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When I visited the set of "Neighbors," it was still being referred to as either "Townies" or "The Untitled Zac Efron/Seth Rogen Movie." Naturally, one of the first questions I had for director Nick Stoller was about the search for the right title for the film.
"Right now, Evan [Goldberg] keeps pitching me 'Fraternal Deception.' It's so stupid," he laughed.
"That sounds like Glenn Close should star in that and it should be 1992," I replied.
"Totally. Glenn Close and Bill Pullman." Stoller shuddered at the thought.
I've known Stoller for a while now. I spent a week on the set of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," along with a few pick-up days back in Los Angeles, and I also visited him for "Get Him To The Greek" and "The Five-Year Engagement." Stoller strikes me as a guy who has a very particular sense of humor and he is fortunate enough to have found the right collaborators and the right environment where he is able to pursue his vision of what a mainstream comedy can be with the full support of a very talented ensemble of comic performers.
This new film is unusual for him in that he did not write or co-write the picture, but he seemed to be perfectly at home when I arrived on the set. He was shooting a long scene involving Rose Byrne, Seth Rogen, their realtor (played by the very funny Liz Cackowski), and their baby, and he quickly explained the premise of the film.
"Basically it's about Seth and Rose as a young couple with a baby in a new house, and a fraternity moves in next door led by Zac Efron. Dave Franco is in the fraternity as well, and they go to war. It's really about these people kind of having nervous breakdowns about where they are in life."
One of the things I noticed as I walked around the set was that there were a lot of familiar faces missing from Stoller's other movies, and I asked him about adjusting to directing someone else's work and being surrounded by a number of new crew members. "Well, it started with Andrew Cohen and Brendan O'Brien. It's their script, and they pitched it to Seth and Zac, and then they set it up. Evan called me like a year ago, maybe a year and a half ago, and asked me to do it. I worked with Seth years ago on 'Undeclared,' and I love him, and that just sounded like a hilarious idea."
College comedies are a very specific genre, and I mentioned how hard it seems to be to get them right. For every "Animal House," there seem to be about a dozen "Sorority Boys," and Stoller laughed. "We're going to be right in the middle." He went on to explain that part of the challenge in the genre is casting the fraternity. "Looking at Chris [Mintz-Plasse] and Dave Franco, I know that these guys love each other anyway and they've got a great rapport. We cast for a while. Early on, we knew that it was going to be Zac [Efron] and Dave on some level because obviously, it's Zac's movie and we'd always wanted to have Dave be his right hand man. It wasn't that laborious of a casting process actually. Very quickly, Jerrod [Carmichael] came in, who's super funny and was just amazing. Christopher Mintz-Plasse was just awesome, so it wasn't hard to cast him. The one big surprise… and we didn't find him, because he was the lead of 'Submarine,' but Craig Roberts plays a pledge and he's really funny."
I brought up my time on set for "Bridesmaids," and how Rose Byrne said she felt out of place in the midst of all the funny women in that film. At this point, though, she's done enough comedies that I don't think it's a secret that Rose is very funny. "On 'Get Him to the Greek,' she was awesome. She was the only one who made Russell Brand break. He never breaks and she made him break with some of her improvs that were so dirty and crazy that he crumbled. That's never happened before. She's a pro. She pretends she doesn't know what she's doing, but she's better than anyone at this stuff."
I asked him how much fun they were having with the escalation of the war between the frat and the family. "It builds and builds throughout the movie, like the best war movies have that element to them where they get crazier and crazier. That was a challenge as we were writing and rewriting the script and developing it. The challenge was to make sure we kept topping ourselves. I think we do. I think it gets pretty crazy. At its heart, there's this nice family story between Seth and Rose and their kid. I always thought it was interesting, too, to play with the idea of what your life is like right before you graduate from college and how everything becomes chaotic and horrible right at that moment. That's what's happening with Zac's story. I would say there's like one percent emotion in this movie."
One of the things that distinguishes Stoller's films is just how dense his ensembles are. In "The Five-Year Engagement," he builds out interesting characters even when they only have a few scenes, something that filmmakers often overlook. I told him how excited I was that he cast Ike Barinholtz in this one, because he seems like one of those guys who crushes in everything right now. "He's so funny. Yeah, he's insane. We've also got Carla Gallo, who's had little parts in all my movies except 'Five-Year,' and she's so crazily funny. They play a couple that has gotten divorced, and they're like in 'Five-Year,' where Chris Pratt and Alison Brie were the couple that they should be, only this is the couple that they shouldn't be. These two are a total disaster."
He mentioned that it was "The Mindy Project" that convinced him that Barinholtz was someone he had to work with, and I told him that for me, it was "Eastbound & Down." I genuinely thought he was some Russian guy they found at first. "We shot a scene where he gets a sex tape of his ex-wife and, spoiler alert, he has a nervous breakdown. It's just him alone in his shitty apartment having a nervous breakdown, and if this wasn't a comedy, if this was a drama, it would be an Oscar worthy performance. It just would be."
It seems to me that many of the riffs in Stoller's film are more about character than typical jokes. He likes behavior, and that's where he finds the humor in his movies. Watching him fine-tune the scene he was shooting, he kept suggesting new ways for Mindy Knight to be horrible to Rose and Seth, but with a big smile on her face. Stoller would suggest new lines or a new way to tweak a behavior, with Andrew Cohen and Brendan O'Brien throwing out their own new lines as well.
Stoller readily agreed. "My favorite performances are all about behavior. Obviously a great punch line will get you to laugh, but before this, I wrote for TV before I did screenwriting and directing and stuff. I worked for a season on a multi-camera, which is all punch lines. It's certainly a skill set that I just don't have. I don't have that set-up/punch-line skill set. I mean, it's a useful skill set to have, obviously, and I'm glad I had that experience, but I just find behavior more funny. The funniest thing in the world is someone who's incredibly depressed in total denial. To me, that's the funniest thing ever, just someone who's, like, 'Everything is fine.' I think that's just hilarious. I would say that's what I'm most interested in when it comes to art."
One of the things that makes Seth and Rose feel trapped in the film is that they've sunk all of their money into the house, and they can't get back out of it without losing everything. I relate to that motivation, as I ended up buying my house just before the bottom fell out of the market, and I'm still trying to get my family's finances turned around as a result. It's a great external thing to hang on this couple to make them feel more desperate.
"It's funny that you're here on a day when we're shooting our realtor scenes. This is where we set up the stakes of the movie for them to have to keep their house. There definitely is that undertone of, 'We put all of our money into this thing and now it could all be gone,' and how scary that is. I think a lot of the movie, at least for Seth and Rose, is about that first six months of having a kid and what a nightmare that is and how hard it is to totally adjust to that. That is the nervous breakdown that they're having that they don't even realize they're having .The movie is their journey."