Producer Evan Goldberg on wrangling the comic mayhem of ‘Neighbors’

Evan Goldberg may not have the instant name recognition of his creative partner Seth Rogen, but he is every bit as responsible for “Superbad,” “Pineapple Express,” and “This Is The End,” and like Rogen, he is now able to help shepherd younger comic talent through the studio system as a producer.

The two of them are playing that role for the new movie “Neighbors,” which stars Rogen and Rose Byrne as a young married couple who spend their life savings buying what they hope is going to be a dream house, a place to raise their newborn child. Instead, they find themselves locked in a sort of comic “Straw Dogs” scenario when a fraternity buys the house next door and proceeds to terrorize Rogen and Byrne with sex and drugs and rock and roll.

On the day I visited the set, I watched Dave Franco, Zac Efron, Seth Rogen, and Rose Byrne all play a scene where the frat guys stop by to announce a Robert De Niro party they’re holding. It was a preposterous moment, and director Nicholas Stoller, who I’ve visited on three films prior to this, was in a gregarious mood, laughing and enjoying each new take.

Towards the end of the day, I had a chance to sit down with Evan to chat with him about the project and his involvement, as well as the way he and Seth are able to help other writers now. I asked him how he’s able to give each project the attention it deserves if he’s juggling three or four films at a time.

“Usually when anyone asks anything about Seth and I working together, the answer is we do everything the same. We do everything together. That’s the one area where we’re kind of a little different. He’s like bizarrely focused to a fault and I’m like scattered to a fault, but when combined it’s really good because I’m excellent at like multitasking.” That seems like a necessary combination of qualities, with Evan the one who changes from project to project, putting each thing in front of Seth that needs to be focused on at a particular moment.

“We just pull each other back-and-forth all day. I’ll be like ‘We’ve got to deal with that, we’ve got to deal with that.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, right, but we should deal with this right now.’ And I’ll be, like, ‘Okay.’ So he’ll pull me in and we’ll deal with it, but then I’ll be, like, ‘We’ve been doing this too long. We have to go back to that.’ And he’ll be, like, ‘Okay,’ and so we just kind of tug each other back and forth and it tends to work.”

I told him how impressive it is to see them juggle these projects this way, and he made sure I understood that there were more people behind that than just him and Seth. “James Weaver is no f**king joke, this guy we worked with. He will probably be my boss one day. He is the most, like, efficient producer in the entire universe and the most, like, passionate hard-working dude ever. So people just see it as me and Seth, but this guy Weaver… like on ‘The Green Hornet,’ he was Seth’s assistant. He’s so good at dealing with agents and studio people, and all the stuff that Seth and I are good at, we can do, but I prefer to talk to the writers and work on the scripts and that kind of stuff. He’s taken a lot of that and he helps our focus also.  He’ll be like, ‘We have to do these things today.’ So we’ve got a better system than just two guys, and, like, Alex McAtee, who was my assistant and Seth’s assistant who is now a creative executive, and we’ve got a new guy Josh, and we’ve got two writers from Canada, Ariel and Kyle. We have way more of an infrastructure then just me and Seth.”

As I started to ask my next question, we could hear about ten guys at once from the side yard doing the Pacino “HOO-AH!” at top volume, one after another, despite the fact that they were all dressed as De Niro. It seemed like the noise was giving me a real insight into how it would feel to live next to the frat. I asked Evan how he felt after directing “This Is The End.” Was it what he’d wanted it to be? How did it compare as an experience to writing and producing?

“Even if you direct a heaping pile of shit you still have a better chance of directing something else after that then a guy who’s never directed anything. You just got to join the club. Once you’re in the club, then it’s all good. We just couldn’t justify ever doing it on other movies because we couldn’t justify that we were the best guys.  But on ‘This Is the End,’ I actually think we were the best guys to do this.”

I laughed and told him I think he and Seth stacked the deck by writing it about so many of their friends. He corrected me, though, saying that hadn’t automatically made things easier. “The hardest part of my entire career was getting all six of those guys to come to that location at the same time. It was like impossible. They were friends, but they’re also business people. You’ve got to satisfy their agents. You’ve got to make them the money they need to make, but some of them need to do you a favor but some of them, you need to do the favor for, and some of them have scheduled contradictions, and Franco has school, and, like, Jonah had some things on the weekends he had to do. That was a nightmare. Once they were there? Yeah, it was like we stacked the deck. It was just like, ‘We’re here with our friends.'”

The same is true on “Neighbors,” where the writers are guys who Seth and Evan have known for a while now. “We all come from Judd Land. Andrew [J. Cohen] used to be Judd’s assistant. Both Andrew and Brendan [O’Brien] were co-producers on ‘Funny People,’ so we all worked on that together. They’re our best friends. Like we hang out with them once a week at least.”

Because I’ve known Nick for as long as I have, I assumed that Seth and Evan must have also had that relationship with them, even though Nick’s really been working with Jason Segel and Jonah up till now, not with Seth and Evan. “Yeah,” Evan said, “I never worked with Nick until now.  Never.  Not for a day on anything ever.”

They’re all part of what Evan referred to as “Judd Land,” all of them interconnected thanks to Judd Apatow, the source from which all rivers flow these days. “We work as though we’ve worked together, because I think I’ve been to his sets enough and just seen him do his job and come from a similar enough place that, like, it totally seems like we worked together forever. Andrew and Brendan came up with the idea. If we didn’t get to make the movie and some other dude did, this would still be something I’d like, just that inherent idea of a couple going to war with a frat next-door… I think it’s just the most genius thing ever. They brought us the idea and we were super psyched and we went with it. We were trying to figure out who would direct the movie, and it was like a really challenging process to figure out the right answer. We decided it was Nick. In hindsight, it was all pretty easy-going.”

From the first time I met Nick, he had been nursing his one big pet project, “The Five-Year Engagement,” and once he finally got it out of his system, he seems to have opened up as a filmmaker. He’s willing to try different things now, and he’s open to other writers ideas now. I laid out that impression to Evan, and he concurred. “I’m not going to say he’s redefining himself… but he is,” said Evan. “This movie’s got the classic humor that he’s done but with Brandon Trost, who is, I think, going to be the greatest DP to ever live one day. He’s just a fucking genius and he’s ballsy. He’ll do a style of filming that might later on result in him looking bad. He’ll go and take the risk with the director to do anything. The collaboration of those two resulted in things looking so much different than they’ve ever looked in any of Nick’s movies. The comedic styling is similar to Nick’s other movies, but probably with a little more edge because me and Seth are involved. To be fair, when I was leaving the screening of ‘Get Him to the Greek,’ I saw Neil Moritz and he was, like, ‘Well, that was the craziest movie I’ve ever seen in my entire life.’ And I was, like, ‘What are you talking about? That wasn’t that crazy.’ He’s, like, ‘Jonah gets raped twice. They smoke every drug on earth. I can’t think of anything crazier than a man getting raped by a woman and people smoking every drug on earth.  Like that’s the craziest f**king movie ever.’ And I was, like, ‘I think I might be pretty desensitized.’ It just seemed like a funny movie to me.”

Evan started laughing as he recalled how upset Moritz was. “He was like, ‘Think about the Jeffreys.’ That’s what they called the joint with everything in it. He’s, like, ‘What they’re implying is they’re smoking cocaine, heroin, acid, marijuana, methamphetamine, and crystal meth.’ He’s, like, ‘It’s crazy and you comedy people just act like it’s a fucking joke. That’s a crazy thing he did.'”

Nicholas Stoller is such a genial guy, with such a gentle sense of humor in person, that when you see some of the craziest comic moments in his films, it’s hard to believe that he’s the guy where that stuff originated, and even he seems surprised by it sometimes. “When he is at the premiere, he’s gonna be sitting there shaking his head, like the dude who directed this is crazy. He’s going to have, like, an out-of-body experience when he’s at the premiere. ‘I did this?'”

It’s funny to me to see Seth Rogen now playing the suburban dad who is annoyed by the frat guys, rather than one of the frat guys. “Here’s where him and his wife are at right now. I’m the bigger party guy out of the two of us. I just love to go out drinking and I like to drink and talk to strangers. I’ve always been a pretty big partier. Now me and my wife are talking about having kids, and Andrew’s married and he just bought a house and he’s on the road to having a kid. Brendan just had his second kid. Now I can see Seth and his wife are like, “Oh fuck, oh fuck. It doesn’t matter if we have a kid or not, everyone else is having a kid.’ Now they are, like, ‘Let’s go out tonight. Let’s go out tonight. What are you guys want to do on Saturday? What do you guys want to do on Saturday? Should we go drinking?  Should we go dancing? Should we go to Burning Man. We should go to Burning Man. We’ll all go to Burning Man.'”

Evan and I digressed into a long talk about the difference between drinking socially and smoking pot socially and how habits change as you have kids, and it all seemed perfectly natural as a conversation to have when looking at what “Neighbors” covers.

“The best part of this movie for me personally is that Nick has taken me through free therapy essentially through writing this, because Nick, Andrew and Brendan are all ahead of me and Seth life in these regards. I would’ve tried to hold onto my 20s. I would’ve made a lot of mistakes and Nick and Brendan especially, because they have kids, have taught us. I told them, ‘I’ll just keep doing all of this,’ and they were like, ‘No, you won’t. You just won’t. Accept that now and everything will be better.’ I didn’t want to accept it. At one point we were just together rewriting for like a week, and Nick made me realize that as a parent, you have to get up on Saturday morning to take your kid to soccer practice, and that’s just the way it is. That’s what is happening. If you don’t embrace it, it’s a living f**king nightmare.”

I told him I’ve faced many an early morning with my own boys, and when that 7:00 alarm goes off, you have to really love your kid to get up and get out of bed. “I don’t know what that says about my mother,” he observed. “She wouldn’t let me play hockey because it was too early. That was like 5:45 in what would be the equivalent of going to San Bernardino. I don’t think I’d do it either.”

I observed that the films they’ve been working on have traced these important stages of development in the life of a man, and I asked if they were consciously aware of that progression. “It’s no accident. It’s super purposeful. We write what we know. When we wrote ‘Superbad,’ we just knew, ‘I wish I was getting laid.’ And then we wrote ‘Pineapple’ in this weird awkward phase in life where we’re not fully adults and we’re not really kids anymore and things have actual ramifications.  And then ‘The Green Hornet’ was… well, that was just ‘The Green Hornet’. I don’t know how to explain any of that happening. We got on a wild train and rode it. That had nothing to do with my life or development. People just said, ‘We’ll give you $80 million to blow up a bunch of shit.’ And we were, like, ‘Yeah. Sounds rad.’ Then for ’50/50,’ our friend Will had cancer and it felt like we’re adult-ish now, let’s make a serious movie. I feel like everything’s tracked pretty closely.”

I told him how John Hughes had planned to do the same thing when he came out of advertising. He started writing and directing films that started with “Sixteen Candles,” and his goal was to show each stage of development in a different film, aging upward with his audience, hopefully keeping them onboard for each new step. It was a conscious, calculated decision on his part. With Seth and Evan, it feels like a more organic reaction to where they are in their lives. “It is that,” Evan said, “but it’s also pretty calculated. We wanted to do something about people who are acting like kids when they shouldn’t be. Even with ‘This Is the End,’ it’s like old friend versus new friend. That’s where we’re at. It’s like I have all my friends in Vancouver but I live here.”

I asked him how “Goon” fit into that master plan. That’s the filmy that Evan co-wrote with Jay Baruchel about hockey. “Well, I like hockey, but Jay loves hockey. You’re feeling mostly Jay there. They brought me the idea, and I think we’re ramping up to do the second one right now, but they brought the idea, and I was, like, ‘I like this idea. It’s cool. I can do well with this, but I don’t love hockey enough. I need someone who bleeds hockey.’ So I called Jay, and I was, like ‘Want to write a hockey movie?’ And he was, like, ‘Oh, God, do I ever.’ I did have this urge as a Canadian to just, like… I missed out on the hockey just from being a Jew and my mom refusing to take me to hockey practice. In the last year, I started to try to play a little bit. That’s the one thing I wish I could go back in time for… just to play hockey.”

I told him he couldn’t have found a more Canadian director for “Goon” than Michael Dowse, and he lit up. “Well, sure,” he said, “because ‘FUBAR’ is the f**king best movie ever made.”

If you’ve seen the two “FUBAR” films, you know what we’re referring to, but I had to agree with him. “That’s the only choice,” I said.

“FUBAR is the funniest f**king movie ever. EVER,” he continued.

I told him I’d seen the second film first, then gone back to discover the original. “I’ve only see the first one,” he told me. “I have the second one, and I’m going to watch it on a flight to Vancouver tomorrow.”

“Well, that seems fitting.”

“The second one’s not a letdown, right?”

I reassured him that he didn’t need to worry. Dowse is a powerhouse comedy director, and his voice is loud and clear in both movies. Evan asked me if I ever saw “It’s All Gone Pete Tong,” another film by Dowse, and I told him how much I admire Dowse in general. He’s in director jail in the US because of a film called “Kids In America,’ but that’s a shame. He’s very, very talented. “Yeah,” Evan agreed. “He’s the kind of director that you hire when you’re, like, ‘I’ve got this much money. Make me a movie.’ He can make a studio movie, but it’s like trying to cage an animal, you know.  He’s like Jody Hill, who was the other person who I thought would be great for ‘Goon.’ He’s a guy who just has the biggest f**king balls on Earth, knows how to make something bad ass and funny, and if you try to box him, you’re probably going to taint it and f**k it up. You’ve got to say, ‘I trust you to do this project,’ and then get out of the way.”

As we wrapped things up, Evan pointed out that this film does something important that they’ve never done in one of their films before. “This movie doesn’t culminate with two bros at the end. That’s all our other movies. This one ends with a guy and a girl.”

I mentioned how much I like Rose Byrne’s comedy work in the last few years, between “Bridesmaids” and “I Give It A Year” and now this.

“My wife was the co-producer on ‘Bridesmaids,’ so I was there on-set quite a bit. Just watching. The whole time, I was just, like, this woman should be the biggest actress on earth, and might be one day. She’s so beautiful, so talented, so funny, and just the nicest person ever.”

I’ll have more of my conversations with the “Neighbors” team here on HitFix later today and tomorrow as well, including Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien, who wrote the film, as well as director Nicholas Stoller.

“Neighbors” opens in theaters everywhere May 9, 2014.