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Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

How Nicholas Stoller Grounds 'Neighbors', 'Get Him to the Greek', and His Other Comedies in Real Life

Early in Neighbors, a new comedy by Nicholas Stoller, Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne), stuck in their carefully planned adult home with their new baby, Facetime with their single party-girl friend (Carla Gallo) while she prepares to attend, attends, and comes down from the “craziest rave she’s ever been to.” Throughout the scene, when they receive the calls we see the familiar shape of the iPhone appear in a corner of the screen and Gallo’s face smushed into the rectangular frame, giving the viewer the sensation of actually Facetimeing with the character. The structure and style of this interaction seems to encompass all of the visual and dramatic themes that interest Stoller as a comedy director. Specifically, Stoller’s directorial body of work explores the dynamic between those who have embraced traditionally encouraged societal, romantic, or professional values — Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Jonah Hill in Get Him to the Greek, Rogen and Byrne in Neighbors — and those who live more freely, albeit due to some sort of core personal issue sorted out over the course of the film — Russell Brand in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, Zac Efron in Neighbors. And in exploring this, Stoller tweaks the established studio comedy look to adapt and serve the story he is telling, whether that be the use of modern technology embedded in the style of the film, or using diegetic performed music within the narrative.

The central conceit of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Stoller’s first feature, lies in the conflict that arises when Peter Bretter, played by Jason Segel heads to Hawaii to get away from his breakup with ubiquitous actress Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) only to find that she is staying at the same resort with her new fling, hyper-sexualized shock-rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). It is not as though Aldous and Sarah are actively torturing or villainizing Peter, they are just existing in the same space despite Peter’s most basic desire to avoid her. Both his traditional protagonists and antagonists have similar flaws which are exasperated under the pressure cooker of sharing a space with someone who makes said space uncomfortable for the other person.

The simple set up of the conflict of proximity permeates throughout Stoller’s comedy. From the thin-walled sex scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, to the volatile combination of buttoned up Jonah Hill and out of control Russell Brand in Get Him to the Greek, to the set up of family vs. fraternity in Neighbors, Stoller manages to mine the most out creating comedic conflict from basic behaviors. In an interview at Fast Company, Stoller says, “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 the movie is… In every movie, you want to see someone who has a problem figure it out. There’s something satisfying about that.” He sets up scenarios where every characters’ motivations feel relatable or at least earned based on the truths of their age, occupation, relationship status, etc.

Stoller also sets up his use of second screens in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which he expands upon in Neighbors. While Peter is in Hawaii, he frequently video chats with his brother and his wife. The use of the second screen interaction allows Stoller to build bits that are not possible in face to face interaction, and gives the film a modern style that feels accessible and relatable the adapting forms of communication. So many films attempt and fail to dramatize non-face-to-face interactions through hyperstylization whether it be intricate text on screen or quick cuts to two people facing their computer, but by simply integrating the screens into the frame, Stoller can use them for jokes without compromising the pacing of the narrative or the action in the frame. In Neighbors, when a video is sent to a phone, it pops up on screen as the characters who are seeing to it are reacting in real time. Allowing the viewer to share the reveal with the characters in real time keeps the perspective of the two parties in line and economizes the set up and punchline into one beat.

In an interview with Drew McWeeny at Hitfix, Stoller says of studio comedies, “there used to be a look that was the studio comedy look, all brightly-lit and colorful, and it feels like the palette is expanding so that you can adapt the look to the story you're telling and it all doesn't look the same.” Most apparent in Neighbors, but also there in Greek and Sarah Marshall, Stoller allows his cinematographer to film in darker tones and wider-ranged color palettes to help serve the film on a scene by scene basis. Particularly, the party scenes in Neighbors have an art-film quality to them, using black lights and neons to make the party feel more surreal, debaucherous, and intense. He also had actors at the parties film footage handheld on small cameras and cuts in that material to create a more realistic, spontaneous, and kinetic energy that one feels when at a frat party where anything could happen. It makes the party feel like a real experience rather than an amalgamation of party stereotypes that pervade other college comedies and look like no fun at all. Stoller says this look was inspired by Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void, not exactly a common comedic inspiration. This heightened surreal look around altered states is also present in Get Him to the Greeksinfamous Jeffrey scene.

Of all of the Apatow acolytes, Stoller has perhaps produced the most consistent and recognizable output. Not only is he a reliable joke teller, but he has a clear dramatic interest he sets out to explore and an evolving directorial style in his work that doesn’t play by traditional comedy rules. Through this, he has managed to rise Jason Segel to a bonafide star, pulled the best two performances of his career out of Russell Brand, and oversaw the most surprisingly charming and funny performance I’ve seen in a long time from Rose Byrne in Neighbors. He's dealt with material of his own and directed other writers’ material and has still managed to put his specific stamp on the material. It is important to have a comedy director interested in the craft because it makes all the other elements of the process fall into place easier, including audience laughter. Stoller has proven himself to be that type of director.

Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you'll regret it during Knicks games.