The Unheralded Comedy Genius: Nicholas Stoller on ‘Neighbors,’ Zac Efron’s ‘Darkness,’ and Diddy

The director of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek is back with Neighbors—a rowdy comedy starring Seth Rogen and Zac Efron that’s far and away the funniest movie of the year (so far).

Photo Credit: Glen Wilson

Nicholas Stoller is very clean-cut.

We’re seated across from one another sipping lattes in the “lobby” of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, a 35th-floor lounge offering expansive views of Central Park, and he’s dressed neatly in a blue sports jacket and button-down shirt. With his parted hairdo, bushy eyebrows, and wide, oft-smiling mouth, he resembles a younger, handsomer Aaron Sorkin; a far cry from his schlubby mentor, comedy god Judd Apatow.

But make no mistake about it: Stoller is an absolute force in the comedy world.

He’s directed the hits Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, and The Five-Year Engagement, as well as written and produced both of the revamped Muppets films. The 38-year-old’s latest is Neighbors—a hilariously insane comedy about a couple with a newborn baby (Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne) who are pulled into a chaotic turf war when a hard-partying fraternity house, led by Zac Efron and Dave Franco, move in next door.

The film is going to be a huge critical and commercial hit, vaulting Stoller into the upper echelon of Hollywood comedy directors. And his follow-up, Black and White, a violent buddy cop comedy with Seth Rogen and Kevin Hart, should only elevate his stature further.

In a wide-ranging, anecdote-packed discussion, Stoller opened up about Neighbors, his road to the comedy A-list, and much more.

As far as Zac Efron goes, while I thought he was very good in 17 Again, his R-rated comedy chops were largely unproven. Why did you decide to cast him as the devilish frat boy?

In 17 Again he was so charismatic, and you kind of get an instinct that someone is going to be able to pull it off. He had to be kind of scary and, to me, there’s nothing scarier than a guy who’s saying in a really positive voice, “I’m going to kill you.” It’s like Chucky or Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and Zac is really sunny, so I thought there’s got to be some darkness behind that sunniness because no one is that sunny. Plus, he’s a big, strong physical presence, so there’s a Cape Fear aspect to it, too.

The action starts with that great bonding moment between Seth and Zac where they party all night, do Batman impressions, and cross streams while pissing in a fountain.

When we shot the crossing streams pissing scene I told my DP, “I want this to look like a Terrence Malick film.” So he kept lighting it more and more like magic hour, and then when we did the color timing for the movie I was like, “It’s not magic hour enough,” so we kept turning the yellows up to make it look more beautiful. So, the most beautiful shot of the fucking movie is two guys pissing in a fountain.

Seth and Zac have such great chemistry in that sequence. They need to really sell that initial bonding scene, because all the subsequent tension in the film goes back to that sequence.

There is a bit of a wish-fulfillment aspect of this movie where you’re like my age and get to party with a bunch of cool frat guys, but there also needs to be more of a problem then just that the frat’s being loud, so they have to make a mistake, and their mistake is going to party with them. The audience subconsciously is like, “That’s a mistake!” and it makes the war more interesting. But I don’t like villains in my movies—it’s boring—and Seth and Zac were bonding the whole time we were shooting. We kept shooting them talking about generational differences and it was cute but it didn’t work. Zac kept walking around the set doing Bane impersonations—“I was born in the dark!”—he’s weirdly good at it. They started to do Batman impersonations and I was like, “That’s it!”

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There were a lot of rumblings about Zac during filming that some days he’d show up late to set—or wouldn’t show up at all—and right after shooting he checked into rehab for cocaine.

Oh, no. I didn’t know I heard later—and the world heard—that he was going through shit and I thought, “Oh, that’s a surprise.” But no, he was great and professional. If anything, whatever darkness he was going through he channeled it into the movie. He was channeling something dark and whatever he was doing really helped the performance. Later, he had a lunch with me, Seth, and Evan, and he spoke about what he had been going through and said, “I was going through some dark shit…”—he’s a very open dude—“…and I just wanted to apologize if I brought any weirdness.” But I said, “I’m just glad you’re figuring it out,” because he’s a great guy, but I also told him, “Whatever was happening that you were channeling in the movie, don’t do that again! You’re a good enough actor and you don’t need to do that again.” Whatever he was doing really did seem to help the performance, because he’s great in the film.

That scene where he and Dave have a stand-off and Dave says, “It looks like you’re really villaining-out here,” is funny but it’s also a really dramatic scene because Zac is wielding a baseball bat and you think, “Is he gonna fucking hit him with that bat? What the fuck is happening?” And during the fight with Dave, Zac broke his hand punching a mantel and he goes up to me and whispers, “Don’t tell anyone but I’m pretty sure I just broke my hand but I want to keep shooting this scene.” He’s kind of a badass. And he had a removable cast on his hand for the rest of the shoot. And in the scene with Seth when they’re fighting at the end, Seth was like, “I’m a little nervous he’s going to punch me!” because he’s so intense.

Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s character is blessed with a gigantic penis, but it isn’t shown in the film. Was it cut for rating purposes?

We shot his dong so much it was crazy. That prosthetic was very expensive. A realistic penis prosthetic is literally thousands of dollars, and I’d never given more penis notes in my life. It’s weird because a creature effects company is making it and you’re like, “I think we need more veins.” We were constantly Google imaging pictures of penises to get it just right and would be like, “No, see, the crown needs a little more red.” We shot a lot of stuff we cut out of the movie. The same thing happened in Sarah Marshall, where I had whole scenes where his penis was out, and you end up cutting it down because the audience gets sick of it pretty fast. You get about 10 frames of dick in a movie. We had a whole thing where [Mintz-Plasse] is in the first frat meeting and they ask him, “Do you know what time it is?” and he’s sitting there with his penis wrapped around his wrist and goes, “It’s two o’cock!” Shit like that, but the test audience didn’t like it. Too much dick. We also had a whole sequence where they make the frat pledges shoot fireworks out of their asses and they blow up their frat house. We tested it and the audience thought putting stuff in the pledges’ butts was a little bit rapey.

There’s that great sequence where Rose’s breasts have become filled with milk and Seth has to milk her. Where did you come up with that sequence?

Brendan O’Brien, one of the writers, has a friend who was a breastfeeding mom at Bonnaroo and her pump broke, and her husband had to milk her. That was a story that we’d all heard. And Seth was like, “Wait… we should put this into the script. I should have to milk Rose.” And it was a no-brainer. It’s also not a gratuitous sequence. They made the mistake—they partied—and now they have to deal with the repercussions.

The party scenes are lit in surreal neons, almost like a Gaspar Noe film.

My DP Brandon Trost and I are obsessed with Enter the Void, so that was a huge touchstone for us for that sequence—Spring Breakers, too. In Enter the Void, you start out thinking, “Tokyo is so cool,” and by the end of it you’re thinking, “Get me the fuck out of Tokyo!” Weirdly, there’s a sequence in Collateral in a Koreatown club—that was also a reference. And in Ocean’s Eleven, there’s a lot of dumb heist stuff so I took notes on that as well.

The frat in the film is even more homoerotic than your typical frat. This isn’t the Duke lacrosse team’s frat. It’s a more likable one.

I wanted the frat to be more like the Delta’s in Animal House, where you just love these guys. And we already had a really handsome dude at the center, Zac, and when Dave Franco came onboard we had two—not to say that the rest of the guys aren’t handsome, but those guys are insane. They’re from a different planet of handsome. They’re from “Planet Handsome.”

What was it like to work with Seth Rogen? He’s someone in the Apatow gang whom you’ve never worked with before.

We’re really old friends. We actually were officemates on Undeclared and wrote scripts together on that show. I loved working with him. For literally no reason when the show ended, we didn’t work together again for a while. Then, Seth and his producing partner Evan [Goldberg] called me for this, and instantly I was like, “Yes! I’ll do it.”

I read that you went to Harvard and wrote for the Lampoon there, but how did you break into professional comedy?

First I worked in advertising for a year in New York, then I moved to L.A. and got a job with HBO working for the Austin Powers Animated Series. It was going to be R-rated, Mike Myers was going to voice it, and it was actually going to be good. It was before the second Austin Powers movie came out at the height of Austin Powers mania, but Mike Myers backed out at the last minute and said, “I think this is going to dilute the franchise.” We wrote a bunch of scripts but that went away after 10 weeks, but I got an agency through that, and then Judd Apatow hired me out of my agency for Undeclared, and then I wrote Fun with Dick and Jane with Judd. Then, Segel was writing Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I said to Judd, “If I guide Segel through the writing process and help him rewrite it, will you support me as a director?” And he did. I feel really lucky.

And how did you meet Segel, whom you’ve collaborated with a bunch now with Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement, and The Muppets?

Segel was a recurring guest star on Undeclared and I wrote the second episode he was in where he has a fight with Jay Baruchel’s character, and we just really clicked creatively on what we found funny, and it’s been a great creative partnership.

Also, with Forgetting Sarah Marshall, you were really one of the first to see Mila Kunis as a screen siren. I remember a lot of my friends telling me after seeing that, “Whoa. Mila Kunis.”

Her smile in that movie is why that movie is so romantic, I think. But it’s such a fantasy, that movie, because Jason is being fought over by Kristen Bell and Mila Kunis! But she’s so photogenic it’s insane. I remember I would watch That 70’s Show—and this is probably sort of creepy, because she was like 16—and think, “That girl is really pretty and has really good comedy chops.” Someone would have noticed that she was insanely hot, but I don’t know why nobody did before that. When we cut that movie together and you saw her glow it was just amazing.

You also turned Russell Brand into an actor on Sarah Marshall. Had you read other rock stars before him, and how did you land on Brand?

That part was originally written as a writer, and we read some funny people, but nobody was destroying. Then, Russell came in and I had no idea who he was. He was dressed insane. He had huge hair, an open shirt, leather pants, a million belts and chains and shit. He looked like KISS without the makeup—although he might have been wearing makeup even. He came in and I was like, “Who the fuck is this?” And then he said, “I’ve only had a chance to take a cursory glance at the script…” So I thought our casting director was fucking with me. I said to him he could be loose with the script and he said, “Oh, you mean like im-prov-isation?” like he never heard of it. And then he just destroyed. We said, “OK, we’re casting him and rewriting the part as a rock star.”

And then came Get Him to the Greek.

At the table-read for Sarah Marshall, Jonah and Russell had such amazing chemistry. I’d watched how Judd did it and when he produced Anchorman, he immediately zeroed in on Carell at the table-read and saw him as a star with a story to tell. I saw the same with Jonah and Russell and their chemistry, and I immediately conceived of the film right there.

Had you seen Diddy in Made and thought he’d be perfect for the role of the crazy record exec?

I’d seen him in Made and knew he had comedy chops, but there’s also just something weird and off about him. I’ve met other rappers—like Pharrell, who’s kind of a normal, cool music nerd. And from working with him I got the sense that it wasn’t just me but that the whole rap world thinks, “Diddy is kind of weird.” He’s so weird, and so funny, and willing to do anything. We originally wrote the character as this hardcore gangster who was gay and had only recently come out of the closet, and he was even willing to do that. The only thing he wouldn’t say is this: There’s a scene where he’s talking to Jonah and I yelled out at him, “Tell him the music industry is dead!” and he turned to me and said, “No. It will never die.” I was like, “All right, that’s fair! That’s your truth.” I had a similar moment with Rose in Neighbors where they’re fighting and I yelled out, “Say, ‘This has gone so bad I’m going to move back to Australia, and no one ever moves back to Australia!’” and she was like, “I’m not going to say that!” I was like, “Yeah… I didn’t think you would say that.” But she was down to say the dirtiest shit, just not that.

Do you have any funny Diddy stories?

He just likes to fuck with you a little bit. I’d be talking with him and tell him to say some line and he’d say—super intense—“Do you want me to say that because I’m black?” Once I got the hang of it I started fucking with him back. But the funniest thing was that he’d wrap himself up in a blanket between takes and sleep, because he doesn’t sleep. He’d be up all night in the recording studio and then he’d come to set that morning always on time, but he wouldn’t sleep. He never sleeps—that’s his theory. So he’d wrap himself up in a cozy Louis Vuitton blanket and it was so funny to see Puff Daddy be adorably napping on a couch. And then I’d go up to him when we were ready to shoot and he’d immediately pop up and be like, “OK, let’s do this.”

The first Muppets movie was a big hit, but the audience didn’t really turn out for the second one. Why do you think that happened?

I have no idea. For me, Bobin and I wrote the script together and we accomplished exactly what we wanted to accomplish creatively. It harkens back to The Great Muppet Caper and those kinds of movies, and I thought it would do the same as the first one, but when it opened the way it did it was a surprise. Even Disney was like, “Why? What the fuck?” But I think it’s one of those movies that will stand the test of time.

I heard that your next big project is Black and White, this buddy cop film with Seth Rogen and Kevin Hart.

That’s going to be the next project. This movie is going to be insane. I just watched Lethal Weapon for the first time and it’s awesome…and so violent! Mel is out of his mind in that movie. Although now we know he’s just insane—he was very much in his mind. But when I was watching it, I thought, “Our society’s changed so much that that was the Captain America of its time in terms of box office success, and it’s so insanely violent.” It’s a very serious movie and it’s clearly about Vietnam since everyone in it is a Vietnam vet. It’s clearly a comment on what the Vietnam War did to America and how it fucked it up.

What about the Captain Underpants film?

I’ve been working on it a few years and they’re in production now. I wrote it and Rob Letterman, who directed Monsters vs. Aliens, is going to direct it, and it’s at DreamWorks Animation. Kevin Hart, Ed Helms, and Thomas Middleditch from Silicon Valley are voicing the roles. I’m really excited about it. It’ll be funny, and heartwarming as well.