Frat vs. family: Nicholas Stoller's rowdy 'Neighbors' pits new dad Seth Rogen against college dude Zac Efron
Having previously helmed star vehicles for Judd Apatow-discovered talents Jason Segel and Jonah Hill, it was only a matter of time until writer/director/fellow Apatow alum Nicholas Stoller was going to get around to collaborating with Seth Rogen on a major motion picture. That feature turned out to be Universal Pictures’ May 9 release Neighbors, in which Rogen and his onscreen wife Rose Byrne portray frustrated new parents who wage a hard-fought campaign of fear, intimidation and general malfeasance against an equally rascally opponent—a chiseled frat dude played by none other than Zac Efron. Just how serious does this battle get? Let's just say that booze, boobs, pilfered automobile airbags and intimidatingly large dildos are involved.
Underneath all the hilariously bad behavior, though, is a deeply personal exploration of what happens when two men lose their damn fool minds in the face of major life events: having a baby and graduating from college, respectively. At least that's the story Stoller says he set out to tell. Freshly returned from a Hawaiian vacation following Neighbors' well-received premiere at the South by Southwest film festival, the 38-year-old filmmaker spoke with Film Journal International about his own almost-breakdowns, watching Rogen play daddy, and the one scene in the film that has adults cracking up and kids freaking out.
Film Journal International: This is the first film you've directed since Forgetting Sarah Marshall that you didn't also write. How did the project come your way since it didn't originate with you?
Nicholas Stoller: Evan [Goldberg, Rogen's creative partner] called me while they were working on This Is the End and told me about Neighbors, which was written by Andrew Cohen and Brendan O'Brien, who are very funny writers. Even before I read it, I was into the idea. I kind of know immediately if I want to do something and besides working with Seth, Evan and Zac Efron, I remembered how I acted in really weird ways when I graduated from college and later on when I had my first kid and that seemed like a funny idea to exploit in a film. In terms of not writing it, these films kind of end up being big collaborations—we kind of treat them like giant TV episodes. Like you'll see an episode of “30 Rock” and see who wrote the episode, but really everyone wrote the episode. That doesn't take anything away from the writers of the film, because it's true of the movies I've written too. It's a big collaboration, especially with comedy. What I bring to the film as a comedy director are my comedy abilities—you know, I’m not Terrence Malick. Although there is one shot in the film that I kept calling my Terrence Malick shot. When Seth and Zac are peeing in a fountain, I told Brandon Trost [the director of photography], "I want this scene to be at magic hour and look like a Malick film." I should have cut to a lizard watching them—that would have driven it home.
FJI: The trailers play up the battle of wills between Rogen and Efron, but what's interesting about the movie is how the characters function as mirror images of each other, and that's one of the reasons they come to blows. Was that something that was in the script or did it emerge after you came aboard?
NS: When I first read the script, it was pretty different. The original draft was more like Old School; there were three guys and Seth was still married, but his wife wasn't a big part of it. I wanted the wife to play a much bigger part, so we rewrote it, but still kept the other friends. Then Seth and Evan read it and wanted to just make it about the married couple and make their kid—who was originally four—a baby. To me what was interesting about the idea and what I really wanted to pull out of it was that these two characters, Seth and Zac, are having emotional breakdowns. I had kind of a nervous breakdown—figuratively, not literally—when I graduated from college and then I also had one when I had my first baby, which inspired a very similar feeling of suddenly not having any control over anything in your life. It seemed funny to me to have Seth and Zac going through these changes and taking it out on the other person.
FJI: In a way, you're guiding Seth Rogen through his first "grown-up" part, since his character has a wife, a kid and adult responsibilities. Was that something he was excited to play?
NS: He certainly embraced that aspect of the character and thought it would be really fun. Really smart actors like to evolve as they get older and I think he recognized it would allow him to play different comedy beats—like talking to the baby and all that—while still working within his familiar comic persona. And in general I just like to work with people I know. I wrote scripts with Seth and Evan years ago for [the Fox TV series] “Undeclared” and for literally no good reason hadn't worked with them again until now. Sometimes when you're working with people you don't know, there's a lot of feeling each other out, but we all have a shorthand—Judd [Apatow] is our mentor, so there's not having to explain anything. If I pitch a joke and it's not good or they don't get it, they're just like "No" and we move on.
FJI: Zac Efron was already attached when you came onboard. Did you have any trepidation about whether he could cast off his teen-idol past and play this darker role?
NS: I saw him in 17 Again and I think he's a really charismatic, charming screen presence. I knew this character had to go dark and there's nothing darker than a guy who is really sunny and smiley saying, "I'm going to kill you!" So I thought for him to play against his bright, sunny persona would work well. And he had really good notes on the script. I always want there to be no villains in a movie; like in Sarah Marshall, you discover that Russell Brand's character is actually a great guy, not some nightmare. With Neighbors, Zac had a note: "I want frat guys to love this movie," and that made us work really hard to make sure he wasn't just an idiot, mean frat guy. The audience gets bored of that really quickly. We wanted to make it clear that he's going through his own problem—his fear of graduation—and is taking it out on Seth, which is a very clean, clear idea. In general, I thought it was way funnier if these frat guys were super-nice. It makes the audience's journey more complicated if they're nice guys.
FJI: With Get Him to the Greek, you were one of the first directors to grant Rose Byrne the chance to show off her comic chops and she gets even juicier material here. She often scores bigger laughs than either of the guys.
NS: Rose was always my first choice. I remember on Greek, she'd come up with stuff that was so gross that she made Russell Brand, who never breaks, break. He'd just started cracking up and going "Jesus." It's like working with Meryl Streep—she's really funny and can do all these crazy characters. We treat Seth and Rose as a single character in the movie because they have the same point of view. And I think the whole thing about her is that she used to be crazy like Seth and like all of us when we were 20. And like Seth, she's now having a kind of a nervous breakdown. Brendan and I talked about that a lot, how when my wife and I had our first baby, she was also like, "What the fuck has happened to our lives?" That was more realistic than the woman is super into having a baby, while the guy's mad. In my experience, that isn't really what happens.
FJI: How much did being a parent yourself inform your approach to the movie?
NS: If I didn't have a kid, I'd have no idea how to negotiate the Seth/Rose/Baby stuff. Some of the things they say in the last scene are literally the same stuff my wife and I have said to each other. We just had our second kid, but we did such stupid stuff with our first kid. We were determined to live the life we did before he had the baby; before our daughter was six months old, I think she had been on eight plane flights for no reason. We took her everywhere—we went to Hawaii with her when she was four months old and it was horrible! She was too young to travel, too young to be in a hotel. We just should have stayed at home. And just to prove we were still the same, we went out to dinner when our daughter was two weeks old. Why? Why do that? With our second daughter, we knew that for the first couple of months you're just housebound. It's a huge mental change and that's really what this movie is about.
FJI: One way that Neighbors departs from the ’80s collegiate comedy template is that it actually seems to place a certain value on education. The most likeable frat guy in the movie is the one who belatedly seems to recognize that school can actually, you know, teach you things.
NS: I think it's less about education than the fact that if you're not thinking about the future while you're in college, the fall is going to be so much harder when you graduate. The kids who have figured that out are less freaked out as school ends, whereas if you're all about partying and extracurricular activities, you do tend to head towards more of a breakdown. It's funny, as we worked on the script, we kept cutting everything that took place at the college until finally there's just one on-campus scene in the final cut. There are no scenes in a classroom—it was just completely unnecessary for the plot. And I don't remember any scenes from Animal House that take place in a classroom. I think there are scenes that do, but all the ones I remember best happen in the frat house.
FJI: Your previous films have tended to have a looser, shaggier pace, but this one is a tightly constructed 96 minutes. Was it a challenge paring the movie down to that length?
NS: With romantic comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Five Year Engagement, you can let it breathe a little more. You want to fall in love with the couple and experience their journey. Whereas I went into this movie thinking, "I want this to feel like a party—I want it to never stop." In the past I've kept jokes that have gotten medium-sized laughs, but in this one I wanted to cut it down to the point where the only jokes left were the ones that got huge laughs. So I just kept cutting stuff. With a premise-driven comedy like this, the danger is that it can get repetitive, but I think we were really careful. I used a strategy I learned from Nora Ephron, which is if you were to take your movie and chop it up into eight chapters, each chapter has to have a different thing happening story-wise. I also wanted to let it keep building and get crazier and crazier. Our first frat party sequence originally ended with a fireworks battle that burned the house down and that hurt the pace of the movie because we threw the craziest party at the beginning, so the audience was bored when the other parties started. Like in a war movie, we wanted it to escalate. Think Apocalypse Now; it starts out kinda weird and then gets weirder and then when you can't believe how weird it is, Colonel Kurtz is washing his head in a cave. [laughs]
FJI: Though you've written several kids’ movies, like The Muppets and the upcoming Captain Underpants, when it comes to directing, you're hard-R all the way. Did you go into Neighbors specifically planning to top yourself?
NS: We knew Neighbors had to be dirty because frats exist in a hard-R world and Seth and Evan are amazing at pushing the envelope. For whatever reason, whenever I want to direct something, the R-rated stuff appeals to me more. I love seeing kids' movies and I can imagine directing one down the line, especially more of an effects-driven one just for the challenge of it. But I think it's hard for me as a director to get laughs in a PG-13 or PG world. I just always want to go a little bit harder. And I think Greek is technically dirtier than Neighbors. This one just feels dirtier because it's shorter.
FJI: Well, Get Him to the Greek also doesn't have a set-piece based around a guy having to milk his wife's engorged breasts.
NS: That was all Seth. One of Brendan's wife's friends was breastfeeding at Bonnaroo and her pump broke or she didn't bring her pump and her breasts got engorged and her husband had to milk her. Brendan told that story to Seth and he was like, "Oh. we have to do a milking scene in the movie!" I don't know why it's never been done in a movie before and I'm sure there are people saying, well, I don't know why it's in a movie. But my wife had a lot of engorgement issues; it's one of those things new parents have to deal with. It's funny, when we screen the movie, all the parents in the theatre laugh hard at that scene and all the kids are so disturbed by it. It's so fucking funny to watch that split happen. When you're a parent, you just don't care anymore. It's like, I just wiped poop off my baby's face. [laughs]