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No Dead Weight: "Neighbors" Director Nicholas Stoller On How to Direct a Modern Comedy

Hit comedies are rare in a cineplex crowded with superheroes. Director Nicholas Stoller has some under his belt, though. As Neighbors hits theaters, he explains the how to make a funny movie people actually see in theaters.

His face may not be as recognizable as peers like Jason Segel and Seth Rogen, but Nicholas Stoller has quietly become one of the more successful of Judd Apatow's protégés.

Nicholas Stoller

After working on the comedy powerhouse's late, lamented college sitcom, Undeclared, Stoller joined his mentor in writing a screenplay for the Jim Carrey vehicle, Fun With Dick and Jane. From there, Stoller leapt into the director's chair and scored a hit his first time out with Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Since then, he's directed two more features and written both recent Muppet cinema adventures. In a world where most people would prefer to get their laughs on small screens, Stoller is striving to make event comedies that get people to leave the house. It takes a lot more than just a funny script to make that happen, though.

Stoller's latest movie is Neighbors, which pits Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as yuppie parents against Zac Efron and Dave Franco as members of the frat house that just moved in next door. As Neighbors hits theaters, its director talked to Co.Create about optimizing comedy movies for maximum possible laughs, and how to keep them emotionally honest.

The Emotional Story Must Be Rock-Solid

The big rewriting process is finding that central emotional idea. Usually the best emotional ideas are also relatable so we’re just constantly boiling it down and boiling it down. It’s really important to have the character say the emotional problem at some point and shoot them doing that. Even if you don’t end up using it, because it’s a little on-the-nose or whatever, it forces you as a writer or director to know what the problem is. I’ve done that every time so far—and it's always made it in.

Pre-Sell The Movie By Filming "Trailer Moments"

The audience needs a compelling reason to go see a movie in a theater. So what you can do with an R-rated comedy is shock people and promise to make them laugh hard. I like nothing more than sitting with a big audience and laughing my ass off, and you have to have set pieces to get them there. On this movie, I did something I’d never done before that I’ll probably do from now on—I talked to the head of marketing at Universal, when we were in pre-production, and I said, "What do you need me to shoot for the trailer? I’ll shoot it and we won’t even necessarily put it in the movie. What does this movie need to make the message more marketable?" I wouldn’t do anything to make the movie marketable that made it worse, but I think the marriage of those two things can make a great movie.

Cast a Deep Bench

Every character should score; there shouldn’t be any dead weight. We’re given millions of dollars to make these movies, so we shouldn’t waste any of the audience’s time. I love to cast a deep bench. Liz Cackowski is the realtor in Neighbors and she’s hysterical; Jason Mantzoukas has literally one line and it destroys, and with a different actor, it wouldn’t be as funny. I’ve made the mistake before where you’re in, like, Michigan, and to save money on the budget, you get day-players. And I’ve ended up reshooting stuff because it’s not funny in the way it needs to be.

Keep The Honesty In The Comedy

It’s all about getting to the truth of the scene. The reason I think Zac is funny in the movie is because he’s always really present and really honest in the scene—even in his improvs—whether they be funny improvs or not. Sometimes people want to be really jokey and that’s when it falls apart. You have to keep them true to the scene.

If Someone Has To Be Naked, It Should Be a Guy

I don’t like gratuitous boobs. I don’t like it in a comedy or even any movie when a woman is naked for no reason. So I decided we could do female nudity in the party scenes of Neighbors if it feels organic to the scene. But I do think male nudity is naturally funny. Unless, it’s Zac Efron shirtless, because that’s less funny.

Use TV As a Model To Amp Up Dialogue Energy

In TV, you only have 22 minutes, so you really need to cover yourself. When I was filming a pilot for CBS, I was literally timing scenes so that I’d have a version that could play for 10 seconds and one that could play for 20, and it actually helped my movies because sometimes you won’t notice actors are speaking slowly. They’ll just be speaking normally, but when you’re watching in a theater, it seems slow. A lot of times on the TV pilot, I’d be like, speak faster, speak faster, and I brought that to the movie, and it actually helps bring up the energy sometimes.

Nicholas Stoller and Seth Rogen

Bank Alternate Jokes For Every Scene

I have an open-source approach to joke-making. I’d rather have a ton of extra input. Earlier in my career, I wrote a script for a movie and I went to set just to try and pitch jokes, and for whatever reason, the director wasn’t interested so they didn’t have anything banked. Then when you test the movie and a scene fails, you don’t have another joke to go to. So I try to get a lot of extra stuff. For Neighbors, I had the writers on set pitching jokes—Seth and his producing partner Evan Goldberg were there, even when Seth wasn’t in a scene. And it takes a while to comb through all this material, but it makes it so the audience doesn’t stop laughing.

No Unsympathetic Villains

I think movies get funnier and funnier the more relatable they are. There are no real villains in real life, and the more your main character is a good person making mistakes, the funnier movie it is. It’s fun to watch Seth and Rose make huge mistakes in the movie. It’s fun to watch Zac make big mistakes, and if you understand emotionally why they’re doing it, it’s even more relatable. If Zac had played just like a villainous frat guy, it would have been boring, but if you understand that he’s attacking this couple because he’s scared of graduating, you suddenly feel sympathy for him and you understand why he’s doing all this crazy shit and you’re rooting for him to learn his lesson by the end. In every movie, you want to see someone who has a problem figure it out. There’s something satisfying about that.

[Images courtesy of Universal Pictures]

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