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Nick Stoller's 'Neighbors 2' aims for honesty beneath the raunch

Chloë Grace Moretz (center) stars in Nicholas Stoller's sequel,
Chloë Grace Moretz (center) stars in Nicholas Stoller's sequel, "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising."
Universal/Point Grey Pictures
Chloë Grace Moretz (center) stars in Nicholas Stoller's sequel,
Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne star in "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising."

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"Neighbors 2" hit theaters this weekend and made a respectable showing of $21.8 million at the box office.

While the first "Neighbors" film focused on a rowdy frat house run by Zac Efron and Dave Franco, "Neighbors 2" is just as alcohol-fueled, but from the point of view of a sorority led by Chloe Grace Moretz.

This is the first sequel for co-writer/director Nick Stoller, who has varied credits from "Get Him to the Greek" to "The Muppets." He’s also set to work on the animated films "Storks" and "Captain Underpants" in the next year.

Stoller stopped by The Frame recently and explained why the female-centric "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising" brought unique challenges to the writing process.

Interview Highlights:

What was the hardest part about making this film?

What was particularly challenging about this one was that we had these young, sorority women characters in the film. How young they were and being freshmen in college — we wanted to make sure that we hit it right. When I’m writing for Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne’s characters, their marriage is pretty similar to my marriage with my wife, or Seth's marriage with his wife. It was really trying to access what it is to be 18 and going into college. It was really important to us that the women be as insane and gross and stupid as the guys in the first "Neighbors." That meant a slightly different thing. I know how I behaved in college, but it's a different thing with women. So we had some women comedy writers on set, hilarious writers Amanda Lund and Maria Blasucci helping us. There was almost a TV writer's room on set.

One of your main actors, Chloe Grace Moretz, is actually in her teens, so she's close to the age of the character. So when you're writing for Moretz and talking to her about the way she's going to behave, what are the kinds of concerns you have that address what her or other actors feel is important?

Before we even started writing the script, we sat down with Chloe and talked to her about what she thought, what kind of story she would want to be a part of and how she saw the character. Then we started working on it and figuring out the story and wrote many versions of the script. Then I sat down with her and the other women that we'd cast and interviewed them. It was almost like a therapy session where we all just talked about things like: What are you like when you date someone? What are you like when you dump someone? What are you like when you're scared?

I didn't do that much with the other characters because they were coming from the first movie. On the first movie, I did that with Zac Efron, Dave Franco and Seth Rogen. This time I didn't have to do that with anyone except for the sorority women. That's a big part of making sure it goes into their voices. I find that the most relatable emotional ideas tend to be gender-neutral and tend to be universal experiences. With this, it took us a long time to figure it out, but with the women it was that everyone is afraid when they get to college — that they're going to be seen as the high school losers they were. At first we were partially blinded by making sure they party as hard as the guys. We had a lot of stuff we were trying to service and we kind of neglected the simple emotional idea. As soon as we realized that, it was quick to figure out the script.

Did you settle on the idea of the sorority pretty early and did that give you comic ideas?

We pretty much started with that idea because it just seemed like a natural thing. We all wanted it to be younger because it just seemed funnier if they were just freshmen. Then, one of the interns at Point Grey Pictures — Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's production company — who had been in a sorority, told us this rule that sororities aren't allowed to party. And I've heard many NPR articles about this since. It's really bad to have to go to a fraternity versus being on your own turf. Not all frats are like this, but there are obviously certain frats that aren't awesome and don't necessarily respect women. So as soon as we heard that rule, which seemed insane to us, that was obviously the launching-off point. It's such an insane rule that I shot Selena Gomez, who plays the sort of sorority president at the beginning, looking into camera and saying, "Seriously, guys, this is a real rule.

One of the things you also do is to have comic action. You hired somebody who worked on a Jason Statham movie, "Crank," to do action scenes right?

Yeah, Mark Neveldine, who directs the "Crank" movies. He did a favor for us. He’s really good friends with Brandon Trost (Crank 2) who's the [director of photography] on the movie. Mark came in and shot this tailgate scene. He has this incredible scene where he rollerblades while holding a camera. He's a badass. He rollerblades backwards at top speed. So we have this incredible action sequence, like out of a Bourne movie, in the middle of our movie. That's the goal with these things — I don't like brightly lit comedies where the camera just sits. I like to have it be alive and exciting as any movie so that it's a fun moviegoing experience. So his help on that was huge. (Mark Neveldine rollerblades while filming action shots)

One of the things that's very important to you is brevity. You recently tweeted: "Neighbors 2 opens today. See it if you want to laugh and also have time to go to PF Chang’s before the babysitter leaves." Your movie is 90 minutes long, but that's not an accident. In comedies, do you think 90 minutes is about the sweet spot?

Yeah, it depends on the movie. "Annie Hall" is around 95 minutes and it's epic. I think romantic comedies can be longer, but this kind of hard comedy movie that's not a premise-driven comedy, works best shorter. The shorter you make it, the more epic it feels when the audience can't catch their breath. I've started to see my movies at home and noticed that when a character would say a funny line, there would be a weird pause, so I stopped doing it and now the faster it is the more fun it is.

You go from working on super explosive R-rated comedies like "Neighbors" or "Sex Tape" to family films like "Muppets Most Wanted" or "Captain Underpants." What is your true comic sensibility? Is it the guy who has to turn up the R-rated raunch or the guy who wants to welcome the G-rated comedy?

Underlying all the things I work on is a kind of sweetness. I'm trying to get to an honesty about relationships and how people relate. My main interest is how men and women deal with each other. Now that I have a family, I'm really interested in families and how [briefly] children are going to be living in my house and how amazing it is that I have them and how sad it is that they'll be gone quickly. Those are the themes that I'm interested in. I like to have hard laughs, not things like, Oh, that was clever. I like it to be really funny. The most important thing to me is to tell an emotional story. When you're telling an emotional story, the whole thing gets funnier.

Original cast members Zac Efron (center), Seth Rogen (center right) and Rose Byrne (right) find a new challenge in
Original cast members Zac Efron (center), Seth Rogen (center right) and Rose Byrne (right) find a new challenge in "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising."
Universal/Point Grey Pictures

It's interesting all of the hate that's been directed at the [upcoming] "Ghostbuster" movie, largely because it's a female cast. I'm just wondering if you pay attention to how films with women in leading roles like yours are received on social media and what the trolls have to say about it.

I do a little bit because it's hard not to search Twitter for your movie and you see the people hating on it. It used to bother me, but I've never picked a troll fight. There's no point. They tend to be losers who have nothing going on, or they're sad for some other reason. That's why they're picking a fight about a "Ghostbuster" reboot. It doesn't really make sense. There's a This American Life about trolls that I thought was incredibly eye-opening. Any time that I would feel the need to tweet back at some troll, I'd think about the sad guy that they profiled. 

How do you judge yourself in terms of whether or not you've done your job well? How do you know if you've succeeded in what you are trying to do?

It's hearing people laugh. I have an editor who calls it "The crack of the industry." Hearing the audience laugh is so exciting. It is important to me that critics [who] I respect like my movies. The ones that I like and respect are the ones who judge a movie based on what genre it's in, and it is exciting to me when those critics get it. Obviously it'll happen when they sometimes don't and that's upsetting. In general, I think my movies have aged well. Until "Neighbors," actually I was often the director where people would come up and say, I just saw your movie and it's actually quite good. I'd missed it in theaters. I'd be like, Well, at least someone saw it at this point. I have a very cocky theory that comedy is the hardest of all the genres. It's much harder to tell a human story and also to laugh every 30 seconds than it is to do some Oscar-bait movie. That's a strong opinion I have in my heart and a lot of my peers in the comedy field think the same.

The degree of difficulty is underestimated?

Completely. But I love it. It's my favorite genre. There's nothing more fun than seeing a great comedy. I'm comfortable with that. I want to revisit the great comedies. I've watched "Annie Hall" and "When Harry Met Sally" 800 times, but I can't tell you what earned the Oscar in whenever year that was. When you nail it — and it's very hard to nail because it's a small target — it ends up living for a lot longer.

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