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Interview: NEIGHBORS Director Nicholas Stoller on the Art of R-Rated Comedy

In a cinematic landscape dominated by big budget superhero flicks and warmed over 80s reboots, it can be awfully difficult for original films to break through the muck and the mire. Such was not the case for Neighbors, the raunchy new frat-vs-fogies comedy from director Nicholas Stoller. Seemingly out of nowhere, the R-rated comedy, which cost a relatively meager $18 million to make, managed to demolish the $200 million Amazing Spider-Man 2. And that’s largely because Neighbors is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, a raucous, prurient, boozy gut-buster of a film anchored by an incredible, charismatic cast including Rose Byrne, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, and the surprisingly funny Zac Efron.

Curious as to how the film went from concept to cinema screens, I caught up with director Nicholas Stoller over the phone to talk about making quality adult comedies, finding the perfect cast, and some of the improvised moments that were too gross to make it to screen.

Neighbors friends

Nerdist: I feel like it’s been a while since we’ve had a good, hard-R comedy like this, and you’ve written and directed both. Do you find that you have a preference – do you prefer directing or writing when it comes to something like this?

Nicholas Stoller: I love writing lots of different kinds of movies. I write both PG and R-rated movies, and I’ve directed – I only like to direct R rated movies. I love directing so much, but the natural completion of the creative process of a movie is still a lot of work. It is nice to write a script and be able to hand it off to someone, so I enjoy both.

N: Nice! I can imagine, especially when you’re in the director’s chair, you have a little more control over how your words get shaped and how they appear on the screen.

NS: It’s totally different creatively. When you’re working with actors, it’s very social, and writing, by its nature, is not as social.

N: A film like this lends itself to improvisation, especially with the group of actors you had assembled. Was that something you encourage with your directing style?

NS: Yeah, improv is a big part of what I do. We’ll work on the script, and then we’re going to do improv, so I like to have a really good, tight script. Especially the story, but everything – jokes, dialogue, etc. And then we’ll do rehearsal, and they improv a lot during rehearsal, and we’ll incorporate the best improvs from rehearsals into the script. And then on the day I shoot the script, I’ll shoot both jokes – I’ll yell out jokes that I think of, or that the other writers think of, and then I open to improv and the actors will improv stuff. So it’s kind of a big combination of stuff. Yeah.

N: Do you have a favorite scene, unscripted or otherwise, that didn’t make it into the final cut?

NS: Yeah, there’s a bunch of stuff we cut out of this movie. One which was a really gross joke but really made me laugh, when they’re selling the dildos, we had – Carla Gallo was online buying dildos, and she picked up Jerrod’s dildo, which was not erect, so it was really small, and she picked it up, and she goes, “Aww, for the butt.”  He goes, “It’s not for the butt.” She goes, “It’s for the butt. It goes in your butt.”

So that was a good one, but it was so gross. It was also that the audience was like, “Why are Seth and Rose friends with that woman?” So we didn’t get into that.

N: [laughing] That’s awesome. Speaking of Jerrod, I was really excited to see people like him and Hannibal Buress in the cast. I thought you guys did a really great job of filling out some of these smaller roles with some really talented rising comedians. 

NS: Yeah, I always think every part should kill.  If I’ve cast – I find people that are just hysterical. Then I cast them in the ballpark. They’re really funny and weird. I don’t understand. They’re shooting a comedy. It’s a waste of a line to not have someone really funny delivering that line. We got to shoot this in LA, so a lot of comics were really willing to do a line here or there, or a part that only went two days.

So I wasn’t familiar with Jerrod before this – Francine Maisler, the casting director, brought him in. He was just really funny. He seemed really nice. He’s a really nice guy, and I want the frat to seem really nice.

N: Right, right.

NS: A funny energy for that, because it imbues the audience with what they’re supposed to think about this fraternity. And then Hannibal I’ve loved to death forever, and I thought he’d be – I wanted all of these authority figures to be just like very friendly – he has really funny energy, especially for a cop. And we had him do the table read, and then we’re like, “OK, we’re good.” But then there are people like Liz Cackowski as the realtor, or when Jason Mantzoukas is the ER doctor, everyone should go, whether it’s one line or whatever, you know. They shouldn’t waste one second.

N: Especially Jason Mantzoukis is one of those guys – he walks on screen and you start laughing. 

NS: His audiences start to laugh before he says anything. They’re like, “Something’s fucked up about that!”

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N: He’s just got one of those faces. One of the best parts in the film was Zac Efron, and I don’t think a lot of people were expecting that. He seems a little bit unappreciated as a comic actor. He’s struggling to shake off that High School Musical image. Tell me about working with him. What attracted you to him as a performer?

NS: Well, when I came aboard, he was already attached – Seth and he were attached when they called me about the movie. But I’ve always liked him, I always thought he had charisma, and, you know, he has movie star charisma. We saw a movie – the movie I’d seen of his called 17 Again, which was a pretty good movie, but he really elevated the material. He’s really good in it, and in person, he’s a really earnest, positive guy, and it seemed really funny to have that guy as your bad guy.

Because to me, there’s nothing scarier than someone being, like, “I’m going to kill you” with a big smile on their face. That’s way scarier than someone trying to be menacing. But yeah, I think it’s for all those reasons. And then you start working, and you get an instinct - this is my fourth movie, and you get an instinct about my work, and he really brought it. His improv skills were good, but he also was really good at being in the moment and being very real, and really – he’s just a really good actor, you know.

N: Yeah, and he has this sort of Spring Break/Cape Fear vibe throughout the movie that just really sells things.

NS: He totally has the Cape Fear vibe. When we shot the fight, Seth was nervous. Zac was so in the moment that he broke his hand in the fight with Dave Franco. He hits a mantle and broke his hand. He’s very committed, you know. He whispered to me, “Don’t tell anyone I broke my hand.” He’s so in it, that before the final fight, Seth was, like, “I’m nervous. I’m nervous he’s going to hurt me.” But he’s just an actor – nothing happened. He’s really good at it. It’s his art. I loved working with him.

N: Yeah, you know you’ve done something right when your fellow cast mates fear for their life. 

NS: Yeah, I think him being scary really worked. If he wasn’t scary, the movie wouldn’t work. And he got scarier and scarier as the movie went on, which I think is a testament to his performance.

N: Yeah, absolutely. And also, everyone in this film is kind of – the major players, at least – are kind of a dick, which makes both sides getting their comeuppance feel earned. I think that was an important decision because you have this family, they’re getting annoyed by the frat, but they’re also doing terrible things to the frat. Was that something that you wanted to highlight? 

NS: Oh, yeah, yeah! I like movies where everyone’s making mistakes, and no one is right. I think audiences like it too. I think it’s funnier, especially in a comedy. It makes it more relatable if everyone is making mistakes, because that’s the way that life is. As soon as someone has jumped the villain, and there’s nothing interesting about them, it kind of becomes a boring thing.

My favorite moment is the black-light party when Rose is trying to get the couple to kiss – the audience is totally with it, totally with it, cheers, and then kind of you can feel the audience go, “Wait a minute. That was kind of fucked up.” [laughs]

N: Yeah. [chuckles]  Whoa, whoa, come on, guys.

NS: Yeah, it’s a little strange that you just messed with those children. I think like that, for me, was a fun thing to play with in a movie, people think it’s going to be an anti-frat movie or anti-young person movie, and it totally isn’t. It’s just about people making mistakes, you know what I mean? That’s more interesting.

N: So obviously this made me wonder – what’s the worst neighbor that you’ve had, in college or otherwise?

NS: I wish I had a good answer for this, because I’ve been asked this, obviously, but I don’t really have a great answer. The closest I can really come – this is kind of funny – when my wife and I first moved in together, we were in this apartment with this single mom and her two daughters below us, and they would just scream at each other all day. It was like a nightmare. The sound traveled terribly through the walls. She’d scream and scream, and finally one day we started pounding the floor with a broomstick, really hard. The screaming stopped, and then a few minutes later there was a knock on the door, and I opened the door and the mom was standing there, and she just went, “We are going through some hard times.” I just felt so bad! [laughs]

N: Oh no!

NS: It was so brutal.

N: That’s rough, but at least they turned it down after a little bit.

NS: Exactly. They were quiet for a few days.

N: Yeah. Well, a few days is all you can ask for, realistically.

NS: Yeah.

Neighbors party

N: What was it like to move directly from Muppets marketing to this?

NS: [chuckles] Yeah, I loved the way Muppets Most Wanted came out – it was kind of exactly what James and I did. I don’t really understand what happened. I will just say that I think that movie is going to live on a as a great Muppet movie. Josh Goldstein and everyone at Universal – that marketing team – they’re incredible. They really did an amazing job on Neighbors, and all the movies. Universal had four original movies – no superhero movies – all original movies that have been number one since January, and that’s – obviously they’re good movies, but it’s also a testament to marketing. In a different studio, Neighbors would have done well, but it wouldn’t have done the business it did. There’s no way.

N: Yeah, you guys killed Spider-Man!

NS: We killed Spider-Man! In another studio, we would have made in the low 30′s, but they looked at it – Josh and all the people at Universal, they were like, “No, this is an event. We can turn this into an event.” And they’re really good at marketing.

N: I have one last quick question for you. Obviously, we are enjoying Neighbors right now, but what do you have coming down the pipeline that we can look forward to?

NS: I am working on a – let’s see - the next thing I want to direct this movie for Seth and Kevin Hart, about the first white cop/black cop pair in history. It takes place in the late 40′s, and they have to infiltrate the jazz scene and bust jazz musicians for weed. So it’s totally insane. It’s one of the movies I’m very excited about. My friend Rodney Rothman, who is one of the funniest writers on the planet wrote it, and it’s hysterical. That’s what I’d like direct.

Neighbors is in theaters everywhere. Have you seen the film? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below.

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