Director Nick Stoller discusses making Seth Rogen uncool and frat warfare in ‘Neighbors’

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.”

That seems like they’re building from very relatable ideas here. “It’s almost like when ‘Knocked Up’ ended, this movie picks up like right after it. It’s a different relationship between Seth and Rose. It’s not about them fighting. That’s the difference. But it is picking up where, ‘Now we have a baby, how have our lives changed?’ They literally have a line where they’re like, ‘Nothing has changed,’ and the movie is about them realizing nope, things have changed.”

Knowing that Dave Franco and Christopher Mintz-Plasse are close in real life, I get how easy it is for them to play the frat buddies. There’s a lot of crazy young male energy in the film that Stoller has to wrangle for those scenes, and they love to push each other to try to make each other break in scenes.

“You know, Jerrod’s a stand-up,” Stoller began, “but they’re actors first and foremost. I don’t think they’d call themselves comedians, so it’s not the same energy. Like it’s a different dynamic when it’s Jonah and Russell on-set. They’re trying to one-up each other with jokes and stuff. I think it’s different when you have people who are actors first. They’re super funny. It’s not like they’re not funny, but they’re more interested in delivering the performance than they are in getting a laugh.”

Over the last few years, I’ve seen a change in Mintz-Plasse as he’s decided this is what he wants to do with his life, and he’s really focused on becoming a better all-around performer. When they found him for McLovin in “Superbad,” they went out and found a kid who perfectly embodied that character. These days, Chris seems determined to prove that he’s capable of much more than that.

“He’s insanely funny,” Stoller agreed. “He’s always doing little performance things that I don’t even realize are intentional until after I watch the dailies. He’s very, very committed, and he’ll do anything. He’s so awesome to work with. I’ll be, like, ‘Do you mind showing your butt in the scene?’ And he’s, like, ‘Sure, I’ll do it. Whatever.’ ‘Can you make a crazy orgasm noise?’ ‘Okay, here I go,’ and he just does it. I told him to do a big orgasm, he did a big orgasm, as he was falling after ejaculating, he pulled his shirt up so we could see his butt, because he could tell that the shirt was dropping. Even in that moment, he was aware of the camera and what would play best. That’s just a dream.”

When I was on the set of “Knocked Up,” the Universal marketing team showed up to show off their very first poster concepts, and watching Seth Rogen as he saw the first one-sheets where he was the sole image that was being sold, it was a pretty special moment. He and Judd had the conversation that day where Seth was trying to wrap his head around the idea that someone would come to see a movie because of him, and these days, he seems to have become very comfortable playing the leading man in things. Now he’s old enough to be the dad in this scenario instead of the leader of the frat, which seems like a real transition.

“He’s been awesome. What’s funny is he’s kind of playing a guy who’s trying to be cool. We talk about a lot about how he’s always trying to impress Zac, which is a really funny dynamic. In ‘Knocked Up,’ he was the young cool guy doing idiotic stuff.  And in this, he’s trying to impress the younger guy, which is a funny thing.”

He went on to explain, “The other thing that’s great about this movie, which is a lesson really learned, is there’s no one who’s intelligent. Everyone is stupid in it. It really makes for a great comedy. Everyone. Rose is stupid. The people you think will be smart, like the wife, because that’s the way these films work… nope. Rose is stupid, Seth is stupid, the brothers are all stupid… everyone’s dumb. When you do that, everyone makes bad decisions, which is great. There’s no one who’s smart. It was kind of accidental. I didn’t realize, but going through all the great comedies in my head, there’s no one who’s smart. As we’re developing the script, you always start with the clichés as you start your development. A writer would be writing a script and you start with the wife character saying we should stop doing this and then they get into a fight because he keeps doing it and she doesn’t, and as we kept revising and revising, we’re, like, wait… no, everyone should be dumb. It’s way funnier. Everyone’s making terrible decisions.”

Since so many of the people on these films work together over and over in different combinations, I asked Stoller how it’s been working with Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien on this, and how they’ve adapted to working with this group. “They’ve been around it forever,” he explained. “I’ve known them for ten years probably. Even though I haven’t officially worked with them, they’ve been in Judd Land forever. They could tell you more, but they were exec producers on ‘Funny People,’ and I feel like they were maybe even on the set of ‘Knocked Up’ and ‘Virgin.’ I can’t remember, but they’ve been around forever. They know the process.”

At this point, there are so many people who have worked on these films that even without Judd Apatow being directly involved, it’s almost like they’re part of a sub-genre now, and we’re seeing films that are made that are influenced by them. Stoller said, “I think it also helps that the technology of digital cameras allows you to riff for even longer now, and you just end up having more options. If you can, you should do it this way.”

There are filmmakers who are fighting the transition to digital, but it seems perfect for comedy, and I asked Stoller how he feels about it. “I’m about to sound like an idiot,” he replied, “but I literally can’t tell a difference anymore. Once it’s been through the DI and all that stuff, it just looks the same. I prefer it for night. I think it’s better for night. You need less lights, you need less lighting, you can shoot way darker.”

That’s a great point, and one of my favorite things about Michael Mann’s “Collateral” is that it’s one of the first films that truly captures what I think Los Angeles looks like at night. It looks the way the city really does when you’re outside, and I’d never seen that before. “There are a lot of parties in this film,” Stoller explained. “This is all parties. It has to feel dark or otherwise it’s going to be like a brightly lit sitcom. The only way to go that dark with film is to literally just lose your actors, and that’s too scary, like ‘Godfather’-style, where it’s so dark you can’t see anything. That’s too scary to do that.”

He went on to explain that Brandon Trost is shooting the film for him. Trost is gaining a reputation as one of the fastest and most versatile guys in the business, and I know when I was watching him work on “This Is The End,” he was a big part of helping to keep the energy up on that film. “He really gets the process and is willing to try anything. I’m doing a lot of things that a normal DP would have a right to be annoyed by, like I handed out cameras to extras to just film the parties, just to get that kind of found footage stuff, just to have it. And he was, like, ‘Sure, that sounds fine.'”

He said other DPs might get upset by that, “because it’s out of your control. But we shot a whole fireworks sequence, and when you add the found footage stuff, it makes it more chaotic. It makes it crazier and I think it’s a cinematic language that everyone’s getting used to, so that you can cut it in and it’s fine.”

That brought up the way cinematic language in general seems to be expanding to make room for documentary technique even in non-documentary projects, like “The Office” or “Parks and Recreation.” “I saw that happen with ‘Chronicle,'” Stoller concurred, “and I love that movie. In that, they justified it really well why the guy was using the camera, and then they just switched into lots of other people’s cameras without bothering to explain it.”

There used to be a look that was the studio comedy look, all brightly-lit and colorful, and it feels like the palette is expanding so that you can adapt the look to the story you’re telling and it all doesn’t look the same. “Yeah. You just need the coverage to tell it. That’s the only thing. I mean, I’m shooting 2.35:1 for the first time, and I’m shooting anamorphic just to do it, and it looks awesome.” It’s so uncommon for people to shoot comedies in widescreen that I told him I was surprised he got the studio to go for it. “It just looks better. I did it because we have a lot of people on-screen in these scenes.”

Blake Edwards is one of the few comedy filmmakers who ever really embraced widescreen, and mentioning him was enough to get Stoller and lost in a run of Blake Edwards references in between watching Liz Cackowski take extra delight in telling Seth and Rose that there is absolutely no way they can get out of their mortgage.

I have one more conversation coming from the set of “Neighbors” at the start of the week, and I look forward to seeing the finished film at SXSW, where they’re doing a special screening.

“Neighbors” arrives in theaters May 9, 2014.