Exclusive Interview With Director Nicholas Stoller On Neighbors

stoller Exclusive Interview With Director Nicholas Stoller On Neighbors

When you think back to your college days, nothing comes to mind except drug-fueled parties, elaborate pranks, and parents with babies ripping shots in the corner, right? No, that was just me? Kidding, not even I lived that crazy a college life, but Nicholas Stoller’s new movie Neighbors has all of that, until turning into an all-out fraternity war between Zac Efron’s legendary Greek family, and the parents next door suffering a midlife crisis. Yes, the film is as riotously funny as that scenario sounds, which I was happy to report after screening Neighbors when it premiered at South by Southwest this year.

While doing his press rounds in New York City last week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with director Nicholas Stoller to talk about this wild, one-of-a-kind comedic event featuring so many hilarious comedic talents. I was sure he’d have a ton of great stories from working with the likes of Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Dave Franco, and a score of other funnymen and women – and I wasn’t wrong. Aside from the anecdotal stories, we also chatted about Stoller’s Harvard college experiences, deleted scenes featuring some dynamite cameos, what the next Muppets project could be, more details surrounding his next project, Black And White, and of course, Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s fake penis. Yeah, I’m not sure you’re ready for this conversation.


WGTC: So I caught Neighbors at SXSW this year and loved it, but I remember you mentioning that only one person on the production team had any fraternal experience…

Nicholas Stoller: Yeah, only James Weaver. [Laughs]

WGTC: So describe your college experience then, what was it like?

Nicholas Stoller: Well I went to Harvard, so I guess my experience was a little different than a lot of people’s, but you’re still partying. People might laugh at this, but I had a “kind of” fraternal experience in that I was on the Harvard Lampoon, which was a little dumb, but it was coed, which was one thing, and we drank a lot, threw crazy parties – we did all that stuff, but it was just with a bunch of comedy nerds.

WGTC: So what was your big Animal House – or Neighbors I should say - moment in your college partying career?

Nicholas Stoller: A tradition at the Lampoon is that you dance on the tables. So you eat lobster [laughs] – we’d boil lobsters and leave them on the ground for two weeks, it was disgusting – and then we’d wipe the tables clean and everyone would dance on the table. A friend of mine at the time, who is now a very successful comedy writer, was a diver in school, and he would always do standing flips on the table. So he’s in loafers, on a slick table – this is the parent in me talking – doing standing flips. He could have broken his neck so easily, and he’s lucky he never did.

WGTC: It’s like a viral video waiting to happen…

Nicholas Stoller: It really is! I remember there was a night we called “Blood Guy” where someone came into a party and got cut or something, there wasn’t a fight, he just got cut, and he started bleeding profusely everywhere. He ran around the whole building freaking out, there was blood everywhere, and it just got all over. We called that the night of “Blood Guy.”

WGTC: So can we expect a “Blood Guy” movie any time soon?

Nicholas Stoller: Not from me, that’s more of a Sam Raimi movie. [Laughs]

WGTC: Since we now know your past, which Neighbors character do you relate to the most?

Nicholas Stoller: The reason I wanted to do Neighbors, even before I read the script when it was just a concept, is because it’s about three characters having meltdowns, and I had the same meltdowns. I had a meltdown when I graduated from college, and I had a similar meltdown when I had my first child – but I’m incredibly good looking, so of course I relate to Zac Efron’s charater. [Laughs] No, I relate to both Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne’s characters because I’m in that stage of my life now, but a lot of the emotional stuff Zac’s going through in the movie, I went through in college.

WGTC: Is there an art to balancing such rude, crude comedy with a certain air of respectability? Neighbors is one of the most outlandish mainstream comedies I’ve seen in a while, but it can’t be easy balancing phallic jokes with deep emotional struggles. How do you pull it off?

Nicholas Stoller: It’s a few things. You have to make sure the emotional story makes total sense. If the emotional story doesn’t make sense, or if there isn’t one, even if the jokes are really funny, you’ll find that you’re getting bored because it’s just not working as a story. That’s the first thing you make sure of, then you pile all the jokes on top of that.

I shoot a lot of options. I love broad jokes and broad humor, and there’s a lot of stuff that’s too broad. I ended up filming a ton that aren’t in the final movie that I cut out. There’s a lot of behavior and acting that was too broad which I directed them towards, and I also cut a lot of that out. You basically get as many jokes as you can and discover the film in editing.

WGTC: What’s your favorite bit of material that didn’t make the film? What did you struggle to cut because you loved it so much?

Nicholas Stoller: Oh there’s a lot of stuff, but there’s a whole set piece where Ike Barinholtz’s character, Seth and Rose’s friend – they’re all attacked by the frat and their airbag prank, then Ike goes back to his apartment and he gets a DVD. He puts the DVD on and it’s Scoonie, Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s character, having sex with his ex-wife. Barinholtz starts freaking out, getting really upset, then he gets an e-mail on his phone and he hits it, opening a YouTube video of him watching the sex tape. He realizes there’s a camera hidden somewhere so he starts destroying his apartment trying to find it, and there’s a second YouTube email he gets of him destroying his apartment – and he realizes his entire apartment is filled with cameras. On the B-side of that, at the very end, Christopher Mintz-Plasse gets a video email and it’s Ike having sex with his parents, who are played by Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally. It was hysterical, but the story didn’t support it, so I had to cut it. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever shot. We shot it like a snuff film, I didn’t use any professional cameras – like Big Brother. They all went into a room with these little cameras everywhere.


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WGTC: I’m so sad to hear that didn’t make the final cut. Were there any other celebrity cameos that didn’t make the final cut?

Nicholas Stoller: Was there anyone else? Hmmm…I don’t think so – wait! Oh yeah! During the history of the fraternity flashback, one of the thing we cut out was the invention of the wet T-shirt contest. In that one we had Nathan Fielder, from Nathan For You, and Bobby Moynihan. Really funny stuff, but it’s the rule of three – can’t have more than three.

WGTC: So can we expect scenes like that in an Unrated home release?

Nicholas Stoller: It’ll be on a deleted scene. The cut in theaters is the one that I really slaved over, and usually the Unrated cut is the one that feels long and boring even though it’s the one people buy because they don’t know and just assume it’ll be better even though it’s just not as good as the original cut.

WGTC: Was Zac Efron always going to be the fraternity leader? Was there a casting process, or did you only have eyes for Efron as Teddy Sanders?

Nicholas Stoller: Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien thought of the idea and from the beginning knew it had to be Zac Efron. They pitched it to Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and after they’d written it for about a year, they called me – so I wasn’t even involved in that part of it. I’m just a fan of Mr. Efron’s work and was excited to work with him.

WGTC: So Seth’s dance moves – are those his own? Where did he pick those up?

Nicholas Stoller: All his own. He’s a strangely good dancer. He did a lot of karate as a kid and he has very smooth moves. I remember the day we shot the dance scene he’s like, “what are we going to do?” I over-prepare for everything, but I knew for the dance scene we didn’t need to prepare a thing. I knew it was going to be funny. I never do that, and I knew it. Seth was kind of nervous because we had no plan, but I just let him dance because I knew it’d be hysterical. What’s in the movie is one of the first takes. They instantly nailed it. I mean it’s Zac Efron and Seth Rogen having a dance off, they could do anything and it’d be hilarious. Seth’s anxiety also translates to the screen where he actually looks nervous, so I accidentally created a good situation for my actors.

WGTC: So let’s switch gears for a little and talk about a franchise you’ve written two films for – the Muppets. In the reboot with Jason Segel, there are a ton of cameos that unfortunately didn’t make the final cut. Did the same thing happen during Muppets Most Wanted?

Nicholas Stoller: Not really. The first one had a ton of cameos cut out because we had a whole sequence where the Muppets throw a fake Oscars, so we had a bunch of celebrities. It was actually pretty funny, one of them was actually Ricky Gervais – which was hysterical – but the whole plot point got cut out. That was the main reason, so I don’t think anyone got cut from Muppets Most Wanted. I think James Bobin, who directed and co-wrote, figured out places to put cameos this time that were uncuttable.

WGTC: Personally, my favorite was Danny Trejo’s cameo when Tina Fey, in character, says goodnight to him playing himself…

Nicholas Stoller: [Doing his best Tina Fey with a Russian accent...accent] “Goodnight Danny Trejo!” Haha, of course.

WGTC: Which Muppet do you identify with the most?

Nicholas Stoller: Fozzy, because I’m always afraid I’m saying a terrible joke and people are just laughing politely. I think I have the most sympathy for him.

WGTC: Are there any plans on continuing this new Muppet franchise with another movie?

Nicholas Stoller: You know, I’m not sure. I would love to, the Muppets are so much fun to write for. I’ve heard rumblings they might be trying to do some sort of TV show, but I don’t know what the next plan is exactly. That said, I love it. If they are interested in another one, I always love writing for the Muppets. There are so many stories you can tell.

WGTC: So if you had the opportunity, where would you take the Muppets next?

Nicholas Stoller: Something we were originally playing around with was more of a romantic comedy, a movie truly based around a Muppet wedding seemed like a funny idea to make that the whole movie, that seemed like a fun thing. I think there’s a lot of different options. Oh, I also thought about picking up right where the last one ended and now they’re trying to start a TV show – a movie about doing a TV show. One of them is becoming really famous and the others aren’t – that always seemed like a funny group dynamic to play around with. You’d have like Frankie Valli – I don’t know why I used that reference, that’s really old – but they’re all getting jealous. Yeah.

WGTC: Switching to another character you’ve worked with many times, Russell Brand’s Aldous Snow, are there any plans for future appearances, or have we seen the last of this raunchy rocker?

Nicholas Stoller: I think I’ve told the Aldous Snow story, and yeah – but I actually used one of the songs from Get Him To The Greek in Neighbors. There’s a song that Diddy plays after Jonah Hill pitches Aldous Snow, and Diddy goes, “You want to hear a game changer, here’s a fucking game changer” – and it’s just “I’m gonna fuck your shit, I’m gonna fuck your shit up.” The frat blasts it during part of the movie. It’s really fast.

WGTC: So no Christmas album? C’mon, the name Aldous Snow just begs for one!

Nicholas Stoller: That could actually be pretty funny. Again, we recorded so many songs that didn’t get used.

WGTC: The next project you’re being tied to is a buddy cop comedy tentatively being called Black And White starring Seth Rogen and Kevin Hart. Has writing commenced on that project, or is it simply an idea at this point?

Nicholas Stoller: Oh no, Rodney Rothman wrote a draft and it’s hysterical. It’s an insane movie. I’m a little out of my comfort zone which means I want to do it, I like to challenge myself each time. It’s about the first black and white cop pairing in history, and it takes place in the late 40s. It’s a weird mix of whatever my tone is mixed with Tarantino mixed with Baz Luhrmann. They’re infiltrating the jazz scene in New York City to bust jazz musicians for weed, so it’s insane. I think it should be a fun, really nutty movie.

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WGTC: So you just said Tarantino – does that bring violence into the mix?

Nicholas Stoller: It’s a really violent movie. Violent, but fun! I want it to be fun. I want it to be like the way when you watch a Tarantino movie – and this is a strange reference, and I think Luhrmann is similar – but you’re at a fun, crazy party. There’s also a revenge element to it to, which is why I mentioned Tarantino.

I don’t think we’ll go as gory – I don’t want people throwing up or anything. There’s an element to it that I really love and it’s that all the characters in the movie have horror PTSD from WWII, because they’ve all murdered so many people – every character. Good guys. Bad guys. Every single one of them. You’re constantly seeing these brutal flashbacks to WWII, which to me is very funny. That’s the tone of the movie.

WGTC: So an action comedy?

Nicholas Stoller: An action comedy with a bit of L.A. Confidential too, that kind of plot. I’ll say this, it’ll be unlike any movie anyone has every seen – for good or bad [Laughs]. It’ll be so many different things in one movie.

WGTC: You’ve stuck mainly to comedies throughout your career – are there any plans to ever branch out into other genres?

Nicholas Stoller: I’m always going to do something with some kind of comedy. I love comedy, it’s how I see the world – it’s the genre I respond to most. I don’t think I’ll ever do a straight drama or straight action movie, but again, Black And White is an action comedy with some musical elements in it too. [Laughs] I take it project by project, I don’t really have a grand plan in terms of directions I’d like to go.

WGTC: I ask this question during all my interviews, so I’m excited to hear your answer. If you could remake any film, classic or favorite, and put your own twist on it – what would your dream remake be?

Nicholas Stoller: I have a theory that you should only remake movies that aren’t good – well, good premises that aren’t great. There’s no reason to remake a great movie. Or, OK, also you can remake movies that today would be insane with new technology. The movie that popped in my head is a movie I loved as a kid called Explorers. The first half of the movie is amazing, it’s every kid’s fantasy – kids build a spaceship and fly into space. That’s it. In the second half they meet aliens, but the aliens are kind of lame and the film doesn’t end well – but it’s a great premise. When you said that, Explorers immediately popped into my head.

WGTC: Circling back to Neighbors, were there any great anecdotes from filming with so many hilarious comedians and great improvisational actors?

Nicholas Stoller: I’m trying to think. The shoot was very smooth, so we didn’t really create a lot of stories, but initially we had a ton of dick in the movie. Like, way too much. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, his dick was out all the time, and there’s a funny thing that happens when someone has a fake dick that looks very real – everyone wants to touch it. He was constantly touching it, then other dudes were constantly touching it, and ladies were touching it. He was clearly becoming a weird sexual magnet with his fake penis, but it looked super real so people were always hitting his very real looking penis around. It was a really fun, pleasant shoot where everyone laughed a lot.

WGTC: Finally, how did you cast the frat? How did you bring all those talents together?

Nicholas Stoller: I wanted the frat to be people you’d hang out with, like the Deltas in Animal House, a bunch of nice guys who just really want to party – none of them seem douchy, they’re all kind of funny. We obviously knew Dave Franco and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, so they didn’t have to audition, but we were trying to find who the last guy could be, and Jerrod Carmichael absolutely killed it. Besides being hysterical, he puts out a really nice vibe. He’s a really nice guy. I saw him and knew he was our guy, he was perfect. He rounded it out really well.

I’d like to thank Nicholas Stoller for this exclusive interview. Be sure to party hearty when Neighbors opens on May 9th!

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