Ever since directing Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Nicholas Stoller has earned the reputation as a director able to pull the biggest laughs out of relatable situations. In that case, it was running into your ex with their new lover while on vacation. He followed that with Get Him to the Greek and The Five Year Engagement, the latter marking his second movie with Jason Segel.
In 2014, Stoller had an unexpected hit with the comedy Neighbors, which pit a married couple with a new baby, played by Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, against the fraternity next door led by Zac Efron’s Teddy Sanders and Dave Franco’s Pete.
The movie did so well it prompted Universal to greenlight the sequel Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, which as you may guess from the title, switches the genders of Rogen and Byrne’s collegiate rivals. This time, it’s Chloe Moretz’s Shelby as a young woman trying to start a sorority in the house next door, but the parties they’re throwing to raise rent money could potentially scare away the couple who agreed to buy our heroes’ home. Efron’s Teddy ends up in the middle of this feud, torn between helping his old rivals or their new younger foils.
While the Neighbors movies are more fictional than some of Stoller’s previous films, he’s once again managed to instill some of his own personality and life into the movie, specifically a young couple trying to be good parents and raising their young daughter properly in the midst of another conflict with their neighbors.
Den of Geek got on the phone with Stoller a few weeks back and talked to him about some of the differences with Neighbors 2, as well as his transition into the world of animation with the upcoming comedy Storks.
Den of Geek: Switching genders seems a little obvious, but you actually did more with that idea than some might expect. When did you realize you were going to make a sequel and was that an idea already floating around?
Nicholas Stoller: Basically, I always thought that if I had a movie that did well enough and warranted having a sequel, I would seriously entertain it, because that’s a huge blessing when that happens in your career. So, when the first one did well, we were like, ‘Well, we should probably think about doing a sequel.” We very quickly figured out that it should be a sorority and then we slowly filled in the rest of the script and story. It was really hard to figure out and it was probably the hardest movie I’ve directed just because sequels are so hard to figure out. For Seth and I, the main theory behind this movie is that we didn’t want it to suck—that was our main goal, non-suckage—so yeah, when you don’t want it to suck, then you have to spend a lot of time figuring out the story and making sure that even if the premise is the same, we’re telling original, fresh jokes.
I’m not sure if you have a daughter or Seth has a daughter…
I have two daughters, so the story really spoke to me, a story about daughters.
You got to play more with gender issues in this movie, which you couldn’t really do in the last movie, which was more anything goes. I guess the Radners are more sensitive about feuding with girls until they realize that the sorority is just as bad as the guys.
Yeah, yeah. The thing is that the goal of the guys in the first one was inherently stupid, which is easier to get laughs, because you can throw them under the bus, you know? I think the story in this one is a little more complicated and interesting in that way.
I notice that you have about five writers credited on this. A lot of times when people see so many writers on a movie, they get nervous. But it seems more like a TV writers’ room. Is that how it worked out?
Honestly, all of the movies I worked on are very collaborative. We all come from television, and I think the best comedies are often collaborative, so even the first Neighbors, it was Andrew [Jay Cohen] and [Brendan O’Brien‘s] script, but Seth, Evan, and I, we all worked and rewrote the script. So, it always ends up being a big collaboration I think. I think the Writers Guild should just list all the writers who worked on it at the end, because that’s how most comedies are made.
I know Seth and Evan probably were, but were all of you working on it in one room together or was it just passing the script from one to another and going back and forth?
Yeah, we kind of passed it around. Certainly as we got closer, I was always there—I was the constant because I’m directing it, so of course I’m going to be there [Laughs]—but it was kind of a group, and we also had other writers. There’s an executive at Seth and Evan’s company called Josh Fagen, who worked on it a lot, and then Maria Blasucci and Amanda Lund are these great female comedy writers worked on it, and Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir are some writers who work with Seth and Evan who also worked on it, so we had a lot of people working on it.
Knowing that you didn’t want the sequel to suck, was it somewhat easier to tackle it, since you had the boundaries and knew what worked? Was it hard to work from that without making the same movie twice?
It was really hard, because we started to very quickly zero in on this plot about women trying to start the first sorority that can party. We wanted to do justice to that story, so that was certainly complicated. In addition, there’s a lot of stuff about when women act insane, audiences aren’t quite as willing to go with them, I think, so there was a lot of trying to figure out where the dial on the insanity was. And then we ended up going all the way to “11,” so I was excited about that.
I might disagree with that statement going by the success of Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson, and the other comedic actors who have done well. I think we’re ready for women to be completely crazy or just as bad.
Yeah, yeah. It’s true. We had a whole fistfight between Zac and Seth on the first one that people thought was really funny. Ultimately, the story didn’t call for it, but whenever we tried stuff like that with Chloe, it just was weird for some reason. [laughs] For some reason, I don’t understand. Probably cultural critics will be able to figure that out eventually.
She did play Hit-Girl and that was one of her first roles where she was killing people and swearing. I forgot that she’s been in a lot of R-rated movies before this. Can you talk about casting her? In the last movie, you really brought out some great comedy in Rose Byrne, and Chloe’s done more dramatic stuff since Kick-Ass, so I was curious about having her do a role and getting her to be as funny as everyone else.
She’s so funny, and in Kick-Ass she was great, and I loved her in Hugo. She has a really compelling screen presence, and she’s also a little bit threatening, which I think is important for Seth and Rose to actually be scared of this person; she seemed like a fun to play around with, so that’s why we wanted to cast her. Then with Rose, I cast her in her first comedy in Get Him to the Greek, that was her first comedic role, and I remember when she walked in, I was like, “Why is the actress from Damages here? That doesn’t make any sense,” and then she was so funny, and I ended up casting her as Russell’s girlfriend.
What about bringing back some of the guys from the first movie besides Seth and Zac? I wondered if we’d see Dave Franco or Jarrod [Carmichael], and how they’d fit into this scenario.
We knew that we wanted to bring them back, ideally because they’re so funny, and then as we built the movie, the Zac plot clicked into place first, so we were like, “When you’re turning 25 and you feel like all your friends are doing better than you, that’s a horrible feeling.” Very quickly we wanted to capture the quarter-life crisis, so we used all his friends to support that idea. That was something that we knew from early on.
Not sure if you consider this a spoiler, but the big turn that Pete takes in this movie, are you trying to keep that hidden? That was an interesting decision to make—I wasn’t expecting that.
Yeah, he turns out to be gay, but that was something on the junket of the first movie, a reporter asked me, “Why have you never had a gay character in any of your movies?” and I said, “I don’t know, that’s a really good point.” And there was also a great deal of homoeroticism between Zac and Dave in the first movie—Dave’s character is clearly in love with Zac on some level. It just seemed like a natural place to go. It created this interesting emotional story between the two of them, I thought.
I’ve already seen commercials where I feel like I’m seeing stuff that’s not actually in the movie, which I’m sure you’ve had to deal with before. Do those things always end up on the DVD as extras later?
When they put stuff in the commercials that’s not in the movie? Oh, I don’t care. I actually like when they put stuff that’s not in the movie in trailers, because they can’t ruin the movie by doing that. I have mixed feelings about when they blow big jokes in the trailer, but I found that Universal’s marketing team is so good. What ends up happening, weirdly, is that the audience laughs even harder at it when they’re familiar with it, which is strange. As a moviegoer, I’m always annoyed when a big joke is ruined in the trailer, but generally, it actually makes it play better.
Have you begun to think at all about what to do if this Neighbors does really well and Universal comes to you to do a third movie?
We want to do a mash-up between Neighbors and Fast and Furious, so our goal is to try to get Universal to agree to that. That seems like the right move.
I was thinking along the same lines, because everyone is trying to do these mash-up franchises and they also have Pitch Perfect, so the Barden Bellas could move in next door. I think if they were more like the girls of Kappa Nu, I might like those movies more.
We did have a whole acapella sequence in the movie, but it got cut down to just “hey, we want some pussy,” but we had this whole thing where they were having an acapella riff-off that we ended up trimming down to just that.
You also have a moment where they’re watching Fault in Our Stars, which is not a Universal movie, which is surprising. A lot of times when they have someone watching a movie in a Universal movie they’ll watch a Bourne movie. Was it hard to get that?
Yeah, both studios must have run the numbers and decided it was going to make everyone money. That’s the only way that could have happened.
One thing I like about your movies is that they comedy is fairly gender-neutral, as well as Five Year Engagement, so is that something you keep in mind while writing?
That is something I think about. I’ve always had as many friends who are women as friends who are guys. I find obviously people of both sexes very funny, and I think some of my peers make movies about guy friendships, some of my friends make movies about girl friendships. I like to make movies about couples and married couples, and how men and women interact. That is what my area of interest is. That’s always been an interest of mine and my favorite movies tend to be on the more romantic comedy side of things or at least involve women. So yeah, that is something that interests me more than just one gender.
But most romantic comedies are geared more towards women and maybe the first Neighbors was more for guys, but it feels like your movies are good if you’re bringing a date.
Yeah, yeah. The first Neighbors is really all about parenting. There’s a guy element with the frat next door, but it’s Seth and Rose’s movie ultimately, and this again we start with Seth and Rose’s point of view but then it’s all about these women, and then Five Year Engagement is a couple, Sarah Marshall is a couple. The only one that’s really guy-oriented is Get Him to the Greek, which has those two guys that become friends. But they also each have women in their lives that are fully drawn characters who really propel a lot of the action. So yeah, it’s my artistic interest, I would say, more than one thing or the other.
I know you have Storks coming out later this year, so how has it been going into animation? Is it very different or is it just another type of collaboration?
It’s really different, and yet I’m bringing the stuff I learned from live-action into animation. I’ve done a lot of improv in the recording booth. I have Andy Samberg. We have this great actress Katie Crown doing a voice, we have Key and Peele doing voices, and I make sure that all the actors are in the recording booth when we record stuff, and then we do improv in the recording booth and then discover what the scenes can be as we record stuff, and then fine tune stuff as it goes along. But it ends up creating this really live… it feels very alive when you watch the movie which is cool. I’ve also tried to make a movie that’s legit funny. It’s for all audiences but it has big comedy set-pieces in it, which is a challenge, but it’s also something fun to do.
It’s a great premise, one of those “How come no one has ever done this?” premises, which is cool.
I know. When I thought of it, I was like, “Really? No one’s done this? Okay.” It opens Dumbo and then that’s it basically. The movie is really turning out awesome. It’s really touching and it’s the kind of movie that lulls you into think it’s just a silly comedy and then at the end everyone is crying.
NOTE: The next portion of this interview contains a small spoiler about a callback for one of the gags from Neighbors. Although it’s in one of the commercials, it’s funnier if you don’t know about it in advance.
Zac has been going further and further into comedy lately, since the first Neighbors, and he seems to be up for anything, which seems true of your whole cast. Especially the case of the airbag gag which is a really funny moment but it seems very dangerous. Everyone in my audience was freaking out a little during that scene, but that was a case where you took a joke from the first movie and put a twist on it.
Oh, yeah, thanks. You would definitely die if that happened. That would kill both of them. [Laughs] We decided we probably had to do some version of the airbag and that ended up being a reshoot. We did another version of the airbag in the movie that just didn’t work, and I thought the callback would be that they all thought there was an airbag at the office and they all panicked, but something that seemed really funny to me—which often is not how comedy sequels are—but the fact is that the first movie happened and there are a few ways that this would affect the people in it. If an airbag went off in an office where someone worked, everyone in the office, that would be the thing everyone talked about for years. So that was a funny way to call that back and then we ended up doing a reshoot where they used the airbags to try and escape.
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising opens nationwide on Friday, May 20, with previews on Thursday night in most cities.