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Seth Rogen and Zac Efron are two actors that you wouldn’t necessarily put in the same circles. The former is a giant in the world of R-rated comedies, not only starring in movies like Knocked Up and Superbad, but also now directing his own films. The latter saw his career grow on the Disney Channel, singing and dancing his way to teen heartthrob status through the High School Musical series. Both stars come from very different ends of the Hollywood spectrum, but this summer the two of them will be going to war in the new comedy Neighbors.
During an evening shoot last May, I had the pleasure of joining a small group of other journalists to visit the set of the new Nicholas Stoller-directed film. During our time on location we not only had the chance to watch some of the movie being filmed, but also talk with the stars and filmmakers behind the production, who shared plenty of funny and interesting info about the upcoming feature.
Based on a script by newcomers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien, Neighbors begins as Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) move into a nice little California suburb with their newborn child with plans on settling down and beginning a real adult family life. What they don't account for, however, is the fraternity that exists in the house next door, run by chapter president Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron). While Mac and Kelly initially believe themselves to still be young enough to party with the college-aged dudes - unwilling to completely give up on their youth - soon enough the relationship deteriorates when the constant noise and partying begins to make life impossible. What could have been a friendship between old and young quickly turns into a bitter rivalry and a prank war with ever-escalating stakes.
The supporting cast of the film is outfitted with a number of talented comedic actors, both fighting on the part of the family and the frat. Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Craig Roberts and up-and-comer Jerrod Carmichael star as Teddy’s collegiate cronies, each with their own strange frat brother nickname (Assjuice, Garf, Scoonie, etc), while Carla Gallo and Ike Barinholtz play friends of Kelly and Mac’s, respectively, who also happen to be going through a very bitter divorce from each other (but that doesn’t stop both of them from getting in on the war).
As projects in Hollywood regularly do, the script evolved quite a bit as it went through its development stages, always keeping the core of the story, but in some cases radically changing the important details. Sitting down for an interview between takes, Stoller explained that originally the movie was a lot more male-character driven and mostly featured Rogen’s character and his friends fighting a war against the frat while his wife existed in a separate storyline. Ultimately, it was decided that this idea wasn’t going to fly.
"We all sat down and we were like, ‘This is crappy Old School,’" the director told us. "So we all went through it and figured out it'd be better if it was actually about Seth and his wife taking on the fraternity. It's a much bigger idea, and it makes a lot more sense."
One important element of the script that was maintained through the screenplay’s development, though, was the party habits of the fraternity brothers. Throughout the film Teddy and his mates throw all kinds of different ragers – including a blacklight party with gallons and gallons of Day-Glo paint – but the night we were on set was what you might call a more 420 friendly affair. You can check out pictures from set that night below:
Filming a party scene is its own particular challenge, as a filmmaker has to visually translate the amount of fun characters are having on set, and in his approach to the film Stoller looked to a very interesting place for aesthetic inspiration: found footage movies. Borrowing an idea from the Todd Phillips-produced Project X, the Forgetting Sarah Marshall director actually handed out cameras to actors and extras and had them film their own personal experiences "partying" on set.
"As we're shooting the movie, we're also handing stuff out to people to film stuff, so we can use that footage and cut it in," Stoller said. "And I think it cuts in really seamlessly. That's a big difference between this and Get Him to the Greek - which had a lot of parties. But, even though it was only a few years ago, it feels like a different time weirdly, in terms of what you can do with that found footage stuff."
Also having an affect the director’s approach is a change in leading men. While Stoller and Rogen go way back, having first worked together on 2002 episodes of the television series Undeclared, this is the first time they’ve worked together as director and actor. Stoller has spent much more time working with Jason Segel – the star of both Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Five-Year Engagement - but working on Neighbors actually opened the director’s eyes to the similarities in the two actors’ methods.
"They're different people, but in terms of working with them it's pretty similar," he said. "They both come at stuff from a writer's perspective first, and then an actor’s perspective second. I would say the main difference is that once we start shooting…[Seth’s] not method-y at all…. I think Jason can be more a little bit more method-y. I remember on The Five-Year Engagement, the scene where Emily and he break up. It was very intense. And he delivered this insane performance. But, it was a different approach in the way Seth would have done it."
Likewise, Rogen had to adjust to working with Stoller, but for extremely different reasons. Neighbors was the first film that the star shot after making his directorial debut alongside his producing and writing partner Evan Goldberg, and it was an adjustment to get out of that mode. Fortunately, his common ground with Stoller helped ease the transition. "I think in a lot of ways our sensibilities kind of were developed in the same environment," Rogen told us in an interview. "So it's not hard letting Nick take control. It's great. He's a lot more organized than we were as directors.
"We really learned how to do this the same way," Rogen said about Stoller later in the interview. "We shared an office on Undeclared, literally. We learned how to write together in a lot of ways. We both were exposed to production in the same way, especially from behind the scenes. So, I think the ideology that we approach filmmaking with is really the same ideology, which is, like, ‘Be open, be fluid, explore everyone's ideas and really just try to make the best version of the scene.’"
Truly new to the whole R-rated comedy experience was Efron, coming from a Disney filled past. Speaking to us on set while paired with Rogen, the young actor explained that he had been looking to be a part of an R-rated comedy and that the opportunity to work with the
Signing on to the film also opened him up to a whole new style of filmmaking that Judd Apatow graduates like Stoller and Rogen have been practicing for years. Stoller directs by letting the camera roll and throwing out suggested lines to his actors from behind the camera, evolving the scene with each take and working to find which version is the funniest. This was a new experience for Efron and one that left him with an appreciation for both spontaneous and heavily practiced material.
"I'm definitely new to it compared to Seth, but there is something great about acting and finding it in the moment, and there's also something great about finding it rehearsed," Efron said. "It's somewhere where you meet in the middle and you're sort of out of control where it's like really, really good. That's what Seth does, and that's what we had to do on this."
In the film, Rogen and Efron play characters with diametrically different viewpoints that come as a result of being at very different points in their lives, but one thing that both actors wanted to stress about the movie is that neither character is really the hero or the villain. Instead of taking one character’s side over the other, the movie works to be even-handed in its approach to both Mac and Teddy, showing them both occasionally as the good guys and the bad.
"I think part of what's funny about the movie is that [Teddy] recognizes that he might be [Mac] in 10 years," Rogen told us. "It's about not wanting to grow up and kind of not accepting that you are either on the verge of that or that itself."
"There's a scene where we talk on the couch and [Teddy] seems to be doing everything right," Efron said, continuing from where Rogen left off. "At whatever this age is, he's doing it correctly. And I sort of get the feeling that I'm really good right now. I've sort of hit my peak, you know? And it really makes me afraid. So, when [Mac] starts one upping the fraternity, I have this crazy vendetta against him. Literally we almost kill each other."
"It's true, 'cause it's like I'm ruining his perfect moment," Rogen continued. "It’s this moment in his life where there are really no repercussions, and he's kind of not really an adult yet. And because I'm so kind of jealous and resentful, I try to destroy that."
The two actors come together to make a bizarre pair to co-lead a movie, but according to Stoller it’s exactly that bizarreness that will help give the film an extra push.
"I think the movie is going to work because it's just funny seeing them share the screen," the director explained. "It's just they don't make sense on screen together, and I think that that the best battle movies are like that."
Neighbors will be in theaters on May 9th, and stay tuned for more about our trip to the set!