Kind of quietly, Nicholas Stoller became, quite possibly, the current king of the theatrical comedy. In that, well, he’s only one of a handful of directors who can still get a wide-release comedy made. As Stoller points out, a lot of his contemporary comedy directors – like Adam McKay and Todd Phillips – have moved on to other genres. But the comedy directors behind him (and there are still a lot of good comedy movies made) mostly seem to have their films go straight to streaming. Or, if it does get a theatrical run, it’s a limited release.
But Stoller’s movies keep chugging along and, when you look at his filmography – which includes Forgetting Sarah Marshall and two Neighbors movies – but Bros will be his first in this new world where, around the time the pandemic started, wide-release comedies just don’t happen anymore. But there’s more than just the future of comedies riding on Bros, it’s also a romantic comedy starring a primarily gay cast with a story centering on two gay characters. And we all know what happens if Bros underperforms. (Or, more accurately, what won’t happen.)
Bros premiered a few weeks ago at the Toronto International Film Festival and, speaking as someone who was there, it was quite a moment. Anyone who doubts a comedy can still work in theaters should have witnessed the scene that evening. I couldn’t hear a good portion of the dialogue because of the nonstop laughter. In Bros, Billy Eichner plays Bobby, a museum curator who prides himself on his quick wit and intelligence but has doubts about his looks. He meets Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), an impossibly handsome man who loves sports and Garth Brooks. These two have very little in common, which is what makes watching a movie about them so entertaining. Bros follows the conventional beats of any other rom-com, but is an unconventional mainstream movie about two gay men in New York City. In that, there aren’t a lot of wide-release studio movies that feature (as Stoller was quick to remind me) two foursomes.
Ahead, Stoller gives us his dissertation on the current state of the theatrical comedy and why he strongly disagrees with the Hollywood groupthink that they no longer work. Also, he explains how he’s wanted to make a movie like this for a long time, but, obviously, it wasn’t his story to tell. And how Billy Eichner changed all of that.
So here’s what I keep thinking. When I look at your filmography, how are you not one of the five most famous directors working today? But at the same time, you’re one of the very few directors who can get a wide-release comedy into theaters … so maybe you are?
[Laughs] Well, I mean I should be much more famous. No, I have no idea.
I can count on one hand who can get a wide-release comedy into movie theaters these days.
I mean, a lot of my peers are people who are a little older than me who are comedy directors, or were comedy directors who just stopped making comedies. They became artistically interested in other stuff. So you think about Adam McKay or Todd Phillips. And then I’m sure there are people coming up behind me who are interested in this as well.
There are, but all those movies are going to streaming. There are still great comedies out there, but they’re all on streaming. And you still get yours in theaters and you’re one of the few that’s left and I’m sure you’ve thought about that.
I think, also, a strange thing happened. Hollywood, like a lot of industries, suffers from groupthink sometimes. At some point in 2019, or at the beginning of the pandemic, Hollywood was like, oh, all right, comedy just doesn’t work in theaters. And it’s not true. There just hasn’t been one in a while. By the way, I’ll eat my words if this doesn’t work Friday. But, I think people, it’s a primal enjoyment about going to a movie theater and being surrounded by people and laughing and clapping at things and having that experience that really only a comedy… It’s like a horror movie, where it’s fun to go to a horror movie and all scream at the same time or whatever. So, I think that you can really only have in a theater. So, I don’t really know why everyone decided that. Hopefully, this movie will be like, no, see, we can still do it.
I hate asking the question, “do you feel pressure?,” because usually that means about your own career. But with this one, I feel like a lot is riding on this, and not just comedies, but also a wide-release comedy starring two gay men as the leads. If it doesn’t perform well, they won’t make another for a long time.
Yeah. I mean it’s something that, I don’t know, I’m always naively optimistic whenever I work on anything…
Well, you should be. Your track record is very good.
So I don’t know. Once you’ve made the movie and it’s tested well and it just kind of works, that’s all you can do at the end of the day. And the studio, Universal, is very supportive of R-rated comedies. They still believe in theatrical. They’re putting a lot of marketing muscle behind this film. So if it doesn’t work, then the naysayers are correct. I think it, knock on wood, I think it will work.
Are there naysayers?
Not about this movie specifically, but just can comedy work in general.
This movie in particular though, I think people, everyone wants this movie to work. I guess people who don’t like love, maybe don’t want this movie to work.
Those people are out there. I’ve met them.
Those people are out there. I don’t really think about that. I’m terrified of the movie sucking artistically. That’s really all I think.
Well, that’s not true. You already know that.
No, I don’t mean now. When I’m making it. When I’m making the movie, I’m terrified of it not being funny, of it not being emotional. I’m terrified at every minute. I’m like the minute I zone out, this movie could suck, so I have to be focused at all times from the beginning to end.
This movie is nonstop jokes. It never lets up.
I think Billy and I share a similar tone. We both like the same kind of thing. We both wanted this to be super funny. We both wanted this to deliver hard laughs and heart and all of that. And we needed it to be joke, joke, joke, joke, joke, joke. And then suddenly you’re crying and you can’t understand what happened. That magic trick is my favorite thing to try to pull off. And that was important to us. And that’s also Billy’s style – he’s like, the closest I can think of, he’s very different, but is Jonah Hill – where he’s like a joke delivery system. He can just deliver joke, joke, joke, joke, joke. It’s crazy. I mean, he’s just so talented. It’s why I wanted to make this movie with him.
My partner and I were at our local bar the other night and our waiter was a single gay man in New York City. This movie came up and he seemed resistant because he’s thinking it’s going to be the conventional movie about gay people in New York. The scene I told him about is the one where you’ve got this loving shot of Billy and Luke staring in each other’s eyes, but then it pans out and shows two more men giving them oral sex. He seemed sold.
I mean, from the beginning, both Billy and I, it was important that the film not be just a story about a straight couple, but they’re both guys. And I feel like I’m sure that’s what a segment of the gay population probably thinks.
That is what I’m getting a bit, that it will be conventional and, “well of course you like it.” So I tell them about a few scenes.
To make a good comedy, you have to be very specific to the talent that’s at the center of it. And for Billy, you need to be very specific to his experience and his personality. And it’s the same with all the movies I’ve made. Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, that’s a weird character. He’s a weird, depressed guy obsessed with puppets. We went for it. We went hard at that. I didn’t say, you know what? The puppet thing’s too weird. I was like, the whole thing has to be puppets. So I think that’s the way. The more honest you are and the more specific you are. I mean, obviously I’m a rom-com person, When Harry Met Sally is probably my favorite movie, that or Annie Hall. And those are some strange characters. When you take a step back, they’re strange, messed up characters. And that’s what makes those movies work.
I love Bruno Kirby in that movie.
Oh, he’s so good. He’s so funny.
And Carrie Fisher. We don’t talk about their characters enough. Actually, that’s interesting that’s one of your favorite movies because you always have great supporting characters.
Yeah, I like to have a big comedy cast in all the movies that I do. Carrie Fisher’s so funny. And that dynamic, that B plot between them is so awesome. And it’s perfect. That movie’s a perfect movie. I like to have a lot of different kinds of comedians, whether it’s the hotel staff in Sarah Marshall or the record executives in Get Him to the Greek, or the frat in Neighbors. And I think these movies cost a lot of money. Every single person in the movie should destroy. There are a lot of funny people. Even someone with one line, even in this movie, there’s the guy, Steve.
I love Steve.
Yeah, it’s every person. So I’m very specific with casting to make sure everyone is super funny.
There’s also a consensus that I somewhat agree with that you made a purposely conventional rom-com as far as rom-com tropes go, only with gay characters. But like you said, there are also weird characters and it’s not a conventional studio movie we usually see about gay characters. Does that make sense?
Yeah, totally. I mean, it is a story about two people falling in love, and out of love, and there are going to be some moves… If they just fell in love and then fell out of love and then it ended, it wouldn’t be a satisfying movie. Or if they just fell in love and then were just together for the movie. The convention is that they are going to break up and then fight each other.
I have an example. The conventional is when Aaron’s crush from high school shows up, there’s your love triangle. The unconventional is there’s a literal, physical love triangle, and then Steve gets involved to make it four. But then the emotional love triangle comes after that, which becomes more conventional, but also drives the story.
Yeah. I mean, he has his high school crush and then he’s like, let’s have a foursome, and they do. And then Billy’s like, I don’t think I like foursomes. And that’s the part that’s very specific to Billy’s story. But then also I would say that the whole thing that comes out of that is Luke is so insecure around Billy’s character. Because he is insecure about his intellectual abilities and his intellect, and when he feels threatened by that he lashes out and hooks up with the stupid guy. So it’s all based on character. And so, even while it’s happening, the audience doesn’t really call bullshit on it because they’re like, yeah, that’s what would happen because Billy pushed him away. Because they’re both acting out based on their own kind of insecurities. And so I think that’s part of what it is. But I always say that with the rom-com you are going to have them, not all of them, but most of them are going to have them end up together. But I’m like, I don’t know, in The Avengers you know they’re going to win at the end. It’s how they do it that’s interesting.
How long have you known Billy?
I mean, we’ve known each other for seven years, I think? Since Neighbors 2.
So how does this collaboration happen?
Oh, I approached him. This started with me basically.
Okay, I didn’t know if he had this idea first or not…
I’ll tell you a brief story. I cast him in Neighbors 2. I knew him from Billy On The Street. I knew how funny he was. Then I cast him in Friends From College, which was a show that my wife and I created and he was a really good actor. I did not know, he had excellent acting jumps. And then we screened the first episode of Friends From College in a movie theater. And every time he was on camera, the audience exploded. Every time he is on screen I was like, oh, he’s a movie star. This is a movie star. I remember this feeling from Jonah Hill in the eBay store.
In The 40-Year-Old Virgin…
Right, it’s one of those things. For years I’d been interested in the idea of romantic comedy between two men. But as a straight guy, I was like, I can’t tell that story. I don’t know that story. And so I approached him and I said, “Hey, would you want me to build a comedy vehicle around you? That’s a romantic comedy?” And he was into the idea. And so we started talking about it then, this was like five years ago. But yeah, it started with me approaching him saying like, let’s do this.
Well, I’ll keep telling people about it at our local bar…
Tell all the gay bartenders.
I’ll do my best. I’ll mention the foursome scene again…
There aretwo foursomes! Come on.
‘Bros’ opens in theaters on Sept 30th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.