Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with a fun little interview with Mr. Nicholas Stoller for his very funny flick, Neighbors. The movie had its midnights tonight and formally opens tomorrow and you should go see it if you like funny things. If you don't like funny things then I question your motivation for clicking on this article in the first place.
Now, this interview was conducted shortly after it's premiere screening at SXSW last March. I got a bit behind, so I saved it for release. I transcribed it during the day while in LA for the Godzilla premiere and who should I run into at the after party? Mr. Nicholas Stoller. He mistook me for my dear friend Drew McWeeny, but that's no big deal. Wasn't the first time, won't be the last. I just found it surreal to have had his voice in my ear all afternoon and happen to run into him later that night.
Anyway, we talk a lot about the relationship ideas in Neighbors, how there are no villains in good comedies and why Neighbors is essentially a “dumb heist movie.” Hope you guys enjoy the chat. Beware of mild spoilers below. We do talk about some specific moments in the flick.
Quint: I want to start by complimenting your casting of Zac Efron in this film. I think he's underrated as an actor, especially as a comedic actor. For whatever reason he's had a hard time shaking the High School Musical/Disney baggage, but he was great in Me and Orson Welles. This is a great role for him because he gets to be funny and play a very gray character. He's not really a villain, but sometimes he is. Same with Seth Rogen's character. He's a dick, too.
Nicholas Stoller: There are no villains in comedies. Obviously you need them in certain other genres, but in comedies there are no villains. I always thought that, but I kind of learned something on Sarah Marshall. Russell Brand's character in a different kind of movie is just a bad guy, but the reveal in that is he's kind of a great guy and Jason hates him because he likes him so much.
In early versions of the script (of Neighbors) he was pretty arch. That's not an insult to the writers, that's always the case with early drafts. It was important to me that Zac's character, Teddy, be a good person making a bad mistake. They're making a mistake, they're making the wrong choices. Audiences like to go on that ride because it makes them more relatable. Everybody's seen the dickish frat guy.
When I was casting the other frat guys, my main concern even beyond them being funny was that they seemed to be nice. Not even cool, just nice. Like when Jerrod Carmichael came in to audition I was like, “This guy just seemed so nice. Like, now that I've met him it's impossible for me to hate him!” Same with Dave Franco, who exudes niceness.
Quint: Yeah, I got that feeling when I talked to him for 21 Jump Street. He was so nice that it felt like he was trying to pull something over on me.
Nicholas Stoller: Right!
Quint: There's a long con going on that I can't figure out!
Nicholas Stoller: Totally. There's a Now You See Me style con going on!
Quint: Can you talk a little about the importance of tone in a story like this? It's something that has a lot of heart, but is chock full of gross out humor. When done right, like in your film, the heart makes the gross stuff actually come across as sweet, in a weird way. When your movie opens with a baby watching its parents having sex you're either going to be striking that tone or immediately start way off the rails.
Nicholas Stoller: Oh yeah, you gotta go hard at it. I think tone for me is all about “Would this happen?” With a movie about a fraternity they're going to do gross stuff. In reality they do gross stuff.
Quint: They do worse stuff in reality!
Nicholas Stoller: Yeah, they do worse stuff in reality. We kind of sugarcoated it. I think that for me is a big part of capturing the tone. Making sure everything is rounded and real and then you can go bonkers. This movie is about people making the wrong decisions and letting their situation spiral out of control. For example, during the blacklight party they plan this whole “we're going to put hos before bros” thing, but when they actually do it my hope is that the audience thinks it's a little fucked up.
Quint: It is! It's weirdly like secondary date rape.
Nicholas Stoller: It totally is! (Rose Byrne) is totally pouring the shotglass down Brooke's throat.
Quint: That was one of the scenes that took the movie up to another level for me because you involve Rose so much there. She's just as proactive as Seth's character in that moment and I was worried she was just going to play the “stern housewife type.” What I love about that scene is when she takes control she's so much more serious and into it than Seth ever was. She's a Terminator!
Nicholas Stoller: Thanks. Yeah, I'm so happy and excited about that moment. Basically the movie is like a dumb heist movie. When you think about it that scene is dumb heist scene. I literally watched Ocean's 11 when I was building that scene because I was like, “If we do this right when she walks away from them in slow motion the audience will applaud. If we constructed this clock in the right way, that'll happen.”
Quint: She totally sells it, too.
Nicholas Stoller: Yeah, she does. She's so badass and awesome. You can tell with her in person that behind her eyes there's a craziness. Well, not a craziness exactly, but something wanting to go wild if you hit the right button.
It's always important to me, and I think I've done it in my movies, that the women be as funny as the guys. There's no nag, there's no shrew. That's not reality, in my experience. I love my wife, we have a great marriage. She's not “Don't do this, don't do that.” This weekend she's at home with two kids and four grandparents. It's like the full nightmare, but she was like, “Have a good time this weekend.” It's not like, “Don't have fun.”
I think most people's marriages are like that. You know, we screened the movie and there was a focus group afterwards and everyone loved Rose's character, she always scored really high, and someone was like, “Why did you love Rose's character?” Someone was like, “Because she isn't always yelling at the husband.” I mean, that's such a low bar! If you just don't yell at the husband you're fine. (laughs) People love you.
Also, when we had our first kid both my wife and I had a nervous breakdown. It wasn't just me. Both of us were like, “Oh, God. A part of our lives are over.” That also felt very true, that it wasn't just the husband trying to get away from it.
Quint: As long as you don't have a real life story of you having to milk your wife...
Nicholas Stoller: No, that's Brendan, Brendan O'Brien one of our writers. Do you have kids?
Nicholas Stoller: It gets weird. (laughs)
Quint: Another thing I wanted to touch on was just how far you took the gag about Chris Mintz-Plasse's character's legendary penis. The great thing about it is you set it up kind of with a throwaway line and you never really make a big deal of it, even when the frat is molding their wieners, but it's set up so well that when you pay it off it's even more funny than just a sight gag.
Nicholas Stoller: There's a lot of good dick payoff in this movie!
Quint: There's a surprising amount of male genitalia and pubic hair, I must say.
Nicholas Stoller: All for the ladies. (laughs)
Quint: It must have been tricky making everybody kind of equally likeable and hatable. In a lot of ways I side with the frat guys more than the “adults.”
Nicholas Stoller: That was our hope when we were making it. We want the young people in the audience to side with the frat and we want the older people to side with the couple. I've had that experience... like, on Sarah Marshall and Five-Year Engagement, you'd hear the women laugh some things and guys laugh at another.
Quint: I find that it also made the movie less predictable. It's a familiar set up, but you're not waiting for the typical raunchy comedy/romantic comedy landmarks. “Oh, here's the part where the couple splits up.” You even have a scene specifically commenting on that exact trope in the movie!
Nicholas Stoller: Yeah, we played around a lot with that as we developed the script. How much trouble are they having in their relationship? No, they're fine. They're basically the same character, and I even covered them that way. I rarely singled them out in the movie. In my coverage they're always in a two-shot because they have the same point of view the entire movie.
Towards the end, we realized that character just needed to have that conversation at the end. The “It's over. That part of our lives is over.” That's all they need to get to.
Quint: Not only do they have to realize it, but also realize they might be happier for it.
Nicholas Stoller: Yeah, you have to accept it and realize you like it more.
Quint: You mentioned watching heist movies to prepare for the movie. Have you by any chance seen a film called Gambit?
Nicholas Stoller: No, but it's on my list.
Quint: It's fantastic. It's Michael Caine's first American film.
Nicholas Stoller: Is it on Netflix?
Quint: I don't think it is anymore.
Nicholas Stoller: I'm writing this down. I have a list of movies I need to watch. I'm going to add this to my list.
Quint: You're going to flip out for it. The poster tag line is “Go ahead and spoil the ending, it's too good to keep secret. But whatever you do, don't spoil the beginning.” There's something that happens in the film in the first act that completely changes your perspective on it.
Nicholas Stoller: I love heist movies. That's one of my favorite genres. I love Ocean's 11. I like Ocean's 12, honestly. I know it's not a great movie, but I love it. Matchstick Men is great. The Sting is another one. But yeah, I watched all those movies before this and pulled them apart. You learn a lot doing that.
It's always you need a specific goal and it needs to be surprising, yet inevitable. I noticed with Ocean's 11 they don't say much, but there are a lot of visual cues to what they're going to do. I do that at the beginning of this movie. I mean, it's dumb stuff, it's not a smart heist, but you see they have a party kill switch. You see it when they go into his room. But yeah, I love heists. It's so fun, but it's the hardest genre to write.
Quint: What's interesting to me about them as a genre is that there's not many truly great heist movies, but those that rise to the top all have a kind of silly and goofy feel to them. How to Steal A Million, The Italian Job, Gambit...
Nicholas Stoller: They have to be light and entertaining. You can't take it too seriously. You know what I just saw, which I thought was awesome... I was just telling Dave Franco, but I love Now You See Me.
Quint: I actually missed it when it came out. I haven't seen it yet.
Nicholas Stoller: Dude, you should see it! It's so awesome. I mean, it's cheesy and crazy, but it's awesome. It's shot so well. You'll roll your eyes at some of the dialogue and stuff and it's like weirdly French, there are some French choices that are made and the very end makes zero sense, but it's just awesome. I highly recommend it.
Quint: Sweet. What's next for you?
Nicholas Stoller: There's a movie I'm working on for Seth and Kevin Hart that Rodney Rothman wrote that's about the first white cop/black cop pairing. It's an action comedy.
Quint: Seth's playing the black cop, right?
Nicholas Stoller: (laughs) Yeah, Seth's playing the black cop. It could be very funny. I want it to be crazy. That's my new M.O. In the movie they infiltrate the jazz scene to try to bust jazz musicians for weed. I'll be getting my Baz Luhrmann on. They won't be doing jazz.
Quint: They all be singing Kanye?
Nicholas Stoller: Yeah, Kanye, exactly.
Quint: Thanks so much for you time, man. I appreciate it.
There you go. I'll be posting my chat with the creepily nice Dave Franco tomorrow and that'll wrap up my Neighbors interviews. If you haven't read it already, make sure to check out my really fun chat with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg done at SXSW.