with High School Musical, and sort of took a different path."
Not, he hastens to add, that he wishes he'd done anything differently.
"I've enjoyed the way it's gone. I've had a lot of challenges," says Efron.
"I've searched for those challenges, made it hard for myself, I think on purpose.
"I think I seek it out."
How was it working with Zac Efron?
M: Zac is great. The role of Cole on the page is very undefined compared to the rest of the characters, so it was always a bit of a mystery as to how this was going to work. But if you get an actor like Zac who has tons of charisma, he doesn’t have to be the loudest in the room or say the most to really carry the scene. Especially in the group of friends who are really loud and colorful. But professionally, Zac has been on way more sets and made way more movies than I have, and he’s hardworking and professional and very enthusiastic and positive. I couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator.
E: Yeah, he worked super hard. This was a different kind of role for him, and I was really impressed by what he brought to the table.
Capone: Max, you came out of documentaries. Was it important for you to take that extra step to really capture not just that reality of the DJ scene but also just the [San Fernando] Valley scene?
Max Joseph: My background is oddly in creative non-fiction. It’s not exactly documentary, but a lot of short films about different subjects, which can fall into documentary sometimes. But in all of it, you have to get things right. You have to fact check them, and the challenge is always to make something and be true enough to your subject that you don’t alienate the insiders of the subject, and the people you’re introducing to the subject feel welcome, and you’re inviting them to learn about something. So you’re always kind of riding the line—you don’t want it to be too insider-y, but you don’t want it to be too dumbed down either. Whether that was the promoter aspect of the film—we did a lot of research on that—the Valley aspect of the film, the DJ aspect of the film. It was important to get all those things right.
Capone: Did you find, as you were shooting, that you were changing things up to capture elements that maybe you hadn’t thought of for the script? Or did you not have that time and luxury?
MJ: Yeah, these guys will tell you, the script was always changing. Even on the day, if something didn’t sound right or if someone made a funny comment, if the makeup person said something funny… The line “All that was missing was a hashtag,” someone on set, one of the music supervisors, had said that off hand, and Wes Bentley heard it and was like, “I think we should use that.” And I was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” It’s very collaborative, and I think the script is a blueprint. It’s just a guideline.
Capone: What about the DJ scene makes it the right setting for a coming of age story for a fully grown man? He has to get to a point by the end where he needs to become an adult to survive.
Emily Ratajkowski: I think generally, the more specific you are with storytelling, the better people can relate to it, which is the funny thing about art or movie making. Like with SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, it’s a really specific world, like the Valley is with electronic music, or disco in Brooklyn, or whatever other parallels you want to draw. In some ways, it makes it more relatable, which is incredible. And electronic music fits with the ideas of synthetic music, synthetic people, about technology in our lives. It works for this generation because it’s so specific to this time period, right? Disco was really in the ’70s; electronic music is something you haven't seen really before now.
Zac Efron: I think the Valley was the right spot, the perfect spot for this movie to take place. I lived in the Valley for four years before I eventually moved over the hill. I’m never home, anyway, so I still go to the Valley if I have to go out. These people are here. I know them; I’ve met them. A lot of my friends are these guys. Max and I had shared a very, very similar experience during a period of time in our lives in the Valley, and it was actually those characters that drew me to the script the most, and Max wanting to portray this specific story of growing out of these kind of friends and moving on.
Capone: I don’t know how much you knew about DJ culture before you got involved with this film, but what appreciation for what they do did you take from this experience? I thought it was just about spinning records and finding samples, but composition is like a huge part of their process. We see a lot of you building the songs and tracks. Talk about the artistry you came to appreciate from making this film.
ZE: It reminded me of the first time you see somebody really good at ProTools. When I was younger, I would go to the recording studio and record, and I always wondered how these guys know how to do so much so quickly. It’s such advanced programing. It looks like what used to take 100 guys at NASA to do, they do on one screen. It’s incredible the ear it requires to manipulate sound and make something authentic. It’s like the new Bach or the new Beethoven. It’s crazy. They have every sound at their disposal and they’re making really cool stuff.
MJ: It’s art. The computer, in some ways, makes it easier, and in some ways it gives you so many options that it’s just daunting and overwhelming. I think constraints increase creativity. We didn’t have a lot of money or time on the movie, and I think that because of that we all pulled together more and were more creative about things. When you don’t have any constraints, which sometimes is what electronic music is, you can do anything. It can be stifling. So I give them props, these guys.
Capone: Most of your scenes involve Wes Bentley, who I think is one of the most criminally underrated actors who has been working for so long. What do you learn from being around somebody like that and just watching him? As an actor, what do you pick up from him?
ER: I agree with you. You see Wes in so many things. Actually, it was funny, on the plane back from London, I watched INTERSTELLAR, and I was like, “Wes was so great in this movie, and I never knew he was in it.” There are so many examples of that. And I really liked the ease and confidence he had on a set with a lot of young people, a lot of first timers. It was my first lead, it was Max’s directorial debut. And Wes really didn’t try to come in and be the senior person, but certainly he led by example.
ZE: Yeah. He kind of was my James [the mentor character’s name] in a way. I think it was fun to work with him. He really listens. He was very present. It was amazing, when he got cast, I hadn’t seen a lot of his work, but since then, I’ve educated myself and seen so much of it. And then after that, I saw the film, and I think he honestly steals the movie [laughs].
Capone: A little bit.
ZE: He really does. I’m so stoked that he did and is a part of it. I’m just honored. He’s the greatest guy.
He was warned against working with Zac Efron: "Don't. Be careful. He's a party kid."
But Max Joseph didn't pay much mind to the rumblings. Because Joseph's on the MTV show "Catfish," where he "spends all day, every day, talking to kids in their early to mid-20s who are going through stuff."
"Of all people," he thought, "I can handle that. That's 'Catfish.'"
His budget wouldn't be big — less than $6 million — but Working Title gave Joseph the creative freedom to make less conventional filmmaking choices. "We Are Your Friends" showcases numerous perspectives — sometimes characters speak directly to the camera, other times there's voice-over. The camera work is shaky and fast, and graphic text and animation frequently pop up on-screen. And there's music — lots of it, pumping energy into critical scenes.
"I told the [director of photography] that the movie should feel like someone just went nuts with ideas," Joseph explained.
And this started as an independent film. We didn’t have any domestic distribution when it started. We were making it for so little money that there weren’t people breathing down my neck. We made the film we wanted to make with very little oversight. The film is an independent film. After we finished the movie, because we’d done stuff on social media and because Zac Efron is a big star and because it’s about a subculture that is quite large, a lot of studios in the U.S. were interested in buying this little independent film, where I thought the best case would be to go to a festival, show it there, and sell it. I got news one day Warner Brothers was buying the movie for domestic distribution, which was insane! I know nothing about the studio world. I knew a lot about the independent festival circuit, but nothing about the mainstream studio world and what reputation each studio has. Apparently Warner Brothers never picks up small movies like this.
This was a very unique situation. It’s a dream come true for me, because very few independent movies come out this wide and get a release like this. There’s a flip side to it, where you get the corporate backlash. Because people don’t know the origin story, they assume studio executives tried to figure out how to get money from festival goers so they put Zac Efron in a movie as a DJ. This is par for the course for the cynicism we all have. A lot of people feel like the corporate hand of Hollywood is stuffing this down their throat. I get it. I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that.
background of WAYF at IndieWire and Buzzfeed.
Why We Keep Loving Zac Efron, Even When It’s Hard
Whether or not We Are Your Friends is a hit, it fits the narrative that has made Efron’s career a success, even when it doesn’t seem to be.
Zac Efron’s career path is inscrutable. From the mid-aughts Disney musicals that first endeared him to millions of tween girls worldwide, to torpid indies set in Florida swamps, to would-be prestige pictures, to inane ensemble rom-coms, to frat-bro bait, Efron’s IMDB profile represents nothing less than the chaos of our very universe, writ small. Garry Marshall films are sandwiched between appearances on Robot Chicken; there are three High School Musicals and one of them actually played in theaters; and he is about to headline a film about a party promoter turned aspiring D.J. titled We Are Your Friends.
As a human, a brand, a Hollywood actor, a fantasy receptacle, Zac Efron seems to have no real plan, or no real confidence in executing one. He told E.W. this much in 2009, after spontaneously dropping out of the Footloose remake for fear of being typecast: “I think the hardest thing about being young and in the business is that a lot of opportunities present themselves and there’s no road map.” You can practically hear him reminiscing about the days when all he had to do was extend a hearty jazz hand to Vanessa Hudgens to pull in crazy bank.
But this tangible fear, this raw insecurity, is what endears us to Efron: he’s a lost little boy who just wants to be loved, and who’ll do anything—including, but not limited to, letting Nicole Kidman pee on him—to find that love. His efforts to find himself are so obvious, so human, that our instinct isn’t to mock him, but to help him. What this means, ultimately, is that we’ll give Efron infinite chances to figure it out.
Zac began his career a blank slate—a bland, sexless, modern-day castrato—onto which 13-year-old girls projected their G-rated fantasies. The mid-aughts weren’t just the Last Great Years of Wild Spending in America, they were Efron’s blissfully ignorant golden years, too, filled to the brim with fluffy films about young men who love the theater and just want to harmonize with somebody about it. Watching each of these early movies—High School Musicals 1, 2, and 3; Me and Orson Welles; Hairspray—one is struck by little else but Efron’s oft-changing hairstyles and the fact that his elfin visage bears no signs of stress about his soon-to-be uncertain future. There’s so much hope. And so much dancing.
But like many a Devon Sawa before him, Efron endured a rocky transition from tween idol to credible adult actor. He’s spent the years since High School Musical and the like struggling mightily—and admirably—to find his niche, transitioning from breathless-tween-girl magnet to buff, beer-swilling bro to moody indie darling to a person who drops condoms on red carpets at children’s movie premieres. And back again. It cannot be a coincidence that the one (and only) underlying commonality in all of Efron’s post-H.S.M. films is that they deal with young men in flux—men whose hubris and inner conflict about the onset of adulthood cause them to make ghastly mistakes. Men who got on the ride and want to get off, but don’t know how. Efron’s films, on some level, deal with Efron himself, a young man trying to ford the raging stream of cultural relevance without drowning in his own reflection.
For Efron, every film post High School Musical has been a total re-invention, a death of the Old Zac and a rebirth of the New Zac. Every part has been a stretch—the type of stretch that incites critics to wonder aloud, “Er, can Zac Efron do [X]?,” that is: “Can Zac Efron believably hang out with Orson Welles in the 1930s?” “Can Zac Efron be trusted to headline a beloved Dr. Seuss classic?” “Can Zac Efron convincingly play an angsty race-car-driver-cum-farmer-cum-son-of-De
nnis-Quaid?” And, again, coming up Friday, there’s We Are Your Friends, starring Efron as a young man who wants nothing more from life than to mash up house tracks for college students rolling on ecstasy. “Can Zac Efron make us care about D.J.s?”
The answer to all of these questions is yes, even when it's technically no. Because Zac Efron can make us care about anything, even if that thing is terrible.
He is wildly attractive and desperately charming, but also, somehow, extremely attainable in an Old-Hollywood-meets-New-Jersey way that makes you (the royal you, but also me) feel like he is going to sweep you off your feet, carry you up a winding staircase, make enthusiastic love to you in his four-poster bed, then order pizza and play Call of Duty with you and wink at you when you have a particularly clutch kill. He is the Everyman and Superman at the same time. It’s a quality his That Awkward Moment co-star Miles Teller described as follows: “With the right lighting, that movie star thing happens. It’s like a falling star just happened in his eyes.” It’s a quality that made Matt Lauer blush and giggle and write off that aforementioned red-carpet condom drop as a safe-sex promo. It’s a quality that made it impossible for Seth Rogen to hate him, even though Seth Rogen really, really wanted to hate him, but instead went ahead and cast him as his co-star in Neighbors (and in the upcoming sequel). It’s a quality that made us all forget about that time he got into a “tussle” with a homeless dude.
We love Efron because he’s got the bone structure of an Italian statue but the palpable confusion of an Italian tourist; because he’s a walking contradiction. In other words, he’s just a human. He’s us. What better proof than the fact that Efron prefers playing characters who are trying to improve, who just want to break free? “I’m constantly searching for characters that are about betterment of self and betterment of others,” he told T.H.R. “And I’m searching for those parts because those are the ones that make me happy. They’re the ones that fulfill me personally.”
So, in the spirit of infinite chances, let’s say this about Efron’s next attempt to keep his head above water: We Are Your Friends may be a bad film, but it could also be his last one, the true start of something new. With a sequel to Neighbors, a spring-break movie with Robert De Niro, and a Baywatch movie with The Rock on the way, his upcoming work is targeted at a frat-bro audience, but with a prestige that seems purposeful. And it cannot be a coincidence that the year of We Are Your Friends is also the year that Efron engaged in the act of, as he put it, “Taking over my social. Get ready.” (This means that previous tweets and Instagrams—including this one and this one—were posted by his shills in hopes of shaping an image that had been fractured many times over.) Is there any better proof that Zac Efron is taking ownership of his career than the fact that he’s finally confident enough to star exclusively in films that see him shirtless throughout and to post his own heavily filtered photos?
It’s hard to know for sure where We Are Your Friends will take Efron, but what I do know is that we’ll all be there, watching, waiting, as he valiantly tries to re-invent himself yet again. Because we are your friends, Zac. We’re all in this together.
Is Zac Efron Our Next Matthew McConaughey?
The We Are Your Friends star could be the next great American actor—if only he’d get out of his own head. What’s holding him back?
Maybe it’s just his height, but there are times when watching Zac Efron is like watching a young Tom Cruise.
They’ve got a kinetic energy that suits them uniquely to the demands of American genre filmmaking; action films in Cruise’s case, musicals in Efron’s. Reading about Efron’s freakish work ethic on sets—breaking his hands for Neighbors, spinning basketballs until his fingers were raw on High School Musical—certainly recalls the famously diligent Cruise. But where Cruise at his best is a force of infinitely expendable energy punching and staring and show-me-the-moneying out through the screen, somehow Efron seems stuck hesitating, waiting for that extra push.
The 27-year-old actor is the rare leading man who consistently get paired with older leading ladies. In the time since Efron graduated from High School Musical, he’s romanced Claire Danes, Taylor Schilling, Leslie Mann, Heather Graham, Nicole Kidman, and Michelle Pfeiffer.
He might be the biggest star of his age group in Hollywood, making movies all about boys and their big dreams and their swagger, but unlike other hot shot breakout actors, Zac Efron’s got the looks but not the attitude. When in doubt, he defers.
In his latest movie, the DJ flick We Are Your Friends, Efron’s character is surrounded by a cabal of bros, whose whole vision of life amounts to a get-rich-quick scheme. They’re loud and thoughtless and douchey, but despite his proximity, Efron never comes off that way. He’s the biggest star in the movie, and yet he still appears to be following someone else’s lead, waiting for someone else’s cues.
With the exception of the romance-novel-come-to-life movies that Efron has made, it’s interesting how often Efron has relegated himself to the role of a novice. He was just riding along with Matthew McConaughey in The Paperboy, just apprenticing for Christian McKay in Me And Orson Welles, just picking up beats from Wes Bentley in We Are Your Friends. Even when his character is a central figure, Efron is generous to his scene partners to the point of being self-effacing.
At a certain point as a fan, you’ve got to wonder when Efron will stop acting the part of the student and just start acting. With a lesser actor, this inaction would seem like just a lack of focus, but Efron is always present onscreen. He’s not an intellectual performer, but he thinks before he speaks. In fact there are times when Efron seems stuck inside himself, planning the way he’ll say a line, doing damage control before there is any damage.
As calm and in control as he seems to want to appear onscreen, there’s an anxiety to Zac Efron. Being an actor requires a willingness to step into the spotlight and the actors who are most exciting to watch are the ones who adjust to the unnatural situation that the camera facilitates. Efron has worked with actors skilled at this, most notably Nicole Kidman on The Paperboy, but co-stars like Seth Rogen and Dave Franco can do it too; they notice the camera and just perform anyway.
In an interview this week, Efron claimed not to remember any of the songs in the High School Musical films and maybe he doesn’t. The High School Musical movies are for kids so they’re painted with broad strokes—not exactly what you want to be reminded of as you’re trying to maintain a career as a serious adult actor. But if you go back and watch those movies, there’s an reckless freedom to the way Efron moves in them that’s missing from his movies now. High School Musical is scrubbed clean of all the things that make life complicated and sometimes unpleasant in a cheesy, very Disney way, but that’s why Efron is so good in them. High School Musical was pure, and Efron kept them sincere.
Efron has aged out of child stardom with relatively few major setbacks. He hasn’t gotten arrested, he hasn’t punched any photographers, and his stint in rehab for cocaine addiction was handled mostly privately and seemingly with success. But navigating the dark waters of Hollywood is a full-time job and it’s hard to be reckless onscreen when you know everyone’s watching. Efron practices self-control in a profession that thrives on self-expression.