Nicholas Stoller is the director of such films as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement and Get Him To The Greek, which he also co-wrote. He is also the screenwriter of Fun With Dick And Jane, Yes Man and this year’s Muppets Most Wanted.
Stoller talks to Elbert Wyche about his next film Neighbors, his process from script-to-screen and the importance of collaboration in filmmaking.
The film stars Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as a young couple forced to live next to a fraternity house after the birth of their newborn baby. Zac Efron stars as the head of the fraternity.
How did you get your start in the industry?
I started as a television writer. I wrote for Judd Apatow on his TV show Undeclared. Through him I started writing screenplays. I wrote a screenplay with him called Fun With Dick And Jane. I met Jason Segel on Undeclared; we had become friends and he told me about the script Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I asked Judd – because at that time I had a lot of screenwriting experience – that if I kind of guided Jason through the writing process would he support me as a director and Judd said sure. That’s how I ended up getting into directing.
Who are some filmmakers that inspire you?
I love Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, Billy Wilder, David O Russell, Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne. The Zucker Brothers. I run the gamut from filmmakers who make broad comedies to more relationship-driven filmmakers.
Where did your involvement begin with Neighbors?
Andrew J Cohen and Brendan O’Brien wrote the script. They pitched it to Seth Rogen and Even Goldberg who are producers on it. Evan called me and asked if I wanted to direct, so he pitched me the idea. Seth and I had shared an office at Undeclared and had written some other stuff together – we’re just old friends too. For literally no reason we hadn’t worked together since then. I’ve always wanted to work with Seth [again] and I loved the idea. I had an immediate way into the idea. So from there on the phone I said, “Yeah, I’ll do that.”
Having finally had the opportunity to work with Seth Rogen again, was it just like old times on the set?
There’s only a handful of people with which I’m creatively on the same page and he’s one of them. Jason Segel is another one. We’ve remained friends for years. So it’s not like I haven’t seen him; we just never worked together. But it was great. In the best writing partnerships you share a brain a little bit. I feel that with Seth and Evan. Also, I think we both bring different things to the table creatively; different kinds of comedy. I think that makes things more interesting.
Neighbors has a unique visual style distinct from other films you’ve directed.
Thank you very much. That’s a high compliment. I’ve been trying to get some sort of style in my career. [Laughing]. I’m slowly edging towards one. It’s really, completely dictated by the story. This is kind of a ridiculous person for me to compare myself to, but the way Billy Wilder’s movies all look completely different… I feel like I approach movies in a similar way where it’s completely based on the story I’m trying to tell.
For example, in The Five-Year Engagement and Forgetting Sarah Marshall the camera doesn’t move much. Really. Particularly in Five-Year Engagement, I was focused on there being beautiful lighting. On this film I wanted there to be really chaotic energy. I really loved Silver Linings Playbook where there was constant movement with the camera. This entire movie was shot handheld because I wanted it to feel like there’s that constant pressure happening to keep the energy up.
Also, I wanted the audience to feel like they were at a party. Some of the touchstones that I watched, along with the director of photography Brandon Trost, were Enter The Void, Spring Breakers and Project X. I wanted the parties to be really dark. The black light party was an interesting scene that we had lit from various different sources. For the frat house montage scenes I looked at Paul Thomas Anderson stuff. We really storyboarded those scenes out and I worked closely with [production designer] Julie Berghoff and Brandon to make sure everything was in the right place. I worked with an incredible editor called Zene Baker who did 50/50. Besides being a great comedy editor he’s a very stylish editor. It was fun in this movie to really play stylistically. Particularly in how the frat scenes were shot.
There’s fraternity raunch and then touching family beats from Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne. How did you find the balance between these two extremes?
When Evan Goldberg told me the idea I immediately knew, emotionally, what the movie was about. When I was in college I had an emotional meltdown. The only other time that I had that feeling was when I had my first kid. Both experiences you lose all control of your life. Everything came out of that simple emotional idea.
Ultimately, it means that nobody in this movie is really villainous. Zach, Seth and Rose are ultimately having the same kind of nervous breakdown, just in different stages of their life. I think showing them at emotionally unstable and changing moments of their lives leads naturally to heart. When it comes to raunch, there’s nothing in there that wouldn’t actually happen. It’s very organic to the story. I think raunch feels gratuitous when it feels just kind of stapled on. But if the story calls for it then it’s fine. A lot of the jokes in this movie I couldn’t put in The Five Year Engagement, but of course that’s a very different movie.
How much of the comedy was in the script and how much came from improvisation?
It’s a huge collaboration, which is one of the things I love about movies. I call it open source filmmaking to a certain extent. I’m the conductor of everything, but I do like taking suggestions from everyone, then figure it out in the editing room. I always approach a script like we’re not going to do any improv at all. So we write and rewrite the script until we get it right. Then we have at least one table read where writers, and also the actors, give notes.
After that table read, rehearsal is really important to me. We have two weeks of rehearsals, at which point I’ve usually scouted the locations and gone over the layout of the room. We block the scene and do a lot of improv without the pressure of having to shoot. So we can really explore what we’re doing. Then, we put the best improv into the script while keeping the other versions on ALT pages. On the day we shoot what’s on the page just to have it as a skeleton or structure for the scene. Then we do a lot of improv while we just keep rolling. I just call out jokes that we’ve come up with. We take all of that stuff and put it together in editing.
How was it working with Rose Byrne again?
Yeah, I worked with her on Get Him To The Greek. Russell Brand is an actor who doesn’t break and she made him break with her weird improv. She’s not technically a comedian but she is so hysterically funny. If you watch the movie again and just look at her, she’s always doing something weird and funny and interesting. She really did hold her own. Actually, a lot of takes were ruined because Seth and Rose were cracking each other up. They really clicked. They have really great chemistry and I think that’s one of the reasons the movie works. She was so game to do the things that she did in this movie. A lot of actresses wouldn’t do that stuff – she really trusted me.
Did the studio demand any drastic changes?
Universal is really awesome. They’re really collaborative there. Many studios give micro-notes, which can be really irritating and not very helpful. Universal is really all about the big picture – is this the best version of this movie. The script that Andrew and Brendan wrote was funny but really different. Originally it was mostly about townies, where three guys – one of whom was married with an older child – were all trying to destroy this fraternity. When I came on board we still had the two friends but I thought it was more about Seth and his wife. As we got closer to production Seth and Evan thought we should just get rid of the friends and make the baby really young. In the earlier drafts Universal thought that something wasn’t clicking, but when we got to that final place they were like, “Yeah, there you go.” That was really the extent of their notes.
What’s next for you?
I’m part of a movie that’s for Seth Rogen and Kevin Hart. It’s for Paramount. It’s about the first white cop and black cop pairing in history. My friend Rodney Rothman, one of the funniest comedy writers around, wrote it. It takes place in the late 1940’s and the two cops have to infiltrate the jazz scene to bust jazz musicians for weed. It’s kind of a mix of Baz Luhrmann and Quentin Tarantino and L.A. Confidential. So that will be a challenge. I’ve never done an action-comedy-period piece-musical before. [Laughing]. I’m really excited about it; it’s going to be really fun.