Last year, when director Nicholas Stoller was filming Neighbors in Los Angeles, I got to visit the set with a few other online reporters. Since this was the third time getting to see Stoller direct (I got to visit the set of Get Him to the Greek and The Five-Year Engagement), I was pretty sure one thing was going to happen: I’d laugh a lot. And like I predicted, that was exactly what happened. If you’re not familiar with the film, Neighbors stars Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as a married couple who must deal with a fraternity—headed up by Zac Efron—when it moves in next door. From what I saw and learned on set, Neighbors is definitely loaded with some great jokes that range from crazy party scenes to male nudity. There is no way Neighbors is PG-13. It’s a hard R.
During a break in filming, I was able to participate in a group interview with Stoller. He talked about how the project came together, why he’s shooting anamorphic widescreen, casting Efron, whose decision was it to do the extreme amount of male nudity, how Enter The Void was a big inspiration for the visual look, what’s the secret for shooting a party scene, and so much more. Hit the jump for what he had to say. Neighbors opens May 9, 2014.
Before going any further, if you haven’t seen the very funny trailer for Neighbors, I’d watch that first:
Nicholas Stoller: I am shooting it digital. Yeah. Hulk sent me a very, very long and an amazing e-mail describing why he likes film over digital. It’s interesting.
Well, it seems to fit with your shooting style that you have.
Stoller: Yeah. I like digital because you can shoot for longer. Improv is great for Steadicam. It’s a lot lighter. It’s not just its lighter, but on film, it’s a 3 minute mag versus a 20-minute mag. We actually aren’t doing much Steadicam on this. But, handheld, the mag would be three minutes. And then, also, I actually prefer it aesthetically at night. I think digital at night is–I just like the look of it more. I mean, if you’re a Stanley Kubrick and you’re doing Barry Lyndon, that’s one thing. And then, it’s the most beautiful thing ever shot, , in the history of cinema. But, if you’re me shooting dick jokes, it’s a little–it’s harder to do.
I appreciate the Barry Lyndon shout-out.
Stoller: Barry Lyndon is the best movie ever.
Can you take us back to just where this started for you?
Stoller: Yes. Basically I’ve known Seth and Evan actually for a long time. I’ve known Seth since 2001 or 2000. We wrote on Undeclared, the Judd Apatow show. It’s on Fox. And I’ve wanted to work with Seth forever since then. We had a great time working together, and we’re just old friends. And then, he and Evan called me about this project. They had already set it up and everything about directing it. And I said, that sounds awesome. And the idea seemed really appealing. And–so, that’s when I signed on. What we’re seeing out there throwing out improv lines. There’s something also known as having practical sets. And it seems in some way there’s a connection there because you’re actually in an environment.
Do you find that to be the case–you can sort of put the camera anywhere?
Stoller: Yeah. It certainly helps, in a practical sense. This whole movie takes place in these two houses. Most of this movie has taken place at two base camps, which is insane. So, yeah I don’t think artistically it makes that much of a difference to be on a location versus a set. I actually tend to prefer sets, because you can fly the walls and stuff. But, this has been great, because the rooms are all like this. They’re big rooms. And so, you can move the camera anywhere in them. And then, you can connect from inside to outside really easily, and it allows you a lot of flexibility. With an unlimited budget, I think a set is better than a location. But, with the budget that we have, a location is better.
Stoller: Well, this whole project was set up before I was involved. Andrew Cohen and Brendan O’Brien thought of the idea and pitched it to Seth and Zac Efron. And they both attached themselves. And then, they sold it to Universal, and then they wrote it. And then, at that point, Seth and Evan called me about directing it.
For your last couple of films obviously you don’t have a credit on Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but it feels like you were there from the beginning, at least in the scripting process. How is it then to come in now?
Stoller: Well, this is pretty similar to Forgetting Sarah Marshall I’d say, in terms of being involved. Andrew and Brendan had written a draft or two, and then I came in and worked with them. And then, we treat it like a giant TV episode, in terms and then Seth and Evan come in and they also rewrite it. And then, we’re all working on it together. It’s Andrew and Brendan’s script. It’s their script. I bring the writing side of things to the table.
That TV is that sort of why you’re shooting in two, three, five?
Stoller: Right. Exactly. Yeah, I don’t mean in terms of the aesthetics. I just mean in terms of the process, it’s very similar.
You mean like shooting scope? I mean, obviously some of the earlier films were not.
Stoller: No, this is my first widescreen. We’re also shooting anamorphic. I wanted to just try it. As things have advanced in the Avid, it’s gotten very easy. You can split the screen on the Avid. So, a big thing is like if you have the actor on this side saying a funny line, but you’re over this actor and this actor is doing something, like playing with his hair or whatever, then it’s hard to use it. And with widescreen — or two, three, five, or whatever it is–you have to do do-overs. It’s really hard to do clean singles. And that’s one of the reasons it looks a lot better. But in the past, I’ve been nervous about not having clean singles because it makes hard to edit. But, now you can literally, in the Avid, split the screen and take this actor out, and put a different take of that.
And how do you know you’ve got the perfect cut, because from watching you outside, behind the scenes and watching you do your job, is it just gut instinct, or just from you seeing it a few times over and over?
Stoller: You mean when I’m cutting the scene, or when or when I’m shooting it?
When you’re shooting it.
Stoller: When I’m shooting it I basically have a giant bag that I’m filling up with as many jokes as possible. So, I don’t really know. But, yeah, at this point I have an instinct as to when we’ve got it. So, yeah, it’s just an instinct.
On what film did it kick in?
Stoller: I think it’s been an evolution. I had a sense of it on Forgetting Sarah Marshall. But, at some point maybe during Get Him to the Greek. But, you have it for different scenes. Sometimes a scene can elude you, and then, you also learn that the small moments are really what you’re after. A big broad moment that gets the crew laughing, usually isn’t going to translate to an audience. It’s usually like a little look or something that you’re trying, and like the scene we’re just shooting right now –I don’t know if you were watching it–but, Zac and Dave Franco just came in and were just awesome and ready. After two takes, I was like, we got this. But, just because I don’t want them to feel short drifted I was like, I’ll shoot two more takes. Why not? But, it was pretty clear from the get go.
Whose decision was it to do the extreme amount of male nudity?
Stoller: In this movie?
Stoller: It’s in my contract that there has to be a great deal of male nudity. It’s a fraternity movie on some level. Half the movie is about Seth, and his wife, and his daughter, and the other half of the movie is a fraternity movie. Fraternity dudes like to take their dicks out. There’s no question about it.
Stoller: Yeah. Yeah. There’s a lot of dick in this movie. I’m not going to lie. Christopher Mintz-Plasse plays a character named Scoony. And his main character trait is that he has a giant penis. And so, that–and his–that is certainly featured in the film. There’s–but that might be the only actual full-frontal in the movie. I’m trying to think. But, they make dildos. The frat makes dildos at a certain point in the film to raise money, so you see the dildos. But, I think that that might be all there is. I’m probably forgetting a dick or two.
You mentioned spending time equally on both sides. Is it a complex and relatable film in the sense of how you get along with these characters?
Stoller: Yeah. , it really is. I think this is, in certain ways, a war movie, with Seth and Rose are battling Zac in the fraternity. But, it’s really important to me that, in this sort of movie where you have antagonists, whatever it is, that you understand everyone’s position. So, there’s no one who’s really a villain in the movie. Everyone is just going through a nervous breakdown, and Seth and I were talking about it the other day. The best movies, I think, are when you show up on set and you’re like, I can’t believe this is all part of the same movie. One day we’d be shooting a sequence where all of the fraternity brothers are drinking, and Scoonie flashes his dick out. And they’re all doing crazy shit. And the next day we’re just shooting a really sweet scene with Rose and Seth and their baby. I think that’s what Knocked Up was like. You had this dichotomy. And I think that that–that makes for the best comedies at least.
It seems like there’s a lot of different themed parties throughout the film.
I’m curious, does that mean you get to switch up your directing style depending on what the party is?
Stoller: Yeah. I’ve watched Project X a bunch of times, and I watched Chronicle. And there’s been a big jump in the audiences acceptance of found footage . And so–because we were jammed for time and also because people, kids especially, just filmed everything–we handed out cameras to people and just filmed stuff. As we’re shooting the movie, we’re also handing stuff out to people to film stuff, so we can use that footage and cut it in, and I think it cuts in really seamlessly. So, that’s a big difference, I think, between this and, Get Him to the Greek had a lot of parties. But, even though it was, only a few years, it feels like a different time weirdly, in terms of what you can do with that found footage stuff. And, on Get Him to the Greek, I learned a lot about shooting parties. I think I’ve thrown so many more fake parties than I’ve gone to real parties. It’s so pathetic. It’s so pathetic. But, yeah, I think, I wanted to push it that a big inspiration visually for me for this movie is Enter The Void, that Gasper Noe film. It’s such a visually fantastic movie, and Brandon Trost who’s the DP on this, we’ve watched that and pulled it apart, and are trying to do some of that, where light sources are constantly changing, and all of that.
Do you think there’s a secret to shooting a party scene?
Stoller: The secret is to put the camera low and in the crowd so it feels epic. Yeah. I think that a lot of slow-mo really works in party scenes. Honestly, we give these little Canons, and iPhones, and all this stuff to extras and to our own people in the parties. And that stuff cuts in really well. It’s about getting as many pieces as possible. That makes a party feel huge. So, if you have a billion little pieces, even if they’re not funny–they could just be someone dancing, or someone shaking the camera around–and it can make the party feel really big. And dark lighting is crucial. A brightly lit party just sucks.
Stoller: Oh. Well, I think the movie is going to work because it’s just funny seeing them share the screen. It’s just they don’t make sense on screen together, and I think that that the best battle movies are like that. And, it’s been great working with Zac. He’s awesome. He’s quite dreamy. Sometimes, it’s hard to give him notes, because I zone out in the middle of it and just stare at him.
Have you ever touched his abs?
Stoller: I haven’t, but I’ve wanted to. I’m like, that’d be weird.
Did you write in a shower scene?
Stoller: I have to save it for the last night, because you give up your power as a director for stroking your actor’s abs.
Yeah, that’s true.
Stoller: But, he lifts weights before shots and stuff. Like, he’ll just quickly do a bunch of weights, and then he’s super intense.
How does that make you guys feel? Like, if he’s super sexy and hot.
Stoller: Even more Jewish. Even more Jewish than we already are.
Obviously, you guys have all worked together for years. But, what is the difference between working Jason Segel and Seth Rogen just in terms of their work, and how they work?
Stoller: They’re different people, but, In terms of working with them it’s pretty similar. They both come at stuff from a writer’s perspective first, and then an actors perspective second, especially. I would say the main difference, is once we start shooting, I think Seth is an amazing actor. I would say that first and foremost, he has a writer’s brain, but even when we’re shooting, he’s not methody at all. Like, he’ll be delivering an awesome performance, I’ll cut, And he’ll say, “I think on this next shot I should do this, this,” and he’s very clinical about it. And I think Jason can be more a little bit more methody. Like, I remember on The Five-Year Engagement, the scene where Emily and he break up. It was very intense. And he delivered this insane performance. But, it was like–it was a different approach in the way Seth would have done it.
I’m just curious, from when you first got involved to what we’re seeing on screen, how much has changed along the way? Or is it pretty much what you started with?
Stoller: It’s changed a fair amount actually, the movie from when I started, but that happens with all these movies–the development process. So the central conceit is the same. But it shifted the big change, which has made is so much better is that the original version of the film was about Seth and his buddies. And then, the wife was a separate character. Seth and his buddies fight in this fraternity. And, we all sat down and we were like, “this is crappy Old School.” let’s see if we can–and so we–and we all went through it and figured out it’d be better if it was actually about Seth and his wife taking on the fraternity. It’s a much bigger idea, and it makes a lot more sense.
I think you probably should get back to–.
Stoller: To directing this movie.
Stoller: Thank you very much.
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