The screenwriters of Seth Rogen’s ‘Neighbors’ say the star is not what he seems

It is a relatively uncommon thing for me to have time alone on a set these days as a journalist. For the most part, set visits are orchestrated with between six and twelves journalists together, and interviews are conducted as round tables. Depending on the group of people you’re with, that can be a good or a bad thing, but what it ultimately is not is “exclusive” in any real sense of the word.

Occasionally, though, I find myself with a day that genuinely is just me on the set, as I did when I visited “Neighbors.” It was a very relaxed day overall. I drove myself down to the set, since it was shooting here in Los Angeles. I followed the directions from the 10 freeway a few blocks south, to where the two houses that feature most prominently in the film were located. In one, Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne lived with their baby daughter, and in the other, it was Zac Efron, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and a whole bunch of frat dudes.

By now, you’ve read the interview I did with co-producer Evan Goldberg, as well as the interview I did with Nicholas Stoller, the film’s director. The third interview I did that day was with Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien, the screenwriters of the film. That is also fairly uncommon, since by the time many Hollywood films make it to the actual shoot, the screenwriters are long since removed from the process.

In this case, I ended up in the backyard of the frat house, sitting with Cohen and O’Brien, who have been key players in what can be loosely described as “Apatow Land,” for quite a while now. As I looked around at the utterly destroyed backyard, the signs of various debauched parties scattered everywhere, I asked the writers where they initially came up with the idea for the movie. After all, the stuff I saw tapped into a number of very real and contemporary feelings. There’s the way the housing market has become a trap for young homeowners. There’s the inherent terror of the first year of parenthood, where you’re constantly wondering if you’re doing everything (or anything, for that matter) right. And there’s the comic lunacy of living next door to a frat house. My question for them was how they brought these threads together.

O’Brien answered first. “The original concept was four dudes that live in a college town who party at a college. That’s where we started. There were these crazy local dudes who would, you know, go to college parties.”

Cohen agreed. “A comedic ‘Breaking Away,’ or something like that. That was the idea.”

O’Brien continued, “But then we realized that’s not a movie.”

“No,” said Cohen. “That’s a hobby.”

As I laughed, Cohen went on. “We heard something on the radio about Penn State,  how Penn State’s the most f**ked- up place as far as partying, and people are peeing in rosebushes and cutting down stop signs, and people were getting into accidents. Basically, people in that town hate the school. We were, like, ‘Okay, that’s dynamic.’ So then it was like, ‘What if these four townies had to fight against these crazy fraternities?’ It became crazy townies versus crazy fraternities. Then once we hit upon, ‘What if it’s a nuclear family fighting a frat?’, that’s when things really started to gel because you’d never seen that before. Also, like you said, the stakes are so high in that version. You have a six-month-old baby. You saw the clip where Seth sees them having sex, right?”

Indeed I did. I saw several clips over the course of the day as Stoller kept bringing up different bits and pieces just to watch my reaction. In one clip, Seth goes outside in the morning and looks over at the end of his front porch, where two college kids are having spirited sex, the guy standing behind the girl, both of them smiling up at him like it’s no big deal. What made me laugh the hardest was both Seth trying to shield his baby from the view and Chris Mintz-Plasse’s totally nonchalant attitude.

O”Brien said, “We’re kind of dealing with that now. I have two kids and we’re both married and, like, we’re not old but we’re certainly not young. We feel young, thought, and so we thought that was a really interesting thing to tap into. What would happen if Zac Efron and his friends moved next door do you? Would you want to party with them and be friends with them, or would you hate it and be deeply jealous of them and resent them?”

I laughed and told them how my own suburban adventure so far has been fascinating. I’m living in the same basic area you see in “E.T.” and “Poltergeist,” what I like to call “Spielburbia.” There was a house on our street that no one ever seemed to go into or come out of, and it ended up being a grow house that the police had to raid at one point. The moment they opened that door, you could smell pot for three blocks in every direction, but before that, they’d managed to keep it totally under the radar. It was the smell I had a problem with, because all of a sudden, my kids are asking about that particular scent. Five years ago, I probably wouldn’t have cared, but suddenly it drove me crazy.

O’Brien laughed. “And then you’re looking at yourself and you’re saying, ‘How did I get here?'”

I quoted David Byrne back to him. “‘This is not my beautiful house. Well, how did I get here?'”

O’Brien nodded. “And it hits you. ‘I’m the Man. I am The Man.'” He continued, “One of the things when we first pitched the idea was my wife and I… when we first had our baby, there were these kids outside making all this noise. They were fighting in the street outside our home. My wife called the police, and the police asked my wife what they were doing. And she said, ‘I don’t know, but I know they’re up to no good.’ And so I was like, ‘You are 80 years old. What happened?’ My wife used to like tour with Pfish. She’s a cool lady, and she was, like, ‘It all happened in a minute.'”

O’Brien shook his head sadly. “How quickly things change.”

Cohen agreed. “We got real old in a hurry.”

“Part of the joke of the movie is that this generational divide is between 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds and how minute that is, but at the same time what a gulf there is between kids and us nowadays,” O’Brien explained. I replied that it feels like Seth is the exact right guy to play that, then, because if anybody embodies being on both sides of it and right on that cusp, it would be Seth right now.

Cohen corrected me. “The funny thing is Seth Rogen the human being is much further along than Seth Rogen the screen actor. We kind of wanted to put some of the real Seth into it because he’s a homeowner. He has a wife.”

O’Brien added, “He works very, very hard.”

That’s obvious if you look at the sheer volume of work he’s been involved in over the last decade, but he’s been pretty canny about how he’s portrayed himself onscreen. In “This Is The End,” he’s still just an unmarried dude living a bachelor life in LA, partying and hanging out with his friends. Cohen says that’s not the Seth he knows and works with. “He’s a very responsible guy, and I think people hadn’t seen that yet. So you’re seeing a little taste of it here, but obviously you want to see him not be able to grow up completely. Brendan’s got two kids, I’ve been married for three years. We’re old, and this is an attempt to come to terms with that for all of us.”

O’Brien said the project definitely evolved once the cast was onboard. “The best thing that Seth and Evan and Nick brought to it was pushing for the Rose character, even before it was Rose, not to be this nagging sitcom wife where Seth is the idiot who’s always making mistakes and the wife is always saying, ‘Why are you doing that? You need to grow up.’ If anything, she’s equally as dumb as he is.”

I mentioned that Stoller had called that as his favorite thing about the process on this movie, the realization that they could make every character in their film an idiot. Stoller said it was liberating to realize that everyone in the film makes bad choices. O’Brien agreed. “Everyone’s going through some sort of emotional breakdown.”

Cohen was laughing at this point. “You could cut a tragic version of this movie where it’s all just pain and suffering and people are divorced and their hearts have been crushed. We’re mining it for comedy, but you could do the drama.”

I told him I felt like you could have the same cast in the drama, and that would make it even more interesting. Ike Barinholtz and Carla Gallo play a couple who aware friends with Rogen and Byrne, but now they’re going through a divorce, and it’s horrible and brutal and bloody. O’Brien said, “There have definitely been times watching them where we’re, like, ‘Spin-off.’ You could follow Ike and just watch Ike trying to get a job and that could be a movie. He’s so funny. There’s no weak link in the cast. Everybody is top-notch, and they’re just gleeful. I have a big smile on my face when we watch them work.”

Cohen told me, “Jason Mantzoukas comes in and plays like a doctor. It’s amazing just to get to watch him do that.”

I told them what a fan I am of his work on “The League” and his appearances on “How Did This Get Made?” He’s got this crazy unique comedy brain, and it’s everything… his phrasing, his timing, the sense of outrage or the way he complete blissfully shatters taboos. O’Brien said, “A lot of times, we’re sitting there writing new jokes, but then Jason comes in and we’re like, ‘Okay, do what you do, buddy.'”

When you’re on a Nicholas Stoller set, that’s something you get used to, that atmosphere where new lines are being yelled at people from another room, where you leave things rolling and just try 30 variations on a line, where there’s a constant push to find a way to play something that’s totally unexpected. It’s a very open environment, very inventive. O’Brien observed, “I think a lot of people assume that it must suck to write something and then see people improv something else. Honestly, a lot of the things they say are funnier than things we could come up with, so why not?”     

While we were talking, Seth was in the next room, running variations on a few lines opposite Liz Cackowski as the realtor who not only sold Seth and Rose their house, but who then turned around and sold the house next door to a fraternity. Seth wants her to give them back their money, and Liz explains, smile firmly in place, why that’s not going to happen. At one point, Cohen yelled for Seth to tell Liz that she doesn’t sell houses. “Tell her she sells lies!”

As everyone broke up, Seth immediately threw that into his next take, then the one after that, trying it a few different ways. Cackowski was great because she just played it as unflappable, refusing to get upset by anything Seth or Rose say or do. She was unbreakable, and that just made Seth pitch jokes at her even harder.

Cohen told me, “The actors know that when they show up, they can go. They’re given the opportunity to do whatever they want.”

O’Brien clarified, “But it’s all Nick. We don’t do anything.”

Cohen agreed. “It begins and ends with Nicholas Stoller.”

“Nick’s the brains,” O’Brien said. “We’re just the brawn.”

We talked about the genre of college comedies and what variation on the form they might be playing. I asked them about breaking fresh ground with something that’s certainly been well-explored already.

O’Brien insisted, “The couple aspect of it, with, you know, Rose and Seth and the baby… that’s something we’ve never seen before. That juxtaposed with some of the college stuff. It’s almost like they’re stuck in a college movie and they don’t know what to do to get out of it.”

Cohen said, “The other thing is that we treat the frat guys like they’re real people. Earlier in the conception of it we were thinking, like, ‘Oh, these like frat guys, they’re such jerks.'”

That’s the easy shorthand of using frat guys in films so far, certainly. O’Brien said that just didn’t work, though. “We started thinking about it. Zac’s a great guy. We love Dave Franco. Then Chris is going to be in the movie and this guy Jerrod, and these guys are just awesome guys. It suddenly seems way more real to us. That way the audience can still root for them and like them and it’s more just a shame that these characters met at the wrong time, because they might have gotten along.

Most movies, even comedies, think in terms of good guys and bad guys. I asked them if that’s true of this movie. “We were saying that we could cut a version of the movie that is from the frat’s perspective, where Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Byrne) are evil and they’re The Man, and the kids are fighting for their right to party.”

That made Cohen laugh as he remembered something. “We had a joke in one draft where Ike says to Seth, ‘You’re Dean Wormer. You are the guy who stops the party.”

That seems like it could be an awful realization for a character. O’Brien said, “That’s the realization that led us to write this. It’s terrible, but this is what we’re really realizing at this moment, and we’re trying to process it.”

Cohen offered, “We’re okay with it,” but O’Brien shook his head.

“No, he’s okay with it.  I’m not okay with it yet.”

Not long ago, a family moved out of a house on my street, and the night after the parents left town, their son threw a massive party for all his teenaged friends, and it rapidly turned into “Project X.” At one point, there were at least 20 cop cars on my street. Now, I wasn’t the one who called the cops, but I certainly thought about it, and I have to admit… I enjoyed it when the hammer finally dropped.

“Well,” O’Brien consoled me, “when it turns into ‘Project X,’ I’m pretty sure you’re allowed to complain.”

We’ll see what kind of mayhem O’Brien and Cohen have dreamed up when “Neighbors” arrives in theaters May 9, 2014.