NEIGHBORS Director Nicholas Stoller On ENTER THE VOID And Dumb Female Characters

Stoller talks about making a visually distinct comedy (that's short!) and making sure Rose Byrne gets to be as dumb as Seth Rogen.

Nicholas Stoller's Neighbors is unique in the world of raunchy post-Apatow comedies. It's short, for one thing. It's also remarkably progressive when it comes to allowing its female characters to get laughs, especially Rose Byrne, playing a role that is way richer and better than "Seth Rogen's wife." Maybe most miraculous of all, Neighbors shows us that Zac Efron is a for-real, 100% going places movie talent. 

I had a chance to talk to Stoller about his film, and I was happy to get his insight into making women just as dumb as guys, and especially to hear that Enter The Void - yes, the Gaspar Noe film - influenced his visual choices in this movie about a frat that moves in next door to a young family with a newborn. Thankfully he didn't turn to Irreversible for any ideas.

I was shocked to see how great Zac Efron is in this movie. I'm not sure I ever expected him to show such immense chops.

I feel very lucky that I got to work with him on his first R-rated comedy. He’s so funny, but he also has such a menacing presence. I remember after the premiere my wife turned to me and said, “Zac’s kind of scary in this movie.” I think that’s why it works, there’s a Cape Fear aspect to his performance - as well as being funny and being the most handsome man on Earth, there’s that element too. And it’s totally awesome.

When you’re working with him on the comedy what kind of performer is he as a comedian? Does he need a lot of direction or is he coming in with his own ideas?

I think he isn’t used to improv. He hasn’t done much of it. He was a little nervous, but he was good at it. And what he did - what I really appreciated - is that instead of improving jokes, he would respond with how a person would actually respond. Which sounds basic, but I think a lot of time when people don’t have improv experience they try to play a joke too much, and he just tried to find the truth in the scene. That’s all I’m trying to do as a director, finding the truth of the story or of the scene, and in the end that makes everything funnier. He was great to work with in that way.

He was really fun to collaborate with; we’re all nerdy Jews and he’s Zac Efron, and he brought the idea that he wanted frat guys to actually like it. He was a reality check on that aspect, which makes it a better movie than if just Jewish nerds made it.

The frat stuff in this movie is interesting, because you expect a movie with the ‘frat vs family’ concept to take a dismal view of the frat boys. But they’re real human beings.

I wasn’t in a frat, but I went through the emotional experiences they do. For me it’s a movie about college students going through their emotional journey versus a young couple with a baby going through their emotional journey. It’s more about that than it is about a frat. A lot of the super-intense melodramatic scenes Zac and Dave Franco have? I had those in college, with my roommate. I think “frat” is a great placeholder for being young and kind of dumb and wanting to party and having intense friendships.

When I first saw the trailer it gave me anxiety. This concept - wanting peace and quiet in your home while also not wanting to be the lame older guy telling the kids to keep it down - is so specific and true.

That’s all the writers, Andrew Cohen and Brendan O’Brien. And it is brutal watching Seth and Rose trying to be cool. It’s like a horror movie. It’s scarier than Insidious.

A lot of modern comedies have a shagginess that’s enjoyable, but Neighbors has a very tight story, and it escalates nicely. Can you talk about the script you started with and how it relates to what you ended up with?

I always overshoot everything. I like to have a lot of material to work with. I like to cover myself, so that if we cut something we have extra scenes and extra lines to get us from Point A to Point B. This movie is no different; the shooting draft we went in with was about 130 pages. Judd Apatow, my mentor, told me that the script isn’t the movie, it’s the pieces from which the movie is made.

This story is paper thin, and I think if I had allowed it to get any longer than its length suddenly people would notice that it made no sense. That was very intentional. I also like to try different things each time I make a movie, and I wanted to cut this one to the bone. Any joke that got a medium laugh I cut out. I just wanted it to fly. And I wanted there to be a tension to it; a war movie can get a little repetitive, so I wanted it to escalate and I wanted it to be suspenseful and tense. To achieve that you can’t do the longer scenes. I think romantic comedy is a genre that I want to relax into, and I want to spend time with the couple, and I like it to be shaggier. But with this I wanted it to fly.

This is your most cinematic movie. There are a lot of scenes in this that are really nicely put together, and the party scenes in particular are wonderfully put together. It’s rare to see that in comedies - can you talk about your approach to the visuals and design?

I like to stretch every time as a filmmaker. I’m trying to push myself. I wanted the movie to feel like a party, and I wanted the audience to feel like they went to a party. I wanted it to be cool, but I’m not cool, so I had to study a lot of movies that are cool. My DP Brandon Trost and my editor Zene Baker are so talented, and that helps. Brandon does a lot of horror movies, and he does a lot of beautiful and moody horror movies like the Rob Zombie stuff, which is really cool looking. Zene Baker cut George Washington, he worked with David Gordon Green. They both brought a lot of style to the movie.

The visual references I was interested in included the movie Enter The Void. The movie has a dumb heist element, so I looked at Ocean’s Eleven to see how Soderbergh puts together a heist. And we did a dumb version of that. But the lighting, especially in the frat, you can go all the way. Frats do have insane lighting. I wanted the the lighting to constantly be changing. In the black light party the characters are always walking in and out of light and I didn’t care if you could see their faces or eyes, I just wanted it to feel like you were in that party.

Also you get confident as a director, and people always say, “You have to be able to hear what they’re saying,” and I didn’t care - I turned up the music so loud you couldn’t hear every word. Which I think creates the feeling for the audience to feel like they’re at the party.

I’m so glad you mentioned Enter the Void because I thought of that movie and I wondered if I was totally over-reading what I saw on screen. I especially got that feeling during the freak out scene when Zac is walking in the hallway, drunk and upset about his girlfriend.

We wanted to capture the moment when you’re at a party and you’re suddenly like, ‘I have to leave this party, it’s horrible.’ That scene in particular, my production designer Julie Berghoff, had this material that’s amazing but creates a camera strobe, which is horrible. Brandon was like, “We can’t use it, it makes the camera strobe.” And I said, “Wait a minute, let’s cover an entire hallway with it and make it horrible.” And Brandon was like, “And if I add a strobe it’ll make it even worse!” So we made it a nightmare for Zac.

Gender roles in this movie are interesting. We live in the entertainment world where the schlubby guy and the beautiful woman are common, but I feel like you guys sell that here by having a relationship that is complete. And by giving Rose something more to do than being the disapproving sidekick to the husband.

I love strong female characters and I want every character to score and get laughs. When I had my first baby and had a meltdown about it, my wife was having a meltdown right next to me. Our first child temporarily destroyed our lives. We both reacted in really weird ways, so it seemed funny to bring that into the movie. We have photos of us at our friends’ wedding with a week-old baby. Why didn’t we just stay home? It would have been better! It wasn’t just me out trying to go to parties, it was both of us trying to keep living the way we lived. That’s more truthful, and it makes it funnier.

With Rose - I was dying to work with Rose again after Get Him To The Greek - and it was important to Rose that she get to score as well. I hate the character of the nagging wife. It’s not true to my life, and I also think you’re wasting an opportunity to get laughs. No one in this movie is smart, everyone’s dumb. That’s a comedy thing I’ve learned - never have a smart character in your movie. Even Rose is dumb. Dave Franco is maybe the smartest of the dumb guys. But everyone else is pretty dumb.

A lot of the dumbest stuff in the movie is engineered by Rose. And it’s a lot of fun, women should get to make as many mistakes as the guys.