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Neighbors director Nicholas Stoller knows that his movie, on the surface, looks like another comedy you probably adore: Old School. In fact, when we visited the film’s set last year, it was made clear that Stoller and his crew went out of their way to distance Neighbors from Todd Phillips’ raucous comedy, to strike off and be its own thing.
That’s not to say, however, that Neighbors doesn’t borrow from other movies. How could it not, right? During this year’s South By Southwest film festival, Stoller met me at the Neighbors frat house, located just south of the convention center in downtown Austin, to rehash the rousing reaction the Paramount Theater crowd gave his comedy at its debut screening. And as we kicked around jokes that killed and scenes that lingered, Stoller began pointing out all the different movies that ended up influencing Neighbors, and helping create the movie you’ll get to see on May 9.
Enter the VoidYes, Gaspar Noe’s psychedelic acid trip of a movie influenced Stoller, which is particularly evident in the above promo shot of suburbanites Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne infiltrating Zac Efron’s fraternity house to try and bring it down from within. The use of bold, neon colors screams, "Rave." And Stoller says he borrowed that aesthetic from Noe.
"It was really important to me that this movie be funny," Stoller told me. "But then I wanted it to be cool. I wanted it to feel like you are at a party while you are watching it. I watched Enter the Void, which is super cool looking. Project X is another movie I watched a lot. Chronicle. Any movies that had super-cool party scenes, I tried to absorb."
Here’s the Void trailer, to give you a sense of what Stoller might have absorbed.
Get Him to the GreekStoller didn’t have to search too deep in Hollywood’s film catalogue to find a recent comedy that relied heavily on blow-out party scenes.
"I shot a lot of party footage for Get Him to the Greek (with Jonah Hill and Russell Brand), and I really learned what to do, and what not to do in a party scene."
"Keep the camera low. It will feel like you are in some crazy party. Spring Breakers is another movie I watched that had a TON of great party sequences. But if you drop the camera low, it makes the audience feel that they are submerged in the crazy party. I also handed individual cameras to extras in the party scenes and had them film everything. Because then you can use their footage, and it makes it feel like an epic party, instead of a wide shot of 10,000 extras… which you really can’t afford to stage, anyway!"
Ocean’s 11"The parties are one thing," Stoller explained to us in the interview. "But the movie really boils down to a stupid heist. So I watched a lot of heist movies. I had very specific things that I wanted to do, and then within the little pieces, I would allow people to improv and try jokes. … but there’s always a goal in those films. And we have a goal! It’s a very dumb goal. But we have one. So I was adding a lot of POV shots, because I saw that Ocean’s had them. It’s all done very visually."
He talks at length about a scene between Byrne, Dave Franco and Halston Sage, who plays Efron’s character’s girlfriend. And he talked about the need to make it seem that this crucial scene was going down in the middle of a massive party, but isolating the players so that their smaller "game" can be pulled off. Not unlike a con. And in a con, timing is everything… which wasn’t a new realization for Stoller.
"During shooting, I was like, ‘If we build this correctly, people will applaud when [Byrne] walks away from this scene. If the clock is working, we’re going to get the applause.’"
The clock definitely was working in our SXSW screening, because that scene crushed.
17 AgainThe script was brought to Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Andrew J. Cohen to produce, and from the very first moments, the trio always knew they wanted Efron to be the lead of the fraternity house. "I had seen Zach in 17 Again. That was my only familiarity with him," Stoller told me. "And he was really charming and funny in it. Even though that’s a different kind of movie, you can tell… sometimes you just have to go with your gut instinct.
"The one thing that I really liked about him, as well, is that he’s incredibly likable," Stoller continued. "I don’t think, in comedy, there should be any villains. I don’t like to put any villains in my movies. But he was going to essentially be the villain in this movie, so it was important to me that everybody could like him, as well. That they could love the frat, and love him, as well. I had a feeling that there was a darkness to him that we could get to. But it’s even more scarier … that he can be super positive, but still come off as dark."
If you read my reaction piece to Neighbors from South By, you know that Efron blew me away in this movie, and stands out as the funniest member of an hilarious ensemble. And we owe it all to a Matthew Perry body-switch comedy.
The AristocratsOK, this last one, I’m throwing in, because there are a NUMBER of jokes in Neighbors that really push the envelope of acceptable taste… yet, because of the way that they are delivered, they get away with being disgusting. Or offensive. Or cringe-inducing. Like the documentary The Aristocrats.
One joke in particular – involving a baby and the HIV virus – almost didn’t make the cut because of the way Stoller was choosing to edit it. He explains, "That joke’s insane. It’s crazy. We had that joke in an early screening, and we timed it wrong. … The pause [between the set up and the punchline] was too long. And the audience was like, ‘Fuck this movie! Fuck it!’ It was just too long of a pause! I think we were told that we have to cut the joke, and I was like, "Let’s just try it. I swear, if we just trim a few frames, we can get it to work!’"
The joke got the loudest laugh in our SXSW screening. I hope it plays just as well with your crowd when you finally get to see Neighbors in theaters on May 9.