After working with the likes of Judd Apatow, Adam McKay and Seth Rogen, writer-director Andrew Jay Cohen is finally making his feature directing debut with “The House.”
The film stars Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler as parents who open an underground casino in their home after spending their daughter’s college fund. The story was based on Cohen’s experiences of running a poker club in a friend’s basement in high school.
Cohen directed, produced and co-wrote the film with Brendan O’Brien, his co-writer on “Neighbors” and “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.” After writing “Neighbors,” Cohen’s manager told him he was so good at writing about adults going through crises, he should make the “The House” about parents.
The film puts a comedic spin on gangster movie tropes, taking clues from mob movie classics like Martin Scorsese's “Casino” with a cast that includes Jason Mantzoukas, Nick Kroll, Cedric Yarbrough, Allison Tolman, Ryan Simpkins and Andrea Savage.
When he stopped by The Frame, Cohen talked about making the often challenging leap from writing comedy movies to directing one:
I tried different ways. For me, I always did want to direct. Nobody wants you to direct. Because if you have a great script, you say, Ooh, I could work with that hot director who just did ‘blank.’ That's what they're thinking: What team can I put together that's just going to crush this? So somebody who hasn't directed before, or has only done Funny or Die shorts, or a pilot like I have, it's not enough to convince the people who are throwing down a lot of cash that this is the guy they need.
While working on the script, Cohen and O’Brien approached Will Ferrell about being in the movie. Ferrell was in, but his manager needed more convincing that Cohen was the right director for the film:
I had to make a look-book which is a compendium of images that suggest how you're going to shoot each scene — how it looks, smells, feels, what it's going to play like. What's the experience of the movie? And one of the frames, which I was so proud of, was Robert De Niro from "Casino," but we superimposed Will's face wearing those women's sunglasses on it ... When I showed this look-book to Will and when he saw that photo, it was like, Alright, we got to do this.
As a dad himself, Cohen says he often writes stories about parenthood and the challenges of being an adult:
I think there's something that I keep returning to about age and getting older and what the responsibilities are to young people ... I think I will keep telling this story. I can't escape it.
As part of his directing process, Cohen lets his actors improvise scenes and calls out lines and suggestions from behind the camera. It's a technique he learned from the directors he has worked with:
Judd Apatow is really influential. I worked for him for a number of years as his assistant and then co-producer on his movies. And then I worked with Adam McKay as he was directing Will Ferrell. I've worked with Nick Stoller, also a really big believer in this method. But I also worked with Adrian Lyne on “Unfaithful,” and during sex scenes he would yell stuff out ... I've had a lot of deep tradition in this method of being a loud director and to participate in the scene with the actors.
Cohen says he’s learned a lot of lessons from his mentors. One of the greatest lessons was about writing about what you know:
With all of those directors, it's always a universal way in. Something that everybody can relate to, something that you're not lying about, you're actually speaking about a truth about human beings ... Verisimilitude — truth — is very important to everybody in that camp.
One great tip Cohen picked up was to write a draft of a script without jokes. The script often isn't funny but it exposes a lot of story problems that might be overlooked when jokes are present.
Whether the film is a comedy or a gangster movie or both, Cohen says the key is to have a solid, truthful story:
There's some standup shows where I don't remember any joke because there's no frame for it. There's no spine, so I feel like with story, especially, that's your emotional spine. I can't get certain images that I've seen in cinema out of my head because I feel them so deeply. So that's the way in.
To hear John Horn's interview with Andrew Jay Cohen, click on the player above.