nicholas stoller neighbors interview

The upcoming comedy Neighbors is odd in that the director, Nicholas Stoller (above, center), came on pretty late in the process. Writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien first pitched the idea to producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. They loved it and thought of Zac Efron as the lead frat boy in the conceit. Only then did Stoller get the call. Once he came on board, many things were already in place. That’s not to say he didn’t put his own stamp on it, however.

That stamp comes from Hollywood experience that’s been incredibly eclectic so far, and is only getting more weird. Stoller first directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall, wrote and directed Get Him To The Greek, wrote The Muppets, wrote and directed The Five Year Engagement, wrote Muppets Most Wanted and, after Neighbors, he’s going into the world of animation with Captain Underpants and Storks.

In this interview, we talk about all of that. We also discuss the issues marketing a comedy where you want to sell the movie but also not ruin the jokes, PG-13 vs R in the eye of an executive, the latest on some upcoming projects, being part of the Warner Bros. Animation brain trust and how Enter the Void played a part in the production.

We also discussed lots of behind the scenes Neighbors stuff, dissecting some of the film’s best jokes, but we’ll save that for next week so you can see the hilarious movie this weekend and not be spoiled. Read the non-spoiler Nicholas Stoller Neighbors interview below.

/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.

Now, I’ll come back to Neighbors, but I liked Muppets Most Wanted a lot.

Oh thanks.

Why do you think it wasn’t as big a hit as the first one?

I have literally no idea. I love that movie. I’ve worked on movies that I’m like ‘Oh this isn’t great.’ That’s not one of them. It’s awesomeIt honestly achieved exactly what James [Bobin] and I tried to do. So I don’t know. I think like, I think maybe kids aren’t as interested in puppets as, you know? They like computer animation more? I think Peabody and Sherman stuck around a little more.

Frozen came out on DVD that week I think.

Frozen, yeah. I think there were a lot of things that kind of conspired too, but it’s very confusing to me and my hope is that it lives on, you know?

Oh I think so. I mean, the music is just as catchy as the first one.

Yeah, I mean, it’s intentionally like less emotional and sentimental than the one we did before. But that was a, there’s no way to compete with that. So we went hard in the other direction to try to make it super funny. Like a more of a heisty kind of thing. So well thank you very much.

Are you next doing Captain Underpants?

Yeah, no, I’ve been working on that for a while. That, because it’s animation will be years. But yeah, Rob Letterman is directing it. And he and I have worked together a bunch. And yeah, I’m really excited about the cast is awesome.

So what is the tone of that sort of? I mean, ’cause I’ve looked at the books and stuff and you get a sort of like a goofy, funny kids thing. But it’s smart too.

Yeah. You know, I think like drawing upon my Muppets experience and stuff. Not even just my Muppets experience, but as a parent, I like to watch movies that make me laugh as well as my kids. So like we’re trying to go for that Simpsons, kind of, everyone is laughing at stuff. The cast is so funny, it’s like Thomas Middleditch who’s in Silicon Valley and Kevin Hart who’s so funny and Ed Helms. So we’re trying to go for a kind of, pardon the annoying speak, a four quadrant movie where everyone’s laughing. ‘Cause the books are great and they’re charming. And most of the spirit of the books are the potty humor. But I think they’re for kids, so we wanna make it a little bit more so everyone laughs at it. Which, I will say, it’s hard not to laugh at Professor Poopypants. You hear that and…

Absolutely, yeah, So have you guys done voices for that or is it just being animated? What’s the status?

Yeah, they’ve started animating. They started the animatics and there was a big record session a few months ago. We recorded a lot of it. And, when you put it on its feet, it’s really funny. ‘Cause it’s also like a parody of the superhero genre. But really at its heart, it’s a story of these two friends, you know? The big reference for us is Superbad. Like it’s like that, kind of, in the book. Like the friendship of those kids is in the book, but they don’t really fight with each other ever. And in this there’s like a little bit more of like a how long can you be best friends with a kid.

And you’re also part of like this reported Warner Bros. animation think tank, right?

Oh yeah.

What is that like? What does that sort of entail?

It’s really exciting. So I’m working on this animated movie at Warner’s that I’ve been working on for about a year now. And there’s a few of us. It’s all writer driven. So there’s a few of us writers right now. Phil Lord and Chris Miller doing it. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and this a guy named Jared Stern. And yeah, it’s exciting.

I’m working on a movie right now called Storks as it’s all about a world where storks used to deliver babies, but now deliver for Basically. So yeah, it’s really fun. It’s fun to take the things I’ve learned in live action and apply them to animation ’cause in animation they do stuff a little differently. But there are a lot of things you could do, like with improv and stuff that they do some of, but not a lot of. And then also for me just to learn about animation I think is helping my live action stuff. Like the way they frame stuff and just all the heart that goes into it.

Will that be the next thing you direct? ‘Cause animation, you sort of do it sort of over a long period of time.

Yeah. It’s over a long period of time. I’ve been producing and writing it. I might try to direct. I’m not sure. I don’t know. It’s scary to me for a variety of reasons. But the next thing I wanna direct is this thing for Seth and Kevin Hart that’s basically about the first White cop, Black cop pairing in history. And it takes place in the late ’40s and they have to bust Jazz musicians for weed.

Oh okay.

So yeah, it’s kind of a Baz Luhrmann world but mixed with Tarantino shit. It’s like a lot of things.

Oh cool. And before I go back to Neighbors, you did something with Adam McKay and Uptown Saturday Night?

Oh yeah, I’ve been writing that for a while with him. He’s like a comedy goldmine. And so I’ve always wanted to work with him. And he, yeah, he wants to do a remake of Uptown Saturday Night and so I’ve written a draft, I’ve written a few drafts for him and yeah, that’s really fun. I hadn’t seen the original, have you seen it?

No. I know about it, but I never seen it.

It’s really good. Like you never know. I mean, it’s like a weird ’70s kind of mess on some level, but also it’s really funny and it’s a great, I understood when I watched it, I was like ‘Oh yeah.’

One of my favorite comedies of the last decade is Forgetting Sarah Marshall. It’s instantly rewatchable. Anytime it’s on or we have the digital copy from the Blu-Ray, we watch it. Obviously you’re proud of it but when you look back at it, what are your feelings? 

I can’t believe we pulled it off. It’s funny. You just never know with movies how they’ll be seen in a few years. You have no idea. Like movies that were super popular when they came out have been forgotten. And other movies, and I put Sarah Marshall in this, kind of weirdly stand the test of time a little bit. At the time, it was Knocked Up and Superbad were like the huge Apatow hits or whatever and Sarah Marshall came out and it did fine, but it wasn’t [huge]. But I hear that over and over again. It’s really nice, you know. I’m really proud of it. I think it was exactly what I wanted to do at that time. And it’s emotionally what I was interested in at that time. Like breakups and relationships and girlfriend and boyfriend stuff. So I’m really proud of it and love 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.

Yeah, totally.

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?

Oh absolutely.

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.

Oh, right.

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.

Neighbors opens Friday May 9. Check back Monday for some behind the scenes stories of the film’s funniest jokes. 

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